Big Thinks

Rosemary Dinnage

  • Selected Letters of Rebecca West edited by Bonnie Kime Scott
    Yale, 497 pp, £22.50, May 2000, ISBN 0 300 07904 4

Rebecca West died 17 years ago at 90, in a comfortable flat overlooking Hyde Park. She was a Dame Commander of the British Empire, to her amusement and gratification. Will she be remembered more as a character, thoroughly damely and commanding, or for her writings? Eleven novels, of no outstanding literary merit; nine other books on general subjects, of which the most admired (and especially relevant today) is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, on Yugoslavia; a mass of articles on the public affairs of her time. She was an oracle, a pontificator, and unclassifiable; had she written only fiction or only political analysis, she might have left a more settled reputation. She was chagrined to know quite well that she would be remembered for her private life: her affair with H.G. Wells – girl, 21, meets bounder, 47 – and the birth of their son. The story is not gossip fodder, but tragic and central to her life. When Wells is properly reassessed as a writer, it will be known which of the two leaves the greater literary reputation.

She knew – came to know – everybody who was anybody, so this first selection of her letters, as well as sparkling with wit and malice, is full of the great and famous (the really great and famous such as the Queen, wearing ‘something one could buy in a dress-shop in the high street in High Wycombe’). The selected two hundred letters are culled from around ten thousand. I imagine that in those left unculled there is more about her endless minor illnesses and much, much more of the paranoia that grew worse with age. Enough is present here to show how it went. The background to the great chip on her shoulder must have come partly from having an illegitimate child, excruciatingly humiliating in her day. Virginia Woolf, another sharp-eyed lady, wrote that all West’s difficulty came from ‘the weals and scars left by the hoofmarks of Wells’. (She also had comments about dirty nails and so on; Rebecca, for her part, would not ‘have fed a dog’ from one of Vanessa Bell’s plates, and characterised Lytton Strachey’s beard as ‘an extension of his personality in the direction of doubt’.) In these letters she often ascribes her troubles to the demon Wells; but her temperament was formed earlier, as Victoria Glendinning’s biography (1987) shows.

She was not born Rebecca West but Cicely Fairfield. (The adoption as pen-name of one of Ibsen’s characters – mistress of a married man who urges him to joint suicide – is extraordinary.) She had a painfully déclassé childhood which, like unmarried motherhood, was cruel in those days. Spendthrift father left wife and three daughters when Cicely was nine. The girls were clever, money was short, relatives embarrassing, but they got an education. All four women were socialists and suffragists. The young Rebecca, as is so well known, got Wells’s attention by cheekily calling him ‘the Old Maid among novelists’ in a book review. (Subtext: ‘Come and disprove it.’) He approached but then retreated. (Subtext: ‘Come and get me.’) She threatened to shoot herself; he dropped his current mistress and returned, and at their second sexual meeting made her pregnant – he had only just got over the scandal of doing the same to another lovely young girl. She had captured a truly naughty Daddy; he, she was to say in a letter to her son, ‘wanted the panache of having a child by the infant prodigy of the day’. Both, we can now see, were fighting the pain of their social origins; but there was love, though he did not leave his marriage, and they stayed (in a sense) together for ten years. The difficulty of bringing up her son Anthony alone caused distress and, later, bitter resentment on Anthony’s side.

All this is related in letters here to Wells, to friends and, in terms that are painful to read, to her son. She had done everything for him, she says, his father nothing; no, she did not send him to boarding-school at two years old, he was three; ‘You have one grievance against me, and only one; that I did not have an abortion and kill you.’ His grievance, no doubt, was that he had been passed from hand to hand like a parcel far too young. But she had to, or wanted to, earn a living and a reputation. The whole tragedy so shaped her life that it is hard to imagine what form, without it, the life would have taken. A much better one? Or perhaps she would have found storms of love and hate somewhere else.

The effect of these years is visible in the tremendous haughtiness of her grande dame years. ‘I can’t reconcile myself to being treated as an inferior scatterbrain by someone with whose crazy behaviour I have been coping all my life, without a word of thanks, or of regret,’ she wrote of her well-meaning elder sister. ‘There is a reference to me on page 39 which I wish you had asked me about’ is a typical opening to letters to authors and editors. James Joyce, for some complicated reason, ‘made a long attack on me in Finnegans Wake’. And so on.

