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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.

She got into her deepest tangles with him, and with others (like her sister Lettie), when she set herself to put the record straight, insisting that an exact account of what was said mattered more than a heartfelt account of what people heard. She prized the solid science of verification, and became enraged with those who inclined to veer away from the truth through fear of telling it. At worst, she had a mind that was closed and cold, like a small-town lawyer’s: prizing facts but estranged from imaginative truth. It may have been the effort to mediate between two mind-sets that led to the diversity of her work; neither novels nor reportage could satisfy a restless talent. Facts fueled her imagination and her imagination bred the desire for more facts. Her standards for herself were impossibly high, and she never became complacent. In old age, she wrote,

I am too good for the world of modern literature, and the way I come off so badly is that I know that I am not good enough for my world. I fall short and I fall short and only in parts of The Birds Fall Down have I ever felt that I was coming near what I wanted to do.

In 1930 Rebecca West married Henry Andrews, who was a banker and had business interests in Germany. She traveled with him and was able to assess the state of the country, which she found frightening. Already anti-German, and repelled by the Nazis, she asked in 1932, “How can we have anything to do with these cannibals?” Eventually Henry lost his job with the Schroders banking firm because he protested against the replacement of a Jewish colleague by a Nazi. Before and during the war he and Rebecca helped German refugees to settle and find employment. Later she was at her most scathing in denouncing the ignorance of the portion of the public who had no idea why their country was fighting. “I enclose a letter,” she wrote to Alexander Woolcott,

which is, I think, a supreme achievement…. The ghoul who wrote it is the wife of the Bishop of Lincoln…[who writes] complaining that the B.B.C. gave forth such alarming news bulletins, full of unpleasant stuff about the dictators, which might cause panic among the public and irritate these dictators, and prevented her from “going happily to bed—“ which I should have thought was a matter to be attended to by the Bishop of Lincoln rather than the B.B.C. I wept with rage….

At the time of this letter she was welcoming the “bouquets” for Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. In the same letter to Woolcott she describes what the book had cost her:

Why should I be moved in 1936 to devote the following 5 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?

Bonnie Kime Scott’s selection of letters shows how West’s interest and sense of purpose evolved, from her first visit to the Balkans as lecturer for the British Council (“a waste of your money and my time,” as she reported to head office in London), through two later journeys, which created multiple personal entanglements and a deep commitment to both the terrain and the people which would enmesh her in controversy for most of her life.

After World War II she would feel that she was a pariah, rejected by both the left and the right for her attacks on Tito, who was admired by many in the West who were ignorant of his pre-war Stalinist credentials. West did not trust an ideology that suppressed nationalism or presumed to abolish it. For her, love of country could not be superseded by internationalist ideals, and in 1947 she spoke in a letter to Beaverbrook of “the fact that treason is an attempt to live without love of country, which humanity can’t do—any more than love of family.” She may not have reflected that stateless people still live and are human, and find other passions to sustain them; or that the same is true of the survivors of broken families. Perhaps the point was too painful and too obvious. Anyone who follows West’s career, whatever his or her political views, will probably agree that for Rebecca “the meaning of treason” was personal and specific.

She often seemed to feel that those close to her were betraying her and threatening her. She wrote in 1960 of “the curious wish to annihilate me and every trace of me” which she detected among her acquaintances. Her post-war politics were distinguished by a flight from socialism, her definition of herself as “the last liberal,” and a progressively paranoid anti-Communist stance. At one time she thought that her frequent digestive upsets might be caused by poisoning, and when Anthony wrote Heritage she suggested that Communists had got hold of him and inflamed his grievances.

She believed communism to be a serious internal threat to the US, and got into trouble with fellow liberals by appearing to diminish what they were suffering at the hands of McCarthy, though she insisted that she had been misunderstood. She hit back at her critics in a most haughty grande-dame fashion, writing to Arthur Schlesinger in June 1953, “My knowledge of you makes me quite certain that you are not experienced enough, or clever enough, or wise enough, to adopt the attitude towards me of a schoolmaster instructing a backward pupil….” In this letter she stresses her record as an anti-Communist, anti-fascist writer, and yet when she seeks a definition of liberalism she runs to get it in her own review of a book by Alistair Cooke; satisfied, it seems, to have quoted such an authority, she settles for an equation of liberalism with libertarianism.

