Posts Tagged ‘voyage in the dark’

Voyage in the Dark

September 14, 2016

voyage

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.”)

rhys

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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