something about the darkness of the streets has a meaning

Voyage in the Dark, by Jean Rhys

This is England, and I’m in a nice clean English room with all the dirt swept under the bed.

Rhys is the poet of hypocrisy and unspoken disapproval. Voyage is the third in her series of four novels exploring the experience of women facing the indifferent cruelty society reserves for those who don’t quite fit.


Anna Morgan is a teenager recently come to the UK from the Caribbean. Her father died and her stepmother pointedly had no place for her, so to England it was. It’s not a voluntary homecoming, or any kind of homecoming at all for that matter. Anna loved the Caribbean, the warmth and colour of it. She was mostly raised by her family’s black housekeeper and (to her stepmother’s disgust) played with the mixed race children. She sees blacks as “warm and gay”, whites as “cold and sad”, which given she’s white says more about her than it does about race relations.

Anna finds England a dismal and dispiriting place. She works as an actress, barely surviving. Her outlook is bleak, as reflected in this quote where she sees a couple kissing:

A man and a girl were leaning against the railings in Berwick Square, kissing. They stood without moving in the shadow, with their mouths glued together. They were like beetles clinging to the railings.

There’s a lot to pull out there. “A man and a girl”, already a power imbalance. That image of their mouths glued together which seems to me somehow nauseating and nauseated. Then the beetle imagery. Anna isn’t a romantic. Except, of course, that she is. How can you be 18 and an actor and not be a romantic?

Anna shares a room with her friend Maudie, also a showgirl. While walking one evening they meet two men who pick them up and buy them drinks. Anna later goes to dinner with one of them at his club and sleeps with him there. It’s the price you pay for the food and company. It’s expected. He puts money in her handbag before she leaves. It wouldn’t do to give it to her directly, she’s not a prostitute after all.

The man is Walter and Anna’s relationship with him is inherently unequal. He’s older and richer. They meet at his club or other places he chooses. She loves him. He pays her rent. It’s not what Anna was looking for but it’s not as if there’s much better on offer.

Of course, you get used to things, you get used to anything. It was as if I had always lived like that. Only sometimes, when I got back home and was undressing to go to bed, I would think, ‘My God, this is a funny way to live. My God, how did this happen?’

Anna places her hopes on Walter, too young to realise what she is to him. When he dumps her he does so by having a friend write to her (cheque enclosed, naturally). It’s the Edwardian equivalent of dumping someone by text. It’s cowardly, though by his own lights Walter hasn’t behaved badly. Surely Anna wouldn’t have expected him to marry her? He treated her well when they were together, let her down as politely as he could, gave her a reasonable sum to tide her over until she finds another man. What more could he do? All he asks now is that she return any of his love letters that she may have kept so as to avoid potential future embarrassment.

Walter isn’t the only one to treat Anna shabbily. Her landladies judge her; when she visits her family in England they want nothing to do with her; her stepmother’s written her off. Anna has no skills, no contacts, nothing to offer save herself to whatever man might be interested.

In modern parlance Anna is depressed, and Voyage in the Dark is (among the many other things it is) a masterful exploration of depression as lived experience. At night she can’t keep her thoughts at bay, by day she can distract herself until the next night:

When it was sad was when you lay awake, and then it began to get light and the sparrows started – that was when it was sad, a lonely feeling, a hopeless feeling. When the sparrows started to chirp.

But in the daytime it was all right. And when you’d had a drink you knew it was the best way to live in the world, because anything might happen. I don’t know how people live when they know exactly what’s going to happen to them each day. It seems to me that it’s better to be dead than to live like that. Dressing to go and meet him and coming out of the restaurant and the lights in the streets and getting into a taxi and when he kissed you in the taxi going there.

In most books sparrows chirping would be a symbol of hope. Rhys is better than that, smarter. Here the sparrows are just another reminder of exclusion and irrelevance. Depression is a stained glass window all in grey. Everything outside is coloured by it.

The language here brings the reader within Anna’s experience. I opened a page at random while writing this piece and found a chapter beginning as follows:

There were two slices of dark meat on one plate, two potatoes and some cabbage. On the other plate a slice of bread and a lemon-cheese tart.

‘I’ve brought you up the bottle of vermouth and the siphon you asked for,’ the landlady said. This one had bulging eyes, dark blobs in a long pink face, like a prawn.

We move seamlessly from a fairly prosaic description of the meal to the line about the vermouth (which tells us that Anna is drinking) and then to the description of the landlady who has herself become a sort of unappetising food. The text is suffused with disgust. Note too that “This one”. Like the men, the landladies change particulars but not nature.

In a decade or so Anna will be Julia Martin of After Leaving Mr Mackenzie. Both live by sharing their emotions and their bodies with men who’ll move on in due course to something more permanent. Both are honest, but nobody wants their honesty. If they were of a higher social class, if they had money, they could live independently but they don’t so they can’t. That doesn’t leave many options.

