Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

I really enjoyed Passing, but I might be in the minority when I say I loved Quicksand which I read first, even more. Quicksand adds into its complexity that little known element of being a TCK (third culture kid), Helga is not only of mixed race, but she was born and is growing up in a culture (America) that neither of her parents were born into or belonged to, there is no extended family for her to mould into, whereas in Passing, we meet two women who have a stronger sense of family and there is more of a focus on belonging to a race and by extension, its culture.

Passing Nella Larsen Harlem Renaissance ClassicBook Review

In Passing, we meet Irene who has just received a letter from an old friend, one who twice in her life she believed she would never see again and with distaste realises this letter is evidence of her reappearance in her life. Intending to resist seeing her, she ignores it.

The narrative then goes back in time to the earlier encounter when Irene was visiting Chicago where her parents live, doing last minute shopping for her children, overcome by the heat, she hails a cab and asks the driver to take her to a rooftop hotel. It is here that Irene practices her version of ‘passing’ as a white bourgeoise person, alone, unobserved, quietly taking tea by a window where no one is near, a moment to recuperate.

“It’s funny about ‘passing’. We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.”

To her horror, a man and woman appear and take the table next to her. The man leaves and the woman stares at her in an unsettling manner. Fear pervades her as the woman approaches, recognising her.

“About her clung that dim suggestion of polite insolence with which a few women are born and which some acquire with the coming of riches or importance.”

Passing is taut with tension beginning with this scene, Irene is careful, her old school friend Clare takes what to Irene  are unbearable risks, something she wants to distance herself from, doing all she can not to fall into her manipulative ways. But her charm is near impossible to resist, she is more practiced in passing and in getting what she wants, in ways Irene wouldn’t dare imagine.

Three Harlem Renaissance Women 1925Irene has strong and angry thoughts on Claire’s predicament, but in her presence is unable to act in accordance with them. She is stuck between loyalty to her race and guilt at her ability to pass for the thing that so oppresses them.

“Mingled with her disbelief and resentment was another feeling, a question. Why hadn’t she spoken that day? Why, in the face of Bellew’s ignorant hate and aversion, had she concealed her own origin? What had she allowed him to make his assertions and express his misconceptions undisputed?”

The fear Irene has turns it into something of a psychological suspense novel, use of the word dangerous planting the seed of it early on.

“Her brows came together in a tiny frown. The frown, however, was more from perplexity than from annoyance; though there was in her thoughts an element of both. She was wholly unable to comprehend such an attitude towards danger as she was sure the letter’s contents would reveal; and she disliked the idea of opening and reading it.”

Neither woman is totally content with the life decisions they have made, each of them reaching for something that eludes now them, witnessing it in the other, living with a pervasive level of anxiety that threatens to disrupt their lives. Their predicaments provide an insight into the country’s turbulent feelings towards integration and race relations in the 1920 -1930’s

Further Reading

My review of Quicksand by Nella Larsen

My review of From Caucasia With Love by Danza Senna

Lapham’s Quarterly: Passing Through by Michelle Dean: Nella Larsen made a career of not quite belonging

Essay in Electric Literature by Emily Bernard: In Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing,’ Whiteness Isn’t Just About Race

New York Times: Overlooked Obituaries – Nella Larsen (1891-1964) Harlem Renaissance-era writer whose heritage
informed her modernist take on the topic of race by Bonnie Wertheim

Harlem Renaissance Titles Reviewed Here

Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor, a popular English novelist who wrote 12 novels, was compared by Anne Tyler to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Bowen, she described them as “soul sisters all”.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was named by the Guardian as one of ‘the 100 best novels,‘ and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1971. It is a humorous and compassionate look at friendship between an old woman and a young man at a time in her life when she has little to look forward to.

We meet Mrs Palfrey as she is checking in for a long stay at the hotel, after having visited her only daughter in Scotland. A widow who is not ready for a nursing home, she joins an eccentric group of fellow residents, doing their best to maintain their dignity and cope with boredom while competing with each other over the calibre of their visitors.

‘And you wouldn’t care to live in the North?’ Mrs Arbuthmot asked, probing.

Mrs Palfrey had not been invited to, and she did not get on well with her daughter, who was noisy and boisterous and spent most of her time either playing golf or talking about it. ‘I doubt if I could stand that climate,’ she replied.

Regrettably, she mentions the existence of her grandson Desmond, who works at the British museum and for whom she is knitting a sweater. It comes to their notice that he hasn’t visited.

