Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys (1934)
By Francis Booth | On June 5, 2021 | Updated August 27, 2022 | Comments (0)
This review and analysis of Voyage in the Dark, a 1934 novel by Jean Rhys, is excerpted from Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-20th Century Woman’s Novel by Francis Booth, reprinted by permission.
Jean Rhys (1890-1979) is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, a take on the Jane Eyre story from the point of view of the “madwoman in the attic,” Rochester’s wife, who, like Rhys, came from the Caribbean.
It was finally published in book form in 1966 after years of tinkering and after a very long gap following her early novels, the first of which, Quartet, was published in 1928.
Voyage in the Dark doesn’t read at all like a pre-war novel. It feels far more like the British kitchen-sink novels and dramas of the late 1950s/early 1960s where amoral young women with either no parental influence or a very bad one float aimlessly through a world of seedy boarding houses and casual sex:
A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney (1958), The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks (1960), which became the 1962 film, and Up the Junction by Nell Dunn (1962), which also became a film as well as a TV play.
Voyage in the Dark is to a large extent autobiographical, following an eighteen-year-old girl who has come to a cold, damp England from the warm, sunny Caribbean, as Rhys herself did.
Anna is no English rose; she has a totally opposite life experience to the upper-middle-class English girls of Rosamond Lehmann and her peers: she is traveling around England working as a showgirl, both in the sense of acting on the stage and in the pejorative sense the word had at the time of a “woman of easy virtue.”
Though by no means a prostitute, Anna certainly seems to be prepared to have relationships with men for money, as do all the women she knows, most of whom are older than her. One friend calls her “the Virgin,” though it is not absolutely clear whether at the start of the novel she is.
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One of the men who gives her money believes she is a virgin but when she goes to his room she denies it; oddly, because virginity is presumably a very valuable commodity. “I’m not a virgin if that’s what’s worrying you,” she says. “You oughtn’t to tell lies about that,” the man replies. She denies that she is telling lies and says it does not matter anyway. The man replies: “Oh yes, it matters. It’s the only thing that matters.”
She tells him she wants to leave, but then she doesn’t. “When I got into bed there was warmth from him and I got close to him. Of course you’ve always known, always remembered, and then you forget so utterly, except that you’ve always known it. Always – how long is always?”
Anna is traveling and rooming with Maudie who is ten years older than her and highly cynical; hardly the ideal role model. She sees that Anna is reading Nana, Zola’s 1880 novel about an eighteen-year-old showgirl who becomes a highly successful prostitute, casually ruining all the men around her; Anna is of course an anagram of Nana. In its way, Nana is a coming of age novel, if an extremely dark one: “All of a sudden, in the good-natured child, the woman stood revealed, a disturbing woman with all the impulsive madness of her sex, opening the gates of the unknown world of desire.”
“That’s a dirty book, isn’t it?”
“Bits of it are all right,” I said.
Maudie said, “I know; it’s about a tart. I think it’s disgusting. I bet you a man writing a book about a tart tells a lot of lies one way and another. Besides, all books are like that – just somebody stuffing you up.”
In fact, apart from Nana and Alexandre Dumas’ Lady of the Camellias, most courtesan novels were written by women who actually were courtesans, such as Colette’s Chéri and Gigi, additions to the genre established by French nineteen century authors like Liane de Pougy, Céleste de Chabrillan and Valtesse de la Bigne.
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Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
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Anna and Maudie always seem to be poor and always have trouble getting landladies to accommodate “professionals,” as one landlady calls them. Maudie encourages Anna; she is not entirely reluctant, has no qualms about accepting money from men, and is not even especially repulsed by the physical side of it.
“You shut the door and you pull the curtains over the windows and then it’s as long as a thousand years and yet so soon ended.” But Anna wonders when and how her life will change; how, even if, she will come of age as a woman, where she will end up; she has none of Nana’s or Dumas’ Marguerite Gautier’s single-minded drive to become rich through exploiting men and just seems to have fallen into this way of life.
“Of course, you get used to things, you get used to anything. It was as if I had always lived like that. Only sometimes, when I got back home and was undressing to go to bed, I would think, ‘my God, this is a funny way to live. My God, how did this happen?’”
‘But it isn’t always going to be like this, is it?’ I thought. ‘It would be too awful if it were always going to be like this. It isn’t possible. Something must happen to make it different’ and I thought, ‘yes, that’s all right. I’m poor and my clothes are cheap and perhaps it will always be like this. And that’s all right too.’ It was the first time in my life I’d thought that.
The ones without any money, the ones with beastly lives. Perhaps I’m going to be one of the ones with beastly lives. They swarm like woodlice when you push a stick into a woodlice-nest at home. And their faces are the colour of woodlice.”
In a way, Anna cannot wait to get old; when an older woman says to her that this is no way for a young girl to live, she thinks: “people say ‘young’ as though being young were a crime, and they are always scared of getting old. I thought, ‘I wish I were old and the whole damned thing were finished; that I shouldn’t get this depressed feeling for nothing at all.’”
But in Anna’s way of life, youth is the most valuable commodity, as a male acquaintance tells her in a letter informing her that Walter, one of the men who has been giving her money, and of whom she has become quite fond, cannot see her again; it is a rather standard Dear Jane letter, telling her she would be better off without him.
“I’m quite sure you are a nice girl and that you will be understanding about this. Walter is still very fond of you but he doesn’t love you like that anymore, and after all you must always have known that the thing could not go on forever and you must remember too that he is nearly 20 years older than you are. I’m sure that you are a nice girl and that you will think it over calmly and see that there is nothing to be tragic or unhappy or anything like that about.
You are young and youth as everybody says is the great thing, the greatest gift of all. The greatest gift, everybody says. And so it is. You got everything in front of you, lots of happiness. Think of that. Love is not everything – especially that sort of love – and the more people, especially girls, put it right out of their hands and do without it the better… Walter has asked me to enclose this cheque for £20 for your immediate expenses because he thinks you may be running short of cash. He will always be your friend and he wants to arrange that you should be provided for and not have to worry about money (for a time at any rate).”
In this demimonde everything has a price, though not necessarily a high price; life is cheap, and women are cheaper: £20 to buy off Anna must have seemed a reasonable amount, though at least one man “gave me fifteen quid” for a single experience.
Maudie tells Anna that a man said to her, “have you ever thought that a girl’s clothes cost more than the girl inside them?… You can get a very nice girl for five pounds, a very nice girl indeed; you can even get a very nice girl for nothing if you know how to go about it. But you can’t get a very nice costume for her for five pounds.”
Anna is not deeply upset about Walter and she has no hesitation in asking him for more money later when she needs an abortion, illegal and very dangerous in those days, and costing £50. But even this does not seem to make Anna want to change her way of life; everything in grey, miserable England seems like a bad dream to her anyway, even though the dream is interspersed with pleasant interludes.
“Sometimes not being able to get over the feeling that it was a dream. The light and the sky and the shadows and the houses and the people – all parts of the dream, all fitting in and all against me. But there were other times when a fine day, or music, or looking in the glass and thinking I was pretty, made me start again imagining that there was nothing I couldn’t do, nothing I couldn’t become. Imagining God knows what. Imagining Carl would say, ‘When I leave London, I’m going to take you with me.’ And imagining it although his eyes had that look – this is just for while I’m here, and I hope you get me.
‘I picked up a girl in London and she … Last night I slept with a girl who … ’ That was me.
Not ‘girl’ perhaps. Some other word, perhaps. Never mind.”
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Contributed by Francis Booth, the author of several books on twentieth century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England.