Dame Cissie

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • Rebecca West: A Life by Victoria Glendinning
    Weidenfeld, 288 pp, £14.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 297 79084 6
  • Family Memories by Rebecca West and Faith Evans
    Virago, 255 pp, £14.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 86068 741 4

There were giant-killers in those days. Storm Jameson, rallying English writers in defence of peace and collective security, had to toss up to decide between Rebecca West and Rose Macaulay for the place of honour. Between these three women enough power should have been generated even for an impossible cause. They were tireless collectors of facts – Rose used to take her newspaper-cuttings everywhere – and what courage they showed, what endurance, what determination to call the world sharply to order, what unanswerable wit, what impatience for justice. They were all prepared to outface the mighty, but they also judged themselves, on occasion, more strictly than anyone else would have dared. ‘When I come to stand,’ wrote Storm Jameson, ‘as they say – used to say – before my Maker, the judgment on me will run: she did not love enough ... For such a fault, no forgiveness.’ ‘As we grow older,’ said Rebecca West, ‘and like ourselves less and less, we apply our critical experience as a basis for criticising our own consciences.’ It isn’t surprising that her son grew up with the ‘idea that a woman was the thing to be, and that I had somehow done wrong by being a male.’

But Rebecca also wrote in her old age: ‘I was never able to lead the life of a writer because of these two overriding factors, my sexual life, or rather death, and my politics.’ Here she is both attacking and defending herself, for she felt that the world, on the whole, had treated her basely. From the age of 18 she made her own life, but she was not altogether satisfied with the results. She would have liked to subsume, perhaps, the lives of both her sisters, Lettie, the correct benevolent professional woman, Winnie, the contented housewife, ‘living decently in a house with children’. She would have liked to live in Rosmersholm without drowning herself, and in the doll’s house without letting it defeat her. Her voice, which she found so early, is that of an elder sister, not the youngest. Samuel Hynes has even called it ‘episcopal’ – ‘praising the righteous, condemning heretics, explaining doctrine’. She found it easy to attract, almost as easy to dominate, and ‘if people do not have the face of the age set clear before them, they begin to imagine it.’ Authority, then, became a duty, and yet ‘I could have done it,’ she believed at times, ‘if anybody had let me, simply by being a human being.’

Some of her first pieces, for the Free-woman, the socialist Clarion and the New Statesman, were reprinted by Virago in 1982. They were written in her teens, or just out of them, when she first arrived in London, a phenomenon, a marvellous girl, reckless, restless, brilliant and indignant. All her life she remained pre-eminently a journalist. To the very end, in illness, in fury, in distress, and when almost spent, she continued to react, as a plant does to the light, to new information or even to gossip. She was always on the alert, as Our Correspondent from the moral strongholds of the 20th century. Her first novel, however, the beautiful Return of the Soldier (1918), seemed to class her as what was then called a ‘psychopathological writer’ – with her older friend May Sinclair, who had organised London’s first medico-psychological clinic. The Return is the case-history of an officer invalided home from the trenches. He is an amnesiac who cannot react either to his wife or to the memory of his dead child. His only surviving emotion is for a girl he once loved, who by now is a dreary little straw-hatted woman, ‘repulsively’ faded and poor. This woman courageously shows him the dead son’s clothes and toys, which have been locked away. He is cured, but this, of course, means that he will have to return to the Front.

When Rebecca called this novel ‘rather Conradesque’, she was thinking of the unvoiced struggle between good and evil, woman’s attempt to heal, man’s invention of war. In 1922, when Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle appeared in translation, she related his theory to her own view of the life-and-death struggle: it became, for her, part of the fierce self-justification of a natural fighter – she did not hold with Freud’s majestic hypothesis that human beings unconsciously recognised the ‘sublime necessity’ of the return to the inorganic state. Like many passionately committed writers, she created a God and then took Him to task for falling short of her standards. Her case against Him was that He made sacrifice and suffering a condition of redemption: ‘pain is the proper price for any good thing.’ This was also the basis of her complaint against Tolstoy and against St Augustine, whose life she was commissioned to write in 1933: he ‘intellectualised with all the force of his genius’ the idea of atonement through suffering. Rebecca set herself to wipe out not guilt but cruelty, by the exercise of reason. The Harsh Voice and the much later The birds fall down, the monumental Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and The Meaning of Treason are essentially variations of the same battle. Blake, she believed, was on her side, so was Lawrence – though this disconcertingly meant claiming both of them as champions of the mind. ‘The mind must walk proudly and always armed,’ she wrote, ‘that it shall not be robbed of its power.’ What was her mind like, though – ‘her splendid disturbed brain’, as Wells called it – and how far did she ever free it, if that was what she wanted to do, from her emotions? It has been called androgynous, but May Sinclair came closer to it when she said: ‘Genius is giving you another sex inside yourself, and a stronger one, to plague you with.’

