The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

“An Island, Which Was Home”: Jean Rhys’s and Elma Napier’s Anticolonial Caribbean Fiction

Alex Fabrizio
Nicholls State University

This article explores the ways that Caribbean modernist writers Jean Rhys and Elma Napier use place to effect anticolonial critique in their 1930s novels Voyage in the Dark and A Flying Fish Whispered. While many readings of interwar postcolonial literature emphasize nationalism or Pan-African activism, this article identifies a strain of Caribbean women’s writing that engages with Creole identity while locating anticolonial resistance within the specific landscape of the Caribbean itself. This article also complicates recent readings of late modernism that suggest an emphasis on metropolitan locations and themes. Instead, Rhys’s and Napier’s texts put Caribbean locations at the center of their novels, using Caribbean geographies to highlight the interrelationship of private and geopolitical dimensions of place. Napier’s critique of imperialism is located in her defense of the commons; for Rhys, myths of English universalism are critiqued via a phenomenological transformation of the metropole. By reading these two novels together, this article sheds new light on forms of anticolonial politics in interwar modernist literature.

Keywords  Jean Rhys / Elma Napier / Caribbean / late modernism / literary geography

“Sometimes it was as if I were back there and as if England were a dream. At other times England was the real thing and out there was the dream, but I could never fit them together” (Rhys, Voyage in the Dark 2). In these lines, Anna Morgan, protagonist of Jean Rhys’s 1934 Voyage in the Dark, reflects on the two locations she has lived: Dominica, where she spent her childhood, and England, where she resides during the course of the novel. At the novel’s outset, Anna has traveled to England to receive a traditional English lady’s education, to become more refined and—explicitly—more white, as she is removed from the influence of her Caribbean upbringing. Yet as Anna explains, the two places cannot fit together—instead of the seamless assimilation her family had expected, Anna is unable to inhabit England comfortably. Each experience in England is shot through with vivid recollections of the Caribbean; again and again she cannot make sense of the dull and terrible English metropolis in the context of her richly textured memories of Dominica. “I didn’t like England at first,” Anna explains, pretending that “the heat of the fire or the bed-clothes drawn up” was in fact the warmth of the Caribbean sun. Similarly, she contrasts the “gray-brown or gray-green sea” with the Caribbean Sea’s “millions of spangles...purple as Tyre and Sidon” (1-2).

This incorporation of Caribbean places into Anna’s consciousness is the basis for Rhys’s pointed anticolonial critique in Voyage in the Dark. In this article, I examine the ways that Rhys and Anglo-Caribbean writer Elma Napier use literary geographies to conceptualize and to articulate their opposition to the imperial project. These readings of Voyage in the Dark and Napier’s 1938 novel A Flying Fish Whispered highlight how setting unifies the personal and geopolitical dimensions of place. In Voyage in the Dark, Rhys uses Anna’s interaction with London to indicate the disjuncture between colony and empire—that is, Rhys uses Anna’s resistance to the London setting to make her case for the failure of imperial narratives that would comfortably enfold the colonies into a universal British whole. In A Flying Fish Whispered, geography is the medium through which Napier stages the novel’s ethical debate over land access, which embodies her pointed critique of an absent landlord model of imperialism that has failed in its allegedly custodial duty. Rhys’s more familiar phenomenological transformation of the English setting frames and sets off Napier’s direct treatment of Caribbean land and land use.

By reading these two novels together, I expand the range of anticolonial interwar fiction beyond typical metropolitan male figures. While much of the scholarship surrounding postcolonial literary work of the 1930s has focused on texts and authors situated in Europe,1 this essay centers narratives of resistance that prioritize Caribbean locations. Moreover, studies of postcoloniality in the early decades of the twentieth century often emphasize the Pan-African activism of male writers such as C.L.R. James, Aimé Césaire, and others; critical studies of anticolonial women’s writing have tended to focus on the postwar period.2 This article identifies an interwar anticolonial Caribbean women’s writing grounded in the landscape of the Caribbean itself. Mary Lou Emery and Anna Snaith, among others, have drawn important attention to the anticolonial tenor of Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark,3 but here Rhys’s activation of geography accentuates Napier’s use of Caribbean sites as a vehicle for anticolonial sentiment.

Reading Voyage in the Dark alongside Napier’s A Flying Fish Whispered foregrounds how Caribbean sites can be used in fiction to create a pointed critique of colonialist discourse. By complementing readings of racial difference with an emphasis on the formal and affective dimensions of place, I sketch out new terrain in how anticolonial sentiment was represented by Creole writers. Rhys and Napier—both white, both imbricated in the existing tradition of colonial plantocracy in Dominica—do not embody the traditional figure of postcolonial resistance. Their anticolonial sentiment is not always grounded in calls for political autonomy and thus is often overlooked. Yet, an engagement with place on the level of form reveals how these writers navigate their Creole identities and their opposition to British imperial governance and ideology.

“Thinking Makes It Happen”: Phenomenology of Place in Voyage in the Dark

Both Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark and Napier’s A Flying Fish Whispered use literary geographies to form their anticolonial critique. In Voyage in the Dark, this critique happens at the phenomenological level, as Rhys transforms the ostensible London setting of the novel into a series of fractured Caribbean sites. As Emery has noted, readings of women’s writing on land, particularly in the colonial context, must acknowledge the “colonial notions of the ‘primitive,’” which romanticize both the natural world and colonized women (“Caribbean Modernism” 68). Stereotypes of Caribbean land and its connection to women abound in colonialist discourses, ranging from an emphasis on the landscape’s romantic purity to its pathological danger. In some ways, Voyage in the Dark engages in this kind of stereotype by emphasizing Anna’s psychological connection to Caribbean sites. Yet place becomes far more complicated in Voyage, as Anna’s dreams and memories of Caribbean geographies transform and interrogate her surroundings. Throughout Voyage in the Dark, Rhys uses images of Caribbean sites to decenter the metropole and to examine Anna’s own complicity in British imperialism.

