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.

The cause was, unequivocally and unrelievedly, feminism. In these Clarion articles the specific grievances of women are shouted out, if not exactly for the first time (and in many instances not for the last time), at least with a freshness and immediacy that startles us, seventy years and several feminist waves later. (I began to wonder if we really were going to get the vote.) The personalities of suffragism are being thrown down flights of steps and into fountains, forcibly fed, hosed with icy water. West herself has been hit in the throat by a policeman whose Adam’s apple was shaking with fury. She has just followed the coffin of Emily Davison, who committed suicide by throwing herself in front of the King’s horse. Her account of Davison’s career is nobly felt and phrased, but hagiographical to the point where the reader starts niggling, and about points which may not be central to the theme. Twice she rejoices that the executioner was an ‘unmalicious brute’: my love for horses is well within bounds, but I am unhappy that a horse should be exploited as a kind of galloping guillotine. And though I share West’s horror at the idea of forcible feeding, I do not see that it can fairly be called ‘unprovoked’. Like so many polemicists, Rebecca West is in her best form when she can mock. Such an occasion was the publication by Christabel Pankhurst of an article about venereal disease. It does seem, from the quotations, to have been an ignorant and silly piece of writing. Tactless, too. Pankhurst asserts that syphilis is the true cause of nervous illness. ‘Perhaps,’ remarks West, ‘Miss Pankhurst is now puzzled at a certain coldness noticeable in those of her friends who have had nervous breakdowns.’ Irritation even goads her into pitying men who have the disease – unless, of course, that is just sarcasm.

Sarcasm, very heavy sarcasm, is a mainstay of ‘the young Rebecca’s’ method. It is the voice of the 19th-century schoolmaster (Mr King, say, in Stalky and Co), and the then fashionable voice of polemical journalism: if one has occasion to consult provincial newspapers of the time the sarcasm is sometimes so dense that it is impossible to see what point the writer is making. West’s stylistic tropes and flourishes, moreover, which today would have her travelling on the fast lane to Pseuds’ Corner, were in that more exuberant age perfectly acceptable as sober comment.

H.G. Wells liked Rebecca West’s The Harsh Voice, which appeared in 1935. This would not be at all surprising – the four short novels of which it is composed were her most satisfactory fiction so far – if it were not for his previous denunciations of some of her books. In 1922 he called The Judge, which appeared that year, ‘an ill-conceived sprawl of a book with a faked hero and a faked climax, an aimless waste of your powers’. In 1928, as his hostility seems to have been a belt-and-braces affair, he duplicated his abuse of The Judge: ‘As a whole it is a sham. It is a beautiful voice and a keen and sensitive mind doing “Big Thinks” to the utmost of its ability – which is nil.’

Wells’s admiration of Rebecca West’s work had always flowed and ebbed in remarkably straightforward time with his personal feelings for her. Her review of his Marriage in the New Freewoman in 1913 (‘Mr Wells’s mannerisms are more infuriating than ever in Marriage ... Of course, he is the old maid among novelists’) had first brought her to his attention. ‘I loved your clear hard-hitting generous mind first of all,’ he wrote a year later. Even after one of the things she had hit hard was his novel The Passionate Friends (‘One feels as though one were going through a new country in the train and not liking it nearly as much as one had expected’), he was able to call her comments ‘first-rate criticism’. In these years he voiced a reconciliation in terms of literary appraisal: ‘You are writing gorgeously again. Please resume being friends.’

As the relationship deteriorated he very naturally began to confuse nastiness with integrity. He insisted that the wounding frankness of his remarks about The Judge was essential to the survival of even the little that remained between them: ‘I’ve got no use for you at all as a humbugged pet woman. If I’m going to get a female pet I could get any number of prettier and more amusing pets than you.’ After their separation, in spite of the inevitable disconcertments of aftermath, he turned quite nice about her novels. Harriet Hume appeared in 1929 and in fact he was nicer about it than most readers today would think called for. And he was still talking about love and work in interchangeable terms: ‘It is just as though you were coming awake after years in a sort of intellectual trance.’

