Voyage in the Dark
I’ve come to realise that I’ve been subconsciously searching for a favourite author; someone whose complete works I wish to devour. I’ve toyed with Shirley Jackson, Muriel Spark… I enjoy their work, but don’t love it. It seems that Jean Rhys is the author for me. She is my new obsession.
I’ve read a quote from Rhys somewhere, that she only wrote about her own life, due to her lack of imagination. Although, I think that like many people, myself included, she also wrote for catharsis and to make sense of what had happened to her. The biography, The Blue Hour by Lilian Pizzichini, is on my TBR pile and so I’ll soon be able to see how closely her plots align with her real life. I already know that, like Anna in Voyage in the Dark, she worked as a chorus girl, and like her heroine, she also found herself exiled in England, after coming here from Dominica as a teenager.
I’ve heard someone describe Jean Rhys’s work as giving “voice to the voiceless” and Voyage in the Dark is an outsider’s view of England, from the perspective of someone alone, penniless and living not even on the periphery of ‘normal’ life, but completely excluded from it. Being a chorus girl was not seen as a respectable profession and this leads to Anna being treated with suspicion by a succession of miserable, sour-faced landladies.
Throughout the novel, I found myself being frustrated with Anna. Is she lazy and feckless? Why doesn’t she get a proper job? Is she suffering with a mental illness? I kept wondering these things as I read. There was work available in 1914 for women, such as domestic service, factory work, being a shop girl, but perhaps because of her upbringing and previously elevated social status, Anna doesn’t consider gaining an occupation. I’m not sure. Other characters in the novel are used to draw attention to her lethargy and comment on her gormless manner. Perhaps she’s just lonely, homesick and bewildered by it all?
Like the character, Marya, in Quartet, Anna seems quite happy to be kept by older, wealthy men and is then distraught when she is inevitably cast aside. I’m currently reading Good Morning, Midnight and it seems that this is a constant theme of Rhys’s novels; the way that relationships for her heroines are as much a financial contract as something based on physical passion or love. In fact, love never even gets a mention in Voyage in the Dark.
Rhys’s work makes me think of the Germaine Greer quote from The Female Eunuch:
Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.
The men in Rhy’s novels seem to enjoy humiliating women and are by turns emotionally controlling or emotionally absent. Perhaps this is why the books resonate so much with me!
They make for grim reading, but there is something very exciting about them too, due to how candid Jean Rhys is about her disillusionment with the world and everyone in it. Anna describes English people as resembling woodlice and there is definitely a frisson in her writing that comes from exposing the dark under-belly of life and the thrill of saying things that aren’t usually said.