Until recently, Wide Sargasso Sea has dominated critical discussion of Rhys’s engagement with the literary geographies of empire. Voyage in the Dark’s pre-war date of composition has led critics to categorize it with Rhys’s modernist oeuvre; however, recent examinations of the novel have emphasized Voyage’s transitional quality, identifying its significance as “the point when the exhausted limits of modernist form revealed the lineaments of postcolonial fiction” (Seshagiri 487). Recent critics have begun to delineate what Seshagiri calls “the novel’s faint oppositional politics” (489). Leah Reade Rosenberg, for example, has argued for reading the novel alongside Black Caribbean modernists such as Claude McKay and Una Marson. Anna Snaith has explored the anticolonial properties of Voyage in the Dark through Anna’s unsettling of the categories of racial difference because her Creole status is frequently read as Black in 1930s London.

Perhaps the most significant way that Voyage in the Dark performs its anticolonial critique is through the repeated interpolations of Dominican landscape, overwriting Anna’s direct sensory experiences of London. Snaith has argued that these flashbacks indicate Anna’s “urgent desire to make visible the West Indies in London” (135). Yet these flashbacks occur within Anna’s own mind—represented in the form of fantasy, dreams, and stream of consciousness; they are almost never visible to the English characters around Anna. Rather than signaling the integration of colonial sites into the routine functioning of the British Empire, Anna instead demonstrates the betrayal of the imperial narrative of belonging. As Elleke Boehmer has described, the ideologies of colonialism are, in some ways, as significant as the political and economic control of the colonizer; the “imaginative command” asserted by the colonial power center defines the ways that colonial subjects conceive of themselves and their relationships to the metropole (5). What Anna’s interpolations in Voyage in the Dark indicate, then, is the failure of ideologies of Britishness that should allow any colonial subject to feel at home in the imperial metropolitan space.

Voyage in the Dark begins with Anna already in London, but from the very first page the narrative tracks backward to Anna’s past in the Caribbean. Anna has traveled to London at the encouragement of her stepmother, Hester, after the death of her father and the sale of their Caribbean estate. Consider, for example, the way that Anna describes her arrival in London:

Lying between 15° 10’ and 15° 40’ N. and 61° 14’ and 61° 30’ W. ‘A goodly island and something highland, but all overgrown with woods,’ that book said. And all crumpled into hills and mountains as you would crumple a piece of paper in your hand—rounded green hills and sharply-cut mountains.

A curtain fell and then I was here.

. . . This is England Hester said and I watched it though the train-window divided into squares like pocket-handkerchiefs: a small tidy look it had everywhere fenced off from everywhere else—what are those things—those are haystacks—oh are those haystacks—I had read about England ever since I could read—smaller meaner everything is never mind—this is London—hundreds thousands of white people white people rushing along and the dark houses all alike frowning down one after the other all alike all stuck together—the streets like smooth shut-in ravines and the dark houses frowning down—oh I’m not going to like this place I’m not going to like this place I’m not going to like this place — (17; ellipses in original)

This stream-of-consciousness passage has been noted for marrying modernist technique with colonialist discourse (Snaith 136), evidence of Anna’s English colonial education in Dominica (Kelley 109), and portrayal of “the inadequacy of the reference book description of Dominica” (Berman 83). What I would like to call particular attention to, though, is the theatrical shift from Dominica to England that characterizes Anna’s memory of this transition: “A curtain fell and then I was here.” By eliminating the transition or any scenes of journey, Rhys draws the two locations together, figuratively removing the physical distance between them. This joining not only emphasizes Anna’s shock and disorientation upon arrival in England, but also speaks to the interrelationship of Dominica and England within the British Empire and what J. Dillon Brown calls “the dangerous deceptiveness of so-called English civilization for those at the margins” (573). Anna, as part of the white planter class in Dominica, is intimately tied both to her British ancestry and her Caribbean childhood. Yet her arrival in England is not a homecoming, despite her stepmother Hester’s reassurances; rather than feeling recognition, Anna experiences a dazed horror when confronted with the white English citizenry of which she is, at least legally, a part. Rhys contrasts the two places to emphasize the hypocrisy of a British universalism that does not truly encompass its colonial subjects nationally or individually. Almost immediately, Rhys begins to undermine the imperial narrative of the empire as a continuous whole.

Moreover, Anna’s discomfort similarly subverts the aspect of colonial mythology that foregrounds the superiority of the metropole. Here, Anna embodies Homi Bhabha’s “unhomely” existence: caught in the disjunction between her native Dominica and urban England, she is exiled from both, socially and in her own consciousness. Anna’s individual isolation takes on a decidedly political cast when read in the context of the British Empire; as Bhabha’s reading of female postcolonial writers suggests, “the unhomely moment relates the traumatic ambivalences of a personal, psychic history to the wider disjunctions of political existence” (370). It is this political qua individual disjunction that has led some critics to see Anna as representative of the oppressed colonial, whose agency is erased as she enters the metropolis and is there commodified. Yet to read this passage as indicative only of Anna’s powerlessness is to deny the importance of postcolonial narratives that rewrite and revise the relationship of metropole to colony. Saikat Majumdar has recently argued that literary modernism “remains strongly linked to the cultural logic of the metropolitan and the peripheral,” emphasizing the heightened significance of specific metropolitan centers (31). This bifurcation between the metropolitan center and the colonial periphery is present in Rhys, yet Rhys reverses the significance of the contrast, transforming London into a parade of unspecific sites and vibrantly interpolating the chronological narrative of life in the capital with extradiegetic fragments of memory, artifact, and sensory input drawn from Anna’s childhood in Dominica. Anna repeatedly invokes tropes used to diminish colonial landscapes and turns them against the metropole. For Anna, “thinking . . . makes it happen” (162); in other words, her resistance to the British Empire is performed within her own consciousness and articulated to the reader through formal experiments that incorporate place into narrative consciousness. Through a combination of withdrawal from the social world around her and recourse to her own memory and imagination, Anna elevates colonial places over the metropolis.

