Charles Arthur Shand
Alice Howard Hardtman Berkeley
Francis Byam Berkeley Shand
Elfreda Millicent Nicholls
Phyllis Byam Shand


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Robert Edward Allfrey

Phyllis Byam Shand 70

  • Born: 1908, Dominica, West Indies
  • Marriage: Robert Edward Allfrey on 1 January 1930
  • Died: 4 February 1986, Princess Margaret Hopsital, Dominica, West Indies aged 78

bullet  General Notes:

In 1927, Phyllis went to the United States and worked as a governess
for a wealthy New York family. She had become acquainted with the
family of J.P. Morgan II on one of the Morgans's Caribbean yachting
trips and become friends with J.P.'s daughter and sister. She was
thus well-connected to New York society when she emigrated, and also
enjoyed the financial patronage of her two friends. She became engaged
to one of J.P.'s nephews but the romance had to be kept secret since
he had no independent income. Then, in 1929, one of Phyllis's sisters
got married and Phyllis fell in love with the groom's brother, Robert
Allfrey, and they were married a year later. According to the
biography, he was a bad choice, with a notable talent for losing jobs
through sheer obnoxiousness of character. Although they remained
married for their entire lives, separating only once for any lengthy
period, Phyllis had at least two known affairs, and probably a few
others which remained undocumented.

From The Guardian, Saturday January 22, 2005

Read Phyllis Shand Allfrey's short story "A Real Person", and you are
immediately convinced that you are in the presence of a literary
talent. It 's a magnificent tale of a white West Indian teenager, two
bizarre cats, a black watchman, a goat-girl and her black Buddhist
master, the mystery and enchantment of their encounters set in a
landscape of crotons, tropical fruit and crick-crick beetles. It's
ending is vintage Allfrey, a Lawrentian assertion of the triumph of
beauty over death. "Walter might never resolve the doubt, but at least
he was certain that he was blissfully alive, that he was capable of
practically anything, and that in spite of the mysterious and
inexplicable conflict of faiths and races in the world, it was still a
world in which miracles happen." So why is Allfrey virtually unknown
or ignored in Dominica and in the wider literary world? What went
wrong with her life and writing career? The a nswer has partly to do
with Hurricane David, which in 1979 devastated her home and left
her destitute. It is also because two years earlier, h er beloved
daughter Phina had been killed in a car crash. Her friend Lennox
Honeychurch wrote: "I can never forget the howl of anguish as I
arrived at her house after hearing of the death of Phina." However,
the substantial reason for her invisibility is her whiteness. Allfrey
was born in 1908 into a white elite family which had dominated Dom
inica for centuries. Her ancestors included Napoleon's Empress
Josephine and a descendant of Anne Boleyn's sister. Allfrey's father
was Crown Attorney, and the family were considered as royalty. The
emancipation of slaves (the source of their ancestral wealth) in 1838
began the long and painful process whereby the white grip on the
island was loosened. By the 1950s and 60s, when the struggle for
independence and the black power movement were taking root, the whites
were in retreat, many fleeing from the prospect of black government by
emigrating to England. Allfrey's father, by her own account, was
hostile to black Dominicas. "He kept his family apart from other
races," she wrote, and Allfrey was denied formal schooling to prevent
encounters with Catholics or people of colour who would soil her
purity. She was taught privately at home, reading works such as the
Oxford Book of English Verse, Rupert Brooke's poetry, and English
Pastorals. The lush Dominican landscape, loud with Creole voices, was
shut out from literary appreciation. Her father's house was a piece of
foreign fields that was forever England. There was nothing in
Allfrey's childhood and youth to suggest the trail-blazing radicalism
of her later life. She was a scion of privilege, moving with the
wealthy white visitors who anchored their yachts in Dominican waters.
The American millionaire banker JP Morgan was a family friend, and
through his patronage Allfrey was able to leave Dominica as a teenager
and live in New York and then London, where she met and married an
Oxford graduate. It was her encounter, in her transatlantic travels,
with the depression in America, and then with the emerging Labour
party in 1930s Britain, that changed the course of her life, awakening
her to socialist struggle. In the London of the 1930s and 40s she
engaged in welfare and grassroots work (including giving support to
her fellow Dominican Jean Rhys), as well as the international
campaign on behalf of the Spanish Republic an cause. She wrote
copiously, short stories and poetry which rediscovered the island of
her childhood, striving to capture the flavour of creo le life that
had been denied to her. George Orwell, editor of the left-wi ng
Tribune, published some of her work. So did the Manchester Guardian.
Vi ta Sackville-West awarded her a literary prize and in 1953 she
published her major work, The Orchid House, a novel exploring the
racial situation in Dominica, and about the emergence of feminism as
well as the beginnings of the political agitation that would put an
end to the old order. In the novel the black person is given a central
voice, black aspirations are given rare expression. The irony of
course was that the shaking-off of the shackles of colonialism would
also mean the shaking-off of Allfrey herself, but she still embraced
the cause of nationalism. In 1954, she returned to Dominica and found
the first political party, the Dominica Labour party, whose motto
was: "No-one is truly free who does not work for the freedom of
others." "I campaigned all over the island, walking or riding on a
donkey," she said, describing her travels through mountainous terrain
to meet isolated black communities whom she addressed in the local
patois. Her party won the 1958 elections by a landslide and Allfrey
was appointed minister of health and social affairs in the newly
formed Federation of the West Indies. Three years later the federation
collapsed, and race politics saw her event ually expelled from the
Dominica Labour party. She fell victim to what VS Naipaul once
described as the black and coloured instinct for racial revenge. Her
whiteness was now a liability. She would be shoved into the margins of
society in an attempt to make her invisible. Allfrey, however, fought
back, setting up a newspaper, in her words "an artistic and political
weapon", and she continued to campaign tirelessly against social injustices,
until the death of her daughter and the hurricane sapped her
strength. She died practically penniless in 1986, having dedicated
whatever money she had to social causes over 40 years of political
struggle. The last 20 years of her life were lived in acute poverty.
If politics sapped her resources, it wrecked her writing. Her short
stories and poems dried up. "Oh yes, politics ruined me as a writer,"
she once said bluntly. But sufficient work remains to allow us to
appreciate her talent and her contribution to West Indian literature.
The 14 short stories now gathered together under the title It Falls Into Place exemplify what the writer Olive Senior calls "her delicate touch, discerning
eye and heart wise to the human condition". Her true virtue, however,
lies in her intense, almost overpowering feeling for the West Indian
landscape, reminiscent of the qualities of Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea.
Derek Walcott once said that at the beginning of his career he was shy
about putting mangoes or breadfruit in his poetry since respectable
literary landscapes were populated by oak trees and the like.
Allfrey's true radicalism, which will outlast her political work, is a
fearless description of local landscape, her naming of it. And it is
within this sensationally beautiful landscape that her characters of
all races exist in strife and idealism. It is the landscape which is
their potential benediction.


Phyllis married Robert Edward Allfrey on 1 January 1930. (Robert Edward Allfrey was born on 14 December 1906.)

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