Phyllis Alfrey: The Art of Living Together

Polly Pattullo looks back at the achievement of Dominica's writer-politician, Phyllis Alfrey

Dominica: “a wild place of mountains, rain forests, waterfalls and rare parrots”. Photograph Roxan KinasJoan (Frances Barber) and Baptiste (Lennie James) in The Orchid House: a political party for poor labourers. Photograph by Sarah Quill / Picture Palace ProductionsPhyllis Allfrey in the last years of her life. Photograph courtesy Impact Photos

When the Dominican writer and politician Phyllis Shand Allfrey died in 1986, her coffin was draped with the flag of the West Indies Federation. By then, her achievements – and the Federation – were all but forgotten. But once, she had been the most influential woman in the islands, and the Federation had been part of a dream to create a Caribbean nation. That quest still haunts the region’s politicians.

The Federation, which collapsed 31 years ago after a four-year existence, was an attempt to bring ten British colonies in the Caribbean into a political and economic union. It was doomed to failure; but for Allfrey, who was the Federation’s Minister of Health and Social Affairs, it marked the height of her political career, and its collapse was a personal tragedy.

She was an unlikely candidate for political power. A romantic, frail-looking woman with a mass of fair hair, she was born in 1908 into the plantocracy of the mountainous Windward island of Dominica. Her politics too were unexpected. An old-fashioned paternalistic socialist who fought on behalf of the trade unionists and farmers of the Caribbean rather than the business folk, she was unpopular with her own class. Excited by the potential of the Federation, she believed it could become “a laboratory for the art of living together, without prejudice and partiality”. The fact that she, a white woman, had been elected to parliament was, she believed, an expression of that tolerance: a quality that was central to her politics.

So when the Federation, with its capital in Trinidad, broke up, Allfrey’s dream faded too. Like the other Federation politicians, she packed her bags for home. But she never forgot her experiences in Port of Spain, and because she was also a writer, her days as a Cabinet minister were woven into a novel. Its title was In the Cabinet.

Sadly, it was never published: Allfrey died before she could finish it. She also had other responsibilities – to her family, to her new career as a newspaper editor in Dominica – and personal and professional tragedies; and it is likely that these contributed to her failure to finish the novel. As she once said, “Politics ruined me for writing.”

Before politics dragged her away from her typewriter, however, she had completed collections of poems and a first novel. This was The Orchid House, first published in 1953. The book was a pioneering work of Caribbean literature, and in 1991 a film version, made for Channel 4, was shown on television in the United Kingdom and in most parts of the English-speaking Caribbean.

Phyllis Allfrey would have loved to be around when the production team arrived in Dominica for a 10-week shoot. She would have enjoyed being a figure of some note again, and would have appreciated the regional talent at work on the film. Trinidad-born Horace Ové was the director; a strong contingent of Jamaican actors was headed by Madge Sinclair (who played the Queen Mother in Coming to America) and Leonie Forbes. British actors like Diana Quick mingled with Dominicans recruited for a host of acting roles; they also lent their homes, furniture and animals (horses, goats, donkeys) to help the production on its way. An old Ford car arrived from Jamaica, a carriage from Martinique, and a luxury 1920s yacht from Antigua.

But Dominica itself was the real star of the film. As Phyllis Allfrey described it, the island is removed from the stereotype of sweeping white-sand beaches and hotels drenched in bougainvillea. It is a wild place of mountains, rain forest, waterfalls, a mysterious Boiling Lake, rare parrots and a luxuriance of greenery that dazzles the eye whichever way one turns. Allfrey claimed that her novel was “a love story by a woman in love with an island.”

But The Orchid House was also about a family, one not unlike Allfrey’s own. Three white sisters, returning to an island home (clearly Dominica itself), find their family sinking into mental and material poverty. How each sister responds to the family’s plight provides a storyline, although we see the drama unfold through the eyes of the family nurse, Lally.

The sister most like Phyllis Allfrey herself is the middle sister, Joan, who alongside a local black teacher founds a political party for poor labourers of the island. Two years after The Orchid House was published, Allfrey and the Dominican trade unionist E.C. Loblack founded the island’s first organised political party, the Dominica Labour Party. It was through her leadership of the Party that Allfrey went to Trinidad in 1958 as one of Dominica’s two elected representatives to the Federation.

Phyllis Allfrey wrote The Orchid House when she was in England living in a damp cottage in deepest Sussex. She was feeling the grey cold of a European winter and remembering the allure of a tropical landscape. She expressed this through Stella, the eldest sister in the novel, who is so overwhelmed by the luxuriance of the environment that she hugs the trees with joy

The atmosphere of In the Cabinet is bleaker. It opens with Joan and Edward (characters from The Orchid House), now elderly and infirm, surveying the parched, brown landscape of the island after a hurricane. This is a reference to Hurricane David which swept savagely over Dominica in 1979. The novel also centres around other real tragedies: the collapse of the Federation and the death of Joan’s daughter in a car crash, echoing the death of Allfrey’s own daughter.

There are many poignant things about In the Cabinet. Above all, the fact that it was never completed. If Allfrey had finished it, that period of Caribbean history would have found its own fiction. The rise and fall of the Federation was being documented by a woman whose own talents had contributed to that very story.

As she wrote in her last speech to the Cabinet of the Federation, with a typically romantic flourish: “Let the rains fall on dry lands and holy feathers drop from the sky – the traces of our passage will not be obliterated.