This is one of those books that I picked up almost purely because it was an old green Virago Modern Classic. I’d certainly never heard of the author before. Like Jean Rhys, with whom she became friends in London, Phyllis Shand Allfrey was born and grew up in Dominica, where she helped found the Dominica Labour Party and, after she retired from active politics, published a weekly newspaper, The Star. Her political career took up a lot of her energies as did, in her later life, the tragedy of her daughter’s death, which precipitated a deep depression, and the almost total destruction of her home by Hurricane David. As a result, she only ever published one novel, The Orchid House, in 1953, although she had also published a number of short stories and poems and was preparing a second novel when she died in 1986. Her collected stories were published posthumously in 2004 as It Falls Into Place. Her political career was not altogether happy and in later life she regretted sacrificing her literary ambitions for it.
However, if you are to be remembered by only one novel, it might as well be as wonderful as The Orchid House. Three white Creole sisters, Stella, Joan and Natalie, grow up in a lush, magical Dominica between the two World Wars, loved and protected by their black nurse Lally. But upon reaching adulthood, all three leave the island and marry abroad. Now they return full of new ideas, each eager to help their father, a drug addict who was deeply traumatised by what he experienced in the trenches, and their childhood playmate Andrew, sick and probably dying from TB. Joan also has plans to encourage the island’s black population to demand greater freedoms and better working conditions. How successful will the sisters be? How destructive will their good intentions prove?
(Martin Johnson Heade, Orchids, Passion Flowers and Hummingbirds, 1880, found here; more information about the artist can be found here; it is the image used on the cover of my edition of The Orchid House)
The novel is narrated by Lally, now elderly but incorrigibly nosy. When she can’t be present to watch the sisters – for instance, when they go to visit Andrew – she obtains reports from friends and servants; when this is impossible, she imagines what has happened, she ‘knows’ what it was – and she presents us with all this information as if it were fact. Lally is resistant to change and wise to other people’s resistance; she deplores her charges’ ideas to improve life for the family and for the wider community, including for dispossessed blacks, whom she characterises as ‘lazy’ and somehow deserving their bad fortune. She is also dying of a tumour; one of three Dominican characters who have secret sicknesses. The island itself is depicted as bewitching and slightly unreal, a fantasy:
In Stella’s sick dreams of home the island had been a vision so exquisite that she was now almost afraid to open her eyes wide, lest she might be undeceived and cast down, or lest confirmation would stab through her like a shock. Treading the black damp earth of the bridle-path, brushed by ferns and wild begonias, experiencing the fleet glimpse of a ramier flying from the forest floor through branches into the Prussian blue sky, it was impossible not to look and look and drink it in like one who had long been thirsty. It is more beautiful than a dream, for in dreams you cannot smell this divine spiciness, you can’t stand in a mist of aromatic warmth and stare through jungle twigs to a spread of distant town, so distant that people seem to have no significance; you cannot drown your eyes in a cobalt sea, a sea with the blinding gold of the sun for a boundary!
But its beauty disguises terrible poverty and social injustice. There is also a sense that a surface morality disguises other less palatable truths, including obeah, a murder and attempted poisoning. People hide what they mean, and deceive even themselves about what exactly they want and what the consequences might be.
Shand Allfrey captures a moment in history just before change began to occur, when the old order was to fade away and die and a new one replace it. What that order will be is still unclear in the novel, which shows power as is still very much in the hands of the male, white Creoles even if – with the exception of the priests – they are enfeebled and ineffective. She describes the frustrations of those who strive for change but are powerless to effect it. But it isn’t the politics which make this book so special. It’s the world that Shand Allfrey paints in its loveliness and decay, the flawed yet charming characters and their love for one another, the elegant prose. You can read one of her short stories, ‘O Stay and Hear’, online here at the Caribbean Review of Books.