Voyage in the Dark


If Julia in Jean Rhys’ After Leaving Mr Mackenzie often feels the cold of London, Anna, in Voyage in the Dark, feels it colder:

“She’s always cold…She can’t help it. She was born in a hot place. She was born in the West Indies or somewhere, weren’t you, kid?”

Shortly after her friend, Maudie, comments, “I’ve never seen anybody shiver like you do.” It’s difficult not to feel that the coldness is more than physical, something fundamental, and that “the cold nights, the damned cold nights” represent the loneliness borne of her being out of place (transported from the Wests Indies to England after her father’s death) and having only a half-interested step-mother for support. (At one point she says, “I felt I was more alone than anybody had ever been in the world before.”)


Her loneliness is alleviated, unsurprisingly (if you’ve read Rhys before) by a wealthy man, Walter, whom she meets one night in Southsea, renewing the acquaintance when she returns to London. As Maudie tells her:

“You go out with him if he asks you. These men have money; you can tell that in a minute, can’t you? Anybody can. Men who have money and men who haven’t are perfectly different.”

One is tempted here to echo Hemmingway’s response to Fitzgerald – the difference is they have more money – but Rhys’ world is one where passion may feature but love does not. This is largely because the emotions of her characters are revealed moment by moment, with no past or future, making idealism, or even consistency, unlikely. When Walter first kisses her she pushes him away, but “as soon as he let me go I stopped hating him.” She then waits for him to kiss her again:

“Soon he’ll come in again and kiss me, but differently. He’ll be different and so I’ll be different. It’ll be different.”

This is not only psychologically convincing, especially considering Anna’s youth (she is nineteen), but our moment to moment access to her thoughts and feelings also adds to the impression of a precarious existence, one in which planning for the future is foolish. The scene also further utilises the climate to suggest the coldness both of the relationship and society in general: “the pillow was as cold as ice”; “The fire was like a painted fire; no warmth came from it.”

Access to money, however, changes how Anna feels about herself:

“My voice sounded round and full instead of small and thin. ‘That’s because of the money,’ I thought.”

Maudie is unabashed in advising her to make the most of it:

“The thing with men is to get everything you can get out of them and not care a damn.”

Her relationship with Walter is based on the money he provides, and the unspoken understanding that it isn’t permanent:

“When it was sad was when you woke up at night and thought about being alone and that everybody says the man’s bound to get tired.”

Rhys’ protagonists have middle class origins and are used to a certain amount of material comfort but lack any means to procure it. Both Julia and Anna have suffered the loss of their father, and therefore their income. They have little hope of even moderately paid employment, nor do they have much of a welfare system to fall back on. Marriage seems the most obvious option for Anna (Julia is already married, but separated from her husband), but she (as it is suggested Julia once did) embarks on an affair that rules out marriage within her own class. (Of course, it might be argued that marriage to escape poverty is little different from Anna’s arrangement with Walter anyway).

Above all, Anna has little faith in her future, or her ability to make choices – in her interior life (the novel is in the first person) it is difficult to think of a decision she makes about her own life, or a decision which she understands as one she has made about her life. It is no surprise that her future is decided, in the novels final lines, by another:

“She’ll be alright…Ready to start all over again in no time, I’ve no doubt.”

Anna’s fate may seem dated, but her experience of narrowing choices and her sense of isolation is not. It is perhaps for this reason that Rhys’ work remains as vital as it ever was.


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16 Responses to “Voyage in the Dark”

  1. Cathy746books Says:

    The more reviews I read of books by Jean Rhys the more I want to read everything she has written! This sounds great too.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Great review Grant. As someone commented on my blog, it does seem that all of Rhys’s characters were just one aspect of her life and experiences. Certainly, her women have similarities and their particular place in life is not an easy one. And we do now live in a modern world where the choices are less and the isolation seems to be increasing.

    • 1streading Says:

      It will be interesting to read her autobiography to see how much her characters’ life coincide with hers. You can certainly see Anna as an early version of Julia.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Another very fine review, Grant. There’s an interesting dynamic between attraction and repulsion in Anna’s interactions with Walter. It’s something I’ve noticed in some of Rhys’ other works too, including some of the stories I covered yesterday. Re your closing comments, I think you’re right to highlight the enduring relevance of her books in today’s world – the emotions she captures remain timeless.

    • 1streading Says:

      It’s interesting to hear that the attraction / repulsion reappears – it seems an important aspect of the characters’ unhappiness.
      Thanks again for organising everything!

  4. bookbii Says:

    Excellent review Grant. I love how you’ve linked the sense of cold to her loneliness and isolation, as the two do seem intrinsically linked; and also the minute by minute narrative adding to the sense of precariousness of Anna’s position. It’s a sensitive reading, and an accurate one I think.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks. Cold seems to be something that is frequently commented on, along with illness. It seems to me the first suggests the society the character lives in, the latter their internal condition.

  5. Abby K Says:

    Lovely review Grant, really interesting what you have to say about the timelessness of Rhys’s writing. The way she presents her characters thoughts and feelings is both modern and still relevant today. It’s also really interesting when you compare Rhys’s early novels to realise that none of her heroines seem to have much choice or control over their fate at the end of their novels, as you have pointed out about Anna.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks. I think her ironic, unsentimental style is very modern – in terms of the way the books are written there’s remarkably little sense of her work being dated.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Nice points on the coldness, as Bookbii says. Interesting too on how some specifics date (women have more options now) but the tone and experience remain utterly relevant.

    Rhys is just such a good writer.

  7. #ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts | JacquiWine's Journal Says:

    […] Grant – 1streading’s blog […]

  8. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    Interesting point about what has perhaps made Rhys’s work endure, “her experience of narrowing choices and her sense of isolation” in particular for those who move away from their family, community, country without connections or support – and perhaps it is even more challenging for women.

  9. La Grosse Fifi | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] encountered Jean Rhys for the first time in October, reading Voyage in the Dark and After Leaving Mr Mackenzie for Jean Rhys Week, I was very much looking forward to La Grosse […]

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