Islands in the stream

Martha Gellhorn’s 1944 novel Liana is little remembered today, but James Ferguson says this love story on a Caribbean island is still gripping

Illustration by Marlon Griffith

A lonely and unloved wife has an affair with the man whom her husband has hired as her tutor. A complicated and finally tragic three-way emotional conflict results, with love set against duty. It may sound a little bit predictable, as novels go, even slightly hackneyed. But Liana is none of these things. In fact, it is a remarkably perceptive and moving novel with a good deal of originality.

Martha Gellhorn, who died recently, was rather unfairly mostly famous for being Ernest Hemingway’s third wife (it lasted all of five years), rather than as an author in her own right. During the Second World War the American-born writer found herself drifting around the small, idyllic islands of the Leewards, reporting for Collier’s magazine. It was then that she visited St Martin, at that time a tiny and sleepy outpost of the French empire (rather than the bustling tourist mecca it has become today). That experience of what she saw as a “magic island” provided the background for Liana, first published in 1944.

The wartime Caribbean, and especially the French islands, was a strange place to be, far from the real arena of conflict, but suffering all the same. The authorities in Martinique and Guadeloupe (of which St Martin is a dependency) had sided with the pro-Nazi Vichy regime in France, and were then blockaded by Allied ships. A siege mentality, with shortages and continual rumours, ruled. It was in this weird and paranoid society that Gellhorn situated her novel. She was conscious, too, of another dimension of neurotic insularity: the obsession with race and colour that ran through French Creole society (and still does, according to some).

Liana is, to a large extent, a book about these racial attitudes. Its heroine, born in a humble peasant family in the island of St Boniface (read St Martin) is beautiful and black. Against all conventions — and, apparently to spite the conservative white minority who dominate the island — Marc Royer, St Boniface’s richest man, has married her. To have had her as a mistress would, it seems, have been totally acceptable; to marry her is nothing short of madness. Liana’s her dramatic elevation from peasant hut to mistress of the biggest house on the island does not, in any event, make her happy. As Marc criticises her uncouth manners and lack of breeding, Liana lives a loveless, if comfortable, life.

Release from this humdrum existence comes in the form of Pierre, a white Frenchman, marooned on the island through the vagaries of the war and employed as the island’s schoolmaster. When Marc, in a bid to teach his wife some respectable accomplishments, takes him on as her tutor, they fall in love. Liana loves Pierre because he, for the first time in her life, does not see her primarily as black. He sees in her an innocence utterly at odds with the cynical small-mindedness of the white minority with whom he is meant to associate.

Gellhorn traces their developing relationship with sensitivity, and also paints a convincing picture of the small-island world in which the novel is set. A hothouse of idle gossip and malicious jealousy, the island is also rigid in its racial stratification. If Marc has transgressed the social rules by marrying Liana, then so too has Pierre by falling in love with her.

So far, so straightforward. But Gellhorn’s novel is more complex than a tale of adultery and racial taboo. As Liana becomes more emotionally dependent on her lover, he is increasingly drawn to the world beyond the island’s narrow confines and to playing his part in the war against the Germans. Marc is also given a new raison d’être by the conflict, as he realises that he must play the leading role in ensuring the island’s survival against the threat of blockade and starvation. Both men thus have a more urgent desire than that represented by the beautiful Liana, and both eventually come to see her as secondary to the real business at hand.

In a strange and unexpected way, Marc and Pierre, though initially adversaries in terms of an adulterous relationship, become allies, as Pierre understands that he must escape from St Boniface and find his way back to France, and Marc, spurred by his new-found sense of patriotic responsibility and unaffected by jealousy, wishes to help him. The only victim is Liana, now definitively rejected by her husband and abandoned by her lover.

Liana’s evocation of an island cut off by a wider, and to most people incomprehensible, conflict is entirely convincing, with its details of shortages, anxieties, and bad news conveyed by crackling radio sets. But perhaps even more powerful is the way that it conveys the emotional and psychological smallness of the place, a sense that the island is a tiny closed world drifting in a larger sea of events. When Liana first comes to understand that Pierre will one day leave, her feeling of loneliness is beautifully projected onto the island itself:

Liana felt the island suddenly as if she could see it all: green, pointed with hills and dented with valleys, oval, growing in a blue sea with reefs as its roots. It felt too small to live on. It felt so alone that beyond it there was no more land. There was only this tiny island and she could never leave it.

While Pierre is only temporarily trapped by force of circumstance, Liana is confined forever by her colour, as it is made abundantly clear that, even if he wanted to, Pierre could not return to France with a “coloured” wife. As Pierre leaves, he makes a deal with Marc that Liana will be provided for in a new house and not forced to return to the family hut in the hills. The prospect of a life imprisoned in this purpose-built house, abandoned by her lover and despised by the small-minded island community, sends Liana into tragic despair.

Many authors have written of the small Caribbean island as a place of refuge and harmony, but fewer (Jean Rhys is a notable exception) have so successfully imagined it in terms of claustrophobia and confinement. Gellhorn, though clearly an “outsider”, manages with enormous emotional power to create a drama of war, love, and race, all within the stifling atmosphere of an island cut adrift from the wider world.

Liana should really be republished (it does not seem to be in print), and it would certainly make a fantastic film. The Caribbean it portrays may be a million miles away from today’s cruise ship paradise, but the passions and pressures it so suggestively reveals are timeless.