‘If we don’t see him soon, we shall begin to think he doesn’t exist.’

‘Oh, he will come’ Mrs Palfrey said, and she smiled. She really believed that he soon would.

Photo by tom balabaud on Pexels.com

He doesn’t come and it causes her to participate in her age old habit of ‘saving face’ which also involved small lies and having to keep track of what she’d said, which became a strain.

One day on her return from the library she falls and is helped by a young man named Ludo, whom she learns is a struggling but determined writer. She misunderstands when he says he works in Harrods.

‘Oh no, I don’t work for Harrods. I work at Harrods. In the Banking Hall. I take my writing and few sandwiches there. It’s nice and warm and they’re such comfortable chairs. And I save lighting this gas-fire, which eats up money.’

To thank him, she invites him to dine with her at the hotel and when letting the waiter know she would be expecting a guest on Saturday, declines to correct one of the residents. It is a fortuitous meeting and the beginning of an unlikely but mutually beneficial friendship.

‘So your grandson is coming to see you at last’, Mrs Arbuthnot had said on her slow way past Mrs Palfrey’s table and, for some reason she searched for later, Mrs Palfrey let her go without a word.

Photo by Jordan Benton on Pexels.com

And so the comedy begins, Ludo relishing his role as Desmond and the opportunity to observe them all, seeing it all as research for his novel, which he renames after one of Mrs Palfrey’s comments at dinner.

‘Mrs Arbuthnot has been at the Claremont for years.’

‘It has entered her soul.’

”But we aren’t allowed to die here.’

He threw back his head and laughed….He thought, I mayn’t write it down, but please God may I remember it. We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here by Ludovic Myers.

It’s like watching an old style, witty English television series, you read the lines and can imagine the way they speak, with air of pompous superiority, which has become even more elevated in the bourgeois elderly.

I loved the little lie Mrs Palfrey tells and the consequence it brings her, it’s perhaps the most interesting thing that happens to her and that she really looks forward to in her time at the Claremont, a random connection with a stranger, a budding new relationship, the envy of others and for him, a character study, a kind of mother figure of a different kind, and the title of his novel.

It was interesting how in this era people lived in inexpensive hotels as an alternative to independent living, not having to cook or clean or take care of any of the infrastructural requirements of a house or apartment. I’ve just read another novel about a woman who lived in a hotel in France, Colette’s The Shackle, only her protagonist was close to 40 years old, so she and her “hotel companions” got out and about more and their escapades were of a different nature.

Have you read any of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels?

Further Reading

Guardian: The 100 best novels: No 87 – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

Buy a Copy of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont via Book Depository

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys #ReadingRhys

voyage-in-the-dark

Voyage in the Dark is one of Jean Rhys’s early novels, about Anna, a young woman, who like the novelist, finds herself suddenly uprooted from her island home in Dominica, whisked off by her stepmother Hester, after the sudden and premature death of her father. There is little left to support her and so she must find her own way in London.

‘He was a planter my father. He had a big estate when he first went out there; then he sold it when he married Hester and we lived in town for another four years and then he bought Morgan’s Rest – a much smaller place.’

Hester, her stepmother is a woman who feels hard done by, she married Anna’s father and lived for a while in Dominica, clearly under certain conditions and was quick to return to England after his death, resettling herself in the North, sending Anna south to find a job to support herself, effectively abandoning her.

Not only did she not understand how that place and the way of its people were an intrinsic part of Anna, she openly disapproved of her contact with the black servant girl Francine and would act to remove her influence, the one person who had made Anna feel safe, happy and more at home than anyone else, a woman she could relate to but never be like. All that, now but a memory from her past.

I knew that of course she disliked me too because I was white; and that I would never be able to explain to her that I hated being white. Being white and getting like Hester, and all the things you get – old and sad and everything. I kept thinking, ‘No. … No. …No. …’ And I knew that day that I’d started to grow old and nothing could stop it.

She finds a job as a chorus girl in a travelling theatre and while staying in a seaside town, she and a friend meet two men, one of them Walter, stays in touch, they embark on an affair and for a while he supports her financially – another relationship with conditions, though one she adapts to and finds favourable.

However it prevents her from pursuing employment, she spends days not leaving her room, waiting to hear from him, descending into melancholy and depression, having left the joy, warmth and colour that had been in her life on the island for a dismal English existence far from the expectations of the mother country she had dreamed of from afar.

