Banner for Beryl Gilroy 'In Praise of Love and Children' article, showing manuscript drafts of the novel.

In Praise of Love and Children: Beryl Gilroy’s arrival story

Written in 1959 but not published until 1996, In Praise of Love and Children is a rare account of a woman’s experience of migration from the Caribbean. Sandra Courtman examines the challenges that Gilroy faced as a writer, before focussing on how her novel engages with memory, family and the traumatic legacies of slavery as its heroine establishes a new life in London.

Beryl Agatha Gilroy, born in British Guiana in 1924, was a pioneering writer, teacher and ethno-psychotherapist of the ‘Windrush generation’. She came to study at the University of London in 1952 as a colonial subject of the British West Indies, expecting her teaching gifts to be welcomed. Instead she met with racial prejudice and was initially forced to work as a washer-up at a Lyons cafe, a factory clerk and a maid. Despite these challenges, she refused to be seen as an outsider or to have her experience buried under the dominant masculine narratives of the immigrant arrival story. She used her experience as material for her creative writing and in her ethno-psychotherapy with damaged women and children. Her autobiography Black Teacher (1976), like much of her writing, was fuelled by the need ‘…to set the record straight. There had been Ted Braithwaite’s To Sir with Love [1959] and Don Hinds’ Journey to an Illusion [1966] but the woman’s experiences had never been stated’.[1]

Photograph of Beryl Gilroy

Portrait of Beryl Gilroy

This photograph shows Beryl Gilroy with pupils in a classroom. She documented her career in education in her unconventional autobiography, Black Teacher (1976).

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Reframing Windrush in the imagination

After World War Two, with an empire it could no longer afford largely due to the human, material and economic losses of the war, Britain was facing up to becoming a neo-colonialist economy.[2] To rebuild, it needed to lose the financial burden of its hugely expensive colonies such as India, and to resolve its labour shortage with men and women workers from parts of its Empire. The people who landed at Tilbury on the Empire Windrush in June 1948 were among many in a wave of economic migration to Britain from Europe, Asia and other parts of the world.

Yet the symbolic arrival of the Empire Windrush – and the cultural memory attached to it – often fails to account for the diverse group of migrants who came to Britain in this period.[3] The Windrush’s passenger list typifies post-war movements and includes ‘men, women, and children who are British citizens from the West Indies, alien refugees displaced during the War, stowaways, and members of the forces and crew’.[4] Of the 941 adult and teenage passengers, 684 were male but there were also 257 women, of whom 69 were travelling with their husbands and 188 were travelling alone (including Polish women refugees).[5] This strong female presence has often been reduced to the tale of Jamaican dressmaker Evelyn Wauchape as the ship’s single female stowaway. Media at the time reported the arrival of between 400 and 500 West Indian passengers, who were largely characterised as exclusively male and Jamaican. Arising from ignorance, xenophobia and anxieties over Britain’s position as a colonial power, the Windrush became imprinted on the national imagination as a black male arrival story.

Photograph of Empire Windrush passengers at Tilbury Docks

Photograph of passengers at Tilbury docks

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Arrival stories: In Praise of Love and Children

It is important to grasp the ways in which Windrush and post-war migration has been framed in order to appreciate how the work of Beryl Gilroy disrupts such narratives and addresses the visibility of women of the Windrush generation.

Gilroy’s arrival story, In Praise of Love and Children, was written in 1959. During the period of the 1960s and 1970s when she first began to seek publication, black women writers were largely invisible both in Britain and in the Caribbean. These neglected writers, including Gilroy and Jamaicans Sylvia Wynter and Joyce Gladwell, were working in a creative void and faced a double jeopardy of racial exclusion and patriarchal gate-keeping. During her career Gilroy published six novels, an autobiography, poetry, reminiscences and a collection of essays, Leaves in the Wind (1998), but her work has suffered because of what Joanna Russ describes as ‘isolation of the work from the tradition’.[6]

Whilst Sam Selvon's and George Lamming’s exile stories benefitted from a growing appetite for new writing from the British colonies, Gilroy’s novel was rejected by publishers at the time. In the late 1950s, British publishing houses were dominated by white middle-class males, and we can well suppose that they felt ill-equipped to assess material that was considered ‘foreign’ to the European literary tradition. Gilroy suspected that the opposition to her ‘woman’s version’ came from the West Indian men employed to read the manuscripts. She observes:

By the middle fifties … I wrote some stories. When my work was sent to the male writers from the West Indies to be read, these men, in order to be as erudite as they were expected to be, turned to the idiosyncratic and the fastidious. My work, they said, was too psychological, strange, way-out, difficult to categorise. 'Fine', I replied. I didn’t have to clothe or feed my manuscripts or write for a slice of bread, so I kept them.[7]

All writers need encouragement and a good editor. With the exception of Andrew Salkey who supported and promoted her work, Gilroy was outside of the Caribbean networks which helped her contemporaries to flourish. With hindsight, we can only speculate how much Gilroy’s work might have benefitted from the sort of insightful patronage that Diana Athill (editor and partner at André Deutsch) gave to the young V S Naipaul and Jean Rhys. Arguably, Jean Rhys’s classic Wide Sargasso Sea would have remained unfinished without Athill’s patient editorial care.[8] In Gilroy’s case, her manuscript of In Praise was lost until 1994 and, encouraged by her daughter Darla Jane, it was eventually published in 1996.[9]

Manuscript of In Praise of Love and Children by Beryl Gilroy

Manuscript of In Praise of Love and Children by Beryl Gilroy

The opening page from the manuscript, annotated and corrected by Beryl Gilroy, which narrates the day Melda Hayley arrives in London.

