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Conservative Rebel

1.

Telling the truth is really a very difficult job indeed,” wrote Rebecca West. If, as she did, you live into your ninetieth year, your truth-telling is an enterprise likely to leave a trail of wounded in its wake. Born into the nineteenth century, she focused on the urgent concerns of the twentieth: murder and mass murder, treason and trahison des clercs. Her prodigious output included eleven witty novels, which offer a graceful and nuanced exploration of the emerging consciousness of twentieth-century women, and a short life of Saint Augustine, published in 1933.

She worked for five years on Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, subtitled “A Journey through Yugoslavia,” which was published in 1941; part polemic, part poem, both monumental and idiosyncratic, it displays her unique blend of hard research, personal insight, and descriptive felicity. Her reportage was both empathic and grandly opinionated; her illuminating, stern, deeply felt account of the Nuremberg hearings leaves in the mind pictures of the accused perhaps more vivid than anything in her fiction. The Meaning of Treason, first published in 1947, was an account of postwar trials, notably that of William Joyce, known as Lord Haw-Haw, who had broadcast Nazi propaganda to Britain; eloquent, personal and combative, it was a best seller and the forerunner of the kind of documentary novel that would later make Truman Capote famous. No single form or genre was sufficient to contain her energy, and she lived as hard as she wrote. Rebecca West went everywhere, read everything, knew everyone. As Bonnie Kime Scott says in her editor’s introduction, “To read her letters in an informed way is to receive an education in the culture of the twentieth century.”

It is estimated that she wrote ten thousand letters in her lifetime, and some two hundred of them are reproduced here. She set a great deal of value on them; she designed them for the public realm and expected addressees to preserve them, though she insisted to Anaïs Nin that “I loathe having the details of my private life published to the world.” Publication was Rebecca’s business, and with it goes the artist’s necessary self-exposure; but she found it difficult to accept that stories take on a life apart from their teller. Her life and work are fascinating because there were contradictions in her politics, in her sexuality, in everything she did and everything she was; in old age she spoke of the “distressing multiplicity” of the human personality. She was a rebel whose instincts were profoundly conservative, a proud outcast who loved the status quo. She was a person of strongly expressed tastes and opinions: often wise, seldom benevolent. It is easy to be intimidated by West’s mind, which is quick and digressive; in the digressions, she shows off her learning. Her fiction suggests she has the grace of empathy, and she takes herself to be perceptive in psychological terms and an acute social analyst. But you can also make the case that she is a class-bound snob, frequently as insensitive to the nuances of history as to the nuances of the heart; that she is aggressive, egotistical, a crusher of dissent, an intellectual bully. It is her vices, as much as her virtues, that make her letters so compelling.

Cicily Fairfield, who would later abandon her name and call herself after an Ibsen character, was born in 1892. Bonnie Kime Scott here supplies her with a ludicrous family tree, going back (with a few hundred years of ellipsis) to “Plantagenet kings.” It is only the generation immediately preceding Rebecca that matters very much. Her Anglo-Irish father was a clever and charming man whom she would later compare to Oscar Wilde, though “we never had the satisfaction of seeing him go to prison.” He seems to have abandoned his family and died in 1906, leaving his widow poor, and with three daughters, of whom Rebecca was the youngest. Later, she would write to George Orwell, “My childhood was spent in extreme poverty.” It was genteel poverty rather than the sordid kind, entailing cramped contrivance and self-denial, and she and her sisters were well-educated with the aid of scholarships and grants. The Fountain Overflows (1957), which is perhaps the most winning of her novels, offers a reimagined version of her family life. Her eldest sister, Lettie, a clever and authoritative woman, was distressed by what she took to be a portrait of herself in the character of the humorless, talentless sister called Cordelia. Lettie and Rebecca would have a lifelong rivalry, the latter rebelling against what she saw as the dictatorship Lettie had exercised in her childhood.

At the point where the letters begin Rebecca is fourteen, an evolving feminist under the influence of Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughter Christabel, and other leaders of the struggle for women’s rights; “a flapper dogs body” was how she later described herself. Through the suffragists she met Fabian luminaries, and began to write for the Freewoman and a socialist paper called the Clarion. Her style was funny and disrespectful and hard-hitting. Shaw said: “Rebecca West could handle a pen as brilliantly as I ever could, and much more savagely.” That hearty phrase, “handle a pen”—as if a pen had parity with a chisel or spade—has the reek of seedy insecure masculinity about it, and tells us a good deal about the literary milieu in which she would make her name.

