The Orchid House — end of an era

James Ferguson on The Orchid House, Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s portrayal of a period that marked the decline of the colonial order, and the beginning of the new era in Caribbean history

  • Lally and her charges in a scene from The Orchid House, the 1991 Picture Palace production for the BBC’s Channel 4. Photograph by Horace Ové
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In 1953, a novel entitled The Orchid House was published by the reputable firm of Constable in London. It was a modest success, received some positive reviews, was even translated into French. Written by a Dominica-born woman, Phyllis Shand Allfrey, it looked like yet another fashionable Caribbean novel. For this was precisely the time of the spectacular boom in Caribbean literature that brought writers like V. S. Naipaul, George Lamming and Samuel Selvon to international prominence. These were heady days for the region’s young literary talent, and the 1950s, filled with the promise of political change and cultural renewal, marked the starting point for many authors’ careers.

But for Allfrey, literary fame and fortune were to remain elusive. This book marked the peak of her writing trajectory, and little else of lasting importance followed in her lifetime. It was a first novel without a follow-up.

Not that this was the end of Allfrey’s career. At the time of the novel’s brief success, the author was 45, living in London, and about to return to her native Dominica to enter local politics. She had lived in the US, moved to Britain, become active in the Labour Party and was preparing to take her belief in parliamentary socialism back to Dominica where political reform was at last on the agenda. The following year, she helped found the Dominica Labour Party and four years later was elected to represent the island in the short-lived Federation of the West Indies. Between 1958 and 1961, she was Minister of Labour and Social Affairs and the only woman member of the Federation’s Cabinet. These were no mean achievements in the notoriously male-dominated world of Caribbean politics.

To an extent, then, Allfrey’s literary ambitions seem to have been eclipsed by those of the politician. There was little time for writing, even after the collapse of the Federation, when she again returned to Dominica to edit her weekly newspaper, The Star, and to argue for the rights of Dominica’s impoverished rural majority. In any case, her political credentials had been damaged by the abortive federal experiment, and a new generation was entering politics in the run-up to independence.

But there was perhaps another reason why Allfrey’s literary star faded so quickly and why her name is not associated with the Caribbean renaissance of the 1950s — and that is because she was white. This, of course, does not explain why she struggled — unsuccessfully — to complete a second manuscript, but it may cast some light on why The Orchid House languished in obscurity until the 1980s. It has been suggested, for instance, that Heinemann declined to include the novel in its prestigious Caribbean Writers series because a white author did not fit the predominantly black profile of the list in the 1970s. Caribbean writing, in short, was synonymous with African- or Indian-descended authors, and a white novelist, wherever born, was simply out of place.

Race and colour have always been sensitive issues in the Caribbean, but, thankfully, attitudes are changing and people are more prepared today to acknowledge the cultural contribution made over the years by the white minority. Certainly, Allfrey did not fit any stereotype of the idle and exploitative planter class, but instead was acutely aware of the need for political action and social reform in Dominica and the wider Caribbean. Indeed, it is precisely her understanding of the white minority and its precarious position in Dominican society that gives The Orchid House its special poignancy and resonance.

 

On one level, the novel is a family saga: the tale of three daughters and their differing relationships with their parents and one another. Each, in turn, reappears from abroad, foreshadowing Allfrey’s own return from self-imposed exile. And each also represents a certain attitude towards life and, in particular, life in a small-island, colonial Caribbean setting. Stella, the oldest, embraces the island and its landscape with a passionate, physical intensity, reflecting the visceral love for Dominica that emerges from Allfrey’s work. Joan, the middle sister, is the political militant, determined to establish a reforming organisation that will fight for the poor. Natalie, the youngest, is the epitome of frivolity and extravagance, the only one of the three to have married into money.

What binds the sisters and the narrative structure is the fact that each of them loves the same man, Andrew, their cousin. That he is dying of tuberculosis adds to the emotional complexity of this almost incestuous state of affairs, but, equally, it underlines the symbolic dimension of Allfrey’s novel. For what she recreates with considerable subtlety is the slow decline of the old white planter class and the rise of a new elite. This moribund minority is personified by the ailing Andrew, a self-indulgent, if charming, scion of an old colonial family. It is also personified by the sisters’ father, simply known as the Master. Master in name alone, he is psychologically scarred by his traumatic experiences in the First World War and utterly dependent on the illicit supplies of narcotics brought to him by the sinister Mr Lilipoulala. Together, the two main male characters in the novel symbolise the fatal sickness of a decadent and declining colonial order.

The theme of sickness amidst beauty runs through The Orchid House, and, in this respect, the novel is reminiscent of Wide Sargasso Sea by Allfrey’s more famous contemporary, Jean Rhys, another Dominica-born white writer. But whereas Rhys uses the haunting splendour of Dominica’s landscape as a leitmotiv in her evocation of madness, Allfrey is more interested in dissecting the malaise of her own social class in the face of progress. This progress takes the form of a new dominant minority, the mixed-race merchants and entrepreneurs who displaced the old planter elite in the last decades of colonial rule. As old money, exemplified by the decaying plantation at L’Aromatique, gradually runs out, so the new money of the merchant class takes over.

 

The novel has several weaknesses: Allfrey’s dialogue is sometimes unconvincing and laborious, and the narrator, the old black nurse, Lally, is somehow rather implausible. But The Orchid House remains an atmospheric portrayal of a distinct period in Caribbean history.

It was dramatised for TV in 1991 with greater success than many such adaptations. Phyllis Allfrey, unfortunately, did not live to see this brief resurrection, having died five years earlier in relative poverty and obscurity. But that obscurity may yet be partly lifted with the publication by Papillote Press this year of It Falls Into Place, a collection of her short stories. At last, it seems, Allfrey’s problematic status as a white Caribbean writer may be forgotten and her work, including The Orchid House, given the recognition it richly deserves.