KR Reviews

On A View of the Empire at Sunset by Caryl Phillips

New York City, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. 336 pages. $26.00.

Caryl Phillips’s recently published novel A View of the Empire at Sunset—an imaginative retelling of the early twentieth-century life and work of Jean Rhys, author of the widely celebrated postcolonial novel Wide Sargasso Sea—reveals and highlights the ongoing crisis of problematic race and gender relations in today’s culture and society at large. What makes A View of the Empire at Sunset exemplary in its exploration of these controversial issues is Phillips’s nuanced and sensitive portrayal of the painful and haunting life of his central character, a woman who led a nonconforming life characterized by displacement, muddled identity, and precarious belonging. Phillips’ novel begins—and ends—in the year 1936, when Jean Rhys is on the verge of returning to her native island of Dominica in the West Indies after having spent more than thirty years in exile in England. Six weeks after stepping foot upon her native island, however, Rhys boards a ship back to England and finds herself filled with hostility for the island of her childhood. Puzzlingly, she left no record of the trip. Phillips uses this gap in the historical record as a jumping off point in his novel and fills it in with his own eerily comparable life experiences and powerfully replenishing imagination.

The many affinities between Rhys and Phillips are clear. They both grew up in the West Indies: Phillips in St. Kitts and Rhys in Dominica. They both were educated in England and both spent a considerable portion of their adult life in exile in lands not their own. But perhaps the most insightful and yet subtle affinity between the two deeply cosmopolitan writers proves to be their mutual infatuation for the work of the Brontë sisters. Phillips’s previous novel, The Lost Child, reimagines the young Heathcliff’s life before Mr. Earnshaw brings the hapless orphan to his estate in the moors of northern England. Likewise, in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys reimagines a backstory to Edward Rochester’s calamitous first marriage and creates a fully-embodied life and history for his first wife, who is depicted as “the madwoman in the attic” in the original setting and context of Jane Eyre. Undoubtedly, Charlotte Brontë’s Victorian novel about class conflict and skewed gender relations has proven to be a source of mutual inspiration and provocation for both Phillips and Rhys, whose identities as writers seem to be in part a response or repair to their lives as readers.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, which was published late in Rhys’s life and propelled her out of obscurity and into widespread critical acclaim and fame, Rhys depicts Rochester’s first wife as neither depraved nor even destined to go mad. Instead, Rhys reimagines her as the Jamaican Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway Mason, radically unguarded and fatally innocent in her love for the chilly Englishman Rochester, who marries her for her money and ultimately finds himself terrified by Antoinette’s passion and the physical desire that she awakens in him. Eventually Rochester rejects her, declares her insane, and locks her up in the attic of Thornfield Hall. Fundamentally, in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys portrays a woman amid a society so driven by contempt, so warped in its sexual relations, that it can literally drive a woman out of her mind. In the academic fields of nineteenth-century, postcolonial, and women’s studies, Brontë’s novel and Rhys’s accompanying prequel have produced more critical evaluations and academic monographs than perhaps any other two interlinked texts. Now, with the advent of The View of the Empire at Sunset forming a sort of triumvirate of intertextuality, Phillips aims to show us how Rhys came to write such an influential book and how her own life and personal trauma so deeply informed her masterpiece.

In sixty-five short, dense chapters written in the third person, Phillips follows Rhys from her sun-soaked West Indies birthplace to dark and dank Edwardian England for preparatory school, which she eventually abandons for an itinerant life as a traveling chorus girl, until finally fleeing to the Continent to pursue a bohemian lifestyle of drinking and writing and more drinking. Consistently in his oeuvre, Phillips negotiates his focus and attention from the personal pain of his central characters to the nature of the society that has produced it. Hovering above all of the scene changes and diverse settings in A View of the Empire at Sunset, in other words, is the atmospheric and altogether uneasy feeling of the waning years of the British Empire. One of the earlier scenes depicts Rhys’s father visiting Sister Mary, for example, a nun who teaches at the convent in Dominica where the young Rhys is attending school. Rhys’s father has recently found out that the nun is dying. Phillips writes: “A month ago on New Year’s Day her father had travelled up to the Flambeau Plantation to visit Sister Mary, but when her father returned, he failed to mention the young nun, although he had plenty to say about the unhygienic condition of the Great House.” All the “Great Houses” in the novel—in other words, the aristocratic mansions serving as the nerve center of sugarcane plantations—are in disrepair, worn down, the flowery wallpaper sodden and flaking. It is the perfect metonymy.

Thematically, the settings and spaces in the novel deal with Rhys’s roots in the Caribbean, the crucible of England, and the flight to Continental Europe. Logistically, however, the settings and spaces take place in cheap and dingy one-room hotels, sometimes paid for by Rhys’s sugar daddies. One of the ways Phillips’s narrative marks progression in the novel, somewhat paradoxically, is through the revolving-door litany of men and relationships that fail and disappoint Rhys throughout her life. Indeed, all the love stories in the novel, even the stories recounted by secondary and even tertiary characters, like Rhys’s Aunt Clarice, end in disappointment and dissolution. A penetrating question that appears to haunt the novel seems to ask whether the ideal relationship between men and women—i.e., love—is nothing other than a long con game or illusion. Consistently, Phillips compares Rhys’s dependence upon men with that of one of Rhys’s girlfriends named Ethel, who is a working girl and serves as a sort of dramatic foil in the novel, where Phillips writes: “Unlike herself, Ethel had not stooped to love and thereafter found herself sitting idly about waiting for a man to whisper kind words in her ears as he unfolded his wallet.” Ultimately, A View of the Empire at Sunset is a delicate yet penetrating exploration of the personal costs of colonialism, the egregious power imbalances between races and genders manifested during the British Empire, and the limited possibilities for nonconformist women who do not consign themselves to the marriage market. If historical fiction is always an allegory for the present age in which it is written, Phillips’s latest novel has touched the ailing heart of our deeply troubled culture and society at large.

Michael Swingen
M. Lock Swingen was born and raised in North Dakota. His work has appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Harvard Review, and the London Magazine. He currently lives in San Francisco, California.