N is for Elma Napier (1892-1973)

Born Elma Gordon-Cumming in Scotland to an affluent family, in 1912 she made a socially secure marriage to Captain Maurice Antony Crutchley Gibb, with whom she emigrated to Australia after her father’s reputation was ruined by a gambling scandal. In Honolulu, she fell in love with Lennox Napier, who she married in 1924, and with whom she also travelled widely.

Napier published her travel writings in a column for the Manchester Guardian, and they were later collected and published in 1927 as Nothing So Blue. Napier did not make her home in Dominica until the age of forty, when she and Lennox built a home, Pointe Baptiste, near Calibishe on the then-remote north coast. Although settling there for her husband’s health, Napier soon became deeply engaged with island life, and the couple shared a commitment to progressive local politics. In 1940, when her husband died, Elma Napier became the first woman on the then-colony’s Legislative Council, representing the North Eastern District—and the first woman elected to any legislature in the West Indies. In the 1980s, a postage stamp bearing her portrait posthumously honoured her contribution to Dominica. Polly Pattullo’s article about walking in Napier’s footsteps offers a vivid sense of Napier’s belonging there.

Given that recognition within a tradition of West Indian/Caribbean literature came belatedly for Jean Rhys and Phyllis Shand Allfrey, both Dominican-born women writers of European descent, it is perhaps not surprising that Napier’s life and works are still not widely known. Napier’s two novels set in Dominica were published under the pseudonym of Elizabeth Garner—her mother’s maiden name.

Duet in Discord, published by Alfred A. Knopf in New York in 1937, tells of the love affair between a middle-aged woman and a man in his twenties. In her 1982 article on Napier’s writings, Elaine Campbell (Savory) argues that the narrative’s actual love object is Dominica: “the particularity of rocks, vegetation, animal and sea life actually overwhelm the novel to the extent that Duet in Discord is more genuinely a record of the author’s love affair with an island” (89). A Flying Fish Whispered, published in London by Barker Ltd just a year later, is probably Napier’s best-known work today thanks to a 2011 re-publication by Peepal Tree with an introduction by Evelyn O’Callaghan, which draws attention to Napier’s early ecological, feminist, and creolised sensibilities. In this work too, the stormy romance plot is subverted by a focus on local struggles and, as O’Callaghan argues in a 2015 chapter, Napier’s attention to ‘relationship between land, land use, and power that is central to Caribbean history’ (118). Napier also published a number of short stories in BIM in the 1950s. Although Napier referred to the third volume in her autobiography (to follow Youth Is A Blunder (1948) and Winter Is In July (1949) which were both published by Jonathan Cape) as ‘Calibishie Chronicle’ in a letter to the English travel writer Alec Waugh, the Dominican part of her life story was published in 2009 as Black and White Sands: A Bohemian Life in the Colonial Caribbean by Papillote Press.

More about the author

Wikipedia’s profile on Napier, which highlights her early life and family history.

Evelyn O’Callaghan’s chapter, “Eco-criticism and Elma Napier’s Literary Sense of Place,” in Beyond Windrush.

Elaine Campbell’s article, “An expatriate at home: Dominica’s Elma Napier,” is available to download.

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