When in the 1950s she was mistaken, in her even-handedness, for a supporter of the witch-hunter Joseph McCarthy, she wrote to J.B. Priestley: ‘I have never written or spoken a single word in defence of McCarthy ... Can you suggest why ... I should suddenly fall for a half-baked gorilla from the Middle West?’ Did that mean, she asked, that she could never mention Communist infiltration into certain bodies in the USA? As a liberal who had seen enough to detest Communism, she felt herself under every kind of attack for speaking out. Her marriage in 1930 to a part-German banker (at first a source of pride, but not entirely successful), and her network of acquaintance in the States, meant that she was exceptionally well informed about world affairs. She would have greatly enjoyed outraging current political correctness.

But the friends she made, as well as unmade! The letters’ editor, Bonnie Kime Scott – a careful one, though not generous with background information – mentions the eagerness of people to offer material and contribute to the book. Though most recipients of letters are now dead, I think they would have been glad to share some of their memorable comments; on Ingrid Bergman, for instance, ‘a nice soul, but ... common and mannerless ... she might well be a housemaid in a big Hamburg hotel’; on Mary McCarthy, who had ‘a behind built on the lines of a canal barge’. The writer Elizabeth Jenkins was granted a wondrous tribute in a letter to Virginia Woolf:

a disordered blonde, about whom I felt something that could only be expressed by the haughty words I heard a lady use to another at 1 in the morning at the corner of Dover St. ‘What are you doing here with us? You are the Strand cut, not Piccadilly.’

‘I’m sure she is a very nice woman,’ she later conceded. The wit was not all malicious. The ways of cats are caught well in her grieving letter over Ginger Pounce, a fine marmalade creature:

He ... was always very careful not to make a fuss of me, but in a cagey way let me know that he knew I was doing pretty well for him and there were no hard feelings. He had a very reserved, reluctant way of licking my hand in a way that suggested he was saying to himself: ‘I hope to God the woman won’t start to think I want to marry her.’

These people were presumably not her friends (apart from the cat), but many others were, both men and women. To the latter, she is sometimes heartbreakingly honest about the distresses in her life. Her attitude to men is generally the one that is nowadays very popular: they are unfortunately rather endearing, but quite hopeless. There are, though, some very gentle letters of condolence in the collection. West’s pattern was to do battle and then collapse with an illness, which perhaps indicated a yearning for gentleness that she resisted as others would alcohol or drugs – in the war against humbug, it had to be avoided. Fierceness was all. Fierceness and some fun – even her angry son admitted that she could be a wonderful companion.

Should one dwell on the wit and malice, the private life and neuroses of a woman who was made Dame of the British Empire and member of the Légion d’Honneur? She herself would certainly have disliked it. Did she not write on politics, on travel, on literature, history, feminism – on most of the concerns, in fact, of her century? The difficulty is that her range was so wide that it can hardly be represented in these two hundred letters; besides, being very feminine (in spite of the alarm she sometimes aroused in men), she did not hive off her writing from her feelings and personal experience – they are part of the oeuvre. Objectivity was not her style. (Wells’s unsurpassable put-down of this style, quoted in Glendinning’s biography, has got to be mentioned in this context: ‘You have a most elaborate, intricate and elusive style which is admirably suited for a personal humorous novel ... You are ambitious and pretentious and you do not know the measure and quality of your power.’ As a whole, though, ‘it is a sham. It is a beautiful voice and a keen and sensitive mind doing “Big Thinks” to the utmost of her ability – which is nil ... There my dear Pussy is some more stuff for your little behind. You sit down on it and think.’ The hoofmark of Wells! Who would not be left with a lifelong sense of rage?) In her book on the postwar trials of Nazi war criminals and pro-Nazi British, she found a good channel for her interest in suspicion and betrayal, as well as her sharp distinctions between black and white, good and evil. ‘Judgmental’ they could be called, by people who like to stick to shades of grey.

The place to see her moral philosophy hammered out most impressively is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – for the reader who can manage it. This study of Yugoslavia just before the Second World War is very long indeed – 350,000 words, she estimated – and, as she says in a letter here, is better in the second half than the first. The book gets off the ground very, very slowly. At first, on rereading it, I wondered why it had sent me wandering round Macedonia some years ago, and finding it very different from the country West saw. Such longueurs in the book, so many rather bogus conversations with the husband whom in life she found dull. But as she finds more meaning in the history and way of life of these Balkan peoples, so she finds a faith of her own there.