Meanwhile, at twenty, she held no reputations sacred. In her review of H.G. Wells’s Marriage, she called the author “the Old Maid among novelists”: “even the sex obsession that lay clotted on Anne Veronica and The New Machiavelli like cold white sauce was merely the Old Maid’s mania: the reaction towards the flesh of a mind too long absorbed in airships and colloids.”

H.G. Wells was then in his mid-forties, and world-famous. Having been called an old maid, he was bound to want to alert Rebecca to the true state of affairs. He arranged a meeting. “He talked straight on from 1.15 till 6.30 with immense vitality and a kind of hunger for ideas.” Mrs. Wells, Rebecca noted, was “charming but a little effaced.”

The effaced Jane Wells was to figure large in Rebecca’s personal demonology in the years to come. More nanny than wife, she presided benignly over H.G.’s many love affairs, confident that he would not leave her for any woman who cared less than she did for his home comforts. Wells had already impregnated a beautiful and intelligent young girl called Amber Reeve, and the affair had caused many of his circle to drop him and Amber to be married off in haste to a suitable young Fabian. At the time he met Rebecca he was involved with the writer Elizabeth von Arnim. He flirted with Rebecca and dropped her. In the spring of 1913 she wrote a letter of extreme passion, not devoid of insight, accusing Wells of being “unconsciously hostile” to her, and hinting at suicide. How unconscious was the hostility? Subsequent events would have ended the career of a less determined woman. The affair began; so did the letters. West and Wells called themselves “panther” and “jaguar,” and the cumulative effect is as embarrassing as if they had styled each other Bunnykins. Can there be two sleek predators in one relationship? It was West who was left holding the baby.

Anthony was born on the day the Great War broke out. Later Rebecca would write to him, “You have one grievance against me, and one only: that I did not have an abortion and kill you.” Rebecca would later insist that Anthony’s conception had not been intended, and for Wells he represented a failure of sexual technique; rather strangely, he blamed his failure to practice coitus interruptus on his fear he might be disturbed in the act by his valet. As an unmarried woman with a child, Rebecca was now outside polite society, and had to skulk out of sight, in provincial houses with sneering servants. The trials of the next few years were predictable: “I never now can sleep till 1, and Anthony wakes me up several times in the night and finally starts singing comic songs and doing conjuring tricks and otherwise hymning the dawn at 6.30. The consequence is that when I put him to bed at 6 I cannot do anything except sit and stare at my work. I am dog-tired.”

Anthony grew up calling his mother “Auntie Panther” and his father “Wellsie.” The secret of his birth was kept from him and when he found out that he was Wells’s illegitimate son he felt he had become “a scandalous and disgraceful object.” Over the years Rebecca would make attempts to break off her relationship with Wells but was always drawn back by the idea that he might increase his provision for Anthony and that he might treat him equally in his will with his two sons by Jane. There were endless quarrels about the boy’s upbringing. In 1929 Rebecca called Wells “cruel and petulant and greedy,” and later the same year, writing to Bertrand Russell, she said, “His behavior seems to me insane. I am aware from my knowledge of him that he has a violent anti-sex complex like Tolstoy’s—You punish the female who evokes your lust…. Anthony ought not to be left in the care of this lunatic.” Later she was to regret this letter, and when Wells died suddenly in 1946 she acknowledged how deeply they were bound together: “Dear H.G., he was a devil, he ruined my life, he starved me, he was an inexhaustible source of love and friendship to me for thirty-four years, we should never have met, I was the one person he cared to see to the end, I feel desolate because he has gone.”

As Anthony grew up he was unable to accommodate himself to the versions of the world put out by his parents, and felt the need to make a version of his own. In 1955 he published a novel, Heritage, which could be read as a portrait of his mother, her husband, and Wells. West could not reconcile herself to what she described as the “monstrous, clotted spite” of the novel. She who had protested about censorship wanted to censor her own son. “God forbid that any book should be banned,” she had once written. “The practice is as indefensible as infanticide.” The sentiment is intended to shock, and perhaps does shock, but only by its casual untruth; there are degrees of censorship, but not degrees of death. West seemed to act hypocritically in this affair, but she had found herself in a hard place; it is hard to make public virtues operate in the private sphere, hard to stick to your principles when they come and squat on your own doorstep. The truth seems to be that she did not think Anthony was entitled to his own story.

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