It was with interest that I noted the recommendations made by Bernardine Evaristo to Penguin for the Black Britain Writing Back series. Twelve books have been republished in this series after being neglected for far too long. The novel featured in this post is from eight decades ago and shows a community in Trinidad.
Bernardine Evaristo introduces each volume, and she explains the intention of the publishing initiative:
Our ambition is to correct historic bias in British publishing and bring a wealth of lost writing back into circulation. While many of us continue to lobby for the publishing industry to become more inclusive and representative of our society, this project looks back to the past in order to resurrect texts that will help reconfigure black British literary history. [Penguin website]
I plan to read more from the collection over the next few months.
The novel is set in Port of Spain, capital of Trinidad in the late 1920s. CLR James spent his childhood here. A young man of 20, Mr Haynes, has been brought up in affluence but when his mother dies, he has to move to new accommodation. Haynes is pretty naïve and ignorant of the ways of the world, but he is helped by Ella, the family servant. She finds lodgings for him at 2 Minty Alley. His life has been quiet up to this point. Now, looking out at the courtyard of Minty Alley from his rented room he sees a different world.
In front of his eyes he sees a collection of characters who run a cake business, and whose cosy domestic life soon erupts into drama and intrigue. Haynes has led a sheltered life, so at first, he wants only to observe, but gradually he gets pulled into the drama. Benoit, who keeps the books and lives with Mrs Rouse, Mrs Rouse herself (his landlady), Maisie her ne’er-do-well niece, her loyal servant Philomen and the very naughty nurse erupt into a fine old barny.
The novel can be viewed like a play, as we look with Haynes from his room onto the drama in the yard. The main characters pass through, have huge arguments, gossip, work and even engage in fisticuffs. Eventually he is drawn in by the other residents, by appeals for help, by the need for people to discuss their problems with him, and by his eventual sexual involvement with Maisie. It’s a huge mess that carries on until the final curtain. I was reminded of being a confidante, hearing a friend’s difficult circumstances with sympathy but then finding them returning again and again, saying, ‘do you know what s/he’s done now?’
Benoit has been unfaithful to Mrs Rouse for years, and especially with the nurse. He is goaded into leaving Mrs Rouse and living and then marrying the nurse. But Mrs Rouse is consumed with grief at his departure and connives and contrives to bring Benoit back. The nurse finds him unsatisfactory in turn and throws him out. This triangle is the mainstay of the plot.
The novel contains themes of class (Haynes is clearly a class above the other characters in the drama) and gradations of colour (especially the nurse who appears white but has clear indications of a mixed parentage). The novel also celebrates the excitement and vividness of Caribbean life. The colonial presence is not explored, but the departure of Trinidadians for America is already changing Port of Prince. Trinidad did not gain its independence until 1962.
With the republication of Mint Alley, Penguin and Bernardine Evaristo have begun to succeed in resurrecting ‘texts that will help reconfigure black British literary history’. I loved it.
CLR James was born in Trinidad in 1901. 1932 he came to Britain, then moved on to the USA (1938-53) but because his visa had expired moved back to UK. He lived in Hampstead, Willesden and then Brixton where he died in 1989.
Minty Alley was his only novel. He published other non-fiction works such as The Black Jacobins, which was the history of the Haitian slave revolution, and wrote two plays on the subject. He was also interested in cricket and a revered commentator for the Guardian. He wrote a highly praised book about the sport called Beyond a Boundary (1963).
Minty Alley by CLR James was first published in 1936. In 2021 it was republished in the Black Britain: Writing Back series by Penguin. 260pp
The collection is curated and each volume is introduced by Bernardine Evaristo.