Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark is a beautiful, melancholy story about one young woman’s journey from innocence to hard-bitten experience.
Written in 1934, it is, in many respects, before its time, depicting a world in which women are the playthings of men.
Anna Morgan, 18, is a lost ingenue, adrift in a foreign land, exiled from her native West Indies after the death of her father. She has a job as a chorus girl and travels through the dark, dismal towns of Edwardian England, where “everything was always so exactly alike”, residing in cold, dank boarding houses, reminiscing about her homeland, where the “light is gold and when you shut your eyes you see fire-colour”.
Later, when she “settles” in London, she hooks up with a much older man, Walter Jeffries, to whom she becomes financially and emotionally dependent. She does not know he is married and when, eventually, he calls the affair off, Anna is unexpectedly bereft, unable to understand what she has done wrong.
Lonely and depressed, often ill and curled up in bed, where she “sleeps like the dead”, Anna is taken in by Ethel Matthews, an older woman who is a Swedish masseuse (“When I say I’m a masseuse I don’t mean like some of these dirty foreigners.”). Living in Ethel’s posh flat off Oxford Street, Anna tries to earn a living doing manicures as part of Ethel’s business. But she spends most of her time drinking and bringing strange men back to her room instead, unwittingly offending Ethel — who is prone to loud, emotional outbursts — in the process.
Without wishing to reveal the ending, Anna’s life slowly unravels and her struggle to become an independent woman in London brings her to her knees, tricked out of money by men and women alike, used, abused and tarnished.
Surprising as this may sound, I loved this book despite its depressing subject matter. The writing is strangely beautiful in its simplicity and sparseness. There is not a shred of sentimentality in it. It is sad and bleak, but there’s a lovely naivety to the story which allows some light to illuminate the black despair. I particularly identified with the grey, wet London that Rhys so eloquently describes through the eyes of her immigrant Anna.
This was the first Rhys book I have read. I’m kicking myself that it has taken me so long to discover her! I plan on reading her small back catalogue as soon as I can.