I’ve read a couple of other books by Rhys – Good Morning, Midnight and Wide Sargasso Sea – and both are excellent books, but still I approached Voyage in the Dark with a sense of trepidation. Both my prior reads of Rhys have been fraught; short, little books in which the protagonist flops from one day to the next drunk, desperate, hopeless and aggressive, making the reading of them emotionally tumultuous. Reading Rhys is like being caught in a sudden squall: you know it’s not going to last very long and that your fears are pointless and misguided, and yet the wind whips you, the rain pummels down and all your reserves are spent, and then it’s over and your hair is plastered to your head, your clothes ruined, there’s water in your shoes and you’re exhausted. You’ve survived, but not without being wounded.
Voyage in the Dark is the same, though the storm is gentler and its build slower and it’s more bearable than the others. It feels like the beginning of Rhys’s story, the place where she began to lose hope. We follow the fortunes of Anna Morgan, an eighteen year old woman recently arrived from the West Indies. She is working as an actress in a touring troupe and she’s sharing a room with an older single woman, Maudie. There’s no sign of Anna’s family. In the evening they bump into two men, and this meeting proves life-shifting for Anna as she embarks on an affair with one of them, Walter, a mysterious, welathy man who sleeps with her and leaves her money. Their affair is quiet, secretive, and Anna is hopelessly naïve and apparently without will of her own as she is pushed and pulled in this direction and that by disapproving landladies and Walter and Walter’s friend Vincent who seems to act as a mouthpiece for Walter when things get difficult.
Anna is poor and she is friendless. After her father’s death her stepmother, Hester, sold their property in the West Indies and took the girl to England. What happened to separate Hester and Anna isn’t clear, though there are suggestions Hester pushed the girl out. Anna is always cold and depressed, she seems to waft from one thing to the next directionless, hopeless and uncertain. She has no one to guide her, so she is taken advantage of. She understands her poverty and isolation, she is insightful if not capable of directing herself out of trouble. This is a regular feature of Rhys’s work, and what makes it so powerful, like here as Anna reflects on her desire for good clothes and what she would do to get them:
“About clothes, it’s awful. Everything makes you want pretty clothes like hell. People laugh at girls who are badly dressed. Jaw, jaw, jaw…’Beautifully dressed woman…’ As if it isn’t enough that you want to be beautiful, that you want to have pretty clothes, that you want it like hell. As if that isn’t enough. But no, it’s jaw, jaw and sneer all the time. And the shop-windows sneering and smiling in your face. And then you look at the skirt of your costume, all crumpled at the back. And your hideous underclothes and you think ‘All right, I’ll do anything for good clothes. Anything, – anything for clothes.
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 then 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.”
After Walter ditches Anna, the girl tumbles into even greater despair. Whilst you don’t get the impression that she loved Walter, she does seem to rely on him and the rejection is painful for her. After Walter her life spirals downward and downward. She finds herself in a poor boarding house where she meets Ethel Matthews, a lone woman with a flat. She offers Anna a room in her flat and to teach her how to become a manicurist. Anna accepts, paying advance rental on the room and moves in with Ethel. Whilst this appears a good opportunity for Anna, it soon goes wrong. Anna’s depression, her inability to act and the sense that she is always being exploited or on the verge of being exploited, conspire to ruin her chances. The colourlessness, the absence of meaning in her life pervades everything.
“There were never any scenes. There was nothing to make scenes about. But I stopped going out; I stopped wanting to go out. That happens very easily. It’s as if you had always done that – lived in a few rooms and gone from one to the other. The light is a different colour every hour and the shadows fall differently and make different patterns. You feel peaceful, but when you try to think it’s as if you’re face to face with a high, dark wall. Really all you want is night, and to lie in the dark and pull the sheet over your head and sleep, and before you know where you are it is night – that’s one good thing. You pull the sheet over your head and think, ‘He’s got sick of me,’ and ‘Never, not ever, never.’ And then you go to sleep. You sleep very quickly when you are like that and you don’t dream either. It’s as if you were dead.”
Anna is homesick, though she never really verbalises this. She has been plucked from her home and dropped in this cold, colourless land where strangers sneer at your shoes and your poor clothes and men always want to sleep with you but not love you and you are alone and isolated, where your family are a million miles away and the woman who brought you here has cast you off. Goodness, no wonder she’s depressed. The only time Anna seems to come to life, to grow a spirit and a voice of her own, is when she reflects on the life, the island and the people she’d left behind:
“I was always dreaming about that pool, too. It was clear just beyond where the waterfall fell, but the shallow parts were very muddy. Those big white flowers that open at night grew round it. Pop flowers, we call them. They are shaped like lilies and they smell heavy-sweet, very strong. You can smell them a long way off. Hester couldn’t bear the scent, it made her faint. There were crabs under the rocks by the river. I used to splash when I bathed because of them. They have small eyes at the end of long feelers, and when you throw stones at them their shells smash and soft, white stuff bubbles out. I was always dreaming about this pool and seeing the green-brown water in my dream.”
But dreams are all she has. Whilst Hester feels guilty about taking the girl from her home, she refuses to pay the cost of sending her back and her family refuse to help her too. Anna is the epitome of the abandoned woman. She is abandoned by her family, by Walter. Every landlady she has seems to want to be rid of her. Men take her and use her, leaving cash behind. Friends use her too. Aside from her dreams of home, Anna find solace in drink and, if you’ve read other books by Rhys, you start to recognise how the spiral into alcoholism and desperation which unfold in her other stories begins. It is a sad, sorrowful story. Anna is a lonely, sad and hopeless child. She is exploited at every turn by everyone. She is loveless and without anyone to care for her. It is no wonder she clings so to Walter, though he casts her off like everyone does.
Voyage in the Dark is a wonderful book. Though short it is powerful and it is soul-wrenching to watch Anna fall further and further into disrepute, so far from the happiness she once knew. She cannot rouse herself, cannot see the worth in making an effort to raise herself from the cold slime of England and propel herself back home. She is homeless and lost. It is a terribly sad story. As an introduction to Rhys it would be a good starting point. It has all her hallmarks – the stream of consciousness, the depression, the isolation and hopeless degradation of the protagonist. Yet it is gentler than the other works. Anna is young and naïve, there is still hope albeit that hope is extinguished fairly quickly. It is not quite as exhausting as her other work; whilst I felt like I’d been put through the wringer I wasn’t quite squeezed dry by the end. Which is more than can be said for Anna.
Voyage in the Dark is published in UK by Penguin Random House