I am walking through central London thinking about clothes. The territory of the flâneuse, stopping to look at the window displays and the passers-by; catching a glimpse of reflections, the light and the shadow. Clothes in Rhys are connected to her use of literary devices such as mirrors and doubles, to her interest in subjectivity and existential uncertainty, and to status and political positioning. Encoded within Rhys's city novels are the subtle linkages of economy and sexual encounters, as well as contemporary anxiety around women in public spaces.
I wondered if it might be possible to tell a story through those songs alone, the sounds of the streets, and the popular music Rhys and her protagonists listen to. [...] a trail of itinerant city life winds its way through the books; the presence of transient figures who drift in and out of the narrative, like music from the streets drifting in through windows, troubles the already tenuous identities of Rhys protagonists and their uncertain status.
‘All this passport business is only because it’s wartime,’ I said. ‘They’ll stop it as soon as the war’s over.’ He smiled a little and said, ‘Perhaps, perhaps.’
For Rhys heroines, inhabiting bedsit and hotel rooms, public and private space are very interwoven, and the space of the street often invades their interiors. A reminder perhaps that the street awaits them, that they occupy only the most precarious, provisional positions. Music, from buskers and street musicians, often floats in through the window ... 'I began to breathe in time to it'. It is a reminder of their tightrope existence, and the fine line they walk between the transient, homeless figures who appear everywhere; they are both a mirror and an echo.
Rhys heroines are fatalistic partly because their lives are precarious. They are unable to make tangible plans because the instability of their lives, and their economic and existential uncertainty, means that they live moment to moment, not knowing what might happen next. It it this living by chance that opens up to expansiveness, or closes down to disappointment and empty feelings. This creates a sense of tension, between hope and despair.
Walking through the London streets, Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury, I am thinking about the significance of the marginal figures Rhys writes about, her chorus girls and landladies. There is something radical going on in her portrayals of characters who wouldn't usually form the focus of literary fiction. She re-writes the script through these marginal characters, and they make a trajectory through all her novels.
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.