Unterrified consciousness

Jane Bryce on It Falls into Place, by Phyllis Shand Allfrey

  • Phyllis Shand Allfrey

It Falls into Place, by Phyllis Shand Allfrey, ed. Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert (Papillote Press, ISBN 0-9532224-1-1, 138 pp)

It was perhaps inevitable that post-colonial nationalist revisioning required the suppression of certain voices and the foregrounding of those that chimed more harmoniously with the prevailing ideology. In the Caribbean, this has meant the privileging not only of black writers but of Afrocentrism as a mode of perception and a political orientation. It is not my intention to argue for or against this fact of history, but to suggest that we appear to be entering a new moment, at least in literary studies — a moment of stock-taking and retrospective acknowledgement of the contribution of other voices to the rich creole stew of Caribbean culture: “white”, Indian, Chinese, “queer”, or those otherwise challenging to the status quo.

If we take Kenneth Ramchand’s magisterial study The West Indian Novel and Its Background, first published in 1970, as emblematic of the field it delineates, then Jean Rhys and Phyllis Shand Allfrey merit inclusion as evidence of that “terrified consciousness” said to be the fate of all white West Indians. The absence of other women writers in this critical formulation has since been amply redressed, and it could not have been otherwise, considering the flowering of women’s writing since the 1970s. Despite Ramchand’s careful inclusion of a range of ethnicities, the rehabilitation of so-called “white” and other creole writers has taken longer, languishing perhaps more by omission than anything more sinister.

Recent archival work, such as that by Evelyn O’Callaghan on 18th- and 19th-century Caribbean writing by women, many of whom were white; on Henry Swanzy (producer of the BBC’s Caribbean Voices programme and mentor to many of the post-war generation of writers); and on Bim editor Frank Collymore (Remembering the Sea, a collection of scholarly essays edited by Philip Nanton, has just been published in Barbados*) has filled in a missing corner in Caribbean literary history. The republication of Ian McDonald’s novel The Humming-Bird Tree by Macmillan, the increasing attention paid to the oeuvre of Sam Selvon, and the more recent arrival of heavyweights Robert Antoni and Lawrence Scott, along with the idiosyncratic in-betweenness of Oonya Kempadoo and Shani Mootoo, have extended the boundaries of Trinidadian writing. With the exception of Selvon, however, the work of these writers is generally not to be found in the curricula of Caribbean literary studies, which are still heavily weighted towards “black” writers.

In this context, the publication of a collection of stories by white Dominican writer Phyllis Shand Allfrey — compatriot of the better-known Jean Rhys — is cause for reflection. Hitherto, Allfrey’s literary reputation has rested on her novel The Orchid House (1953), while in her home island she is remembered as a political activist, founder of Dominica’s first political party, and newspaper editor. These activities, she said, “spoilt her for writing”, and though she produced a second, unfinished novel, poems, and a number of short stories, the latter might have dropped permanently out of sight if not for this collection. They were rescued from oblivion by her biographer, the US-based academic Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, and published by Papillote Press, a small but enlightened publishing house run by the English journalist and part-time Dominica resident Polly Pattullo. The fact that this act of reclamation has been performed by two non–West Indian women admirers of Allfrey’s work points to the renewed interest in marginalised voices being shown in literary studies generally.

In her introduction, Paravisini-Gebert informs us that the stories she has selected represent about a third of Allfrey’s output, leaving us to wonder why we weren’t given more. If I have one criticism of the book it would be this: that the stories are so wide-ranging in their settings, and so varied in their subject-matter, that one inevitably feels frustrated by the slimness of the volume, and I would have liked some explanation of the selection process. This is especially so since Paravisini-Gebert situates the stories as each “connect(ing), directly or indirectly, with an episode in [Allfrey’s] life . . . the path she followed from a childhood in the twilight of the British Empire in the West Indies, through voluntary exile . . . to a return to a West Indian social landscape transformed by struggles for labour reform, political independence, and federation.” Fiction, even more than history, has the power to bring the past alive, providing us with almost magical insights into a time and place that have slipped away from us. We can still get glimpses of that earlier time and place in the physical traces that remain, but, increasingly, it is to fiction we must turn for a living picture. But Allfrey’s fiction is more than a nostalgic evocation of the past; her political involvement and commitment to social change led her to address head-on some of the enduring conundra and contradictions of Caribbean life.