Numerous moments of crisis in the novel, including Anna’s frequent illnesses—almost certainly recurrences of malaria4—her pregnancy, morning sickness, and abortion, set off sudden, intense recollections of life in the West Indies. Lying in bed, Anna turns her mind repeatedly to vivid visualizations of her childhood home, Constance Estate. Leaving a rendezvous with her lover, Walter, Anna muses: “All the way back in the taxi I was still thinking about home and when I got into bed I lay awake, thinking about it. About how sad the sun can be, especially in the afternoon, but in a different way from the sadness of cold places, quite different” (56). In a boarding house, Anna lies in bed wearily “thinking of all the bedrooms I had slept in and how exactly alike they were. . . . And then I tried to remember the road that leads to Constance Estate” (150). Anna’s recollections of Dominica are fragmented but clear, shard-like in their intensity though discontinuous:

Everything is green, everywhere things are growing. There is never one moment of stillness—always something buzzing. And then dark cliffs and ravines and the smell of rotten leaves and damp. That’s how the road to Constance is—green, and the smell of green, and then the smell of water and dark earth and rotting leaves and damp. There’s a bird called a Mountain Whistler, that calls out on one note, very high-up and sweet and piercing. You ford little rivers. The noise the horse’s hoofs make when he picks them up and puts them down in the water. (151)

This memory occurs shortly after Anna’s falling-out with her flatmate Ethel, but a similar series of recollections could be extracted from virtually any of the places Anna frequents in the novel. Each moment of physical and emotional vulnerability is marked by memories of Anna’s life in Dominica: recollections brilliantly colored, carefully drawn, and shot through with scraps of dialogue, characters, and intensely specific details of location, including sensations of all kinds. Anna’s recollections of the Dominica of her childhood abstract her psychologically from the social rejection of London, recasting her frail transplanted physical body—overwhelmed by illness and sexual trauma—from London’s oppressive environs to the comforting dream of the past.

Yet to suggest that Anna’s interpolations of the past help her fully transcend the present overlooks the fractures that run through these stream-of-consciousness memories. In the same scene as the above extract, Anna describes the experience of taking the road from New Town to Constance Estate: “You ride in a sort of dream, the saddle creaks sometimes, and you smell the sea and the good smell of the horse. And then—wait a minute. Then do you turn to the right or the left? To the left, of course” (151). This crack, a sudden return to Anna’s consciousness and out of the thoroughly realized dream of the past, highlights the inability of memory to take Anna entirely out of her physical location. Similar moments occur throughout Anna’s recollections of Dominica. In one such instance, Anna tries to share the differences between the flora of England and Dominica with Walter: “But when I began to talk about the flowers out there I got that feeling of a dream, of two things that I couldn’t fit together, and it was as if I were making up the names. Stephanotis, hibiscus, yellow-bell, jasmine, frangipani, corolita” (78). This recognition reveals the failure of Anna’s memories to transcend her present experience in London, for the two places are, to Anna: “two things that I couldn’t fit together.” The Caribbean, the location of Anna’s memories and daydreams, intrudes repeatedly, whether she is alone or with others. Her Caribbean background destabilizes her social interactions and interpolates itself into her thoughts again and again throughout the text. Yet Anna cannot incorporate her background into her present—the two things simply do not fit together. In this way, Rhys exploits an innovative narrative form, in which the fragmentary narrative poetics of modernist stream-of-consciousness interiority is further fragmented by representations of colonial place. Rhys’s fractured flashbacks of Caribbean places literalize the incompatibility of colony and metropole within the colonial subject.

To hold both Dominica and London in her mind, Anna must turn either the present or the past into a surreal dream. And in fact, Anna has a vivid dream that attempts to combine the two places after she realizes that she is pregnant:

I dreamt that I was on a ship. . . . Somebody said in my ear, ‘That’s your island that you talk such a lot about.’ And the ship was sailing very close to an island, which was home except that the trees were all wrong. These were English trees, their leaves trailing in the water. I tried to catch hold of a branch and step ashore, but the deck of the ship expanded. (164)

The dream sequence reaches “a climax of meaninglessness, fatigue and powerlessness” as Anna searches for someone, possibly a child, who has fallen overboard (Voyage 165)—but it is the initial vision of a distorted Dominica that I want to attend to here. Anna seems certain that the island she sees is her island—her home—and yet the evidence of her senses tells her otherwise. Thus the dream suggests a combination of the two islands, Great Britain and Dominica, a combination that, under the British Empire, should theoretically be plausible, even natural. As Tobias Döring has noted, colonial maps suggest that “both the Old World and the New can be subsumed under a common symbolism and so become part of a single unifying text” (81). Anna is a subject of the British Empire and, accordingly, is legally at home in England as well as Dominica. Yet as the novel has confirmed, Anna is not at home in England, and the synthesis of the two locations is impossible, perhaps even monstrous. When Anna tries to reach the island, the deck of the ship expands, preventing her from accessing it, in the same way that Anna can neither fully become a part of English society nor, as her uncle suggests, Dominican society.5 Anna’s in-betweenness suggests an additional level of nuance to Rhys’s depiction of Anna. Anna is not, or not simply, an oppressed colonial subject, but also part of the white planter class, a class whose implosion Rhys would fully document in her postcolonial achievement Wide Sargasso Sea.

