Voyage in the Dark & Jean Rhys

by joseph ridgwell

 In the words of the late, great Pornstar Andrea Dworkin, ‘Voyage in the Dark is a small, terrifying masterpiece.’ Sentiments I wholeheartedly agree with, but with the added caveat that it is far superior to the novelists later and more famous work, Wide Sargasso Sea.

For whereas the turgid WSS, a tired re-interpretation of Charlotte’s Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which appears to have been written to pay the bills and keep the author in gin, Voyage in the Dark, was written by a youngish author unknowingly operating at the peak of her powers.

I was given this slim volume by an underground writer who, after taking a disdainful look at my creaking bookshelf, informed me somewhat haughtily that I was desperately in need of more books written by females. Thinking myself a lover of man, women and beast alike I scanned my treasured shelves with the eye of a sceptic. Reluctantly I had to admit the hipster was right, for aside from novels by Carson McCullers, Emily Bronte, Patricia Highsmith and a slim collection of poetry by Emily Dickinson, male authors dominated the scene.

Suitably chastened I retreated to a dark corner of my local pub to give Jean Rhys and a Voyage in the Dark a whirl. And boy was I in for a surprise. As soon as I read the beauty of the first couple of sentences, ‘It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known. It was almost like being born again,’ I was transfixed by the wonderfully straightforward and unsentimental prose drifting across almost every page. Sentences containing evocative lines such as, ‘Where light is gold and when you shut your eyes you see fire-colour.’

From here on in I could give you a brief overview of the novels plot. I could mention the hero is an eighteen year old white West Indian girl seeking fame and fortune in Edwardian London. I could describe how her life in London gradually unravels, but none of these details are important. What is important is that, Voyage into the Dark, is now almost totally forgotten. And this is tantamount to a literary disaster as great as the criminal neglect of another 1930’s masterpiece, Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square.

Because despite the outward appearance of a pathetic ingénue floundering in polite London society Jean Rhys Anna Morgan character sheds an illuminating light on the female psyche, exploring with prescient intelligence the eternal battle of the sexes. In Voyage in the Dark she writes with compelling conviction of the loneliness of women, their overwhelming desire to be loved and looked after, but above all else their human frailty. The book is depressing and uplifting by turns, and the interwoven contrasts of the greyness of England and the vibrant colour of a West Indian childhood are especially striking.

And just when you want to shake Anna Morgan and tell her to pull her socks up and get a grip the character suddenly surprises you by stubbing a cigarette out on her older lovers wrist, re-buffing the lecherous advances of a wealthy, but somewhat odious male, and finally getting drunk and vomiting all over a would be client. It is the men who come across as seedy, untrustworthy, and ultimately sad and pathetic in this lovely little novel.

Ahead of its time when it was published in 1934, Voyage in the Dark is a literary triumph by an intelligent feminine writer whose literary efforts deserve a comprehensive re-appraisal. And although she once described herself as, ‘A doormat in a world of boots,’ I’d prefer to describe Jean Rhys as an outsider searching for truth, whose early literary light shone only briefly, but with an intensity rarely seen in today’s contemporary writers.

 P.S * Anyone who dies while reaching out for her mascara gets my vote every time.