In 1935, lower-case was for him inadequate to describe the MASTERY displayed in the four stories of The Harsh Voice, and he pauses in his praise only long enough to compare her working methods with his: ‘You have a richness. I am simplicity.’ In spite of his apparent perception of the book’s merits, he fantasises about the contents, imagining the murdered woman in ‘The Salt of the Earth’ to be Letty, one of his dreaded Fairfields, Rebecca’s sister, in fact (‘I’m glad you’ve killed Letty’); and his singling out of ‘Life Sentence’ as the best story could be due to the fact that the hero, though he is a monster of weakness, is marginally less awful than the heroes of the three other stories.

They are a right crew, there is no doubt about it. Rebecca West is dramatising the rhetorical Clarion-call of her youth: ‘Oh, men are miserably poor stuff.’ To portray them she often employs devices similar to those of other woman writers who have set themselves a similar task, even if, as in the case of Charlotte Brontë, they do not quite realise that this is the task they have set themselves. Here is Mr Rochester, making a guest-appearance in ‘The Salt of the Earth’:

He murmured something under his breath, and bent his lips towards her. But she twisted out of his grasp.

‘Why did you say that under your breath?’
‘What did I say?’
  ‘You know perfectly well what you
said. You said: “Forgive me.” ’

There are petty differences, of course. Mr Rochester has bigamy in mind; Jimmy Pemberton is contemplating murder. And Alice picks up the ‘Forgive me’, whereas Jane Eyre rises above, though she records, Rochester’s ‘God pardon me’. But it is the same man.

The hero of ‘There is no conversation’ is Mitford Man, seen plain. The irresistible Frenchman of Nancy Mitford’s fantasy – Fabrice, Charles Edouard – who knows how women’s lipstick should be applied, how long to a millimetre their skirts should fashionably be at any time, and exactly what they really want, at table and in bed, better than they know it themselves, is shown, as perhaps we always suspected, to have got it all not just wrong but dead wrong. As a character in a novel he is splendid: conceited, kinky, silly and cruel. His very presence provides the plot: his total ignorance of everything forms a perfect three-stranded surprise.

The fourth story, ‘The Abiding Vision’, is said to be Rebecca West’s own favourite. It is so dependent on melodrama and cliché (from the failed businessman contemplating suicide to the tart with the heart of gold) that one could hardly understand this preference, if it were not for the appearance in the story of one of her cherished themes: the ideal of the Horatio-type woman who takes the buffets and rewards of love with equal thanks.

In the TLS article quoted above, Rebecca West bravely faces the fact that this woman, who at the beginning of the century looked as though she was about to emerge, was still, in 1974, a wishful thought. The first feminists had assumed that by this time women ‘might be luckier in love than their mothers and grandmothers, and would take it better if they were unlucky. But this evidence is not forthcoming. After a course of study in Contemporary Women Novelists it is as if one heard a massed female choir singing: “Early one morning, just as the sun was rising, I heard a maid sing in the valley below, ‘Oh, don’t deceive me, oh, never leave me, how could you use a poor maiden so?’ ” ’

Rebecca West’s own early assumption had been that this ideal woman not only was about to come forward in strength but perhaps had always existed, even if in isolation. It led her to some sweeping conclusions. In her biography of St Augustine (1933) she rightly describes as ugly and cruel the way in which the future saint’s mistress was sent packing after a long and apparently happy relationship, but she insists on hoping for the best: ‘After fourteen years of companionship with a violent and blundering man, the pain of separation might well have been assuaged, and even rendered unnoticeable, by the new-found pleasure of tranquillity, and the peace of the religious life may have seemed to her an exquisite self-indulgence.’ I doubt it. She probably felt more like Héloïse.

