«Introduction In ‘Les yeux des pauvres’ (1864), Baudelaire describes an evening spent in a new and newly fashionable café in Paris but writes of ...»
Down and Out in Paris and London and Voyage in the
Dark: Experiencing the Metropolis and its Margins
The Literary London Journal, Volume 12 Number 1–2 (Spring/Autumn 2015)
Abstract: Down and Out in Paris and London and Voyage in the Dark were published
within twelve months of each other, in 1933 and 1934 respectively. At first sight, they
appear to have little in common and might suggest markedly divergent readings. This
essay argues, however, that these two texts offer illuminating examples of the ways in which Jean Rhys and George Orwell use representations of urban spaces—in particular, of early twentieth-century London—to construct their own narrative architectures.
Adopting some of the categories identified by Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space, this article also considers the impact on these narratives of specific movement away from, and beyond, the urban centre.
Keywords: Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark, George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, intermodernist, urban margins Introduction In ‘Les yeux des pauvres’ (1864), Baudelaire describes an evening spent in a new and newly fashionable café in Paris but writes of his resentment at the way his lover responds to the sight, outside on the pavement, of a povertystricken father and his two young children ‘tous en guenilles’ (‘all in rags’) staring in at the privileged interior scene. It is a striking visual metaphor for Baudelaire’s meditations on Paris and the human experience of metropolitan living. In the context of this essay, it is also powerfully suggestive of the ways in which Jean Rhys and George Orwell present and re-present to the reader some key considerations for readings of urban spaces of London. These considerations will be examined in relation to the categories (spatial practice, representations of space and representational space) identified by Henri Lefebvre (1974) in The Production of Space. This allows for a comparative reading of the two texts which explores the relationship between the observer and the observed, the The Literary London Journal, 12:1–2 (Spring/Autumn 2015): 22 discourse of interior and exterior spaces and the topography of the urban centre and its periphery.
Chronology and Genre Down and Out in Paris and London was first published in 1933 by Victor Gollancz whilst Voyage in the Dark appeared in 1934 in an imprint of the publishers Constable. There are, however, two difficulties associated with the examination, side by side, of these two texts and specific issues need to be addressed early on in this discussion.
The first problem refers to textual chronology: Orwell’s book effectively reverses the Paris and London experiences. In fact, according to Peter Davison, Orwell’s first experiences of ‘tramping’ in England occurred in the spring of 1928 before he moved to Paris to live and work between spring 1928 and the latter part of 1929 (Davison 1996: xvi–xvii). Voyage in the Dark was published in 1934 but notes for its construction were, according to Anna Snaith (2005), being made as far back as 1910 when Jean Rhys was already living in England. It is in fact easier to identify the period of time covered by the narrative itself. The London of the novel is pre-World War I and narrative points such as the trip to the cinema to see the latest instalment in the Three-fingered Kate series help to locate the text in a fixed temporal setting.
There is also the question of documentary authenticity. Indeed, the question arises as to the precise nature of what Down and Out in Paris and London actually ‘is’. Social or realist documentary? Investigative journalism?
Autobiography? Fictional autobiography? It is a question which has tested many of Orwell’s commentators and has provided ammunition for those critics who accuse him of acting out his own feelings of class guilt by constructing a written fabric of self-deception and, emerging from that, a highly subjective socialist mantra. It is a debate to which Orwell contributed. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he indicates that the motivation for going ‘tramping’ was as a direct reaction against the ‘evil despotism’ of the oppressive regime in Burma of which he had been a part: ‘I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate’ (Orwell 1962: 129), he writes. Gordon Beadle (1975) skilfully interrogates Orwell’s motivations at this time and although he tends towards an overtly psychological and emotional reading of Orwell’s purposes, he also locates Orwell’s ‘poverty studies’ within a tradition of the ‘poverty novels’ of George Gissing, Samuel Butler and Jack London. At a more specific level, Beadle also suggests that Orwell consciously adopts those writers’ deployment of the ‘case study of the more respectable victims of poverty’ (Beadle 1975: 192) in order to achieve his didactic purposes. In this way, Beadle views Orwell’s early work as a critique of modern society which is paradoxically Victorian in form and style.
Claire Hopley disagrees. Whilst acknowledging that Orwell ‘did not necessarily learn from the modernists so much as share similarities in approach and method’ (Hopley 1984: 61), she sees Orwell not as a new Victorian but as a The Literary London Journal, 12:1–2 (Spring/Autumn 2015): 23 writer who successfully adopts the distinctive approach of the more successful writers of World War I in consciously and deliberately blurring the distinctions between fiction and autobiography. ‘The point about the prose of the First World War’, she suggests, ‘is that it highlights rather than conceals facts, asserting that the war was unprecedented and not to be contained in traditional forms’ (Hopley 1984: 64). This fits well with Orwell’s own re-reading of this period of his life. He somewhat artlessly comments: ‘Nearly all the incidents described there actually happened, though they have been rearranged’ (Orwell 1962: 133). Whilst Bernard Crick (1980) considered that the chronological authentication of events in Down and Out was something of a red herring, Davison (1996) perhaps states the case most tellingly in placing these textual uncertainties within the conditions of its production. Many of the adjustments and re-writings were the result, he argues, of requests to make the book a longer one and to convert its original format as a diary into something more substantial. In fact, more recent criticism questions the whole notion of Orwell’s positioning in the literary canon altogether, Janine Utell supporting a reading of Orwell not as an ‘outsider’ but as ‘part of a web of public, intellectual life… an intermodernist’ (Utell 2006: 201).
