Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Reading group: Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys
Although it was written in 1934, and set in 1914, we were hugely impressed by how very much ahead of its time it was both in the issues it addresses and in its prose style. As Mark, who had suggested the book, said, it exposes the hypocrisy of an upper-class Edwardian society in which sexual exploitation of women was the norm, and the contempt for women in general and their lowly status within families, and touches on postcolonial issues long before they were widely addressed - as Creole, Anna is both seen as exotic and despised. But all of this is conveyed in an entirely non-explicit way via Anna's first-person narration, which simply replicates her experience as the events unfold, relating only what people say and do and Anna's feelings as events overtake her. There's an apparent simplicity to the prose that echoes her innocence, and perhaps her lack of status and power, but in fact it's very sophisticated. It's economical rather than simple and, as the novel progresses, slips seamlessly into Anna's memories of the West Indies, her lost paradise (though of course the place where the seeds of her doom were set), often without punctuation, in a way that re-creates the fluid thought processes of memory. Therefore the novel is chiefly psychological - and thus very modern - creating layers of consciousness which the reader shares, and the effect is very powerful. In my view, too, to make a reader share the experience of oppression - as Toni Morrison also does - is in addition very political.
However, perhaps because of the lack of explication, John had wondered to me beforehand if Rhys had actually been aware of the significance of the issues raised by her story, which is famously autobiographical. Mark was in no doubt that she was, and spoke of Anna's bitter understanding of what was happening to her, and why. There was some demurring here: Jenny thought Anna was hugely innocent: she seems to have no idea of the shallow designs upon her of the man she first takes up with, Walter Jeffries, and can't see, as the present-day reader can, the signs that he's about to throw her over. But as Mark, said, Anna learns. However, because of that lack of explicitness, those lessons are only implicit, unvoiced, which I'd say creates a powerful sense of the trap that Anna, and women in her situation, are in - a social trap and a trap of silence.
Ann expressed amazement that the book had never been popular - before the years-later publication of Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (which we discussed here), it had fallen out of print, and has never since achieved the same popularity. Ann thought that this was because people simply don't want to confront the issues it raises, and the feelings of discomfort and loss and depression that it so accurately (and beautifully) recreates. I said that I didn't think I'd ever read another book showing so accurately - or even at all - the feelings one has when one is despised simply for being a woman, and everyone agreed. Jenny and I said we could remember the deflation we felt, at a much later date in history, when we were young and men treated us, as they do Anna, with sneering amusement, but none of us could think of other novels that acknowledged that, not even self-consciously feminist ones that tend rather to depict women's anger or attempt redress by portraying women as powerful.
Doug now said that the one negative thing he would say was that he found the book depressing, and Ann and I agreed that we had too, but for none of us did this detract from our huge appreciation of it, and even Trevor, who had expected not to like it since he'd hated Wide Sargasso Sea, said he'd found it wonderful.
Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.