It began to grow cold

Then quite suddenly it seemed, it began to grow cold. The sky was grey, not blue. The sea was sometimes rough. […] It was a very grey day when we reached Southampton and when I looked out of the porthole my heart sank.

Jean Rhys, Smile Please, An Unfinished Autobiography

It began to grow cold. The second, and unfinished, part of Jean Rhys’s autobiography Smile Please describes the long voyage to England from Dominica, and recollections of her early life in England. She describes going out early on her first morning ‘to see what London looked like […] It was all the same, long, straight, grey, a bit disappointing.’ There are correlations between this autobiographical account and with Voyage in the Dark, and the more I think about the book, the more I begin to see this period as critical to Rhys’s thinking and to much of what she was seeking to express in her fiction. There also, is her ambivalent relationship with England and the English.  

In my research into Voyage in the Dark, and the bed-sits and boarding houses of Jean Rhys’s London, I have been thinking about cold and the feeling of being cold. The sense of England as a cold place. Damp, grey, gloomy. As I write this, looking out from the window, the sky barely changes, from a cloudy dim white to an overcast grey.

It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known. It was almost like being born again. The colours were different, the smells different, the feeling things gave you right down inside yourself was different. Not just the difference between heat, cold; light, darkness; purple, grey. But a difference in the way I was frightened and the way I was happy.
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 around me, was sun-heat…

Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark

Voyage begins with this sense of cold, this moment in the journey when the feeling of cold arrived and this lack was felt also as an absence of light and colour. The feeling things gave you deep down inside. Anna’s voyage and her life in England is portrayed as a form of exile; she is divided and experiences a sense of unreality, of existing in a dream. For Anna, England is a cold, claustrophobic and conforming place, of long streets and rows of houses all exactly alike.

I have chosen a cold day for my walk around London, and I walk around the streets and areas of London synonymous with bed-sit and boarding houses, the kinds of dwelling most often described by Rhys in her fiction (I will write more on boarding houses later). As I walk I am thinking about being cold through the boarding house experience. When winters were colder and the fire had to be made in the morning, when hot water was measured out each morning, and baths were limited. How cold it was at night, tucked under the bed clothes in a strange room, and the sense of displacement from living among objects and furniture belonging to others. I am thinking about being cold as a lack, not only of warmth but also of an experience of exclusion, of being outside.

Alexandra Harris’s book, Weatherland, on changing ideas on the English weather in literature and art begins with the cold. She writes that ‘there are logical associations between loneliness and the cold,’ with phrases like ‘winter in my heart’, and ‘the cares of winter’ deriving from early Anglo-Saxon poetry. As she points out, researchers have found correlations between temperature and mood, and feelings of exclusion regularly prompt a drop in body temperature, while people living in cold conditions are less likely to feel socially attached.

I was thinking it was funny I could giggle like that because in my heart I was always sad, with the same sort of hurt that the cold gave me in my chest.

Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark

Reading Rhys, I am thinking about cold as being outside, being excluded; trying to navigate a path in a strange culture in which one’s own experience was completely unknown. Rhys’s book is in some ways an early precursor of the experience of later arrivals from the Caribbean, and especially after the Second World War, who repeatedly tell of their experience of England as cold and hostile, or of their presence as barely tolerated. They had expected to be welcomed, and were stunned by the lack of recognition; native English people seemed to know nothing about where they came from, about these other lands of the empire. There is also the shock of realizing that English people lived in poverty, that there were poor white people. The existence of the white working class, and their struggle to get by with little or nothing, were missing from the images and stories of life in England. 

Rhys writes about these things much earlier, from a point of double invisibility, as an early Caribbean migrant of Creole origin, and through a gender perspective. In the book, Anna is constantly trying to explain about where she comes from, but these attempts to tell who she is are usually met with incomprehension or disinterest.

One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if it is not London at all but some strange place on another planet.

Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners

England and London, which already seemed so familiar from books and pictures. The uncanny sense of already knowing a place, what to expect, and the strangeness and unreality of the real thing. Like the London fog…

Anna feels divided and invisible, creating a sense of unreality to her life in England, as if she is in a dream. As the book continues, memories of her life back home in the Caribbean appear more vividly as if they were happening alongside the present, only stronger and with more colour, while her real life becomes more fragmented; she is displaced.

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