Voyage in the Dark would appear to present us with fewer problems of categorisation. Certainly, many commentators on Rhys’s work from the 1930s see clearly autobiographical veins of meaning in her heroines. Deborah L.
Parsons (2000) suggests some compelling points of contact between the author’s own life and the fictive life of Anna Morgan. Like Anna, Rhys worked as chorus girl in a touring company and, like her, developed an antipathy towards England. She saw England as ‘oppressive and its social structures and rules as incomprehensible’ (Parsons 2000: 133). Thinly veiled autobiography, then?
Parsons herself offers a timely corrective to this too easy reading when she suggests that Rhys is actually carefully combining fact and fiction in order to ‘create for herself a faltering Bildungsroman’ (133). Whilst the narrative focalisation of Anna is fixed, that of Orwell is perhaps more open to interrogation because, although at times he presents an authoritative narrative voice, there remains a nagging suspicion of the possibilities of external focalisation. In a similar way, his text points towards some of the difficulties inherent in distinguishing between narrative and narration.
Journeys to Urban Spaces How do Anna Morgan and Orwell arrive in their respective urban spaces?
Strictly speaking, in the case of Orwell’s Paris, there is no ‘arrival’. His narrative begins in medias res with a picaresque evocation of the French metropolis at seven o’clock in the morning. He is, simply, already ‘there’. His return to England is more detailed (and more interesting) because it is mediated through the lens of a patriotic defence of England in the face of a newly married ‘Roumanian’ (sic) couple whose first visit to the country it is. Orwell is bursting with patriotic pride because he is glad to be back in a country which is a ‘very good country when The Literary London Journal, 12:1–2 (Spring/Autumn 2015): 24 you are not poor’ (Orwell 1978: 113). And yet the first English representation of space (a planned but oddly incongruous space) proves to be an architectural embarrassment: the image (of the hotel at Tilbury Docks) is ‘all stucco and pinnacles’ which stare from the English coast like ‘idiots staring over an asylum wall’ (113). As their questions multiply, the more florid becomes his evocation of Merrie England, but Merrie England is brought abruptly to an end by the stark reality of economic hardship. When his offer of employment (looking after an ‘imbecile’) is delayed by a month (the entire family has travelled abroad) he is left, literally, out on the street.
Anna’s narrative begins in strikingly similar terms to Orwell’s Parisian experience, but with no journey from the Caribbean to frame the contrasting urban experience. Like Orwell, she is abruptly ‘there’, but with an important difference, for Anna’s narrative involves a kind of distorted re-birth in the sense that her existence in Southsea (and the nameless other regional towns of England) represents a parallel exclusion of prior experience and fixity. For Anna,
England is a ‘curtain’ which ‘hid[es] everything I had ever known’ (Rhys 1969:
7). In order to re-locate herself ‘home’ she resorts to fabrications sometimes based on immediate sensory experience and sometimes on memory and imagination alone: the heat of the fire or the bedclothes ‘becomes’ the heat of the Caribbean sun; she shuts her eyes in order to visualise the perspective of looking from her house ‘down Market Street to the Bay’ (7). Her sense of smell is equally important in stabilising this sensory re-location. She writes longingly of the smells of ‘frangipanni and lime juice and cinnamon and cloves…and incense after funerals or Corpus Christi processions’ (7). Later, as her geographical fixity begins to unravel and in response to Walter’s departure, she cocoons herself in her room (‘for a week after Walter left I hadn’t gone out’), and she spends hours in the bath: ‘I would put my head under the water and listen to the noise of the tap running. I would pretend it was a waterfall, like the one that falls into the pool where we bathed at Morgan’s Rest’ (77).
The Production of Space In his introduction to The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre identifies three key spatial terms (spatial practice, representations of space and representational space) as being, in his terms, a ‘triad’ of ‘perceived-conceivedlived’ notions and concepts (Lefebvre 1974: 40), but he warns the reader of the implications of allowing these notions to remain ‘abstract’ and to allow for the continuance of a dialectical relationship between the three. If the Rhys and Orwell texts have much to tell us of the experience of representational space (and they do), they may also shed light on the notion of Lefebvre’s representation of space—in other words, Anna Morgan’s and Orwell’s experience and occupation of the urban environment as increasingly conceived by the planners and social architects of the London cityscape. Recent criticism (Parsons 2000, Snaith 2005) has given a great deal of attention to the idea of Anna’s The Literary London Journal, 12:1–2 (Spring/Autumn 2015): 25 temporally intermittent occupation of the city. Indeed, at times, her psychology impels her to move between the two landscapes of London and the Caribbean in ways which are both linguistically charged (traditional narrative formality gives way to a type of refugee stream-of-consciousness interiority) and starkly, even brutally, alienating.