In ‘The Abiding Vision’ Rebecca West treats the theme with the utmost ambivalence. Lily the showgirl seems to businessman Sam Hartley, and through his eyes to us, to have the sort of independence within a sexual relationship that West wishes women to aspire to. During the negotiations that take place before Sam sets up Lily officially as his mistress, ‘she was so magnificently free from emotion that he felt liberated to the point of soaring.’ (Sam, it should be mentioned, knows what it is to be imprisoned emotionally: he is devoted to a devoted wife, who has got to look rather old recently.) But it is a business transaction; nobody is in love, so it is not a real case of invulnerability. Sam loses his money, and Lily, now apparently in love, stands by him. Sam regains his money; Lily is still there but months of sacrifice have made her look old too. The story ends with Sam’s abiding vision of the unlined face of a young girl dancing naked, and it will obviously not be long before Lily has to summon up some genuine invulnerability.

The Meaning of Treason was first published in 1949. It has twice been brought up to date, once in 1965 to accommodate Burgess and Maclean – ‘among others’, as the blurb mildly puts it – and now with an introduction in which to receive Anthony Blunt. The new prefatory statement is interesting in itself, and throws light on the already existing material.

Rebecca West collects traitors. Through four decades she has pinned down a startlingly large number of them. The genus has several species: scientific traitor, diplomatic traitor and so on. West is reminded of the course of the Industrial Revolution: ‘at first such elementary forms as the spinning jenny: to be followed by thousands and thousands of machines of all sizes and shapes.’ She has continued to admire ‘the classic purity’ of her aboriginal specimen, William Joyce. I had not thought of it before but she does make him sound rather like a spinning jenny.

Up to now Rebecca West has written about all her spies with the coolness and precision of a collector: the passion which presumably motivates collectors is well under control. The Meaning of Treason is vastly informative. I could not say that I understood spies any better after reading it, yet sometimes, and especially in the William Joyce section, I did seem to understand particular human beings better than formerly. The account of Joyce’s progress in his own kind of treachery, though it does sound mechanical, is so convincingly specified that it explains the development of others whose treachery took a different form and was therefore known by a different name, if indeed it was classified at all: Bran well Brontë, for example, who had inspired in me nothing but a passing irritation before, but who, I came to think, had so much in common with William Joyce that Joyce almost interpreted him.

There can be no doubt about Rebecca West’s moral disapprobation of treason. She undertook the subject in the first place, she tells us, because of the number of people who not only did not disapprove of it but who seemed to think it was of no importance whatever, and the experience of many years since has confirmed her wish to enlighten the public. Perhaps it is something about Anthony Blunt, then, which cools her evangelistic dislike of traitors – perhaps directing it to those who cover up for them – for she abuses him with a lack of verbal precision – so unlike her – which usually indicates a lack of thorough involvement. She calls him a blabbermouth. As far as I know I have never met a spy, but I imagine it is a spy’s task to say in cold blood something he should not say to someone he realises should not hear it: as deliberate as that. Surely he is not just a foolish indiscreet talker, by either temperament or profession. Or perhaps after forty years she is simply tired of spies. She concludes this introduction by calling espionage ‘a lout’s game’. Some of her spies were louts all right: Donald Maclean, for example, who, as West describes, once in Cairo went with a friend ‘in search of drink to the flat of a girl who worked as a librarian in the American Embassy and, finding that she was out, broke into the flat, took what drink they could find, and then smashed the girl’s bath by throwing a radiator slab on it, broke some furniture, and dropped some of her clothes into the toilet bowl’. But surely all spies are not as mindless as this.

‘On January 31st, 1900, as the ninth Marquess of Queensberry lay dying in his magnificent house in town, Emile Zola in France lovingly dusted the medal he had received a fortnight earlier for his services in the Dreyfus affair, and thousands of miles away Mafeking awoke to its hundred-and-first day of siege.’ Almost any historical novel that happened to concern itself with the year 1900 might begin with similar words, the concept of simultaneity being dear to writers in this genre. Equally popular, in this case with downmarket historians, is the notion of a particular year; this has also been well used. In 1900 Dame Rebecca West combines these two best-selling formulae to make an intriguing book which rises well above the level that they usually inspire, in both language and material. The publishers have done their part by creating a very handsome volume. The photographs are brilliant.

