Reappraising Jane Duncan: Sexuality, Race and Colonialism in the My Friends Novels by Rita Elizabeth Rippetoepublished 2017
[extract from academic study of Duncan’s books]
Duncan does not present a coherent exposition of racial relations in the Caribbean; such is not her goal. She presents the situation in terms of the human interactions of her characters. Most of the intelligent white characters in the books are convinced that they have no enduring role in the future of the island. As a tiny minority they will lose influence, and possibly property, when the inevitable day of independence comes. Sir Ian is waiting only for his mother to die to sell the property, as his son has no interest in running it.
As Janet observes, “Mama Martha and her generation might be sorry to see me and my kind leave the island but there was a rising generation that would be glad to see us go”. When Sashie takes Caleb as a partner in his coconut plantation at Silver Beach, Janet realizes that “Caleb as a partner in the property, might act as a safeguard if serious civil disturbance between white and negro broke out”. [Quotations from My Friend Sashie]
Whether comparing fisher folk to farmers, or East Indian/Negro grocers to transplanted Scotswomen, Jane Duncan is always more interested in the personal than the political. She makes neither sweeping pronouncements about race nor prescriptions for racial harmony.
commentary: Every so often I am lucky enough to get an email from another fan of Jane Duncan’s ‘My Friends…’ books. I think this is because my blogposts on her pop up for anyone doing a search: there is little else about these books on the internet. I am always surprised that, when so many authors are seeing a resurgence, there is no great upswing of interest in Duncan. Many of the female authors of the mid-20th century – considered at the time to be middlebrow, women’s authors, comfort reads – are being re-evaluated or just re-discovered. Duncan seems to miss out, despite the fact that she was a most unusual writer, who offered something very different from many of her contemporaries.
Between 2013 and 2016 I re-read all the My Friends books, and blogged on most of them. They tell the story of Janet Sandison from childhood to a mature age, though in a very non-linear form. Her childhood on a Highland croft, Reachfar, influences her whole life. She spends a big chunk of time in the West Indies with her partner, Twice, following on from a number of random jobs in her 20s, and a time in the services during WW2. All these stories come out in piecemeal form over the course of 19 books, published between 1959 and 1976.
My post here provides an overview: a list of all the books, with links to my posts, and some more information, so is a good starting point.
Anne Peticolas, a Duncan fan from East Texas, emailed me recently to tell me about the publication of the book above, a critical survey of the books. I was very grateful: both of us were very excited at the prospect of a serious look at Duncan’s books. And indeed I enjoyed this new book hugely, partly because it took me through the whole series, and partly because Ms Rippetoe had such fascinating things to say about Duncan’s work.
I also found Ms Peticolas’s views on Duncan impressive and helpful: she felt I had been somewhat harsh on the books, and presented the case for the defence. So with her permission I am quoting from her email, which does a great job of pointing out the good things about the series:
Jane Duncan is a remarkable author in her objectivity. She can describe people in such a way that you have your own independent opinion of them and don't necessarily like or dislike the same people her protagonist (who in the "My Friends" books is basically her) does. That is a rare thing. Very unusually for the time she wrote, she depicts both lesbians and gay men even though she finds them hard to understand. She's basically good on race and colonialism and has her feet on the ground. She also portrays the situation of herself and her (supposed) engineer husband - they actually are not married because his Roman Catholic first wife refuses to give him a divorce, being that it was the 50s of course they had to represent themselves as married. She also takes children seriously. She also is interesting about money and marriage and writing, oh she is a wonderful author! And yet, I love her books but don't think I would have liked her herself that much. The island she calls "St. Jago" where she and her husband spent years at a factory is really Jamaica. It's been no use recommending her books as they have been so unobtainable, but now some are available.
That’s a very fair and positive view of the books, and I hope one day I will persuade someone else to read them. And I always love to hear from anyone else who liked them too.
With grateful thanks to Anne Peticolas for writing to me, and for recommending the book above, and for letting me quote her so extensively.
In the UK most of the books are readily available in e-form from Bello Books.