Phyllis Shand Allfrey

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Phyllis Shand Allfrey

Phyllis Byam Shand Allfrey (24 October 1908 – February 4, 1986) was a West Indian writer, socialist activist, newspaper editor and politician of the island of Dominica in the Caribbean.[1] She is best known for her first novel, The Orchid House (1953), based on her own early life, which in 1991 was turned into a Channel 4 television miniseries in the United Kingdom.[2]

Early life and family background[edit]

Born in Roseau, Dominica, West Indies, in 1908 into a white elite family, she was the daughter of Francis Byam Berkeley Shand and Elfreda (née Nicholls), and was baptized Phyllis Byam.[3] Her father's settler family was long established in Roseau as their family dominated Dominica for centuries. With roots in the West Indies going back to the 17th century, Phyllis later described herself as "a West Indian of over 300 years' standing, despite my pale face."[4] Shand Allfrey's family included Henry Spencer Berkeley and Sir Thomas Warner.[5]

Her earliest ancestor in the West Indies was Lieutenant General William Byam, a Royalist officer who in 1644 defended Bridgwater against a parliamentary force. Imprisoned in the Tower of London, he was permitted to migrate to the West Indies. After the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, he was granted estates in Antigua.[6] William Byam's wife was Dorothy Knollys (great- great- great granddaughter of Mary Boleyn) which made Phyllis Shand Allfrey a direct descendant of Anne Boleyn's sister.[7] Her paternal family made her closely related to British royalty as William Byam was descended on a direct line, on his father's side, from Caradoch Vraich Vras, one of the knights of King Arthur's Round Table. His father Edward Byam, having graduated from Oxford in 1604 and taken holy orders, had become vicar of Dulverton in Somerset.

Her mother Elfreda, was one of the daughters of Sir Henry Alfred Alford Nicholls, a famed doctor and botanist who during his career had been connected with almost every public activity on the island. His family boasted of distant connections to royalty: Phyllis's Martinican maternal grandmother, Marianne Felicite was related to Napoleon's Empress Josephine. Her ancestors included Napoleon's Empress Josephine.[8][9][10] Empress Josephine's grandfather Gaspard Joseph de Tascher and Uncle Robert-Marguerite Tascher, baron de La Pagerie were direct ancestors of Shand Allfrey. Through Empress Josephine's uncle, Shand Allfrey was a direct descendant of Jean-Henri Robert Tascher de La Pagerie, (Count Tascher de La Pagerie et de l'Empire) cousin of Josephine's. He married Marcelle Clary, the Swedish Queen's Désirée Clary's niece and had a daughter Rose Amable Julie Joséphine. [11] Her maternal family made her closely related to anyone descended from or related to Joséphine. Additionally, the Belgian, Luxembourg,Swedish, Monégasque and former Romanian monarchs are all descended from a cousin of Joséphine's first husband Alexandre de Beauharnais, as was Vittorio Emanuele, senior-line claimant to Italy.[12] The claimant family of Baden are also Joséphine descendants. On her mother's side of the family through the Empress Josephine connection, her family are closely related to anyone descended from her from Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Russia, Brazil and Luxembourg. This also meant on both her mother and father's side of the family, she would have been related to British Royalty through the Danish and Greek descent of Empress Josephine's family.[13]

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 was hostile to black Dominicans. "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.[14]

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's son J.P. Morgan Jr. was a family friend, and through his patronage Allfrey was able to leave Dominica as a teenager and live in New York as well as London where she met her husband. She became engaged to one of J.P.'s nephews but the romance had to be kept secret since he had no independent income.[14] Her friends also included Adele Hammond Olyphant and Emily Vanderbilt Sloane.[15] Shand Allfrey was also a friend of Naomi Mitchison who invited the Allfreys for her annual Cambridge-Oxford boat race party known for bringing together an explosive mixture of people such as Wyndham Lewis, Michael Foot, Margaret Cole, W. H. Auden, Victor Gollancz, Stafford Cripps and Aneurin Bevan. She appears to have had an affair with Henning Bernd von arnim Schlagenthin, the son of Mary Annette Beauchamp Russell.[15]

Life and career[edit]