The final interpolation of Caribbean sites onto Anna’s London experience comes in the aftermath of her abortion at the end of the novel. As Anna struggles to recover, her flatmates worry over her alarming symptoms and semi-conscious state. As has happened repeatedly in the novel, Anna responds to the physical and emotional trauma with a retreat to her Caribbean memories. As before, the stream-of-consciousness flashback features rich sensory details and a powerful identification with landscape. Anna recalls watching the Carnival celebration “from between the slats of the jalousies,” listening to her family members alternately criticize and defend Black Dominicans and their Carnival traditions: “It ought to be stopped somebody said it’s not a decent and respectable way to go on it ought to be stopped . . . why should they want to stop it some people want to stop everything” (184; emphasis in original). Her physical position—within the house, veiled by shutters—highlights Anna’s sense of alienation from the Dominican culture that she admires. Her description of the masquerade is at times resentful; for example, the masks that the celebrants wear have under their mouths “another slit so that they could put their tongues out at you” (185). But her depiction also signals empathy and identification: “I was looking out of the window and I knew why the masks were laughing and I heard the concertina going” (186). This passage serves as another indication of Anna’s in-betweenness. Here, she is caught not between the colonial and metropolitan sites, but between the Black and white Creole worlds of Dominica. Anna cannot participate in the Carnival traditions of Black Dominicans; nor, however, can she fully embrace the condescension of her white planter relatives. Instead, Anna is once again an outsider, not fully colonized or colonizer, ambivalent about the Englishness that informs her family’s history but also constrains her.

The critical tone directed toward the relatives who “want to stop everything” turns inward in the final moments of this interpolation, in which Anna alludes both to the oppression of Black Dominicans and to her own role in maintaining that oppression. In this section, Anna begins with the vividness that has characterized her previous memories. This time, however, Anna’s specificity breaks down as her attention turns from the human life that she both envies and admires in Dominica to a desocialized landscape—from a coherent memory to a fragmented grammar that emphasizes Anna’s attention to the depopulated land:

I saw the rows of small houses on each side in front of one of them there was a woman cooking fishcakes on an iron stove filled with charcoal – and then the bridge and the sound of the horse’s hoofs on the wooden planks – and then the savannah – the road goes along by the sea – do you turn to the right or the left – the left of course – and then that turning where the shadow is always the same shape – shadows are ghosts you look at them and you don’t see them – you look at everything and you don’t see it only sometimes you see it like now I see – a cold moon looking down on a place where nobody is a place full of stones where nobody is (186-7; emphasis in original)

In this passage, at the novel’s end, Anna acknowledges her failure to see the Dominican landscape she had previously inhabited. Its recurrence in her memory emphasizes the significance of the Caribbean for Anna’s self-conception. Yet here, Anna criticizes herself for failing to fully see and appreciate her colonial birthplace in all its complexity. Twice in the novel Anna mentions the people previously enslaved by her own ancestors, at one time fumblingly equating her own economic and sexual powerlessness with that of an enslaved young woman, a deeply problematic passage that indicates Anna’s failure to comprehend the enormity of slavery’s social death.6 In this final passage, Anna tries to imagine the lives of Dominicans—the “woman cooking fishcakes”—but cannot maintain this focus for long. Instead, she turns from this site to focus on a depopulated landscape. By the end of the paragraph, Anna acknowledges her failure to confront her own complicity in the oppression of Black Dominicans, her family’s complicity, and the complicity of “you”—the general audience—whom she similarly accuses: “you look at them and you don’t see them.” Anna notes the presence of unchanging “shadows” that mark the landscape, shadows which are in fact the “ghosts” of Dominica’s history of enslavement, suggesting the irresolvable legacy of colonialism. Anna critiques herself by desocializing and depersonalizing her space; in Rhys’s figuration, this “place full of stones where nobody is” comes into being because of Anna’s failure to attend to the social dimension of her Dominican past. The criticism of imperialism that Rhys presents, then, not only emphasizes the failure of its myths of belonging but also indicts a white Creole identity that prizes Dominican land over Black Dominican people.

This stony image reflects the original version of the text, which ends with Anna’s death. The published version, re-written by Rhys under significant pressure, has Anna surviving her abortion. The pairing of these two endings suggests a failure of resolution, an intermingling of past and present that displaces any sense of real future for Anna specifically and for the imperial project more generally. Thus Rhys’s project is carefully attuned to the legacies of colonialism across generations. Rhys's attention to the marginalized was recognized as early as her first collection, with Ford Madox Ford celebrating her “terrific—an almost lurid!—passion for stating the case of the underdog” (24). In Voyage in the Dark, that identification with marginalized subjects takes on a powerful political valence as she rewrites the London metropolis as the pale background for Anna’s vivid Caribbean memories. The imaginative literary geography of Rhys’s novel revises the imperial narrative of English superiority into one in which the metropolis figures as an internally incoherent and darkly oppressive site.

Place and Possession in A Flying Fish Whispered

Examining the phenomenological function of the Caribbean landscape in Voyage in the Dark frames my reading of place in Napier’s A Flying Fish Whispered. In Napier’s novel, place works not simply on the level of consciousness, but throughout the novel’s form, as a driver of plot and character interactions. The novel is grounded in the Caribbean site on the level of both action and theme; this pervasive attention to place allows Napier to produce a more pointed anticolonial critique than Rhys as she too grapples with the imperial betrayal of the colonial Caribbean and the complexity of the white Creole experience.

Unlike Jean Rhys, Elma Napier has received little critical attention as a Caribbean modernist writer. Napier and her literary work appear rarely in discussions of modernist writers and their social circles, despite the fact that she published several novels and memoirs and hosted modernist literary figures at her home in Dominica, including Rhys, Somerset Maugham, and Alec Waugh. Evelyn O’Callaghan’s recent work on Napier, along with the reissue of A Flying Fish Whispered by Peepal Tree Press and the first publication of Napier’s memoir Black and White Sands in 2009, have begun the rehabilitation of this important modernist Caribbean writer. Like O’Callaghan’s, my reading of Napier centers on her formal use of Caribbean sites: the focus here is her orientation toward usufruct, property, and the commons. O’Callaghan suggests that Napier’s ecological consciousness in A Flying Fish Whispered indicates that her “concerns [were] quite different from the generic and political preoccupations of her midcentury male counterparts” (119). My argument instead shows that anticolonial sentiment pervades Napier’s work, including explicit references to the dismantling of the British Empire and a consideration of the complicity of white immigrants and white Creoles in the power structures of British Caribbean colonies. In A Flying Fish Whispered, literary geographies operate on two levels: geopolitically, through the novel’s thematic attention to the failure of the colonial system on disparate Caribbean islands, and locally, on the level of individual and social land use.

