Published in 1929, A High Wind in Jamaica has that Gorey-esque quality of seeming like it might be a genuine old-time classic children’s book — in Humphrey Carpenter’s terms, it could be of the ‘Arcadian’ type of idealised childhood, its ‘secret garden’ a stint the Bas-Thorntons spend on a pirate ship — but beneath its light, storytelling air, it’s far darker than those old-time children’s classics ever were. Dickensian in tone, with Dickens’s love of the comic grotesque, both in over-the-top characterisation and the theatrical set-piece, there’s a subtle but powerful undercurrent building around the only rarely-explored inner life of its key character, ten-year-old Emily, and how she’s affected both by what happens to her and (perhaps more crucially) what she does, during her time with Captain Jonsen and his men.
The novel starts with the Bas-Thornton children living semi-wild on a rundown estate in Jamaica. It is the mid-1800s, after the emancipation of the slaves, and the sugar plantations are mostly abandoned and derelict. Then along comes a hurricane, taking the top off the Bas-Thorntons’ house. Their parents decide the children would be safer at school in England, and ship them off, only for them to be taken by pirates en route. The pirates at first don’t know what to do with the children. Captain Jonsen is hardly vicious enough to simply kill or maroon them, even when they take over his deck, and adopt some vital ship’s gear for use in various games (young Rachel keeps claiming things to be her baby-dolls); they may even be useful in his particular form of piracy, as a distraction to make a potential target ship think his is just a harmless passenger vessel, so he can get close enough to board. For a while, the children aren’t even aware they’re on a pirate ship. Totally lost in their own little worlds, they think this is simply another stage on their journey to England:
‘Margaret said,’ went on Rachel, ‘that time we were shut up on the other ship she heard one of the sailors calling out pirates had come on board.’
Emily had an inspiration. ‘No, you silly, he must have said pilots.’
‘What are pilots?’ asked Laura.
‘They Come On Board,’ explained Emily, lamely. ‘Don’t you remember that picture in the dining-room at home, called The Pilot Comes On Board?’
Hughes takes pains to present the children as anything but the clichéd little angels of most Victorian fiction: these are utterly self-involved, given to bursts of fondness or indifference, brushing against the adult world only briefly, like whales surfacing to breathe:
‘How then can one begin to describe the inside of Laura, where the child-mind lived in the midst of the familiar relics of the baby-mind, like a Fascist in Rome?’
The children and the pirates co-exist mostly (at first) by ignoring one another. The pirates seem, at times, to look fondly on the children in their innocence and playfulness; the children try to ignore all clues that the pirates may be pirates — apart from thirteen year old Margaret, the eldest, who instantly knows what’s in store for her from these male criminals. The other, younger, children don’t understand her terror and think she’s being silly. But into this seemingly comic, meandering narrative, hints of a real darkness come through: accidents (one fatal, one near-fatal), then, one drunken night, the pirates come for Margaret — they may even be coming for ten-year-old Emily, too, but she bites Captain Jonsen’s thumb, and this seems to remind him she’s still a child, or perhaps makes him realise she’s too wild to risk, so she doesn’t suffer the more fatalistic Margaret’s (un-mentioned) fate. The journey continues, just as light in tone, just as twisted in implied detail.
It’s only at the end, with the children returned to civilisation, when the adults in London try to prise the truth from the children’s mix of outright fantasy and downright silence, that you get a sense of the trauma they may be suffering beneath their outward normalcy. As the lawyer Mathias says near the end:
‘It’s bad enough having a child in the [witness] box anyway… You can never count on them. They say what they think you want them to say. And then they say what they think the opposing counsel wants them to say too…’
At the end, we’re left with a sense that this adventure is a formative one for the children, but not in any clearly-defined way. The children have brushed against terrors and adventures, yes, but have also spent a lot of time just being themselves — undoubtedly in strange circumstances, but to a child, as Hughes points out, all circumstances are strange, it’s all new. Emily, stocking up on experiences, thinks, at first, it’s enough to have experienced a genuine earthquake right at the start of the novel; her time with Captain Jonsen, with whom she even begins to develop the sort of relationship she never had with her rather distant parents, is too much an undigestible and contradictory mass for her to call it any one thing (as Hughes says, ‘Children have little faculty of distinguishing between disaster and the ordinary course of their lives’); and the one deed she does which nobody guesses (its one witness, Margaret, is too traumatised by her own experiences to talk about it, or anything else), all go towards the making of her as a person, in ways too complex to be simply stated: Hughes’s very silence on the matter speaks far more eloquently.
Throughout, A High Wind in Jamaica has been subtly undermining its own slightly distant tone, building this sense of an unspeakable tension, a hidden trauma, that is only to be dealt with by not speaking of it, except near the end, when the image of Emily, self-contained once more after a single, brief outburst of emotion in court (easily overlooked by all the adults present), is what lingers with me now the book’s read.
A High Wind in Jamaica was made into a surprisingly faithful film in 1965, with Anthony Quinn as the pirate captain (not Jonsen here, but Chavez, as no-one would believe Quinn was Danish). Somehow, the Hollywood sheen (though it’s a UK film) works just as well as Hughes’s light, Dickensian prose style to take the edge off the awful events, and the impassivity of Deborah Baxter as Emily perfectly captures her child-like impenetrability right up to that tell-tale break-down in court.