Jean Rhys is best known for Wide Sargasso Sea which I read several years ago, without realising that it would have helped if I’d read Jane Eyre first – as Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel of sorts, looking into the life of the first Mrs Rochester, Jane Eyre‘s mad woman in the attic. Rhys had published four earlier novels and a couple of collections of stories in the 1920s and 30s, and slipped out of public sight and hearing so thoroughly that she was thought to have died. In 1957 an adaptation of her (then) last novel Good Morning, Midnight was produced for BBC Radio, and this led to people discovering that she was still alive and writing – she had accumulated another collection of stories and was at work on Wide Sargasso Sea, which was published in 1966, when she was 76 years old. I like in particular two supposed facts about her: that her only comment on her late flowering of success was ‘It has come too late’; and that she died reaching for her mascara.
Anyway, Voyage in the Dark was her third novel, first published in 1934. A lazy reviewerly way of describing it (cough) would be something like Patrick Hamilton meets John Fante! She has the former’s sense of London between the wars as a seedy place, closing itself over the heads of drowning loners, and the latter’s ability to make fairly plotless tales of life in the grim underclass seem vibrant and absorbing.
But cliches will not do, because Rhys never stoops to them, nor to sentimentality either. Her heroine (her pre-Sargasso novels were all largely autobiographical) is 18-year-old Anna, who has been brought to London from her home in the West Indies following the death of her father.
I didn’t like England at first. I couldn’t get used to the cold. Sometimes I would shut my eyes and pretend that the heat of the fire, or the bed-clothes drawn up round me, was sun-heat; or I would pretend I was standing outside the house at home, looking down Market Street to the Bay. When there was a breeze the sea was millions of spangles… Sometimes it was as if I were back there and as if England were a dream. At other times England was the real thing and out there was the dream, but I could never fit them together.
She becomes a chorus girl, trailing from town to town, “perpetually moving to another place that was perpetually the same,” from theatre to theatre, from boarding room to room (“This is England, and I’m in a nice, clean English room with all the dirt swept under the bed”). This last is because she rarely gets along with her landladies (“I don’t want no tarts in my house, so now you know”), and although she isn’t a prostitute, she does develop a difficult habit of accepting regular sums of money from men…
And there is not much more to the story than that. It’s just as well that the novel, at 160 pages, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and indeed Rhys’s vivid language – “It’s funny when you don’t want anything more in your life except to sleep, or else to lie without moving. That’s when you can hear time sliding past you, like water running” – makes reading it a greedy experience. From the terrific opening line – “It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known” – you know you’re in safe hands. It’s a shame that personal circumstances led Rhys’s pen to run dry for three decades, but at least her mascara never did.