Scottish by birth, Elma Napier lived most of her adult life in Dominica, settling near Calibishie with her husband Lennox Napier in 1932. Lennox Napier was active in the politics of Dominica, serving as a popularly elected representative for the North Eastern District until his death in 1940 (Hulme 145). In 1936, Elma Napier encountered Rhys and Rhys’s husband, Leslie Tilden-Smith, when the couple visited neighbors of the Napiers. This meeting was less than inspiring. Rhys describes Napier as “by way of being literary,” and suggests that the rejection of Napier’s novel by publisher Hamish Hamilton—where Tilden-Smith was an editor—prompts her “double quick” invitation of the couple to her estate (Rhys, Letters 29). That Rhys’s own novel Voyage in the Dark had also been rejected by Hamish Hamilton two years earlier did not, it seems, engender sympathy. Napier, on the other hand, told Alec Waugh in 1949 that she had never heard of Jean Rhys—likely a veiled insult rather than a statement of fact (Campbell 92).7 Despite their failed social connection, Rhys remained aware of Napier’s work, referencing Napier’s travel book Nothing So Blue by name in her 1976 short story “The Insect World.”8

The Napiers were active in promoting the interests of their local villages, Woodford Hill and Wesley; the crisis over beach access that motivates the action in A Flying Fish Whispered is based on a real conflict with a family called the Stebbings. In fact, Lennox Napier’s signature appears on a petition for self-government as early as the 1930s (O’Callaghan 117). After Lennox’s death, Elma Napier was invited to take over as representative; she served for ten years and was the first woman elected to the Caribbean Parliament. In her memoir Black and White Sands, Elma Napier describes feeling that their arrival in Dominica coincided with the end of the colonial era: “the end of an act, when the orchestra was already playing a new one” (92). The relics of English culture prized by white English immigrants and colonial officers—most of whom lived in the Dominican capital Roseau—struck her as “faintly absurd.” “Gloves and stockings, silver salt cellars and tea equipages, the White Man’s Burden and the prestige of the Master Race”—that is, the physical objects of genteel English culture as well as the attitude and narratives underlying the imperial project—were “rigidly maintained until the tide of democracy and commonsense, to say nothing of war conditions, swept [them] away” (92). Her rejection of the imperialist perspective appears not just retrospectively, in the memoir she wrote well after the second World War and the beginnings of decolonization, but in her 1930s fiction.

A Flying Fish Whispered features 29-year-old Teresa Craddock, an unmarried white Creole woman who lives with her brother Tommy on her family’s estate, Ça Ira (“It’ll be fine” in French), on the island of St Celia, a fictionalized Dominica. Teresa briefly engages in a romantic liaison with a newcomer to the island, Derek Morell, a white Creole from Parham Island, a fictionalized version of Antigua. Morell and his wife Janet have come to St Celia to grow sugar on his newly purchased plantation, Neva. In attempting to work the land, Derek clashes with the Black residents of the village, Ville Rousse, who use his property as beach access for subsistence fishing. This social clash spurs the climactic disruption of Teresa and Derek’s relationship.

The novel’s attention to land use highlights the tension between private ownership and communal use, in a way that emblematizes Napier’s sense of how colonialism breaks down. When the Morells move into Neva, they object to a long-standing custom permitting local villagers to harvest coconuts from wild trees on the estate grounds. For Teresa, the coconuts, along with the rest of the fruits that grow wild in St Celia, are a common good. Indeed, before the Morells’ arrival, “it had never occurred to Teresa” that the plantation’s geography could be restricted, “that Neva was not everybody's to walk over as they pleased; nor the fruits of the earth hers to pick as she chose” (47). Yet for Derek, the removal of the coconuts is theft rather than common access. Repeatedly, he asks other white Creoles in St Celia for advice on protecting his property. Teresa and other property owners encourage him to relax his rigid attitude toward possession. “Must you stop them?” Teresa asks. “Do you need all those nuts for yourself?” Derek feels that he has no choice: “It’s the principle of the thing. The nuts are mine” (42). Unfamiliar with the culture of St Celia, Derek refuses to listen to the property owners who share his race and class, let alone the Black St Celians whose poverty makes their access to natural resources crucial.

Disappointed by his social equals, Derek seeks support from other institutions. Later in the novel, Derek goes to see a priest, searching for assistance in locating the “thieves” and ensuring the security of his property; yet the priest, like the other owners, defends the island’s tradition of usufruct. Teresa tries again to convince him: “Everyone is trying to help you,” she explains. “We all know that the people are exasperating to strangers, but you must realize that, rightly or wrongly, the average St. Celian looks on a fallen coconut as a ‘mango on the ground,’ something to pick up and eat. And the system has worked.” Derek, furious, insists that they are “all leagued against” him (188). Through his active opposition to the tradition of access to the commons, Derek embodies capitalist values—an emphasis on possession that opposes Teresa’s more genteel patrician communalism. Though both are imbricated in the colonial structure, Derek invests in a cruel and backward-looking colonialism that resembles plantation slavery, an institution that Teresa abhors. Moreover, Derek shows the problems of cultural imperialism in St Celia, attempting to import a value system that chafes against the local sense of community and social good. Napier takes pains to assure the reader that Derek is not simply uninformed: he actively works against the communal system that has worked well in Ville Rousse to import a regressive economic model. His insistence leads to the crisis point of the novel, as Derek punishes the villagers by blocking their access to his land.

As Evelyn O’Callaghan notes, depictions of the landscape abound in the novel. For O’Callaghan, this attention to landscape indicates Napier’s “early environmental consciousness” (114). Yet the contrast between Teresa’s description of and emotional connection to the land around her and Derek’s possessive attachment to his estate establishes the anticolonial tenor of the novel. Teresa’s emotions and actions are described in parallel to the natural world around her. In a spray of water, she sees “rainbow colours float[ing] westward on the wind” just as “her words float” away from her (194). In the variations of green leaves, she reads her own emotions, thinking, “It must be spring that is making a weathercock of me” (182). During the course of the novel, Teresa works on a patchwork quilt, and many of the squares are tied to a specific physical memory of St Celia’s landscape. For Teresa, the landscape has a positive affect, similar to but less conflicted than Rhys’s treatment of the Caribbean locations.