At the same time Rhys avoids the simplicity of saying it’s all society’s fault. At one point Anna shares with a woman named Ethel, who tries to make a go of herself with a small business. Anna finds that incomprehensible, turning instead to Maudie and another friend Laurie who live outwardly glamorous and inwardly shabby lives wearing clothes bought for them by the men they go out with. It’s another manifestation of depression – Anna finds it easier to drift and to depend on the men she meets than to adopt Ethel’s puritan work ethic.

Novels about teenagers are usually about learning self-reliance, becoming yourself (whoever that might be), finding confidence and discovering the world. Anna discovers the world all right, but she doesn’t like it much and it doesn’t have much time for her. Later in the novel when she meets another man she reflects “My mouth smiled at him.” It’s a true but chilling line (something I could say of a great many of the sentences here). It’s ok though. He only wants her mouth smiling, that outward show. He doesn’t really care if the smile remains once he leaves the room. They never do.

Other reviews

The two I’d immediately single out are by the Lonesome Reader, here, and by Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Blog, here. Both rightly pick out the same key quote:

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, I thought. ‘It’ll be different, different. It must be different.’

Of course, it won’t be.


Filed under Modernist fiction, Rhys, Jean

22 responses to “something about the darkness of the streets has a meaning

  1. Such an in-depth and sensitive reading of the text, great review! In addition to that key quote above, I was also struck by what she wrote in her diary (and admits to it in Smile Please): ‘Oh God, I’m only twenty and I’ll have to go on living and living and living.’ The alienation and disillusionment are so extreme.

  2. Nicely picked quote Marina. That could be the entire novel in a line. Oh God indeed.

    Alienation and disillusion are Rhys’ territory.

  3. Great review Max! And I think you’ve hit on an important point re Rhys’s characters often are – I’d found myself wondering about their drifting nature and inability to do anything constructive about their lot, and of course depression is the answer. Her women have no real resources to fall back on – taking on some kind of business or work is beyond their comprehension and I wonder if the cultural difference between the Caribbean and British outlook has something to do with it? Lots of food for thought here.

  4. It was thinking about it a few weeks after reading it (to hit the #ReadingRhys week) that really brought out the issue of depression for me. I think normally I’m so immersed in the world Rhys creates that I almost internalise it myself.

    I think part of the work issue is class. These women aren’t upper or monied middle class types. They’re lower middle class. They have no nest egg, no resources beyond those chipped in by other (often also fairly stretched) members of family.

    When they look at what work offers them it doesn’t look that great. There are examples in these books of women who do their best, get jobs, knuckle down, and generally what they get for it doesn’t look much better than what the protagonists get. Yes, they’re “decent” women, but living with small-minded men constantly scrimping and making do.

    I can see why the occasional night out in clubland before returning to a dismal shared room might be more attractive than decades of suburban meanness.

    Rhys’s characters for me are cursed by their intelligence and their lack of self-deception but coupled with self-doubt. That’s what dooms them. They see things too clearly to settle for a traditional wifely role, but they’re not Mildred Pierce’s with the strength to create their own new reality.

  5. This sounds excellent, definitely one for the future. I ‘m currently reading Good Morning Midnight.

  6. I went through a Rhys period a few years ago–first drawn to her through The Wide Sargasso Sea. No bad books in the lot.

  7. Great review, another one that tells me I should read Rhys.
    I’ve only read Wide Sargasso Sea but it’s different from the four books she wrote earlier.
    I wonder if it’s better to read them in order since they seem to gravitate around the same theme of women who struggle to live on their own.

  8. A wonderful review, Max. I love the quotes you mention (and your reading of them) – they all seem to have a bleak and desolate feeling that’s evoked in an understated and quietly powerful way. One for the TBR list!

  9. A tremendous review, Max. I really like how you describe Rhys as the poet of hypocrisy and unspoken disapproval. There is a very carefully crafted rhythm to her prose, one which makes each sentence/short passage ‘work’ in its own right. It’s something I noticed more on revisiting her work for this reading week.

    How did you find it compared to Mr Mackenzie? Do you have a preference for one over the other? I think you’re right in saying that ten years down the line Anna will become Julia Martin. While none of these books are strictly autobiographical, all Rhys’ heroines are versions of the same women, all essentially fashioned out of her own experiences. Interestingly, Mr Mackenzie elicited rather mixed responses from my book group. In particular, some members of the group wanted to understand more about Julia’s backstory, so much so that I ended up wondering whether we should have read Voyage instead, especially given that Anna could be viewed as a younger incarnation of Julia. It must have been such a culture shock for Rhys to have come over from the Caribbean to the cold, dark and depressing climate of England. No wonder she found it so hard to adjust…

    Many thanks for the pingback and for saving this review for #ReadingRhys, a wonderful contribution to the week.

