Phyllis Shand Allfrey is universally known author, activist and socialist and is best remembered for her novel The Orchid House (1953), a classic of Caribbean literature. The novel is based on her life and was eventually turned into a television miniseries in 1991. She was born in October of 1908 on the Caribbean island of Dominica in the West Indies. In addition to being a writer she was also a social activist, newspaper editor and politician in Dominica.
Allfrey's earliest ancestors in the West Indies can be traced back to Lieutenant William Byam. Byam was a direct descendant of Caradoch Vraich Vras, who was one of knights of King Arthur's round table. In 1645 Byam was imprisoned in the Tower of London after being captured by the army of Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. After spending several months in the tower, he agreed to go overseas for a life of exile in the West Indies.
Allfrey also founded the first political party in Dominica. In addition to writing novels, she also wrote short stories and poetry. She was a minister and had spoken in front of groups from Geneva to Lagos. She lived a very humble existence compared to her powerful planter ancestors. She could have lived the high life anywhere in the world but she chose to stay on the little Caribbean island.
Allfrey had her share of tragedy in her life. Her firstborn daughter, Phina, was killed in Africa; her 30-year-old son, Philip, was confined to a mental institution, and her adopted Dominican children were living abroad, removed from the family in Dominica. Through all these adversities she remained a strong woman. She was often penniless, and sometimes unable to buy food. She would remain positive by saying that it "helps them stay thin and active." Her political activism was motivated by a desire to help the island's workers. She eventually became the first white female to serve in the cabinet of the West Indies.
She left the Dominica for a period of 21 years, during which time she lived in New York and London. While in New York she had very little money and had to count on her wealthy New York friends for support until she could secure work. She found jobs as a secretary and a bank clerk but quickly left because they did not suit her personality. She married Robert Edward Allfrey in May 1930. They met while she was visiting London for a friend's wedding.
Allfrey's experiences in New York are documented in TheOrchid House in Stella's description of her American friends in New York. While in London, Allfrey became educated in Fabian Socialism made popular by the London Labor Party.
In 1951 she returned to Dominica and, mostly by herself, educated the Dominican peasantry in democracy. Allfrey put her writing career on hold to become the Minister of Social and Labor Affairs of the West Indies Federation in Trinidad. She was dismissed over criticism of the Dominica Labor Party, and the collapse of the Federation in 1962 left her devastated. After the collapse, she and her husband left Trinidad and returned to Dominica.
Upon her return to Dominica she wasted no time in addressing racial injustice. She wrote passionate articles for the Dominica Herald, never leaving anyone to guess where she stood on the issue of racial injustice. She and her husband started a newspaper called The Star which opposed the government.
The Orchid House was Allfrey's only published novel. It takes place on the Island of Dominica, and was an autobiographical novel of three daughters growing up in a once powerful but now poor white family. Through the novel, she outlines the history of her family and her home in Dominica. The island had been struggling for independence against the control of the ruling British imperial power.
The story is narrated through the eyes of the black nurse of the three sisters. The book is also praised for its accurate historical account of the Island. The Orchid House takes place at a revolutionary time in West Indian politics. The people who had been ruled their whole lives started to overthrow their oppressors and began to rule themselves.
Allfrey died in 1986. The house that she lived in was sold and is now a hotel.