On the Perpetual Resonance of Travel in the Dark ‹ Literary Hub
The first time I read Journey in the dark by Jean Rhys, I was about the same age as Anna, its eighteen-year-old protagonist. With naïve teenage empathy, I experienced the world of the novel as pure emotion, sucked in by the intensity of its depiction of first love, abandonment and isolation. Nearly ten years later, in October 2017, the #MeToo movement was taking off globally and I happened to be re-reading Rhys.
I was immediately struck by the similarity of the issues she had explored nearly a hundred years ago to those making headlines. Written in 1934 (but set twenty years earlier), Journey in the dark charts what Rhys called the “career down” of Anna, a chorister recently moved to England from the West Indies, and powerless by gender, class, and financial circumstances. When she meets Walter – older, wealthier, essentially a man – she quickly becomes dependent on him, but his careless handling of power ultimately destroys her chances of happiness.
Throughout her fiction, Rhys writes brilliantly about women on the fringes. In Journey in the dark, Anna is alone in London and very vulnerable, an orphan with no support network or recourse to financial stability. She works as a chorus girl, which also functions symbolically in the novel, suggesting a life lived as part of an fringe group with no identity rather than “the main act”. The male characters in the novel are obsessed with her being more successful – “getting along”, as Rhys calls it. Walter suggests shortly after meeting her that she should take singing lessons, as he and his friend Vincent think they can get her “something much better” than the chorus, and Vincent insists that she’s going to be “a wonderful girl one of these days”. ”
But in reality, the way Walter uses Anna keeps him from leaving the margins: she quits her job as a backing vocalist under his influence, loses her freelance income, and her sexual relationship with him (she’s a virgin when they meet) forces her. to embark on an even more marginal position when he finally abandons it, that of prostitute. It struck me as echoing so many stories from the #MeToo movement – those about powerful men luring in and manipulating vulnerable women with the promise of dazzling careers. In journey in the dark, Anna’s vulnerability to male exploitation is directly linked to her marginal status, to the lack of opportunities for a woman like her to ‘get out of it’ on her own.
The tone of the novel reflects this vulnerability beautifully: written in close first person, the narrative is by turns intensely claustrophobic and dreamlike surreal, reflecting the perspective of a young woman detached from society, with limited power to impact the world.
Strikingly, Rhys reflects the relative power and status of his characters through the way they relate to and inhabit London. The marginalized characters in Rhys’ novels all move between boarding houses and hotels, inhabiting only temporary spaces. They have no privacy and no sense of permanence. In Journey in the dark, Anna moved several times, more than once because her behavior was deemed unacceptable by an intrusive landlord (“I don’t want whores in my house, so now you know,” one says, after that Anna came back one day in expensive clothes bought with Walter’s money). Rhys herself seems to have been on the move almost constantly – reading her collected letters it’s astounding to see the large number of different addresses at the top of them.
And what she powerfully shows in her writing is the emotional significance of spaces, the way the rooms we occupy color our sense of who we are. In Journey in the darkAnna’s unstable living conditions and lack of private space exacerbate her sense of alienation and helplessness, making her even more vulnerable.
For the marginal women of Rhys, the acquisition of money is random and unpredictable, not based on talent or moral worth.
But Rhys’ London, like ours, is a city of contrasts, and I was fascinated by the way Rhys portrayed power geographically, showing wealthy men easily occupying and controlling spaces. This, again, seemed to be reminiscent of so many stories that emerged around the #MeToo movement, which illustrated the powerlessness of women in certain exclusive and private rooms. London’s affluent neighborhoods today and in Rhys’ time are hostile to those who cannot afford them (which is easily observable to anyone walking through Chelsea Gardens today , with their white townhouses displaying visible CCTV).
Rhys’ London is specific, based on place names with all their economic meanings – Anna takes rooms in the seedier parts of Camden and Kings Cross, while Walter lives in wealthy Mayfair. Her home is constantly personified as hostile, with Anna describing it, the first time she returns there, as “sneering weakly, quietly sneering, like a servant.” And the wealthy male characters in Rhys’ novel also seem to have the power to make any space feel private. The first time Walter invites Anna to dinner, he takes her to eat in a hotel room. She realizes halfway through the meal that there is a room behind a door concealed by a curtain and the waiter, paid by Walter, seems quite complicit in Walter’s apparent plan to have sex with Anna, closing the door. after he brought them coffee “like he was I’m not coming back.
Rhys’ powerful male characters are able to occupy these private spaces because of their financial security – the same financial security that allows them to distribute money to poor women and therefore control them. For Rhys’ marginal women, the acquisition of money is random and unpredictable, not based on talent or moral worth (as is the case, for example, in so many Victorian novels, such as Jane Eyre). As a result, Anna cannot imagine investing for the long term. She has no idea when she will receive her next tranche of money and has no control over her finances. “You never know where it’s going,” she said. “You change a five and then it’s gone.”
The first time Walter gives Anna money, she immediately spends it on clothes. She fantasizes that her situation will now change significantly: “From this warm room that smells of fur, I will go to all the beautiful places I have always dreamed of.” Unable to establish long-term security, she relies on the hope that looking good will give her access to a better life. It’s certainly true that the characters make snap assumptions about her based on the way she dresses: her first owner kicks her out when she sees her new clothes, assuming she’s a prostitute, and Ethel , a woman she later meets, does not understand why she is living in such a cheap room given that she has a fur coat.
The narrative is by turns intensely claustrophobic and dreamlike surreal, reflecting the perspective of a young woman detached from society, with limited power to impact the world.
But even Anna finally recognizes that clothes can’t fundamentally change her. Looking in the window of an overpriced clothing store, she thinks society is designed to make women believe in this illusion: “Hold on to hope and you can do anything, and that’s how the world goes.” , that’s how they keep the world rolling.”
Proofread Journey in the dark, I found myself repeatedly drawn to the way it resonated with contemporary concerns: vulnerable women falling under the influence of powerful men; a city of temporary rooms, full of disenfranchised youth sharing spaces with strangers; the pervasive myth of capitalism, promising, instead of long-term security, that buying the right things will make you happy. I began to wonder what kind of person Anna would be these days – a young woman, living in poverty, looking for love and security, but limited by her circumstances; the result was my novel, A very nice girl. My Anna, like Rhys’s, is a singer, an opera student at a conservatory, struggling to get by in an expensive and alienating London.
When she meets the wealthy and aloof Max, she quickly finds herself entangled in all the complexities inherent in a relationship where unequal power dynamics and money are involved. In Journey in the dark, one of Anna’s friends, Maudie, tells Anna what a man told her about the value and status of women versus male power. “You can have a very pretty girl for five pounds,” he told her, “a very pretty girl indeed; you can even get a really nice girl for nothing if you know how to go about it. In my novel, I wanted to explore what life would be like today for a “nice girl” inspired by Rhys, in a world where ambition, power, sex, and money still intersect in complex ways.
Imogen Crimp’s Novel A very nice girl is available now through Henry Holt.