A View of the Empire at Sunset

Caryl Phillips

May 22, 2018 
The following is from Caryl Phillips's novel, A View From the Empire at Sunset. A fictional retelling of Jean Rhys's life, the novel recounts her time in England and Paris, before returning to Dominica in 1936. After six weeks of being home, she sails back to England and vows never to return. Caryl Phillips is the author of The Lost Child, Dancing in the Dark, and A Distant Shore, which won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

Rivers and Mountains

Last night, after she had finished the red wine and then discovered where Leslie had hidden the bottle of whisky, she clumsily knocked over an empty glass and watched as it spiraled to the floor and smashed. Almost immediately her glum-looking husband appeared in the doorway in his belted dressing gown, and as she knelt and began to gather up the pieces, he gazed down at her with a strange combination of poorly disguised exasperation and forgiveness. His intrinsic kindness annoyed her, and she rose unsteadily to her feet and told him that when they returned from the West Indies he should forget about the idea of using what remained of his father’s money and moving into a more spacious Chelsea flat. Going their separate ways might well be a better option. Leslie said nothing and stared blankly at her before slowly turning and trudging back in the direction of the bedroom. She was actually offering her husband a chance to unshackle himself from the past eight years, but the stubborn man seemed incapable of accepting the fact that his wife was, and always would be, beyond his control. Over the years she often asked herself what on earth would have happened to him if she had not entered his life. Has he ever considered this? They both know that he has neither the resources, nor is he cut from the right cloth, to have ever contemplated joining a gentlemen’s club where he might while away the hours and pretend to prefer the civilized company of other men as a substitute for his failure to establish a satisfactory relationship with the opposite sex. Without her he would, she imagines, most likely have already drifted into a single room somewhere on the Pentonville Road and be attempting to eke out a bachelor existence on the fringes of so-called literary London. Instead, the poor man has a wife whose looks have long since fled the scene, and who no longer merits a second glance. It is clear that she is a woman who is utterly incapable of helping her husband achieve any form of social or professional elevation, so why on earth can’t he accept how things are? After all, he is still handsome enough to attract another woman, but sadly, timid Leslie will most likely never find anybody else, for it is simply not in his nature to extend himself when confronted with the tyranny of female charm. He did so with her, but she can see in his habitually dejected eyes that he now understands this to have been a mistake, for, as was the case with his first wife, he has absolutely no notion of how to bring a woman to heel.

Sadly, long before the end of their first meeting it was clear that this prudent man was certainly not the savior she was hoping for, but what choice did she have?”

It is now late afternoon and she is curled up on the sofa drinking tea and watching her husband, who sits sullenly at the small dining table with a plate of bread and cheese before him. He is indulging his habit of stuffing oversized portions of bread into his mouth which take an eternity for him to swallow. He occasionally glances in her direction in the hope that some contact might force her to speak, but she says nothing, and so he breaks the gloomy silence and addresses her with resignation. “You’re slipping away from me, aren’t you?” The weak light filtering through the bay window is picking out the lines on his face and causing the grey strands in his hair to occasionally sparkle. She looks at a visibly distressed Leslie and thinks back to their first appointment at his cramped office. Initially she had hoped she might encounter a mature man whose confidence was born of years of experience, and who possessed a deep rumbling laugh and exuded a leathery smell of cologne on salty skin, but when she took up a seat on the other side of this man’s desk she looked closely into his eyes and searched in vain for any sign of authority. Sadly, long before the end of their first meeting it was clear that this prudent man was certainly not the savior she was hoping for, but what choice did she have?

He pushes the plate away and leans back in the chair. “Are you truly determined to leave me, Gwen?” She smiles, but says nothing, and then reminds herself that it has always been so much easier for them to talk about plans as opposed to feelings. My dear Leslie, you have now purchased the tickets for our transatlantic voyage, so let us just go to the West Indies. I will show you the public gardens by the library where I used to sit as a girl and stare out at the sea and try to imagine the world beyond my island. But, of course, I had no real conception of what lay beyond the horizon. I will show you rays of sunlight filtering through clouds, and ribbons of water falling from palm fronds and grooving trenches into the earth. We two can lie in a hollow and witness the shimmer of late-afternoon heat making corrugated iron of the air, and listen to a nearby stream trickling noisily over smooth stones, and watch a puff of wind grow hurriedly into a sudden squall and begin to playfully bend the trees. I will show you the rivers and the mountains, and come evening, as the New World day convulses towards dusk, I will share with you a spectacular elevated view of the empire at sunset. Perhaps, my husband, if I show you the West Indies, then you will finally come to understand that I am not of your world, and maybe then you will appreciate the indignity I feel at not only having to live among you people but possibly die among you, too. I am so sorry. Truly I am, for I have no yearning to cause you hurt. Her husband continues to look at her and he waits patiently for an answer to his question, and so she offers him one that she knows will be received with skepticism. “No, Leslie, I am not determined to leave you.” She pauses and tries to discover a second, and more comforting, half to the sentence, but words elude her.


From A View of the Empire at Sunset. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by Caryl Phillips.

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