Fiction, of course, can also take the form of film, and The Orchid House was filmed as a television serial for the BBC’s Channel 4 in 1991 by Trinidadian director Horace Ové. Watching the film with this review in mind, I was struck by how much of the past remains alive in Dominica, a place which has retained its innocence to a remarkable degree in these days of mass tourism; and how vividly the film recreates Allfrey’s campaign for democracy in the island. In a profile appended to It Falls into Place, Pattullo describes her as “waif-like”, “standing like a wounded bird — tiny, thin arms clutched behind her back”. The actress who plays Joan in The Orchid House — the middle one of three sisters, who returns to Dominica to organise its labourers — obviously isn’t Phyllis, but her speech to the masses on the steps of a public building in Roseau reflects reality. Allfrey’s anti-colonialism and militant socialism, as her protégé Lennox Honychurch puts it, “made her in the eyes of her class a traitor . . . not only to the few white people who still existed, she was a traitor to the very powerful mulatto or coloured elite who felt she was actually turning against her class and helping to destroy their interests.”

All of this is a long preamble to talking about the stories themselves, but their full significance can’t be appreciated without an understanding of the author’s unique position in her own society. To quote Honychurch again, they offer “a reflection of life in Dominica and also of the balance that she as a white West Indian, like all white West Indians, had to find between the fact of being caught up with love for the islands and being reviled because their white ancestry is associated with the plantations and slavery.” The perspective produced by this search for “balance” is a double one: in the best stories, we see things not from one point of view, but in counterpoise. So, in “Parks”, the “passing” West Indian creole wife of an American gentleman finds solace in a Harlem nightclub with a Barbadian worker; in “O Stay and Hear”, the white mistress eavesdrops wistfully on the maids’ conversation, and colludes with them against her dinner guest; in “Breeze”, a young girl encounters a wild girl who lives in the open, and envies her freedom; “Letter” compares the warmth of a German laundress in New York with the frostiness of English relatives; in “A Real Person”, a young white boy’s longing for human contact is fulfilled in the form of a “Buddhist” domino player and his goat-girl acolyte.

A characteristic of the stories is the change of mind, or perception, brought about in the protagonist by the encounter with something unexpected, but which arises naturally out of a particular situation. In “Yellow Horse”, this is conveyed symbolically, through a child’s experience of being trampled in a park by “stupid figures of grey-headed men . . . wearing down the grass with their large noisy boots . . . as if they were trying to prove their virility by being juvenile”, and the transference of the fear this induces to the merry-go-round horse she had been riding happily just before. But while this story suggests the loss of childhood innocence, more often children retain their freedom, triumphing through the adroitness of their negotiation with the adult world. “The Objective” is presented as an answer to people who “keep asking me why my elder sister married the bishop”, and their refusal to believe the response that “she fell in love with him on a moonlight night in the tropics”. The narrator and her sister set out at night to inspect the new bishop by spying on him through his bedroom window, whereupon the sister declares: “I bet I am the only really beautiful girl he has ever seen, and that is why he smiled. I bet I’ll marry the bishop by the time I am twenty-one.” And they go home and catch mole-crickets by moonlight, and her sister marries the bishop at twenty. The same sense of romance stubbornly overcoming pragmatism and official procedure is conveyed by “A Time for Loving”, in which Mrs Gamotte helps a pair of lovers from rival communities to elope, while at the same time using them to force the governor to grant her chapel a marrying licence. Against all the evidence, the governor himself declares: “I shall invariably think of them as eternally young and beautiful, constant and enchanted, and perpetually in love.”

The process of transformation in Allfrey’s writing lacks the unbearable poignancy of Jean Rhys, perhaps because she came home and Rhys never really did. And yet, we’re told that the stories collected in this volume were mostly written before Allfrey’s return to Dominica in 1954, which makes the absence of nostalgia the more remarkable. The price Allfrey paid for her homecoming — rejection and marginalisation — was apparently balanced by the closeness it allowed her to the ongoing beauty and drama of Dominica. Certainly, neither Honychurch’s nor Pattullo’s sketches of her suggest pathos or tragedy, although aspects of her story were very sad. Did she achieve that “balance” between love and hatred, beauty and ugliness, passion and ideology, which Honychurch points to as the defining feature of white West Indianness? Certainly the stories deliver a combination of sensitivity and muscular irony, humour and toughness, suggestive of an underlying acceptance of the realities of her situation. Yet Honychurch calls her a romantic, someone who acted on her emotions and was “mistreated by people and taken advantage of because she wasn’t calculating enough for politics.” Clearly, Allfrey was prepared to take the consequences of her own outsiderness, one of which is the narrative perspective of these stories.

In the title story, a biographer researching the life of an island poet is forced to see his elderly aunt in a new light — as the poet’s youthful inspiration — and thinks: “I salute you Aunt Caroline, Aunt Caroline, I salute you. You don’t seem like a character, but because my poet was in love with you to the very end, I am putting you into a story . . . Never mind whether he was a Frenchman or a Britisher, a coloured man or a white man — he was a great poet, who died unloved, and he will always be one of us.”
The story “O Stay and Here” from It Falls into Place appeared in the August 2004 issue of The Caribbean Review of Books


Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), May 2005. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.


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