West herself wondered at her dedication to the book. Why, she wrote to Alexander Woollcott,

should I be moved in 1936 to devote the following five years of my life, at great financial sacrifice and to the utter exhaustion of my mind and body, to take an inventory of a country down to its last vest-button, in a form insane from any ordinary artistic or commercial point of view – a country which ceases to exist? I find the hair rising on my scalp at the extraordinary usefulness of this apparently utterly futile act.

For her own needs, it did prove useful. ‘I have a feeling that once I have done this book all my work & my life will be simpler,’ she had earlier written to her husband.

The project began with a British Council lecture tour in 1936. This was followed by a return visit with her husband – ‘It is more wonderful than I can tell you,’ she promises him at the beginning of the book – and then a third visit. She felt somehow more naturally Balkan, once she had discovered the place, than English; it was a mother country, a place where ‘the mode of life was so honest that it put an end to perplexity.’ Having battled against English greyness all her life, she found a natural home in the beauty and desolation, savagery and hospitality, of this very un-English place where nothing was stifled or denied. This hardly comes out in the letters; it was all poured into the book.

In Yugoslavia, which in spite of its poverty she loved for the richness of colour and of a ‘unique sort of healthy intensity’, she worked out a philosophy of life – and of her own life, which she felt had gone essentially wrong. It was inspired by two symbols with far-reaching associations. One – the lamb – she saw being carried to a sacrificial stone in Macedonia, a bloodstained altar to which barren women prayed. The falcon occurred in a famous poem on the battle of Kosovo (which we all know about now). It was translated for her: Tsar Lazar, leader of the Serbs against the Turks, is visited by a grey falcon with a message. If you want to defeat the Turks, it says, gird on your swords and fight. But if you want a heavenly kingdom, build a fine church here, and let yourself and your army be defeated. The prince chooses the heavenly kingdom, and is indeed defeated. It was in 1389.

West was living, of course, in the shadow of Hitler and the approaching war. What got through to her was the wrongness of Tsar Lazar’s choice. If people can destroy themselves, can have an innate impulse towards defeat, ‘then all the world is a vast Kosovo.’

From the sacrificed lamb she felt she had learned the ugliness of the principle of sacrifice, and the deep hold it had on the imagination, including her own. It was behind the atrocious Christian doctrine of the Atonement. ‘None of us, my kind as little as any others, could resist the temptation of accepting this sacrifice as a valid symbol. We believed in our heart of hearts that life was simply this and nothing more, a man cutting the throat of a lamb on a rock to please God and obtain happiness.’ But then, disliking the cruelty, human beings are fatally drawn towards the role of sacrificial victim; again, they choose defeat.

She had written about this before – ‘The desire to frustrate ourselves, not to be what we are’ – but it was Yugoslavia and her book that integrated the knowledge. In the epilogue to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, written after the Second World War had started, she continues the theme, with the suicide of nations and Europe’s self-destruction in the ongoing war. After the war, she was convinced that when Britain backed Tito rather than Mihailovitch to be leader of Yugoslavia a gross mistake was made. (The editor of the letters might have given a fuller account of this crucial decision.) As late as 1972 she addressed a letter to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, included here, in which she repeats this view and documents it.

The insights of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon felt right for her own life, apparently so successful but, she believed, tragic in personal relationships. She had one more blow to come. When her rather befuddled husband died in 1968, years after their marriage became celibate, she found out that he had been pursuing a positive harem of women for years. She wrote to a friend her most bitter words: ‘You say “this has been a bad experience.” But it’s been more than that. It’s been a bad life; and the only one I have.’

This would probably not have been her final, considered judgment. What would she have made of the new millennium’s political state? She knew how little federation and co-operation meant to people compared to love of country: ‘For the last 19 years,’ she wrote to Lionel Trilling, ‘I have been coming more and more in contact with exiles and refugees as they presented themselves before me in increasing destitution and it was nationalism, the pride of a people in their own country and in their own culture’ which mattered to them. In Serbia she had seen with shock a cross dedicated to fallen fighters for freedom, 1389-1912. Now the second date would have to be chiselled out and advanced by – a century? Perhaps more.