A is for Phyllis Shand Allfrey (1908-1986)

Phyllis Shand Allfrey was a Dominican woman writer of European descent who is usually known only for her 1953 novel, The Orchid House, if at all. Allfrey was born to a privileged and powerful planter/colonial administrator family in 1908, but when she returned to Dominica in 1954 after time spent in New York and London, her political commitments were firmly socialist and anti-colonial. Having published two volumes of poetry—In Circles (1940) and Palm and Oak (1950)—as well as The Orchid House, Allfrey was beginning to achieve recognition for her literary work, including a prize from Vita Sackville West. Yet when she returned home, political change became her main focus and she co-founded the Dominica Labour Party with Emmanuel Christopher Loblack. The party’s motto, “No-one is truly free who does not work for the freedom of others,” also offers some insights into Allfrey’s literary political sensibilities. The Orchid House explores the fraying ends of the colonial era through a family of three sisters, narrated mainly through the eyes of Lally, their ageing black nurse.

Although written away from home, the novel is striking in its localised and localising intimacy with the natural and social worlds of Dominica. After serving as a minister in the cabinet of the short-lived Federation of the West Indies, Allfrey later established a newspaper, The Dominica Star, to continue campaigning against social injustices and inequalities. In 1982, The Orchid House was republished as a Virago Modern Classic.

Allfrey died in Dominica in 1986. Her blunt assessment that “Oh yes, politics ruined me as a writer,” may partly stand given that she did not write any further major works. However, thanks to the dedicated scholarly interests of her biographer, Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, we can now read a collected edition of her shorter fiction, It Falls into Place (2004) and Love for an Island: the Collected Poems of Phyllis Shand Allfrey (2014). Both editions are published by Papillote Press, which also re-issued The Orchid House in 2016.

More about the author

Black and white portrait of Allfrey

A short story by Allfrey, ‘O stay and hear,’ and a short introduction to her life and work by her biographer, Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert (see Phyllis Shand Allfrey: A Caribbean Life, 1996).

promotional film image with three women posing side by side

The four-part public television adaptation of The Orchid House, first screened in 1991 and directed by Horace Ové. Available to stream in UK only.

stack of reissued orchid house with bright yellow cover and purple orchids

Papillote Press has published works by Allfrey such as The Orchid House, It Falls into Place, and Love for an Island: The Collected Poems of Phyllis Shand Allfrey.

screenshot from 1967 issue of Dominica Star

Alongside her literary career, Allfrey undertook roles as editor of The Dominica Star and Dominica Herald in the 1960s and 70s. Both titles are available in the Digital Library of the Caribbean.

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