It is not essential to the ‘yearbook’ style that the writer should have been alive at the time, but it helps, even if she was only eight, not only because in that case an autobiographical element becomes possible without undue fantasy, but also because what a child inherits from the age in which it was brought up, and indeed from that of its parents’ upbringing, is especially valuable as showing conditioning rather than observation. In 1900 this asset is seen as early as the introduction. Mr and Mrs Fairfield were addressed, in an intelligent and courteous way, outside church one Sunday morning in Richmond by a ‘good little man’ (‘such a nice man’). He was a hydropathist: if he had been an orthodox physician he could have been a dwarf without being called little, and it would not have been at all necessary to stipulate that he was nice. Mr Fairfield, to his credit, replied ‘very civilly’. And soon they all met again. ‘The good little man’ was standing outside his house, one of the ‘less proud dwellings’ on the slopes of Richmond Hill as opposed to the ones on top, and he had draped it with black to mark the death of Gladstone. The Fairfields, though they did not agree with his sentiments, were again very civil and ‘smoothly expressed their sympathy’, though once round the corner they voiced their fears that ‘the good little man would probably lose some patients,’ Gladstone not having been universally popular.

Well, there is 1900 for you. And a decade later ‘the young Rebecca’ is still talking (in a Clarion article) with the condescension which had been instilled into her: ‘There is really something very hopeful about the pert face of a Cockney beauty, smiling at life from under a wide and worthless hat with nodding spurious plumes ... A similar idealism moves the waitress who, twittering like a little London sparrow, quite ridiculous, quite charming, carries on a flirtation under the sour gaze of her customers.’ I assume that nowadays Dame Rebecca does not talk like this, and that she is not too surprised when people reply civilly to civil questions even when asked by little men. But in 1900 the middle classes, it seems, went on like this and it is 1900 she is evoking.

Dame Rebecca covers a great deal of ground in every sense except geographically. Europe is mostly France, but Germany and Italy are there too. An attempted assassination brings in the Middle East. An earthquake brings in South America. The United States tend to hover nearby with an expression of innocent wonder, occasionally asserting themselves with a Republican National Convention, a tram strike or a tidal wave. But on the whole the rest of the world exists only when Britain is fighting or governing it. But within these territorial boundaries it is a question of ‘Enter Mrs Beeton and the Duke of Wellington’ or ‘Here comes Jonah, and the whale, and the sea.’ Science and technology, literature and philosophy, music and the performing arts are all covered or at least adumbrated.

The handling of all this material demands an eclecticism so extreme as to reach the borders of eccentricity, sometimes to cross them. It is as idiosyncratic to single out Nude in the Sun as Auguste Renoir’s contribution to 1900 as to exhume characters like Sir Charles Hartley from dictionaries of national biography and other works of reference. The interpretaion is sometimes as unusual as the selection. Dame Rebecca’s account of the Boer War is unlike any that I have ever heard put forward.

It is natural that the strongest passages of 1900 should be those where Dame Rebecca’s personal interests are engaged. She describes he Dreyfus case with an involvement no doubt the more thorough for its offering a novel aspect of the meaning of treason: the accused is not guilty and the accusers are the traitors. Perhaps the most memorable story of all is that of the woman at the meeting held by John Kensit, the Protestant reformer, as he considered himself, or ‘rabble-rouser’, as Dame Rebecca calls him – all too accurately, as he was later killed in a riot of his own provoking. At question-time the woman rose very diffidently to ask a sincere and mildly-worded question. She was not demanding votes for women – the high days of militant suffragism were still to come. She simply wanted to know if Mr Kensit would really not admit that a cross held in the hand could be an aid to devotion. Mr Kensit’s reply was: ‘Madam, you are dressed as a lady. Please behave as one.’ Whether he was rebuking her for speaking at all or for daring to have views about her own private worship is not clear, but it is a remark to push a feminist, or indeed anybody, to extremes. It is one of the skills of 1900 that it so frequently and naturally shows the direction in which 1900 was heading.