Derek’s response to the land, on the other hand, is both economic and possessive. He resents Teresa’s fellowship with the other St Celians, both white and Black, and his attention to land itself resolves into harsh memories of his brief travels to Great Britain. Walking with Teresa as their affair collapses, he finds that he does not want to “walk on cliffs” with Teresa or “hear a woman prattling about the island's beauty or see her weaving past scenery into her patchwork” (194). Teresa’s relationship to the St Celian land appears to him mere sentiment, rather than an intimate, almost physical, connection. Derek, on the other hand, sees the land as something he must master—paralleling his understanding of his relationship toward the native St Celian people. Teresa describes his feelings toward his estate as “the lust of possession,” foregrounding the contrast between her enmeshment with the physical world and Derek’s desire for control over it (31). In this way, Derek’s engagement with the land fits neatly into colonialist stereotypes that essentialize both Caribbean sites and Caribbean women.9

Indeed, the Morells plan to grow and harvest sugarcane on their estate, a regressive desire that is treated as ludicrous by the St Celians, both for its agricultural implausibility and the likely labor difficulties. Derek attributes his desire to grow sugarcane to his upbringing on Parham Island, where white landowners control virtually all of the agriculture and the flow of capital. Based on Antigua, Parham Island is described as an island where labor conditions for Black workers were so dire as to be virtually “still . . . slavery” (158). Derek has a libidinous attachment to colonial plantocracy:

I was brought up to be very rich,” he tells Teresa. “My father had huge estates. I can remember what are called the good old days; carriages and horses, fine wines and high living. I was heir to a house three hundred years old, one of those heavy stone mansions that still had slaves’ quarters, and a mill with an immense stone chimney (53)

The association between Derek’s “high living” and the presence of slaves’ quarters is not incidental; Napier takes pains to point out that nostalgia for white Creole plantocracy drives Derek’s current choices and causes his downfall. Indeed, the end of the system of plantation slavery foreshadows the destruction of the Morell family fortune, which is lost to speculation while Derek is at school in England. The family decline is literalized in the landscape: the house itself is taken apart stone by stone by local villagers. The narrative of the white Creole sent to English schools for education—to come back to his Caribbean estate transformed into an educated aristocrat and progressive local leader—falls apart in practice.

The destruction of his family home impresses upon Derek a desire to recreate his former status by planting of sugarcane on Neva. Derek is thus a modern instantiation of the nineteenth-century enslaver who, though not enslaving the St Celians, carries the same lust for possession that characterized the institution of slavery. Napier’s critique, then, exceeds the legacy of slavery in the Caribbean and encompasses a more contemporary capitalism which insists on private ownership and is contemptuous of patrician notions of duty. In depicting Derek’s aggressively possessive attitude, Napier carefully accounts for his motivation: not just his attachment to his own “good old days,” but an association with the labor system of Parham Island and, most significantly, his extraordinary ambition to become a plantation master. Derek’s model for the future is backward-looking, based entirely on what he believes he can produce from the land at Neva and, moreover, a return to the colonial plantocratic moment of his childhood. Napier’s criticism of Derek—and Teresa’s antagonism—is buttressed by references Napier makes to increased labor unrest in the Caribbean in the 1930s. By presenting Derek’s attachment to his plantocratic past as both backwards and unsustainable, Napier legitimates the economic grievances workers raised across the Caribbean islands during this decade.

Beyond the significance of land and ownership as a thematic driver of the novel’s plot, Napier also enriches the political content of her novel with multiple references to the geopolitical landscape of its 1930s colonial location. Explicit criticisms of the British home government, as well as of the Empire itself, appear throughout the novel. Teresa is not involved in politics in any official capacity, as Napier was, but she often accompanies her brother to political dinners where views across the political spectrum are aired. Discussing the problems of Parham Island, Tommy and Teresa’s close friend, wealthy Black landowner and politician Geoffrey Hylton, argues that colonialism is “not to blame” for the grim conditions on the island. Teresa disagrees, claiming that “the Home Government is ultimately responsible” because it “holds the colonies in trust.” “All you little Legislative Councillors, who run around looking important,” she tells Geoffrey, “have only the powers of prefects. There’s always the headmaster in his study” (158). In Teresa’s view of the imperial system, the British government is responsible for the wellbeing of all of its citizens and subjects, particularly those who have been disenfranchised by the very political and economic systems that imperialism has put into place. As Teresa makes clear, the British government has failed to fulfill that responsibility, both on Parham Island and on St Celia. Later in the novel, Teresa attempts to arrange government funding for a school in Ville Rousse, but she is denied. “There was never enough money for roads, nor for medical services, nor for education,” Teresa reflects, noting “bitterly” that “the salaries and pensions of white officials,” however, are always secure (218).

Teresa’s assessment of the home government casts doubt upon the imperial project as a whole. By reflecting on the ways in which the metropole has betrayed the trust of the colonies, Teresa undermines a narrative that assumes the colonies are better off with and benefit from the British Empire. Throughout the text, colonial officers who come from Britain permanently or temporarily are roundly criticized. Geoffrey cannot resist mocking one such official, Collins, who “needs some deflating” (167). In one of the novel’s most explicit criticisms of imperialism, another native St Celian, Corbin, tells Geoffrey that Collins “is one of those Englishmen whose slogan is ‘the Empire for the English.’” And “that hypothesis,” Corbin says, “must be disproved by the steam-roller of our own integrity” (167). In other words, Collins believes that the Empire’s purpose lies in what it can do to improve the global status of England—and, concomitantly, that the universalizing power of Englishness can bind together the disparate global colonies.10 Corbin, on the other hand, sees this idea as doomed— even if his faith in the power of “integrity” is idealistic. As Napier makes clear in A Flying Fish Whispered, the crisis of imperialism in the 1930s Caribbean, including the labor strikes and riots of this decade, was not simply due to the home government’s failure to live up to its responsibilities in the colonies, but to the very notion that the colonies and the metropole can ever be fitted into a functioning whole body. In Napier’s view, the attitude toward land and ownership that drove imperialism—embodied by Derek Morell—dooms the British imperial project.

