- Sunflower by Rebecca West
Virago, 276 pp, £9.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 86068 719 8
Rebecca West liked short men. Towards the end of her life a young journalist went to interview her. He arrived late, to hear West’s companion announce: ‘He’s worth waiting for!’ When West appeared her face fell. ‘Oh, you’re tall,’ she said damningly. ‘Small men are so energetic.’ Her posthumous novel Sunflower features fictional versions of two small men with big names: little H.G. Wells is one; little Lord Beaverbrook is the other.
Beaverbrook is one of the surprises of this unfinished novel. The other surprise is Rebecca West herself. Sunflower is a book about falling in and out of love: it reveals that while West was having her much-publicised affair with Wells she fell for Beaverbrook; it also reveals that in order to examine this situation she thought it appropriate to make her heroine stupid. The beautiful blonde who is nicknamed Sunflower is a bad, though successful actress who often feels dim and is often inarticulate. She is not different in all respects from Rebecca West, who trained for the stage – according to her son she remained ‘an incurable self-dramatiser’ – and who took her pen-name from Rosmersholm. But the inarticulacy and dimness are all Sunflower’s own. On the first page of the novel she is being dumb about machinery; on the last page she is seen worrying about her party dress and the pallor of her lips. When men talk about politics she goes blank; her pronunciation of long words is precarious. She often gets the giggles; her eyes often fill with tears; she is coltish and glamorous – she is like Goldie Hawn or Marilyn Monroe. Rebecca West, though sometimes at a loss for something to say, was seldom at a loss for words: soppy silence might seem a perfect disguise for her.
It isn’t, of course, partly because few of West’s other disguises are impenetrable. Sunflower provides a recognisable picture of Wells, and a grim view of what life with him was like. Essington, Sunflower’s lover, is a famous figure of the Left: a grammar-school boy from an unmoneyed home who becomes celebrated as a lawyer and a Liberal politician. He is a married man with a squeaky voice and a silvery moustache. He is a bully and a wheedler, who humiliates her in public and roars at her in private. West lets fly at him with some of the grievances she ventilated in her diaries and letters: he won’t leave his wife; their holidays together are made wretched by his crotchetiness and fussing. In Sunflower’s voice these complaints have nothing of the nag in them – little, even, of outrage. Sunflower is slow, and therefore sweet, and her anxieties are expressed in a tone of gentle wonder: ‘in lots of ways he seemed to feel that a wife should be better treated than someone you live with.’ It is a tone which, combining a girlish piping (‘lots of’ is typical of her golly-gosh way of going on about large issues) with an obtuseness about getting the point, seems designed to make her beloved’s behaviour appear more callous. It is a tone which makes Sunflower more plaintive than appealing.
There are traces of vengeance and traces of wishful thinking in West’s charting of the decline of the love-affair between Sunflower and Essington – a decline which forms a large part of the novel’s action. It is always Sunflower who tries to break away; always Essington who pleads, whines, and tempts her back with little treats. Sunflower claims to celebrate its heroine’s release from her overbearing lover: ‘she had had her last quarrel with Essington ... he had gone away for ever ... she was free.’ But the novel is never free of Wells: his voice can be heard throughout its observations, arguments and prose. It can first be heard expressing itself in the notion that free spirits are constantly at threat from a salacious mean-mindedness that stalks the streets. Sunflower, ogled by a group of day-trippers, is thrown into a massive panic by the idea that ‘they were thinking of her as a sexual being’: she notes the cheap cut of their clothes and ‘a kind of grease on the surface of their gaze, a kind of scum of squalid feeling’. Ann Veronica, conscious of the ‘desire and appraisal’ in men’s eyes, is similarly panicked by a sense of ‘dim and tawdry conceptions of passion and desire’, and reminded that ‘a girl does not go alone in the world unchallenged ... that evil walks abroad and dangers, and petty insults more irritating than dangers, lurk.’