  10. Heavenali, I think that’s her best (though I’ve not read Sargasso). I hope you enjoy it.

    Guy, absolutely, I think some are better than others but from a high baseline and every one of them is at worst very good.

    Emma, I read Good Morning first and I think that was a mistake. I would read the books in order. She’s exploring similar themes and characters and it’s interesting to see how they develop. Also, it’s not like one of those series where you read a couple of early not-so-good ones for completist reasons or because later books build on them, they’re all good.

    Gemma, understated is a key word for Rhys I think. It’s hard to pin down quite how she achieves the effects she does. She’s not a showy writer, but she quietly makes a huge impact.

  11. Jacqui,

    I think I liked Mackenzie slightly more, but there’s not a lot in it. I don’t see how backstory would help Mackenzie. What do we not know that we need to? We know where she is and have a pretty good sense of how she’s been living for several years, a life that’s fading with her looks as she ages.

    I think there’s sometimes a rather Hollywood desire for explanatory backstory, and I think it’s a mistake. Life doesn’t come with neat explanations. There isn’t an event that if you went back in time you could fix and X wouldn’t become an alcoholic and Y would become a nursery teacher rather than a litigator. We’re not that simple.

    The backstory for each of these characters is in a sense the same, and it’s not the West Indies link. It’s seeing too clearly the cruelty of the ordinary, the unforgiving nature of the society they as women are born into, and a desire for a little life. It’s a desire that’s punished, as each of these characters finds out.

  12. Yes, I see what you’re saying, and I agree with you on virtually every level. Nevertheless, some of the readers in my group struggled to ‘understand’ Julia for want of a better phrase. They didn’t see the cruelty of the unforgiving nature of society or the hypocrisy and disapproval. They saw Julia as a rather feckless women with a strong sense of entitlement – in other words, someone who felt that her family owed her a living/some kind of handout. As such, they felt very little sympathy or understanding for her. (This wasn’t everyone’s impression, roughly half of the group fell into this camp.) It’s difficult to say how they would have felt about Voyage, but I just wonder if they might have connected with it in a different way…

  13. Great review. I think you’re right about her depression as it’s very noticeable that even when she has money, or is out ‘enjoying herself’, she isn’t really happy.
    I also liked your ‘how did this happen’ quote – she seems to make choices without realising she is making choices – or, indeed, seeing them as choices.
    Jacqui, I’m not surprised Julia doesn’t always meet with sympathy – we’ve had years now of being told anyone who can’t stand on their own two feet is some kind of scrounger! I feel Rhys shows in both books that, although we might be able to see choices as a reader, the characters often don’t.

  14. I have not read the book. But the quote you mention He’ll be different and so I’ll be different. It’ll be different, I thought. ‘It’ll be different, different. It must be different.’ is so profound.

    Great review. I would like to explore this one sometime

  15. I fear the others in your bookgroup Jacqui may be the decent people Rhys so often rails against…

    More seriously, yes, the characters are partly to blame for their own situation. I think then it becomes a question of compassion. Just because someone may be partly to blame doesn’t mean they don’t deserve help or sympathy. The good, decent people in Rhys’s novels lack compassion.

    Grant, I think that idea of not realising you’re making a choice is important here, and a manifestation in part of depression. The character doesn’t recognise her choices as you rightly say, but she does make them.

    The “scrounger” point is a good one too. We live in an intolerant age, as did Rhys (as perhaps most people do).

    Resh, it’s excellent. I think it’s well worth exploring some Rhys. They’re also all quite short so it’s not a huge commitment.

  16. Thanks Max, I’ll read Quartet first.

  17. Really fine review and discussion Max. And credit to Jacqui, the #readingrhys campaign has definitely given me impetus to look out for her work – I nearly picked up Good Morning, Midnight a couple of weeks back.

    I will take your advice and follow the writing order.

  18. She’s a tremendous writer Ian. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

  19. Pingback: #ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts | JacquiWine's Journal

  20. Wonderful analysis, it is so clear she is suffering from depression, sleeping her days away, becoming unwell and not really caring, observing herself and her reactions a little outside herself and not responding fully to her own reactions, knowing that she will continue to do what she does in order to survive without having to work hard, she is blessed (or cursed) with good looks and intelligence. Love what you say here in the comment:

    Rhys’s characters for me are cursed by their intelligence and their lack of self-deception but coupled with self-doubt. That’s what dooms them. They see things too clearly to settle for a traditional wifely role, but they’re not Mildred Pierce’s with the strength to create their own new reality.

    Wonderful, considered review.

  21. Claire, apologies for the slow reply, some family issues arose which have kept me largely offline for the last week or so.

    I agree with your analysis – not really caring, reactions outside herself, not responding properly to them, sleeping. I’m glad you liked that comment – it’s why comments are useful in part because I hadn’t thought of that point when writing the piece. Only in response to comments.

    On which note, thanks for your comment.

  22. Pingback: 2016 end of year roundup | Pechorin's Journal

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