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Marina Warner: Indigo

This novel is set partially in the fictitious Caribbean country of Enfant-Béate and partially in London and Paris. Though the story starts in London, we soon move to Enfant-Béate before it was a colony. It soon becomes apparent that Warner is using elements of the the plot of Shakespeare’s The Tempest as the basis for her story. Sycorax, who is unseen in The Tempest, is a key character here. She is what may have been called a witch but more accurately a healer and counsellor. It is she who produces the indigo of the title, with the British later purloining her technology and selling indigo dye and indigo-dyed products at great profit. While the island she is on (Liamuiga) has yet to be invaded by the British, it has seen other visitors. While the children are playing one day, they notice a mass floating towards them. It turns out to be around twenty bodies in a net, clearly (to us) African slaves thrown overboard. The locals are horrified and cover the bodies with a view to cremating them the next day. Sycorax, however, hears a child cry and rescues a still living but very sick baby. She nurses him back to health and names him Duré. He is clearly the Caliban character. A second child – an Arawak child whose parents have died, after capture – is named Ariel. Unlike the Ariel of The Tempest, this one is female and befriends Sycorax and, indeed, becomes her assistant. Though somewhat wilful, like Shakespeare’s, she does all that she can to aid Sycorax and learn from her.

Sycorax and Ariel keep well away from the village, while Duré joins up with the boys from the village and from the neighbouring island of Oualie. However, things go wrong for the natives and the new arrivals, once the British arrive. Kit Everard is the captain of a ship that is exploring the area and, though essentially a good man, with a Christian heart, wants to make his fortune. When he and a few men land, they accidentally clash with Sycorax and Ariel. Sycorax is badly hurt, and Ariel somewhat hurt, though Everard’s men pay a price. Everard does not want trouble; indeed, he wants to learn from the natives and tries to make peace but he keeps Sycorax, now being nursed by Ariel, and Ariel as hostages. But Duré and the leader of the natives do not want the British there. There is an uprising but the British are prepared.

The second part concerns the descendants of Kit Everard. Here the links with The Tempest are even more tenuous. Antonio is Sir Anthony Everard, known to his friends as Ant. Sir Anthony now lives in London but grew up on Enfant Béate, where he became famous for his playing of The Game (aka Flinders). The game seems to be a very sophisticated version of cricket/baseball with a sequence of finesses: judgement and stealth and and nerve rather than feats of rude strength required from a player. Sir Anthony had worked out the strategy and played it to the full. He is still living on his reputation in this game. He has a son called Kit, who is not like his father. Kit is married to Astrid, who seems to have some mental problems and dislikes the Everard family. She later becomes a nun but is thrown out of the convent for her drinking habits. They have a daughter, who is not like the Miranda of The Tempest, not least because she is not very keen on men. Kit’s mother, a Creole from Enfant-Béate, died by drowning some years go and Sir Anthony has married Gillian, a woman a lot younger than he is. She has a child, Xanthe, who will later change her name to Goldie. She is much more of a free spirit than Miranda, though this sometimes gets her into trouble, not least with her parents. The trouble with this part of the novel is that not a great deal happens till the latter part of the book, when Kit, Miranda and Xanthe go and work for Si, who is operating a fancy health farm. It is the 350th anniversary of the founding of Enfant-Béate (then called Everhope) and there are celebrations, including, of course, a game of Flinders. However, everyone is not happy with the situation and there is an uprising.

The strength of this novel is how Warner shows the culture, the myths and legends of the native people of the islands and how they are able to incorporate others, victims like freed slaves. She does not get sentimental about it in any way. Their technology, such as the production of indigo, is something that the West can learn from. It is also clear that the part set in modern times is, at least in part, aimed to show the exploitation of the natives and their culture by the West. Kit and Astrid have a servant who is from the island and it is she who introduces Miranda to some of the myths of the island but who is also exploited, to a certain degree. Si’s tourism activities, while clearly giving some work to some islanders, are also obviously exploitative, partially because some sex is involved. And it all comes out during the uprising. However, overall, while I thought this a fine book, I did feel that the modern part did drag somewhat.

Publishing history

First published 1992 by Chatto & Windus