Singing to a different tune: London’s past and present

I am reaching the end of my walks through Voyage in the Dark, and while I have a couple of points still to write on, this feels like the time to recap. I have been imagining the places in Jean Rhys’s quartet of urban novels of the 1920’s and 1930’s as points of surfacing and disappearance. Mapping out the locations in the books as a journey through London and Paris. As I walk, I absorb myself in the books, thinking in tangents and asides; seeking out reflections on significant themes and passages, recurrent symbols and ideas. As points of departure from which to write, I cover these distances just to reach a state of mind. This has been a complicated start; a book which I admire greatly but which I find difficult to write about in the way that I want to, the way that I imagine. I have allowed myself the freedom to develop my own form of expressing what I want to say about this book. That hasn’t necessarily made things easier. A breakthrough of sorts has come in pursuing the walks around London, and in encoding in layers the few small clues I have about what Rhys intended in the structuring of this book.

Two Tunes was the working title of the book, evoking the sense of self-division Anna’s voyage creates. England is set up in opposition to the Caribbean, although the book complicates her relation to both places. Anna’s London is in some ways a series of rooms, of interiors that enclose and trap her ever further from her image of what her life will be like. Rhys is interested in portraying what it is like to be young and to feel life stretching out in front of one, seemingly endless and often monotonous. It is like the claustrophobic sense of endless rows of houses and streets, Anna’s first impressions of England, never-ending and all the same, that create a real sense of imprisonment. It is in some ways a story about trying to find a dwelling place, and to exist with a sense of never being at home – a positioning that has made me look for ways to write about these novels alongside the present times.

Voyage is the most autobiographical of Rhys’s works, which she later described as her favourite. The remaining letters from this period, testify to the difficulties in writing the book; to the claustrophobia of her life in London in the early 1930’s. Returning to a city which must have felt very different in the interwar period with its hard times, feeling trapped and with a paralysing sense of inertia; as she describes it in her letters a terrible “three quarters dead” feeling. Hence the book is also layered, I think, with Rhys’s feelings at the time of writing. She is writing back to the threads of her early notebooks – the ‘diary’ she wrote while living in London prior to 1914. All this while taking stock of her surroundings; back in London with little money after nearly a decade away in Paris and Europe, now a published writer with a determination to continue writing. Could writing offer a means of escape, or did it enclose her further?

Rhys builds into her structure this layering of past and present, and this is what has determined my own approach to the book. I walk through areas of London which appear to be much changed on the surface, but which retain their past selves in layers of space and time. I want to uncover what is past through what remains, but it is also an act of imagination, to find the past through the present. As Rhys explains the idea behind the book was something about time being an illusion… that the past exists – side by side with the present, not behind it; that what was – is.

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