Wells’s influence is also apparent in the celebrations, often leaning towards sentimentality, of unsung provincials and lower-middle-class life. There are two kinds of ‘little men’ in this novel. There are the stumpy sexy males Sunflower goes for – men of power like Essington and the Beaverbrook-figure Sir Francis Pitt, who are proclaimed as ur-men: ‘The first men in the world must have looked like him ... For hunting and snaring it would be better if they were little.’ There are also the Mr Polly figures, who have no sexual aura, and are seen contentedly living lives which are deemed to be obscure. Sunflower meets one at the beginning of the novel, ‘a stupid flat-spoken little man who kept a garage in Pack-bury’. She starts by sneering at him – wondering the while at her lover’s insight into such men – and stays to marvel at the ‘little man’s’ adoration of his plain wife and their restful unintellectual life together. A Wellsian escape from metropolitan life seems to be urged: better, Sunflower thinks, to live like her mother, ‘with a horrid little house and not very much money’, but all ‘very jolly’, with lots of shopping and sewing and chatting to the milkman. The less superficially alluring, it seems, the more sincere.
In fact, Sunflower escapes to the embraces of Sir Francis Pitt, who has a large head, a huge mouth, and ‘as much of a body as a man needs’. He is friendly with a small Australian cartoonist of unimpeachable integrity. His manner of talking is said to be ‘like spoken leaded type’. Victoria Glendinning’s afterword to the novel tells us that West met Beaverbrook in 1918, when he was Minister of Information and Wells was briefly Chairman of the Policy Committee for Propaganda in Enemy Countries. She and Wells dined with Beaverbrook and his wife, and she wrote to a friend about his ‘fascinating’ table talk and ‘real vitality – the genius kind’. They seem to have had an encounter in London, and five years later met in America where West was lecturing – according to her, to escape from Wells – and spent Christmas together in a New York hotel: this was, she explained later, ‘on the understanding that they were in love.’ For Beaverbrook the episode was apparently just a fling: soon he was telling West that ‘life together in London is impossible’ and ‘talking of our past infatuation as if it were a tremendous joke ... I suddenly realised that he was physically quite indifferent to me.’ West seems to have been more involved. She began by blaming the end of the affair on Beaverbrook’s impotence, rather than on lack of regard, then worried that she was the cause of his impotence. She started to write Sunflower in 1925: Beaverbrook heard of the project and signalled disapproval. In 1927, troubled by her sexual failures, she went into psychoanalysis, jotting notes on her dreams and her analysis on the back of the manuscript of Sunflower.
West postponed the completion and publication of Sunflower, frightened, she said, that Beaverbrook ‘would wreak some awful vengeance on me’. Beaverbrook’s vengeance was as likely to have been provoked by thoughts of Lady Beaverbrook – a figure conveniently absent from West’s fictional account – as by any knowledge of how he might be presented in the novel, where an attempt is made to render him humane as well as thrilling. Beaverbrook’s devotion to Bonar Law is acknowledged in the portrait of Pitt’s friendship with the dying politician Hurrell; his grief at Bonar Law’s death from cancer of the mouth is depicted with characteristic excess when Hurrell dies haemorrhaging over Pitt’s shirt front. But he might have found cause for complaint in the fact that Sir Francis Pitt, though humane, is barely human. He is, first, a figure of high camp. He lives in a kitsch villa which has a ‘monstrously swollen’ tower and a statue of Eros in the garden. He keeps borzoi dogs which appear at the dinner table to lick port from his paw-like hands and sway with him to ‘a rhythm of turbulent animal tenderness’. He is also a piece of rough trade. Sunflower spots that he hasn’t been ‘nicely brought up’ when he snorts and brushes against her: she considers the possibility that he ‘might be cheap and common when they made love’. None of this is held against him: the more ungainly he appears – he is ‘hideous’, ‘unborn’, ‘like a flop-eared spaniel pup’ – the more Sunflower wants to stroke him. It is even held to be to his credit that this politician – or newspaperman – belonged to an earlier age of primeval simplicity, ‘an age’, she writes, ‘when words were not yet important’. Those were the days.