The novel reaches its crisis point when Derek—enraged by Teresa’s decision to end their affair—takes action against the villagers by preventing access to the entirety of his estate, thus closing off the only local access point to the beach for the entire community of Ville Rousse. With this action, Derek prevents the villagers from washing their clothing and fishing in the ocean, cutting off a substantial source of their food supply. Though Derek is within his legal rights, Teresa, Tommy, and most of the community are horrified by a violation of custom, which places the Morells’ individual property rights above the wellbeing of the impoverished villagers. As in the episode of the coconuts, Derek recognizes only his rights as a private property owner rather than any obligations as a part of the St Celian community of shared work and shared harvest. After the closing of the beach, the community becomes “a seething cauldron whose contents are out of harmony with each other” (228); Derek’s actions disrupt the lives of the villagers and flout longstanding land use customs. Derek’s commitment to a retrograde land use not only results in increased precarity for the impoverished St Celians of Ville Rousse but also in his own self-imposed exile from the community.

Napier embodies this insight in a description of the closed beach, which is both a gripping representation of the landscape and an instantiation of geopolitics into geography:

There was no craft of any kind on Neva Beach, and no women washed clothes in the river. On all that long expanse of sand there was no sign of life save for the purple and red crabs scuttling under the almond trees, and the black frigate birds hovering over the stormy water. For a long time Tommy and Teresa had not bathed there, nor taken guavas from the garden of the ruined house. Cowries and fanshells and pinklined clams lay unbroken for hissing foam to play with, and the ripening almonds fell to crabs and ants. Derek had got what he wanted, and his beach was empty. But like all such victories it was sour tasting; bitter as aloes growing on the cliff-side; salt as the sea foam that melted at his feet. (228-9)

In the final lines of this description, Derek is finally identified with the land itself—but his identification comes in the form of exclusion from the community of Ville Rousse and St Celia more widely. The only “life” that remains on the beach is natural—animal and plant life—but it is untended. Through Derek’s active resistance to the community of Ville Rousse, he has created a place in which nature is freed from human influence, a desocialized geography that resonates with the “place full of stones where nobody is” in Voyage in the Dark. This form of privatized place stands in direct opposition to the landscape that Teresa values, in which traditions of common use allow for the incorporation of the social with the natural. Here, Derek finds that achieving his goal allows him only the “sour tasting,” “bitter,” and “salt” aspects of a landscape populated by “crabs and ants.” In asserting his will, he shows ultimately that he cannot successfully impose his way of life on the St Celian community. Optimistically, Napier reads the failure of Derek’s brand of backward-looking, possessive colonialism as a failure for the colonizer.

Yet Napier does not permit an entirely optimistic reading of the decline of the imperial project in St Celia or in the Caribbean more widely. There is no clear resolution in A Flying Fish Whispered. In the real-life incident upon which the novel’s conflict is based, Napier’s husband successfully regained beach access for the villagers through a legal ruling. But no such ruling occurs in A Flying Fish Whispered—the novel resolves the individual, rather than the communal, conflict, as Teresa declares her emotional entanglement with Derek entirely “finished” (282). In this way, Teresa rejects the attraction and desire that allowed her to set aside her principles and excuse Derek’s actions—restoring her sense that she is at peace with her Black neighbors and her own moral compass.

Teresa, however, does not address her complicity in colonialism either. When Derek proclaims, “West Indian servants are the devil,” she does not protest. Though “Teresa liked West Indian servants and disliked generalizations,” she does “not argue with him because she realized that this conversation was only the preliminary curtseying in a set of lancers. It meant nothing, but was according to rule” (24). Teresa is certainly willing to acknowledge the power disparity between white Creoles and Black St Celians—she observes the “defensive curtain hung out by coloured people to protect themselves from the impertinence of whites,” Teresa thinks, “Avec cause” (“with reason”) (75)—but she does not acknowledge her own role in the existing economic system that disenfranchises these St Celians. The novel’s lack of political resolution, then, suggests both the collapse of imperialism and the perpetuation of class and color hierarchies in its wake. Napier allows Teresa to regain her independence and ethical code—but Napier does not allow her to evade the knowledge of the consequences of her relationship with Derek for the villagers she professes to support. Instead, the novel leaves Teresa too imbricated in colonial power structures to avoid them. The battle over property and Derek’s ultimate self-exile uses the novel’s setting to stage a larger debate about the broader ethics of capitalism, colonialism, and the appropriateness of differing attitudes toward land. Moreover, Napier’s geographies examine the scope and extent of colonialism itself, the ways in which it subsumes both colonizer and colonized, leaving a legacy of fracture that writes itself into the natural world.

Over two decades before the rapid transformation of the British West Indies into a series of autonomous states, these novels by Rhys and Napier offer early anticolonial critiques that challenge comfortable myths about the inherent goodness of British colonialism. As in the literature of C.L.R. James, Mulk Raj Anand, Aimé Césaire, and others, these novels invite a deeper attention to the ways that resistance to colonialism can be figured by late modernist writers: for Rhys, through an incorporation of place into consciousness that drives the novel’s form, and for Napier, through a thematic attention to land and ownership that operates at the level of character and setting. Both writers decenter the assumed authority of the metropole, placing Caribbean locations at the heart of their work—even, for Rhys, in a novel ostensibly set in London. And significantly, both writers figure the complicity of white Creole women in the imperial structure. Rhys’s writing transforms the London metropole; Napier’s brings to life 1930s Dominica, baldly facing the realities of a colonialism still in progress. Rhys’s resistance is phenomenological, articulated through experimental form in which Anna’s consciousness is her most powerful tool for resisting the oppressive forces of the imperial center. Napier’s resistance is more vigorously asserted, as Teresa opposes not just Derek’s actions but the whole British government. Both, however, turn inward to probe Anna’s and Teresa’s implication in colonialism. Both novels invite an examination of the scope and extent of colonialism itself, the ways in which it subsumes both colonizer and colonized to generate a legacy of violence and racism that explodes the comfortable narratives of beneficent imperialism, which, as Napier shows, were still clearly operating in Dominica in the 1930s. An attention to place and its formal effects surfaces anticolonial strains in these late modernist novels, bringing to light a new way of reading the political tenor of interwar Caribbean novels.