This plague took the form of an extreme temperament. All her life Rebecca West was betrayed by the physical, collapsing under stress into illness and even hallucination. She was a romantic in the highest sense of demanding universal solutions. ‘I believe in the Christian conception of man and the French Revolution’s interpretation of his political necessities.’ But she was also romantic in a much simpler sense. The Return of the Soldier takes place in ancestral Baldry Court, perfect in its ‘green pleasantness’, except that the post arrives too late to be brought up with the morning tea. Parthenope is set in Currivel Lodge with its haunted croquet lawn. The character of Nikolai in The birds fall down was based on a Russian tutor – though he has become a Russian count. Isabelle, the heroine of The Thinking Reed, is young, exceedingly beautiful, ‘nearly exceedingly rich’, tragically widowed. She hunts the wild boar, her underwear is made to measure, her first lover ‘was not less beautiful as a man than she was as a woman’. As a novelist, Rebecca West liked to write about people who were rich or good-looking or high-born or all three, and her public liked to read about them. There was a converse: she found it difficult to forgive ugliness or coarseness – the crowds outside the court in the Stephen Ward case were worse because they had ‘cheap dentures’. All this was part of the great impatient shake with which she left the narrowness and just-respectability of her early life. As her son was to put it, ‘shabby-genteel life in Edinburgh marked those who had to endure it to the bone.’ The Thinking Reed was said to be about ‘the effect of riches on people, and the effect of men on women, both forms of slavery’, but, like The Great Gatsby, it shows that although money produces corruption, it also produces an enviable and civilised way of living, and there is nothing we can do about it. Good writers are seldom honest enough to admit this, but Rebecca West did admit it. With her limitless energy and enthusiasm, she called for harmony, but not for moderation. All that the reader can do, very often, is to trust the driver as her arguments bowl along in splendid sentences or collect themselves for a pause. ‘Men and women see totally different aspects of reality.’ ‘A great deal of what Kafka wrote is not worth studying.’ ‘Authentic art never has an explicit religious and moral content.’ These are sweeping statements – though sweeping, of course, can be a worthwhile activity.

Victoria Glendinning says in the introduction to her new biography of Rebecca West that it is ‘the story of 20th-century woman’, but that it is a sadder story than she had expected. She has divided her book into episodes: ‘Cissie’, the unstoppable young new arrival in London; ‘Panther’ (this was Wells’s name for her), fearlessly launching into questions of history, politics and morality, and into bed with Wells; ‘Sunflower’, the fiery successful international author and unsuccessful mistress of Beaverbrook; ‘Mrs Henry Andrews’, the awkwardly married famous writer; ‘Dame Rebecca’. The divisions are helpful, though rather like breakwaters trying to hold back a high tide. It is a fine biography, which for several reasons can’t have been easy to write. To start with, Stanley Olson, who became a friend of Dame Rebecca’s in 1974, was entrusted with the full-length Life. To conform with this, Victoria Glendinning decided to cut down on the later years. Rebecca lived to be 90, and the elision somewhat weakens the sense of endurance and of seeing the century through, also of that indestructibility – surely an active rather than a passive quality – which is dear to the British public. Another difficulty must have been the richness of the literary and political background, or battleground, and the sheer number of subsidiary characters. For all of them there was ‘an overwhelming mass’ of material. The only evidence missing seems to have been some diaries and papers which are restricted during the lifetime of Anthony West, and the correspondence with Beaverbrook, which Rebecca and Max burned together at her flat in 1930. With great skill Victoria Glendinning concentrates attention on the story she has been asked to tell. Rebecca was to the end, as one of her housekeepers put it, ‘black and white and crimson and purple and wild’. Victoria Glendinning treats each episode, black or white, with calming, professional good sense. She makes very few direct judgments, only once or twice risking a sad question – ‘How could she behave so unwisely or so badly?’ Some of the story has been paraded almost too often, some not at all. The book is equally successful with the well-known and the unfamiliar aspects, particularly with Rebecca’s marriage to Henry Andrews, who is usually thought of, if he is thought of at all, as a wealthy, totally faithful, slightly deaf, typically English banker with whom she found security and a country life. Slightly deaf he certainly was, but he soon ceased, it turns out, to be a banker, was partly Lithuanian, and was unable to resist a long series of tepid affairs with younger women. In Buckinghamshire, where they bought a house and farm, he was quite at a loss. ‘Rebecca wanted to do everything, having a flair for everything. She took over the management of the greenhouses and the kitchen and flower gardens from Henry ... complaining that he could not even take the dog for a walk.’ Henry pottered, and was considered in the village to be a comical old bugger. When he died, in 1968, he left 30 almost identical dark suits from Saville Row, each with money in the waistcoat pocket, ready for giving tips. Yet he lived with Rebecca and travelled with her and drove her about, often losing the way; and he was a man about the house. Victoria Glendinning re-creates him with something like tenderness, and points out that ‘it was not so different from many marriages.’ It is only strange as the choice of the brilliant and stormy woman who wrote that ‘the difference between men and women is the rock on which civilisation will split.’

