Indigo: Marina Warner

Judy Raymond on English writer Marina Warner's rediscovery of the Caribbean

  • Photograph courtesy Trinidad Express
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The English writer Marina Warner was almost a Trinidadian. In the 1970s, when Britain s nationality laws were changed, she realised that if the dates had been slightly different, she and her family wouldn’t have counted as English at all.

Her grandfather, Sir Pelham Warner, came from Trinidad. “We knew the story in a strange, muffled way,” she recalls. “But my grandfather was a famous cricketer and that eclipsed and camouflaged the rest of the story — how many runs he made and so on.

Warner was still discovering the extent of her own links with the Caribbean when she came to the Caribbean to give lectures and readings on a tour sponsored by the British Council last year. Surprisingly slight and girlish, she looks younger than her 49 years. She’s assertive yet mild, and not at alI the virago her reputation as a feminist might lead you to expect.

Educated at Oxford, Warner began her career as a journalist. She’s written three studies of female symbolism and four novels, one of which, The Lost Father, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her most recent book was From the Beast to the Blonde, a study of classic fairy-tales. In 1994 she was invited to deliver the prestigious Reith lectures on BBC radio, since published as Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time.

Despite her reputation in Britain, Marina Warner is little known in the Caribbean. Yet while in Trinidad she got a phone call from relatives she didn’t know she had. Writer or no writer, to Trinidadians Warner is a well-known Trinidad name. Much of the Belmont district of Port of Spain was once Warner lands, belonging to the black or the white branches of the family — Pelham Warner’s father bought 20 acres there in the 1850s –and there are still streets named after members of the clan. They were an important family; Marina’s great-grandfather Charles, Pelham Warner’s father, was Attorney General of Trinidad. There are branches of the family too, in Dominica, Antigua and St Vincent.

It was precisely because of her family’s links with the region that Marina Warner hesitated before beginning work on a novel set in the Caribbean. She was reluctant, too, to describe her visit as a homecoming. “My roots are tainted,” she said.

What she means by that is made clear by her 1992 novel Indigo, set in the Caribbean. It draws on even earlier family history — the story of Sir Thomas Warner, who established an English settlement in St Kitts in 1623, and was made first governor of the Caribbean islands. Her family was deeply involved in the colonisation of these islands, a history, as Warner describes it, of exploitation and plunder.

In the end, though, she decided, “It’s important for someone of my background, for the people who were the victors, to look at (history), without making excuses or suing for forgiveness.” And from Warner’s novel it’s clear that, although she may be descended from the victors, her sympathies lie elsewhere.

There are three strands to Indigo: the story of the twentieth-century Everard family of London; their ancestor’s colonisation of Enfant-Béate, an imaginary island that bears a strong resemblance to St Kitts; and, woven through both, themes and characters that echo Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The play suggested itself partly because, in her search for an artistic shape for her story, it occurred to her that Sir Thomas Warner was granted the charter of governorship in the same year, 1623, as the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio. Prospero’s island has often been used as a metaphor for the islands of the Caribbean; and with justice, since Shakespeare’s story, as Warner notes, was based on the tale of a Bermuda shipwreck.

Warner also used The Tempest to explore women’s symbolism. “I’ve done a great deal of work on fairy-tales, and a very strong figure is the witch, the enchantress Joan of Arc was labelled that way. I tilted the play to hear Sycorax’s voice.”

But in Warner’s version, Sycorax, Caliban’s mother, is not an enchantress, but a wise woman with practical knowledge of the arts of healing; it’s other people who label her an enchantress. Warner wanted to demythologise Sycorax and the people elf her island.

“I’ve tried,” she said, “to portray Britain as a place of strange rituals and curious superstitions, and the island before the British arrived — as a calm and orderly place in which a practical life continues. Which is then violently disrupted and broken open.”

The central section of the book, in the lush setting of seventeenth-century Enfant-Béate, follows Sycorax as she gathers indigo or makes her way to the volcanic springs where she distributes herbal remedies and sound advice to the other islanders. In this idyllic vision of a tropical paradise before the advent of Europeans, Warner revels in sensuous descriptions of the plants and animals with which Sycorax and her daughter Ariel surround themselves.

One of her characters recalls, “They used to live in houses like baskets. Hanging up from the branches of high trees . . . They had fourteen words for the way a crocodile moves his head, and ten words for the sound of the wind in the palms along the shore. And bushes that turn everything blue and berries that turn everything red and sweet-smelling fruits and flowers and carapate oil to smooth your hair before you braid it … ” Warner’s descriptions of her mythical island make this the most powerful section of the hook, bursting with rich imagery.

It’s not intended to be realistic. “It’s a poetic fiction, not a historical saga or a history. I wanted a slight feel of The Tempest, a magical place, not a realistic nineteenth-century novel. I like that freedom.”

So Warner’s island is Enfant-Béate, not St Kitts, her seventeenth-century explorer not Sir Thomas Warner, but Kit Everard. And the game which embodies the spirit of the Empire of which the island forms a part is not cricket but Warner’s invention, the equally complex Flinders. The game is born out of the bloody battles in which the invaders wrest the island away from the Indians; one of Warner’s objectives in the book, she says, was to refute the view of The Tempest as a colonial document in which Prospero brings enlightenment to benighted savages. In their way, her peaceable Indians are far more civilised than their conquerors.

Throughout Indigo the past is echoed in the present. But the past isn’t repeated exactly; there are slight but crucial differences, which may prove redeeming. Earlier mistakes can be corrected, past sins atoned for.

Thus the Everard family attempts to repeat their seventeenth-century colonisation with tourist development three centuries later. But Sycorax, who embodies the island, has survived, after a fashion, and thwarts these plans. Instead there is what Warner describes as “an almost happy ending – at least one filled with hope and reconciliation, a kind of salvation.”

Despite its Caribbean theme, Marina Warner describes Indigo as a novel about post-colonial Britain, where part of it is set. One of her reasons for writing it was that “I think it is important that the English, many of whom resent all the peoples of the Empire who have come here now, realise that there was not a complete glass wall between the white colonisers and the native inhabitants.”

The Caribbean, Warner believes, was the place where the mingling of conqueror and the conquered was least frowned upon, and where it was most hopeful. A self-confessed optimist, she argues that for all its brutality, the history of the Caribbean, with its populations of migrants and its extraordinary mixtures of races and cultures, can teach other societies something about the future.