Ladies and Gentlemen

Patricia Beer

  • The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West 1911-17 by Jane Marcus
    Macmillan, 340 pp, £9.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 333 25589 5
  • The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West, introduced by Alexandra Pringle
    Virago, 250 pp, £2.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 86068 249 8
  • The Meaning of Treason by Rebecca West
    Virago, 439 pp, £3.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 86068 256 0
  • 1990 by Rebecca West
    Weidenfeld, 190 pp, £10.00, February 1982, ISBN 0 297 77963 X

The Young Rebecca is a collection of the writings of Rebecca West from 1911 to 1917, selected and introduced by Jane Marcus, with just the right amount of explanation and comment. In one respect it is an unfortunate title, suggesting an item from the cast-list of almost any black-and-white film about almost any celebrity, but in the respect that it makes a point of Rebecca West’s youth, it is a good title. The first article is signed by her natural name, Cicily Fairfield: she was so young that she had not yet yielded to whatever weakness it was that made her take a pseudonym, though she already had one in mind. She was 19.

She was young enough to bounce and snap at Mrs Humphry Ward. Three months after that first article and now as Rebecca West, she published another one in the Freewoman, the feminist paper financed by Harriet Weaver and edited by Dora Marsden. It is a good thwacking piece, cheerfully serious, in which she accuses Mrs Humphry Ward of lacking both honour and sense in her aggrandisement of ‘the sheltered woman’, who can be recognised by ‘a smooth brow that has never known the sweat of labour; the lax mouth, flaccid for want of discipline; eyes that blink because they have never seen anything worth looking at; the fat body of the unexercised waster’. Oh dear.

Mrs Humphry Ward was a sacred cow with considerable secular powers of retaliation at her disposal. But the force of the writer’s aggression, though characteristic, is perhaps not the most important fact to emerge from the article. I call ‘The Gospel according to Mrs Humphry Ward’ an article and not a review deliberately, and in this its title supports me, for, though West is discussing Robert Elsmere, The Case of Richard Meynell and Daphne, the ethos that Mrs Humphry Ward puts forward is the only thing that really interests her. Even when she comments that on every relevant page the face of the heroine Catherine Leyburn ‘works with emotion and is illuminated by a burning flush’ she is not criticising the style so much as female working faces and burning flushes in themselves.

In 1912 Rebecca West was already using books in what has turned out to be, in the course of the century, a typically feminist manner: that is, gutting them for purposes of propaganda. She does not go so far as to falsify the text, as more recent feminist writers have done: Kate Millett, for example, in her discussion of Villette in Sexual Politics. But she is capable of ignoring it, even when what she is writing is nominally a review, preferring to concentrate on her own paraphrase and such points as may arise from it. So compulsively tendentious is her approach to creative literature at this time that when she announces her intention of reviewing a certain ‘anti-feminist thesis’ one assumes it is going to be a novel or a play, only to discover with surprise that it really is an anti-feminist thesis: Harold Owen’s Woman Adrift.

It was natural that these pieces, having been written for the Freewoman, should be loaded. In 1915 and 1916, when West was contributing, principally but not exclusively, book reviews to the Daily News, the Liberal paper which, though radical in general, promoted many causes other than feminism, her method approximated much more nearly to that of literary criticism. Her comments on Arnold Bennett’s These Twain and Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier acknowledge the presence of a medium as well as a message. There can be little doubt, however, that she enjoyed and still enjoys talking about content rather than form, and has no inhibitions about separating the two. The laurels of Pater and Wilde were still green in her formative years and their attempts to discredit meaning must have seemed to threaten her, but fortunately Pater kept contradicting himself and Wilde was far too silly. (His comment ‘All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling’ would strike a sympathetic chord in those adjudicating nationwide poetry competitions but in no one else probably.)

So she stuck to her guns. In 1974 she contributed an energetic essay to the Times Literary Supplement, entitled ‘And they all lived unhappily ever after’, which begins: ‘Mutual understanding has never been the strong point of the sexes – an opinion it would be advisable to check by reference to the work of women imaginative writers.’ So into the witness-box come successively Edna O’Brien, Margaret Drabble, Penelope Mortimer, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch. In the case of three, perhaps four, of the witnesses nothing is said about how they give their evidence.

In the two years that Rebecca West was contributing to the Clarion, 1912 and 1913, she seldom wrote about books and so had no need to wring debating-points out of works of art. The Clarion was a Socialist paper whose editor, Robert Blatchford, had been so impressed by her swashbuckling work in the Freewoman that he mentioned battleaxes and scalping-knives in connection with it, and offered her a job. So, as picturesque warfare was what she had been hired for, this is what she provided. And now that books had been largely put away on the shelves, her weapons glinted and her strategies were clear to all watchers on the hillside.

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