It is easy to see why she might disgust her opponents and her supporters too; in discussion she is a little too fond of the on dit, and of “a friend of mine” who knows some trade unionists who know some Communists…. At such times she is a kind of Jungian nightmare of the animus-ridden woman let loose into the world: you sense the base whispering rustle of collective prejudice, of gossips’ poisoned partialities. Though she and her husband worked hard during the years before the war to help their Jewish contacts inside Germany, anti-Semitism leaks from her pores. In 1953 she can still write that Bernard Berenson, while a “wonderful little creature,” is “nevertheless [my italics] a Jew born in Wilna.” It is an anti-Semitism of a very English kind, bound up with a social snobbery which seems so natural to its possessors that it is never analyzed or even noticed.

This prejudice comes as a package. She fears and flinches from homosexuality. She is anti-Catholic and anti-Irish—despite, or because of, her own Irish descent. Socially, she is so grand that in 1960 she condemns Richard Hoggart (of The Uses of Literacy) as “very ordinary red-brick”—a provincial product, that is, not an Oxbridge man like the people one knows. There is more here than the usual disheartening story of youthful radicalism turning to elderly conservatism. It is as if West is enchanted with her own legend, believing that a youthful reputation for bohemianism guarantees good faith for the rest of one’s life, and that to be forced out of respectable society is evidence of independence of mind. It seems a very modern mistake.

Bonnie Kime Scott, who is a professor of English at the University of Delaware, is not always the most reliable guide to the earthquake zones of West’s political passions. One must offer respect to the magnitude of the task. Given the length and diversity of Rebecca West’s career, the scope of her mind, the breadth of her range of reference, and the cosmopolitan nature of her friendships, her editor needs sympathy, fine judgment, and a wide general knowledge of the last century’s trivia as well as its central events. Her task is complicated by the fact that some of the more intriguing and intimate documents are missing or destroyed. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that she might have done better with the letters she has. The first task is to make a one-sided narrative rounded and comprehensible to the general reader, but her linking explanations are seldom enough to give a sense of the ebb and flow of her subject’s fortunes. To fill in the gaps one needs biographies at hand: Victoria Glendinning’s Rebecca West1 and Carl Rollyson’s Rebecca West: A Saga of the Century.2

Kime Scott does not correct West’s mistakes: for example, about the title of Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred, or her spelling of the name of the South African leader, Verwoerd. Sometimes we get half a story. She publishes a letter telling of West’s quarrel with Arnold Bennett over her hostile review of The Strange Necessity and her subsequent libel action, which is a serious matter for a writer; she does not tell us how the action was settled out of court, with West awarded costs and an apology. Sometimes she fails to annotate an interesting reference: a 1954 mention of “Craig” and his past is unsourced, though it refers to a case then under judicial review, which is still controversial; Christopher Craig, at sixteen, was sentenced to ten years imprisonment for his part in a robbery in which he shot and killed a policeman, while his nineteen-year-old accomplice Derek Bentley was hanged. The evidence has recently been under review and the campaign for a full pardon continues. Sometimes the annotations are comically obtuse. When West retails a bit of gossip about the sex life of King Farouk, Kime Scott thwarts our curiosity by a pious recital of the King of Egypt’s dates, his “unpopular policies,” and eventual downfall, which is not what we wanted to know. Sometimes she finds overelaborate explanations: when in 1960 West is complaining about the state of the parliamentary Labour Party, she is much more likely to be talking about the MP Sydney Silverman than about Abraham Silverman, an “economic adviser to the Analysis and Plans Section of the Air Force.” It looks very much as if Kime Scott reached for Who’s Who and was happy with the first Silverman she found.

2.

Rebecca West first visited the US in October 1923. She was treated as a celebrity, and despite her remarks in her letter to her sister Winifred, about the plainness of American women and the men’s lack of virility, she was dazzled by what she saw and heard on her lecture tour, and the trip raised her self-esteem and her hopes for the future. In the years to come she found friends and lovers in America, as well as more targets for her wrath. West’s judgments on fellow writers, whether they are English or American, are pithy and seldom charitable. When she writes that Evelyn Waugh is a “filthy little creature” this is routine abuse, but she is more observant when she calls Shaw “a eunuch perpetually inflamed by flirtation.” She is interesting about T.E. Lawrence: “two men in one skin, and why had the one given the hospitality of his body to the other little horror.”

