A review by Erica Johnson for the LARB.
A FEW SUMMERS AGO, I had the opportunity to spend a week in the Jean Rhys archives, located in a place of which the Caribbean author had likely never heard — Tulsa, Oklahoma. I would come into the cold, dark reading room in the library from the suitably tropical heat of the plains, layer up with thick socks, leggings, and sweaters, and then go to an even darker place. Rhys’s scattered drafts and letters are choked with hurt and loss. In her journal, she describes the racial tensions where she grew up, where she was denigrated as a “white cockroach,” and she explains that her mother stopped beating her when she was 12 because she gave up on her strange daughter, telling the young Rhys that she would “never be like other people.” In spite of the fact that she turned out to be a literary genius, her life continued to be unrelentingly difficult. The one mitigating feeling among her “black moods” and self-lacerations was her love of her home island, Dominica, whose beauty and warmth she invoked throughout her long life, but that world was lost to her before she even realized it. Caryl Phillips’s novel based on Rhys’s life, A View of the Empire at Sunset, charts that lost love and explains why, in Rhysian logic, it is not better to have loved and lost when what you lose is yourself.
In telling Rhys’s life (which spanned 1890–1979), Phillips does not even mention the novel that made her famous and landed her on thousands of reading lists, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). The arc of his story begins with her longing for her island and ends with the last day she set eyes upon it at the age of 45. His guiding theme is that the one and only return trip that she made after having been sent to England as a teenager shattered the woman whose writing inspires Phillips’s own. His closeness to his subject shows in his style and in the evidence of the rigorous research he did for the novel, which is a dream come true for anyone who has been to the archives; seeing those unsettling, scrawled sentiments of hers in narrative form is thrilling. For those readers who have not made the trip to Tulsa, Phillips offers a compelling and troubling portrait of a writer whose work explores the same kind of precarity and vulnerability that Philips depicts in Rhys herself. Phillips captures the essence of some of Rhys’s characters when he says of Rhys — to whom he refers by her given name of Gwendolen — “there was something terribly illicit about her own waiflike presence in the world.”
In such passages, Phillips’s prose mimes Rhys’s, and indeed one of his great strengths as a writer is his ability to channel multiple voices. One of his most highly acclaimed works, Crossing the River, features three distinct narrators, and the narrators of his prize-winning A Distant Shore include a white suburban English woman and an African refugee. In The Lost Child, he writes from the points of view of characters who are male and female, black and white, and also channels canonical British authors in a story whose cast of narrators includes not only Emily Brontë but her creation Heathcliff as well.
What Phillips really captures in A View of the Empire at Sunset is not so much Rhys’s voice — her character rarely speaks aloud, and the narrative is sparing with her inner thoughts as well — but her eerie way of being in the world. The brushstrokes of this portrait are affective, and the palette is of muted feelings. The novel is constructed of vignette-like chapters that track Gwendolen’s restless movements and relationships and her tenuous place in society, whether Dominican, English, or French. There is a pervasive theme of failure — failure to make it as a showgirl, failure to maintain romantic ties, failure as a mother, failure above all to fit in — that swathes the narrative in melancholy. There is also a chill and detachment to the chapters set in Europe, even when she goes through experiences that seem like they would cause emotional upheaval, such as losing her infant son and, later, giving birth to her daughter. These two events are packed into one paragraph, in which “[s]he remembers hurrying to the Parisian hospital and looking down at the three-week-old-doll. He had been scrubbed clean and was laid out in a cardboard box that had been emptied of its original contents,” and “[s]he opens her eyes and stares at her still-bloodied child’s tiny fists and she wants to apologize, for as yet she has no name to offer this girl. I’m sorry, she says as she stares into her daughter’s face.” These two moments that might evoke grief and joy, respectively, are muted, filtered as they are through the shadow of Gwendolen’s larger sense of alienation. It is like watching our heroine move through a thick fog that might as well stand in for England in particular. In keeping with Phillips’s titular notion of dimming light, the metaphorical sun that once “never set on the empire” casts only a pale glow over the book’s action.
All of the loss that the real Rhys experienced compelled her to search in life and in letters for a hollowed out state of numbness. One word that appears over and over again in her writing is “indifference,” which she deploys like a welcome drug. (If only she could have bottled indifference, she might not have been the heavy drinker that she is in most accounts, including that of Phillips.) This affective cocktail of despair, loss, and bad faith makes for an absorbing reading experience, counterintuitively; Phillips evokes a certain pathos for a woman just trying to get through life day by day and year by year. In Wide Sargasso Sea, the authoritative, long-term family servant Christophine tells Antoinette, the doomed Creole, “[w]oman must have spunks to live in this wicked world.” Antoinette, who lacks spunks, fades into a blank-eyed “doll” by the end of the chapter. In A View of the Empire at Sunset, a Dominican servant named Josephine tells young Gwen that “if you want to survive in this world you mustn’t let people read what you thinking. Now change your face […] Good, now your mouth is fixed I want you to look yonder with your eyes, and don’t blink. That is how your face must be when you talk with people, you hear? Make your eyes dead like so.” Fake indifference until you make it.