1See, for example, Edwards; Noland; Winkiel.

2Phyllis Lassner and Belinda Edmondson have emphasized the postcolonial fiction of postwar women writers.

3Mary Lou Emery has addressed Voyage in the Dark in Jean Rhys at “World’s End” and more recently in “Caribbean Modernism: Plantation to Planetary.” Anna Snaith has written on Rhys and other colonial women writers, with an emphasis on the metropole, in Modernist Voyages.

4Anna’s illness is one that she has experienced since childhood, and it is clearly chronic. Her nurse Francine comforts her during her first bout of fever: “when I was unwell for the first time it was she who explained to me, so that it seemed quite all right and I thought it was all in the day’s work like eating or drinking” (Rhys, Voyage 68). Moreover, Anna’s symptoms are consistent with recurrent malaria: “I got fever and I was ill for a long time. I would get better and then it would start again. . . . I got awfully thin and ugly and yellow as a guinea, my father said” (73).

5“You know as well as I do that there is not the remotest chance of her ever being able to earn any money for herself out here,” says Anna’s uncle who remains in Dominica (Rhys, Voyage 61).

6For a comprehensive discussion of these intertexts, see Emery; Snaith; Seshagiri.

7Peter Hulme calls Napier’s comments “much classier as a put-down” (146).

8The extent of the intertextuality between these two works is unclear. While “The Insect World” engages significantly with the book it refers to as Nothing So Blue—describing specific events, characters, and even page numbers—some of what it describes does not seem to fit the actual content of the travel sketches. Elaine Campbell has suggested that Rhys “used only Napier's title and invented her own details” (87). Veronica Gregg, on the other hand, has argued that Rhys’s erasure of the text was a deliberate attempt to reveal the book’s reliance upon colonialist narratives.

9For further discussions of these stereotypes, see Gramaglia and Jackson; Emery, “Caribbean Modernism.”

10For more on the concept of the universalizing power of Englishness and its role in colonialist discourse, see Baucom.

Works Cited

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Berman, Jessica. Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism. Columbia UP, 2012.

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Boehmer, Elleke. Colonial and Postcolonial Literature. 2nd ed., Oxford UP, 2005.

Brown, J. Dillon. “Textual Entanglements: Jean Rhys’s Critical Discourse.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 56, no. 3, 2010, pp. 568-91.

Campbell, Elaine. “An Expatriate at Home: Dominica’s Elma Napier.” Kunapipi, vol. 4, no. 1, 1982, pp. 82-93.

Döring, Tobias. Caribbean-English Passages: Intertextuality in a Postcolonial Tradition. Routledge, 2002.

Edmondson, Belinda. Making Men: Gender, Literary Authority, and Women’s Writing in Caribbean Narrative. Duke UP, 1999.

Edwards, Brent Hayes. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Harvard UP, 2003.

Emery, Mary Lou. “Caribbean Modernism: From Plantation to Planetarity.” The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, edited by Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough, Oxford UP, 2012, pp. 48-80.

---. Jean Rhys at “World’s End”: Novels of Colonial and Sexual Exile. U of Texas P, 2007.
Esty, Jed. Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development. Oxford UP, 2012.

Ford, Ford Madox. Preface. The Left Bank & Other Stories, by Jean Rhys, Arno, 1970.

Gramaglia, Letizia, and Joseph Jackson. “The Broad Breast of the Land: Indo-Caribbean Ecofeminism and Mahadai Das.” Critical Perspectives on Indo-Caribbean Women’s Literature, edited by Joy Mahabir and Mariam Pirbhai, Routledge, 2012, pp. 133-50.

Gregg, Veronica. Jean Rhys’s Historical Imagination: Reading and Writing the Creole. U of North Carolina P, 1995.

Hulme, Peter. Review of Black and White Sands: A Bohemian Life in the Colonial Caribbean, by Elma Napier. New West Indian Guide, vol. 85, nos. 1-2, 2011, pp. 144-46.

Kelley, Joyce. Excursions into Modernism: Women Writers, Travel, and the Body. Routledge, 2017.

Lassner, Phyllis. Colonial Strangers: Women Writing the End of the British Empire. Rutgers UP, 2004.

Majumdar, Saikat. Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire. Columbia UP, 2013.

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---. A Flying Fish Whispered. Peepal Tree, 2011.

Noland, Carrie. Voices of Negritude in Modernist Print: Aesthetic Subjectivity, Diaspora, and the Lyric Regime. Columbia UP, 2015.

O’Callaghan, Evelyn. “Elma Napier’s Literary Sense of Place.” Beyond Windrush: Rethinking Postwar Anglophone Caribbean Literature, edited by J. Dillon Brown and Leah Reade Rosenberg, UP of Mississippi, 2015, pp. 113-26.

Rhys, Jean. The Letters of Jean Rhys. Viking, 1984.

---. Voyage in the Dark. Norton, 1982.

---. Wide Sargasso Sea. Norton, 1998.

Rosenberg, Leah Reade. Nationalism and the Formation of Caribbean Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Seshagiri, Urmila. “Modernist Ashes, Postcolonial Phoenix: Jean Rhys and the Evolution of the English Novel in the Twentieth Century.” Modernism/modernity, vol. 13, no. 3, 2006, pp. 487-505.

Snaith, Anna. Modernist Voyages: Colonial Women Writers in London, 1890-1945. Cambridge UP, 2014.

Winkiel, Laura. Modernism, Race, and Manifestos. Cambridge UP, 2008.

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