She is no less caustic about her own sex. Laura Riding “writes quite atrociously, almost as badly as anybody I have ever come across, with the obvious exception of Middleton Murry.” Age does not mellow her. Reporting on a writer’s conference at the Edinburgh Festival in 1962, she is astonished by Mary McCarthy: “…Who said she was beautiful? She has long greasy hair which she can’t manage, and a behind built on the lines of a canal barge.” If this is more malicious that witty, she is sharp-eyed when she describes the deficiencies of Vanessa Redgrave’s film performance as Isadora Duncan: “Vanessa is made so awkwardly, she is the shape of an unskilled undertaker’s apprentice’s first attempt at making a coffin.” Writing in old age of her long-ago acquaintance with Virginia Woolf, she is almost benign: “…Any demented lady, even if a genius, is a difficult neighbour in the country.”

What might it have been like to get a letter from Rebecca West? She did not spare anyone’s feelings, confident that her advice, even if unpalatable, would hold good in the long term. Her 1953 letter to Ingrid Bergman (about the lack of talent and prospects West discerned in her husband, Roberto Rossellini) must have left its recipient trembling with shock. But when she was her better self, she spoke out of her life’s experience, with calm directness. Writing to her daughter-in-law, Kitty, about her threatened marriage, she says, almost humbly, “I would like to put some things before you that might be useful.”

Since you were both in your twenties when you married, one or other of you, and indeed both, were {bound} to fall in love again at some future date…. I don’t think…that you ought to think of this as an abnormal catastrophe—it is the necessary price you pay for early happiness. The only thing is that everyone should behave well, and that the later attack shouldn’t prejudice what you’ve made of your marriage….

Over the years she had seen at first hand the histrionic behavior of men, the stoicism of women; and yet she is not forcing a political point, but delicately pointing to a way of thinking that leads out of the fog of self-loathing and toward a reasonable future. She made many remarks to the effect that women must make the best of men, since no one was about to invent a third sex, but she herself seemed especially prone to misperceptions, especially liable to be deceived. The first five years of her marriage were among the happiest of her life. After she met Henry Andrews she wrote to her agent that he “seems to be the nicest man I ever met…. He says he’s going to look after me and let me write, so it ought to be grand.” But not long after their marriage Henry suffered a small stroke, which was undetected at the time but which led to progressive mental deterioration. Later, he became a figure of almost baffling diffidence. The poet Dachine Rainer, recalling her visit to West’s country house, writes, “When Henry met the train at High Wycombe I assumed from his manner and attire that he was the chauffeur. He began our drive…by saying ‘Miss West and I have been married for 31 years.”’

Though Rebecca believed he loved her and always had her interests at heart, he became more and more difficult to live with; in 1947 she wrote, “Not a day but he does something completely imbecile which causes me a great deal of trouble, and often humiliation.” After his death, letters (which she destroyed) revealed that throughout the years of their marriage, he had been a persistent and ridiculous womanizer: “If he was odd about money, he was odder about sex.”

Virginia Woolf, who did not entirely admire West, described her mind as “tenacious and muscular.” She was often ill, but she was tough and resilient, mentally and physically. She struggled all her life under the burden of other people’s expectations. She had become a successful, high-earning, critically esteemed author; but the world into which she was born did not necessarily value a woman for achievements like that. As a wife, a mother, she had been mostly a failure; her many love affairs had brought her both exquisite pleasure and the deepest humiliation. She was born equipped for happiness, with her share of personal beauty, an ear for music, a sharp visual sense, a lovely voice, a capacity for sexual pleasure. It was never enough, of course. In the late 1960s she wrote to Emanie Arling: “It’s been a bad life; and the only one I have.” There are occasional glimpses, in these letters, of the abyss that opened at her feet: the feeling that art has eaten up life. After Wells’s death she says, “I want to write nothing. I want to live and I have left it too long.”

Her life’s work was not easy to classify, and she suspected that her failure to dominate a single genre, rather than spanning several, detracted from her reputation. In 1973 she wrote, “I have forced my way into recognition of a sort, but I am treated as a witch, somebody to be shunned.” However inconvenient it might be, she did not deviate from her belief that prose should be “a sharp instrument of truth,” and tried her best to make it so. “I do care above all for reality,” she wrote in 1973, and she did not spare herself in pursuit of it; she looked hard and saw clearly, and when circumstances proved her wrong she retained her moral poise.

Her life and letters press her claim that “art is not a luxury, but a necessity.” They are a protest against emptiness, against superficiality, and against the sterility of the unexamined life.

  1. 1

    Knopf, 1987.

  2. 2

    London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995.

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