By bracketing the narrative with Dominica, Phillips traces Rhys’s pain to the fact that she was born into an outpost of the British Empire, with its dark histories and displacements. What does it mean to be from a place, to long for a place, where you do not fully belong? What does it mean to be exiled from that place? When she is in England, Gwen thinks wistfully of Dominica: “Once again it occurred to her that she should simply renounce this place and go back to her island and leave behind the haunted faces of London,” and when “she would inevitably discover herself dreaming some variation on the same familiar shards of memory. Home. Always home.” One of the most poignant passages of the novel has her anticipating the actual return trip she will make with her English husband:
I will show you the rivers and the mountains, and come evening, as the New World day convulses towards dusk, I will share with you a spectacular elevated view of the empire at sunset. Perhaps, my husband, if I show you the West Indies, then you will finally come to understand that I am not of your world, and maybe then you will appreciate the indignity I feel at not only having to live among you people but possibly die among you, too.
Her sense of not belonging in England is visceral, and yet her memories of “home” are sometimes accompanied by “a succession of troubling images” and the earlier passages set in her Dominican childhood register her tenuous status there. She loves her homeland, which means that, by extension, she is possessed by a certain colonial nostalgia, yet she is something of a floating signifier of colonialism who fits on neither side of its binary. One childhood scene has her hiding out from the ultimate imperial event, a tea party her mother throws in honor of the death of “the Empress,” Queen Victoria. She wants nothing to do with her parents’ reverence for the Crown. From her hiding place up in a tree she overhears two of the family’s servants chatting while the party winds down; “Miss Ann shook her head. ‘It look to me like Miss Gwendolen catch somewhere between coloured and white.’”
Catch between she is, whether in Dominica, where she is something of a white outcast in a black majority society, or in England, where she is called a “heathen” and a “mongrel,” and where “she would have to listen closely to English people, for she found it difficult to understand what they were saying.” She is chronically misrecognized in England and no one, least of all her lovers, seems the least bit interested in her story. Her first affair is with a tedious and narcissistic man who monopolizes the page as he does Gwen. The relationship, which leads to an abortion and then abandonment, devastates her, but then she reaches for her bottle of indifference to conclude that “[s]he felt his loss as a wound, but nothing really mattered a straw.” Phillips emphasizes the exhausting estrangement that Rhys experiences as a perpetual outsider.
This is why her return trip to Dominica in 1936 turns out to be a gut punch to her soul. One would think that going back to the lush warmth of the Caribbean after 30 years of complaining about the cold and hostility of England would come as a welcome reprieve to Gwen, and she approaches her island with what qualifies, for her character, as giddy excitement about “her reconnection to a world that she hoped would lift the burden of anonymity from her tired shoulders.” Instead, what she finds are shabby buildings, dusty bottles, fading photographs, overgrown and disappearing paths, and peeling paint, all of which quietly signify the decay setting in on the imperial order of her childhood. The family estate where she remembers being happy lies in burnt ruins, a marker of black revolt against centuries of the plantation economy from which her family profited. The locals are mistrustful and mocking. Early in their visit to Dominica, Gwen begins “doubting the wisdom of her decision to come home […] the rising tide of resentment and embarrassment […] seemed primed to engulf her.” A few tormented weeks later, “the failure of the whole venture threatened to overwhelm her.” Phillips is careful to link the failed venture to its colonial underpinnings — the last straw for Gwen is a lunch with an English couple who have settled in Dominica and whose smugness and insularity repulse her. They are the sort who “simply traipse around the empire talking about themselves.” They spark an ultimatum in her mind: because they have chosen to stay, she must go. But it is more than the withering social scene that forces her from Dominica. In her autobiography, there is a passage in which Rhys recalls her island and she pictures the beautiful landscape turning its head, “indifferent and it broke my heart.” Picture your childhood home slamming its doors and boarding up its windows against you. As Phillips notes, it does not feel good.
The return to Dominica evenly divides Rhys’s life and career into two. By the time of the trip, Rhys had written dozens of razor-sharp short stories and three astonishing novels; she was at work on a fourth novel, which she published just a few years later. In essence, though, she spent the next 30 years after the trip writing Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel steeped in the Caribbean. Critics have not focused on just how pivotal her return to Dominica was in her story, which is not to say that Phillips is particularly interested in her career — he is not. The fact that she is a writer at all registers only briefly in the chapter about meeting her second husband, a publisher who admires her work. I would have liked to read more about a writer’s insights into another writer’s process, but I am told that writing about writing is not particularly interesting. Phillips keeps his attention trained on his subject’s affect, and he sums up the emotional carnage Gwen incurs from her trip to Dominica in his last line, which is perfection: “[S]he turned back to her island and looked again at her mountains and rivers and quietly, without [her husband] noticing, she broke off a piece of her heart and gently dropped it into the blue water.” Yet even before that final heartbreak, Gwen already intuits her precarity in the world. Shifting smoothly between past and present tense throughout the novel, Phillips implies that imperial time is slippery and the present can shift into the past or vice versa at any moment. History remains inescapable.
Shortly before her death, Rhys was awarded the order of the C.B.E., or Commander of the Order of the British Empire. The irony of this honor was not lost on her, and her comment was that it came “too late.” But beyond the timing of the award, the thought of the woman who harbored a lifelong resentment against England “commanding” the British Empire is nothing short of bizarre. And anyway, by then the sun had already set on the Empire.