On the screen a pretty girl was pointing a revolver at a group of guests. They backed away with their arms held high above their heads and expressions of terror on their faces. The pretty girl’s lips moved. The fat hostess unclasped the necklace of huge pearls and fell, fainting, into the arms of a footman. The pretty girl, holding the revolver so that the audience could see that two of her fingers were missing, walked backwards towards the door. Her lips moved again. You could see what she was saying. ‘Keep ‘em up....’
Following Anna's journey in Voyage in the Dark, I have walked to different points in Bloomsbury, Kings Cross, Camden Town, Chalk Farm, Fitzrovia, Soho, Oxford Street, Piccadilly, Mayfair, Bayswater and Notting Hill. Anna's London is one which can feel confined and yet she is on the fringes of some interesting cultural sites: its theatres, music halls, cinemas and nightclubs.
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.
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.
Jean Rhys’s work portrays a series of rooms, a life composed of rooms occupied; the movement from room to room. Often in her work there is a sense of the uncanny, the unhomely, where the unfamiliar masquerades as familiar and vice versa. When I lived in London, I used to fixate on a few cheap looking hotels near Finsbury Park. They represented a kind of disengagement for me, an escape from real life. Reading Rhys, I found myself wanting to put into words, that sense of departure and of estrangement.
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.