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Held by © The Estate of Beryl Gilroy

In Praise is a rare account of a woman’s experience of migration from the Caribbean, and it is still relatively unknown. 25-year-old protagonist Melda Hayley is engaged on an identity quest; she tries to find her way in the world as she travels between British Guiana, Europe and New York. Melda is the acknowledged progeny of her father’s affair with an aunt, and in consequence she suffers emotional and physical abuse perpetrated by her stepmother, who has a mental illness. Eventually, she has to be rescued by her favourite teacher, and she follows her brother Arnie to London in the wave of post-war migration. Having been the victim of cruelty, she identifies with the abandoned West Indian children she comes across whilst teaching in London and starts to foster them.

Manuscript of In Praise of Love and Children by Beryl Gilroy

Manuscript of In Praise of Love and Children by Beryl Gilroy

On this page, Melda describes Ma, 'A brittle voiced, compressed woman', and the way in which 'She treated me differently'.

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Flamingo magazine, September 1961

Flamingo Magazine

A photo essay about a young woman’s arrival to London from the Caribbean, published in Flamingo (1961–65) which described itself as ‘the voice for the 350,000 West Indians and many thousands of Africans and Asians’ in Britain. This kind of narrative was largely absent from the dominant media and literature of the time.

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Usage terms © Edward Scobie: © Flamingo magazine, September 1961, edited by Edward Scobie Cover photograph: © Baron Federation, We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Baron Federation. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. © Jeff Vickers: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Jeff Vickers. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. © H W Neale: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder forH W Neale. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. © Harold Maize: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Harold Maize. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

Tracing the legacies of slavery

In the depiction of Melda’s dysfunctional family, which is typically scattered across the world, Gilroy offers an insight into the historical legacies of slavery. The novel’s main focus is Arnie and Melda and their return to traumatic memories of their early family life in what was then British Guiana. In the London bedsit, Arnie talks about their childhood because he feels implicated as a witness to his sister’s trauma. Arnie makes an explicit connection between Ma’s cruelty and the practices of slavery: ‘I sometimes wonder what made Ma the ways she was – so cruel, so violent, like slave days, Sis’.[10] Melda replies: ‘Slave days is still with us, between man and wife, brother and sister, family and friend. When we fight one another we still in the slave yards’ (In Praise, p. 29).

Melda has repressed an especially painful memory that returns during this conversation:

… she dragged me into the yard, smeared me with molasses, and stood me in an ants’ nest, full to the brim with cutters that used to frighten us with their savagery.
The ants fell upon me, biting me with unrelenting ferocity. I screamed and ran to Mama Tat. What she did to me I cannot now recall, but though the itching went, I could not walk properly for days. After I was absent from school for several days.’ (In Praise, p. 31)

This shocking episode foregrounds the lack of any mother-child bond between Melda and Ma. We understand that it has been broken by a betrayal that may have caused Ma’s mental illness. Gilroy uses this broken mother-child bond to focus on a primal dysfunctional relationship that is rooted in slavery. Male slaves were expected to sire children with multiple partners, and it was difficult for them to maintain a loving monogamous relationship. Children were classed as property and subject to enforced separations. In a later essay Gilroy explains that ‘The emotional needs of young slave children, kept naked until eight and sexually initiated were ignored by their owners’.[11] Ma, a descendant of enslaved Africans, displays a cruelty mimicking that usually meted out by slave owners. Gilroy’s characterisation of Ma is radical, showing us how the brutal regimes of slavery dehumanised everyone involved, and persisted for decades the psychological damage resulting from a collective trauma.[12] The novel is ground breaking in that it reveals how episodes of child cruelty may connect to the traumatic legacies of slavery. Indeed, the literary expression of violence and sexual abuse within the family was taboo in West Indian literature at the time (and remained so until Joan Riley’s The Unbelonging was published by The Women’s Press in 1985).

Manuscript of In Praise of Love and Children by Beryl Gilroy

Manuscript of In Praise of Love and Children by Beryl Gilroy

On this page, Melda describes the emotional and physical abuse carried out by Ma and explores the effect that it had on both herself and Ma. 'Strange as it may seem, when Ma yelled at me or gave me an unexpected cut with a stick, I thought she did it for my own good, as children were so often told...'.

