|Paperback cover of Voyage in the Dark, by Jean Rhys, originally published in 1934. The evocative cover design is by Tim Gaydos. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)|
|Ella Williams, who wrote under the pen name of Jean Rhys, 1890-1979.|
Voyage in the Dark, published in 1934, was the third novel by Jean Rhys, the pen name of Ella Williams. The novels Quartet, also known as Postures, and After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, preceded Voyage in the Dark, and, read with her fourth novel, Good Morning, Midnight, form a quartet of works that cover similar themes. All four books follow female protagonists through their travails. The women in all of these books do not have the education or the inner drive to attempt to make much of a career for themselves, and as a consequence, they are largely financially dependent on the kindness of male companions. These male companions may be amused by these women for a while, but marriage is not on their minds.
The main character in Voyage in the Dark is Anna Morgan. As the novel opens, 18-year-old Anna is treading the boards as a chorus girl. In the town of Southsea, Anna and her friend Maudie meet two men. Walter, the man Anna is paired off with, expresses an interest in seeing her again when they are back in London. Walter ends up supporting Anna in London, and tries to help her “get on,” i.e., advance her career. When the much-older Walter inevitably tires of Anna and casts her aside, she must figure out what to do with herself.
Like Rhys, Anna was born and raised on an island in the Caribbean. (Anna’s island remains unnamed in the novel; Rhys was born in Dominica.) Throughout the novel, Anna flashes back to life on the island, and how different it was from London. These are fascinating passages, and they add a lot to Anna’s backstory. Anna always feels like an outsider in English culture, and I would venture to guess that Rhys felt similarly.
I want to report to you that I enjoyed Voyage in the Dark, but “enjoy” isn’t really the proper word for experiencing Jean Rhys’ fiction. As always, I appreciated her sharp, incisive language and her keen observation of the human condition. It’s obvious to modern readers that rather than being simply moody or melancholy, Anna is suffering from some sort of severe clinical depression. There are numerous passages that attest to this, but the following ones really stuck out to me:
“Vincent started off again about books.
I said, ‘I haven’t read any of these books you’re talking about. I hardly ever read.’
‘Well, what do you do with yourself all day?’ he said.
‘I don’t know,’ I said.” (P.86)
“For a week after Walter left I hadn’t gone out; I didn’t want to. What I liked was lying in bed till very late, because I felt tired all the time, and having something to eat in bed and then in the afternoon staying a long time in the bath.” (P.90)
“It’s funny when you feel as if you don’t want anything more in your life except to sleep, or else to lie without moving. That’s when you can hear time sliding past you, like water running.” (P.113)
As much as I wanted to scream at Anna that she was depressed and should see a doctor, I don’t know if seeking professional help for mental health issues in the 1913-14 time period of the novel would have been beneficial for her. Anna’s struggles with depression were another thing that she had in common with her creator. As Rhys said in a 1979 interview:
“When I was excited about life, I didn’t want to write at all. I’ve never written when I was happy. I didn’t want to. But I’ve never had a long period of being happy. Do you think anyone has? I think you can be peaceful for a long time. When I think about it, if I had to choose, I’d rather be happy than write. You see, there’s very little invention in my books. What came first with most of them was the wish to get rid of this awful sadness that weighed me down.” Jean Rhys, The Paris Review interview, 1979.
Like Rhys’ other female protagonists, Anna doesn’t seem to have a clear sense of what she wants out of life. Anna is somewhat passive; she’s much more acted upon by others than decisively acting for herself. When her life as Walter’s plaything is set up, she thinks:
“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 had 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?’” (P.40)
Anna also has a somewhat unrealistic expectation of life:
“I don’t know how people live when they know exactly what’s going to happen to them each day. It seems to me it’s better to be dead than to live like that.” (P.75)
Well, that’s harsh. And also not an attitude that is going to help you succeed in life. Life is repetition. That’s something that no one ever really tells you as you become an adult, but unless you have a really odd, fascinating job, much of life is the same every day. You will go to the same office/school/wherever you work and interact with many of the same people every single day. Then you’ll wake up and do it all again. Although to be fair to Anna, when I was 18 or 19 years old, I might have thought the same thing that she did. When you’re 18 or 19 years old you think that every day is pregnant with possibilities, and at some point you learn that’s not actually true. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If I didn’t have a pretty good idea of what was going to happen to me each day, I’d be worried sick.
The first-person narration of Voyage in the Dark gives it a different feel from Rhys’ other early novels, and it also enables the reader to feel a more immediate connection to Anna. Voyage in the Dark feels more like a first novel than Quartet does, so I wonder if Voyage was written before and then set aside. The flashbacks to Anna’s life on the island also give the novel some extra texture, and throughout the book I was more conscious of place and culture as themes. I think Anna’s sense of being an outsider in English culture is part of the alienation and depression that she feels.
Reading Voyage in the Dark immediately after Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, I was struck by the negative portrayal of London in both novels. In The Secret Agent, the metropolis becomes a symbol for the modern, mechanized age, and its capitalistic excesses. In Voyage in the Dark, London is a gloomy place: “Everything was always so exactly alike—that was what I could never get used to. And the cold; and the houses all exactly alike, and the streets going north, south, east, west, all exactly alike.” (P.179) I doubt that Rhys was specifically influenced by Conrad in the way she describes London, but I would guess that he was a writer she admired, since she quotes from his novel Almayer’s Folly in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. And she may have felt an affinity for another foreign-born author who was an outsider to English culture.
Voyage in the Dark is an example of spare modernism at its best, and Rhys' writing style makes the novel feel very contemporary. It's an excellent introduction to this often overlooked author.