‘I’m sure it’s beautiful,’ Walter said, ‘but I don’t like hot places much. I prefer cold places. The tropics would be altogether too lush for me, I think.’
‘But it isn’t lush,’ I said. ‘You’re quite wrong. It’s wild, and a bit sad sometimes. You might as well say the sun’s lush.’
Sometimes the earth trembles; sometimes you can feel it breathe. The colours are red, purple, blue, gold, all shades of green. The colours here are black, brown, grey, dim-green, pale blue, the white of people’s faces – like woodlice.

Voyage in the Dark is a melancholy read, it’s a kind of coming-of-age that happens to people not because they have attained a certain age, but as a result of living outside the familiar, whether it’s moving from the countryside to the city or from one country to another and Anna suffers perhaps even more than many migrants, because she looks and almost sounds like she comes from within the English culture, yet is indeed a foreigner and completely alone, without a community or family to commiserate with. She wouldn’t fit in, even if she were to find others born in Dominica, because there too, they had lived in a rapidly disappearing world, a post colonial community without a purpose. While young and living on the island, she experienced little of the world’s (or England’s) perception of them, something hinted at in the way her friends would laugh at her, without her understanding why. Her slow acceptance that she will never fit in, leads to complacency, a lack of care for consequences, hopelessness, helplessness.

I have read a few books by authors coming from the islands and they remain some of my favourite books; Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother, Maryse Conde’s Tales From the Heart: True Stories from My Childhood, Simone Schwartz Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, however they differ significantly from the work of Jean Rhys, because there is a much stronger sense of belonging, acceptance and inevitability in their storytelling. They aren’t a product of white colonialism, they have been affected by it, but they know where home is, that is where they stay and live and learn and struggle, their isolation is only ever temporary, for they are part of a community whether they want it or not.

Jean Rhys through her character Anna, feels and understands what it might be like to be those women who belong and wanted to be part of it, yet she also aspired to live an English dream, only to discover it was an illusion, that she must lower her expectations, make sacrifices and rely on talents never dreamed of in her previous life, to secure her position, one that exists at a lower class than she’d imagined being part of.

Dominica

Dominica

It is ironic, that she will experience the subservient, misogynistic role of the mistress, a metaphor perhaps for the role her own family and the generations before them inflicted upon the local population of the islands they inhabited. She will feel and experience that discontent that sits alongside silent acceptance of the role of the lesser, the disempowered, as women to men, as slave to master.

Interestingly, many of the reviews focus on the feelings evoked in her first love affair, for me the stronger, more poignant feelings portrayed, were the loss of her childhood innocence, her home, her family – the affair was something she fell into, exploitative on both parts, and sad in that it didn’t follow the path of new, young love, she falls straight into a pattern she will likely repeat, dependence on the experienced, older man, who wants a pretty plaything not a mate.

Written in a simple, easy reading style, the story seeps into your skin and leaves the reader somewhat bereft and disillusioned by the inevitability of it all, knowing that while Anna’s story ends at the beginning of her life in England, some will already know that Jean Rhys’s life continued in a similar vein and that she would rarely if ever find contentedness in her continuous search for a place and a person that could make her feel loved and at home like Dominica and Francine did for her invented character. Not surprisingly, it is when Anna remembers and invokes the past, using all the senses that Rhys’s prose really sings, leaning more towards that incantatory prose from the Caribbean that I have so fallen for.

“I would never be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it, and all my life would be the same, trying to belong, and failing. Always something would go wrong. I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care.” ― Jean Rhys, Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography

jeanrhysJean Rhys was born in the Caribbean island of Dominica in 1890, the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a third generation white Creole mother of Scots origin (‘Creole’ was broadly used to refer to any person born on the island, whether of white or mixed blood). When she was sixteen she was sent to England to school, mocked due to her accent, left  and became a chorus girl. After a disastrous affair and disillusioned by events, she began to write, fictionalising many of her experiences and thanks to finding a mentor in Ford Maddox Ford, found moderate success.

She disappeared for some years only to make a comeback with her best-known novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), written as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a novel inspired by her indignation at the treatment of Bertha, the first Mrs Rochester, portrayed as the madwoman in the attic,  a woman who like Jean Rhys, had been brought to England from the Caribbean – it was written to give Bertha an opportunity to tell her story and to discredit Rochester’s overbearing, superior perspective.