Phyllis Shand married Robert Allfrey, an English Oxford engineer, and they had five children, including their adopted sons, Robbie and David, from a Carib reservation. Their daughter Phina, another Oxford University graduate was killed in a motor accident in Botswana.[citation needed]

In politics, Allfrey founded the Dominica Labour Party. On the formation of the West Indies Federation, this was affiliated to the West Indies Federal Labour Party, and in 1958 she was elected to the new West Indies legislature, representing Dominica. Within weeks she was serving in the government of Sir Grantley Adams as Minister of Labour and Social Affairs and was the only woman minister of the new Federation.[citation needed] In 1941 Allfrey established a connection with Tribune, the newspaper of the left wing of the British Labour Party where from 1941 to 1944 her reviews, poems and short stories appeared regularly alongside those of regular contributors like Naomi Mitchison, Stevie Smith, Julian Symons, Elizabeth Taylor, Inez Holden and George Orwell who became its literary editor in 1943. Phyllis Shand came second place in an international poetry competition judged by Vita Sackville-West.

She edited the Dominica Herald and also published and wrote for another newspaper, The Dominica Star, which was in being between 1965 and 1982.[16]


Allfrey died in Dominica in 1986, aged 77.[3] A posthumous collection of her short stories, It Falls Into Place, was published in 2004.[17] She left behind an unpublished novel, In the Cabinet.[18] A collection of her poems, Love for an Island: the Collected Poems of Phyllis Shand Allfrey, was published in 2014[19] Writer Dr. Carrie Gibson published "Empire's Crossroads" with novelists such as Dominica's Jean Rhys and Phyllis Shand Allfrey, Trinidad's V. S. Naipaul, and Haiti's Edwidge Danticat who "have a global readership" with their numerous Hollywood films that have made Voodoo and zombies central themes that continue to fascinate audiences.[20]


  • In Circles (poems, 1940)
  • Palm and Oak (poems, 1950)
  • The Orchid House (1953)[21]
  • "It Falls into Place (2004)[22]
  • "Love for an Island: the Collected Poems of Phyllis Shand Allfrey[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Staff, by Beinecke;, File format:. "Guide to the General Collection Manuscript Miscellany". Retrieved 2016-04-22. 
  2. ^ Staff, (2015-02-05). "The Orchid House | Movie | 1990". Retrieved 2016-05-08. 
  3. ^ a b Anne Commire, Deborah Klezmer, Women in world history: a biographical encyclopedia vol. 1 (1999), p. 236
  4. ^ Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Phyllis Shand Allfrey: a Caribbean Life (Rutgers University Press, 1996), p. 6
  5. ^
  6. ^ Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Introduction to Phyllis Shand Allfrey, The Orchid House (1996 edition), p. vi.
  7. ^ Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth (1996-01-01). Phyllis Shand Allfrey: A Caribbean Life. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 9780813522654. 
  8. ^ Allfrey, Phyllis Shand (1997-01-01). The Orchid House. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 9780813523323. 
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ "Clary, Marcelle (1792-1866)". Retrieved 2016-09-14. 
  12. ^ "Royal Jewel Rewind: The Danish Crown Princely Wedding (2004), Part 2". Retrieved 2016-09-14. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ a b Dabydeen, David (2005-01-21). "Island dreams". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2016-04-08. 
  15. ^ a b Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth (1996-01-01). Phyllis Shand Allfrey: A Caribbean Life. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 9780813522654. 
  16. ^ Profile,; accessed 18 November 2014.
  17. ^ It Falls Into Place (Papillote Press, 2004, ISBN 0-9532224-1-1).
  18. ^ Selwyn Reginald Cudjoe, Caribbean women writers: essays from the first international conference, p. 120.
  19. ^ "Love for an Island" (Papillote Press, 2014; ISBN 978-0-9571187-5-1).
  20. ^ Hartman, Chris. "'Empire's Crossroads' offers a rich and thorough history of the Caribbean". Christian Science Monitor. ISSN 0882-7729. Retrieved 2016-04-19. 
  21. ^ 1st ed. by Constable, 1953; new edition by Virago, 1982
  22. ^ Papillote Press, 2004
  23. ^ Papillote Press, 2014

External links[edit]