But perhaps ‘strange’ is not the right word, because consistency was never Rebecca West’s main concern. In The Meaning of Treason (revised in 1962 to include studies of Philby, Burgess and Maclean), she sometimes confuses treachery with treason and examination with cross-examination, but this doesn’t affect the dazzling intelligence of her case-histories. As to why she wrote, she gave a number of explanations. She began ‘without choosing to do so – at home we all wrote and thought nothing of it.’ ‘My work,’ she said, ‘expresses an infatuation with human beings. I don’t believe that to understand is to pardon, but I feel that to understand makes one forget that one cannot pardon.’ She also said that she wrote her novels to find out how she felt. Victoria Glendinning believes that ‘she most revealed herself when describing somebody else.’ She has, therefore, to look even more attentively than most biographers at the correspondence of what Browning called House and Shop. This is a complex matter when it comes to the later work, in particular Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. In 1936 Rebecca was sent to Yugoslavia by the British Council (who might have guessed what would happen) as a lecturer, and she went there again in 1937 and 1938. Her book was a testament to the country with which she had fallen in love on a majestic scale. It was not finished until 1942, when the Yugoslav resistance to the German invasion had given it a new intention. The travel book was still there, with Rebecca as the passionate explorer and interpreter and Henry supplying – not always convincingly – the statistics, but it had deepened into a vast meditation on the history, politics, geography and ethnology of Eastern Europe, following, as she said, ‘the dark waters’ of the Second World War back to their distant source. To do it justice, Victoria Glendinning has had to summarise the troubled history of the southern Slavs (Rebecca was heart and soul with the Serbs), the shifts of British policy and the devices of the SOE and the Foreign Office. At one extreme, there is the ‘emotional, curlyhaired, Serbian Jew’ who acted as Rebecca’s official guide and fell in love with her; at the other, is her vision of Europe’s history as a crime committed by man against himself. The exposition here could not be clearer. When Rebecca declared that she had never made a continuous revelation of herself, she was admitting that she made a discontinuous one. The novels are probably the best place to look for her. ‘Non-fiction,’ she said, ‘always tends to become fiction; only the dream compels honesty.’ So the biographer arrives, with admiration and caution, at her own view of Rebecca West’s view of herself.

Virago, however, have now brought out an edited version of the family memoirs which she left, when she died, in draft form. She had worked at them, off and on, for the past twenty years – which means they are later than her autobiographical novel, The fountain overflows. Collected here are studies of the Mackenzie Wallaces (her grandparents, shopkeepers and musicians in mid-Victorian Edinburgh), of her mother Isabella, packed off to Australia, of her father, her sisters and herself. An enquiry into her husband’s earlier self is printed as an appendix. This has meant patient collating and cutting by the editor and by Diana Stainforth, Rebecca’s last secretary. Their title, Family Memories, suggests something cosier than we get, which is another episode in the strife between good and evil. Men are shown in ‘all the uninviting side of masculinity, all its sluttishness’, and yet with an unwilling admiration. The deadly antagonists are women – her sister Lettie, her aunt Sophie. Increasingly, Rebecca identifies herself with her mother, most of all in the Australian scenes, even though she is describing a country where she had never been. As Faith Evans says in her introduction, ‘the book is more like a sequence of novellas than a verifiable history,’ and its relationship to fiction is so delicate that the publishers have decided not to give it an index. The notes, however, show when a name is being altered or an incident transposed or when imagination seems to be taking over altogether. Certain truths which gave pain to Rebecca – the loss of her sense of pitch, her large hands – she sets down unflinchingly. Others are reconsidered through what she called ‘the force of memory as practised as an art’.