Islands in the stream

Martha Gellhorn’s 1944 novel Liana is little remembered today, but James Ferguson says this story of ill-fated love on a Caribbean island is still gripping

  • Illustration by Marlon Griffith

A lonely and unloved wife has an affair with the man whom her husband has
hired as her tutor. A complicated and finally tragic three-way emotional
conflict results, with love set against duty. It may sound a little bit predictable,
as novels go, even slightly hackneyed. But Liana is none of these
things. In fact, it is a remarkably perceptive and moving novel with a good
deal of originality.

Martha Gellhorn, who died recently, was rather unfairly mostly famous for
being Ernest Hemingway’s third wife (it lasted all of five years), rather
than as an author in her own right. During the Second World War the American-born
writer found herself drifting around the small, idyllic islands of the Leewards,
reporting for Collier’s magazine. It was then that she visited St
Martin, at that time a tiny and sleepy outpost of the French empire (rather
than the bustling tourist mecca it has become today). That experience of
what she saw as a “magic island” provided the background for Liana,
first published in 1944.

The wartime Caribbean, and especially the French islands, was a strange
place to be, far from the real arena of conflict, but suffering all the same.
The authorities in Martinique and Guadeloupe (of which St Martin is a dependency)
had sided with the pro-Nazi Vichy regime in France, and were then blockaded
by Allied ships. A siege mentality, with shortages and continual rumours,
ruled. It was in this weird and paranoid society that Gellhorn situated
her novel. She was conscious, too, of another dimension of neurotic insularity:
the obsession with race and colour that ran through French Creole society
(and still does, according to some).

Liana is, to a large extent, a book about these racial attitudes.
Its heroine, born in a humble peasant family in the island of St Boniface
(read St Martin) is beautiful and black. Against all conventions — and,
apparently to spite the conservative white minority who dominate the island
— Marc Royer, St Boniface’s richest man, has married her. To have had her
as a mistress would, it seems, have been totally acceptable; to marry her
is nothing short of madness. Liana’s her dramatic elevation from peasant
hut to mistress of the biggest house on the island does not, in any event,
make her happy. As Marc criticises her uncouth manners and lack of breeding,
Liana lives a loveless, if comfortable, life.

Release from this humdrum existence comes in the form of Pierre, a white
Frenchman, marooned on the island through the vagaries of the war and employed
as the island’s schoolmaster. When Marc, in a bid to teach his wife some
respectable accomplishments, takes him on as her tutor, they fall in love.
Liana loves Pierre because he, for the first time in her life, does not see
her primarily as black. He sees in her an innocence utterly at odds with
the cynical small-mindedness of the white minority with whom he is meant
to associate.

Gellhorn traces their developing relationship with sensitivity, and also
paints a convincing picture of the small-island world in which the novel
is set. A hothouse of idle gossip and malicious jealousy, the island is also
rigid in its racial stratification. If Marc has transgressed the social
rules by marrying Liana, then so too has Pierre by falling in love with

So far, so straightforward. But Gellhorn’s novel is more complex

than a tale of adultery and racial taboo. As Liana becomes more emotionally
dependent on her lover, he is increasingly drawn to the world beyond the
island’s narrow confines and to playing his part in the war against the Germans.
Marc is also given a new raison d’être by the conflict, as he
realises that he must play the leading role in ensuring the island’s survival
against the threat of blockade and starvation. Both men thus have a more
urgent desire than that represented by the beautiful Liana, and both eventually
come to see her as secondary to the real business at hand.

In a strange and unexpected way, Marc and Pierre, though initially adversaries
in terms of an adulterous relationship, become allies, as Pierre understands
that he must escape from St Boniface and find his way back to France, and
Marc, spurred by his new-found sense of patriotic responsibility and unaffected
by jealousy, wishes to help him. The only victim is Liana, now definitively
rejected by her husband and abandoned by her lover.

Liana’s evocation of an island cut off by a wider, and to most people
incomprehensible, conflict is entirely convincing, with its details of shortages,
anxieties, and bad news conveyed by crackling radio sets. But perhaps even
more powerful is the way that it conveys the emotional and psychological
smallness of the place, a sense that the island is a tiny closed world drifting
in a larger sea of events. When Liana first comes to understand that Pierre
will one day leave, her feeling of loneliness is beautifully projected onto
the island itself:

Liana felt the island suddenly as if she could see it all: green, pointed
with hills and dented with valleys, oval, growing in a blue sea with reefs
as its roots. It felt too small to live on. It felt so alone that beyond
it there was no more land. There was only this tiny island and she could
never leave it.

While Pierre is only temporarily trapped by force of circumstance, Liana
is confined forever by her colour, as it is made abundantly clear that,
even if he wanted to, Pierre could not return to France with a “coloured”
wife. As Pierre leaves, he makes a deal with Marc that Liana will be provided
for in a new house and not forced to return to the family hut in the hills.
The prospect of a life imprisoned in this purpose-built house, abandoned
by her lover and despised by the small-minded island community, sends Liana
into tragic despair.

Many authors have written of the small Caribbean island as a place of refuge
and harmony, but fewer (Jean Rhys is a notable exception) have so successfully
imagined it in terms of claustrophobia and confinement. Gellhorn, though
clearly an “outsider”, manages with enormous emotional power to create a
drama of war, love, and race, all within the stifling atmosphere of an island
cut adrift from the wider world.

Liana should really be republished (it does not seem to be in print), and
it would certainly make a fantastic film. The Caribbean it portrays may
be a million miles away from today’s cruise ship paradise, but the passions
and pressures it so suggestively reveals are timeless.