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Inventory of sale for a Tobagan estate listing names and prices of enslaved people

Inventory of sale for a Tobagan estate listing names and prices of enslaved people page 4

This document from 1772 relates to the sale of the Studley-Park plantation located in the parish of St George on the island of Tobago. Sold for John Robley by auction at Garraways Coffee House in London, it indicates that Robely owned over a hundred enslaved children, women and men. It shows how enslaved children, women and men were classified as property and how parents and children could be separated.

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Melda and Trudi: Forging new identities

In London, Arnie has already met and married a blonde East German refugee, who is pregnant with his child. Through their story, Gilroy provides an early example of how mixed-race relationships in the 1950s met with extremes of prejudice. But she refuses to confine this prejudice to the white British population and shows how deeply shocked Melda is at the idea of interracial love. The sight of a pregnant Trudi provokes an ugly outburst: ‘Trudi, her belly now visibly swelling, bought me tea. …Trudi was not of the world I knew. She was different to us in every way – made of flesh over stone’ (In Praise, p. 55). In Praise presents a glimpse of a multicultural future for Britain through the birth of Trudi and Arnie’s mixed-race child. However, at a time of social, cultural and political change, the women struggle to find solidarity even though they are both experiencing the difficulties of trying to make a new life in a strange land. Built on jealousy and misunderstanding, the women’s relationship allows the novel to explore the often painful reasons for emigration – both have lost their families – and the experiences that follow. As displaced characters, they have to construct new metropolitan identities and reappraise their prejudices. Melda and Trudi suffer in different ways, but eventually they help each other heal the wounds of their past. For Melda, however, it is the women of the ‘yard’ back in Guyana who provide her with crucial sustenance as she establishes her life in London:

I knew I would be somebody and do something worthwhile in life. I often met people who lived in my mind, people whose touch I felt on my cheek and on my arm. I called them my mind ghosts and was sure that they were my ancestors, whom Auntie Bet so often called up in prayer. My protectors, they brought me ideas, principles and truth. (In Praise, p. 50)

More recently, the experiences of Windrush women have been fictionalised by second generation writers such as Andrea Levy in Small Island (2004) and Caryl Phillips in The Final Passage (1985), but these are necessarily retrospective accounts by children who grew up with their parents’ stories of arrival. In Praise is a rare achievement and written without the benefit of hindsight. Gilroy reveals a hidden history of a troubled period of settlement, told from a woman’s perspective. Gilroy was in no doubt that In Praise ‘is the most misunderstood book of mine.’[13] Read 70 years later, we might consider In Praise as a work of pioneering literature which addresses a set of experiences and conditions that were later theorised by postcolonial scholars. One of the most notable of these is Gilroy’s own son, Paul Gilroy, who published The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness in 1993.

Footnotes

[1] Beryl Gilroy, Leaves in the Wind, ed. by Joan Anim-Addo (London: Mango Publishing, 1998), p. 9.

[2] Matthew Mead, ‘Empire Windrush: The Cultural Memory of an Imaginary Arrival’, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 45(-2) (2009), 137–49, (p. 137).

[3] Mead, p. 137.

[4] ‘Summary of British and Alien Passengers’, <http://yourarchives.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php?title=MV_Empire_Windrush#Passenger_list_BT_26.2F1237> [accessed 13 August 2018].

[5] Lucy Rodgers and Maryam Ahmed, ‘Windrush: Who exactly was on board?’, BBC News (27 April 2018) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43808007[accessed August 2018].

[6] Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women’s Writing (London: Women’s Press, 1983), p. 5.

[7] Gilroy, Leaves in the Wind, p. 213.

[8] Diana Athill, Life Class: The Selected Memoirs of Diana Athill (London: Granta, 2009).

[9] Beryl Gilroy, ‘In Praise of Love and Children’ (unpublished paper, n.d.), p. 1.

[10] Beryl Gilroy, In Praise of Love and Children (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 1996), p. 29. Further references are to this edition and appear as page numbers in the text.

[11] Gilroy, Leaves in the Wind, p. 174.

[12] Sandra Courtman, ‘From Mary Prince to Joan Riley: Women Writers and the “Casual Cruelty” of a West Indian childhood,’ in Postcolonial Traumas: Memory, Narrative, Resistance, ed. by Abigail Ward (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

[13] Roxann Bradshaw, 'Beryl Gilroy’s “Fact-Fiction” Through the Lens of the “Quiet Old Lady”’, Callaloo, 25(-2) (2002), 381–400, (p. 394).

© Sandra Courtman

This article also appears on Discovering Literature: 20th Century.

Banner: © The Estate of Beryl Gilroy.

  • Sandra Courtman
  • Dr Sandra Courtman is a freelance writer and former Programme Director for Arts and Humanities at the University of Sheffield. Her publications focus on Caribbean and Black British writing, specifically, West Indian women’s writing during the post Second World War period. Her recent publications include ‘The Transcultural Tryst in Migration, Exile and Diaspora’ in Volume 9 of the Palgrave series, The History of British Women’s Writing 1945-1975, edited by Clare Hanson and Susan Watkins (2017).