Stories of childhood and growing up feature prominently in the history of Caribbean literature. Maybe it’s because so many authors from the region end up living abroad, abandoning what they knew as home and looking back on their early days and formative experiences with a particular poignancy.
Or perhaps it’s because childhood in the Caribbean has a special quality, an intensity of light, colour and fragrance denied to children in colder, darker climates. In any case, almost every island has produced its classic of early years, ranging from Michael Anthony’s The Year in San Fernando (Trinidad) to Merle Collins’s Angel (Grenada) or Joseph Zobel’s Black Shack Alley (Martinique).
One of the greatest examples of this genre is George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin, an autobiographical account of adolescence in a small Barbadian village. What makes Lamming’s book so fascinating is its blend of the personal and the political, the way in which the boy narrator’s individual feelings are woven into a broader picture of social change and political transition. Reading Lamming gives one an immediate insight into village life in the years leading up to independence, and an equally instantly recognisable feeling of what adolescence, with its strange moods and fraught relationships, is really like.
Another Barbadian novel, much less well-known than Lamming’s, also deals with the emotional landscape of childhood, but Geoffrey Drayton’s Christopher could hardly be more different. First published in 1959, it is set in the same historical period as In the Castle of My Skin (1953), but its perspective bears no relation to that of the earlier novel.
While Lamming looks at a changing social order and an entire community through the eyes of a black child, Drayton creates an internal, closed world, with no more than four clearly delineated characters, in which the main character is a young white boy. There is hardly the slightest hint of social or political activity in Christopher, for this is a novel set in the secluded universe of the planter’s stately Surrey-house, far from the communal bustle of Lamming’s Creighton Village.
Christopher, an only child, is living that interminable youthful experience of the long summer holidays. He has no friends of his own age, his father is a distant and authoritarian figure, his mother weak, if affectionate. Formality rules the household, where meals are an occasion for stiff conversation and pleasure is seemingly unknown. Mr Stephens, his father, is to be addressed as “sir”.
Largely confined to the grounds of the “big house”, Christopher is forced to amuse himself with the obsessional activity of the only child. He is, of course, an unusually sensitive character, curious, anxious, and somehow permanently dissatisfied with the limits of his protected existence. His only real link with the outside world, and with the realm of human emotions, comes through the house’s black servants, and in particular through his black nurse, Gip.
You might be forgiven for thinking that this relationship smacks slightly of an Uncle Tom syndrome (especially looking at the cheesy cover of the Heinemann 1972 edition of the novel), but this is not the case. Drayton’s skill lies in creating a plausible and non-patronizing picture of the strong bond that exists between nurse and child.
Gip is a feisty individual, quite capable of standing up to her employers, and yet enormously protective of her young charge. Christopher, for his part, finds in her the emotional security lacking in his own parents. What makes this relationship more intense, and ultimately poignant, is that Gip is old and ailing. While she worries about what will happen to the sensitive “young master”, he refuses to accept that the old woman will soon be gone.
In a sense, very little happens in this delicate novel. We learn that Christopher’s father, a planter, is in financial difficulties. His mother, expecting another child, miscarries. Eventually, Gip is removed to hospital, where she dies. The final scene portrays an inconsolable Christopher at her funeral, suggesting that this rite of passage ends the innocence of his childhood, just as the school holiday — into which these events are compressed — is about to end.
As for Barbados, and the life of its majority population, we see little. A nearby tenantry, inhabited by the estate labourers, exerts a fascination over Christopher, but Gip disapproves strongly, hinting darkly at what happens in the gully. We understand that Gip is deeply religious, but that the threat of obeah or black magic strikes fear into her and the other servants. Yet beyond the immediate lure of a mysterious and threatening sort of otherness, the fictional landscape is circumscribed by the plantation boundaries and the occasional trip to the beach.
This lack of action and place means that Drayton’s fiction deals much more with the inner, emotional life of his child-protagonist than with a broader social process. The point of the novel is to trace a growing awareness of the world, to follow the trajectory from innocence to experience, through a series of incidents, small and perhaps insignificant in themselves, but which form an initiation into adulthood.
The miscarriage suffered by Christopher’s mother is one such event, as is the illness and eventual death of Gip. But there are other episodes that form this process. Towards the end of the novel, for instance, Christopher is led by a mischievous estate hand to secretly watch a bull and cow mating, a sight that fills him with dread, but which also confirms half-understood sexual knowledge emanating from the nearby black tenantry.
But perhaps most telling is an encounter that takes place while Christopher visits Bridgetown. While waiting in the car for his grandfather, the boy is approached by a beggar. Christopher says innocently that he has spent all his money:
Christopher tried to be firm with his quaking voice.
“I told you I didn’t have any money. I… I’ve spent it all.”
The head withdrew with a shrill guffaw. “Heh! That’s rich,” it said. “Spent it all, he says.” The voice approached again, menacing. “Spent it all, didja? Well, do you know where you got it all to spend? From bastards like me, slaving from first of January to last of December for you friggers.”
The incident, almost the only one to take place outside the confines of Surrey-house, is all the more powerful for its isolated quality. Like other events, it points Christopher towards an understanding of the world, towards a recognition that his charmed, and to some extent, stifling existence is not the entire picture.
Christopher is per-haps not a great novel, and suffers from comparison with Lamming’s masterpiece. But its depiction of a lost world of white colonial life, as well as its sensitive portrayal of the pains and pleasures of growing up, give it an enduring value. If, on the one hand, it shows how far Barbados has travelled in less than 50 years, it also recalls the timeless nature of childhood experience and the intensity of feeling that marks our formative years.
James Ferguson is the author of The Traveller’s Literary Companion to the Caribbean (In Print/Passport Books/Ian Randle Publishers)