Rebecca West
Rebecca West; drawing by David Levine

The current interest in Rebecca West’s work, even if it is partly due to the pursuit of every and any feminist writer and partly homage to her age, is well deserved. But she is a critic’s nightmare. How can anyone have written so well and so badly? Have worked in so many different genres? Be so resistant to fitting any particular pigeonhole? If the four books under review were representative of her life’s work, she need not be taken too seriously; but in fact they are oddments from the very beginning and very end of her long writing career. One could say that they are interesting mainly because of their relation to the other books—except that it is so hard to relate the different parts of her work to each other.

She writes, she once said in a radio talk, to explore character: an unexceptionable explanation from a writer half of whose oeuvre has been fiction, except that it is only outside her novels that she really does so. When she has to invent, she generally flusters and fails; but once she has a theme, whether a journey or a political trial or a critical exposition, her gift for observing character and then fitting it into great sweeping generalizations and moral patterns comes into its own. She needs her characters to be somewhat at a distance: a fourth-century saint (Augustine), the peasants and monks and chambermaids and children of her Balkan journey, the human dregs in the dock at Nuremberg. Watching these like a hawk, interpreting them sub specie aeternitas, she is stunningly magisterial. “Who does she think she is?” we are inclined to ask as she explicates history, sorts out morality, defines our condition and destiny. Someone exceptionally well up to the job of doing so, is the answer.

But then there are tremendous failures. Here we have reissues of two early novels, from 1918 and 1929. In her early book reviews reprinted in The Young Rebecca she is hilariously cruel about what has displeased her, so let me borrow some of her cheek (if not her wit) and say that they are awful. It is their very awfulness that is endearing: we see that this powerful writer is not in fact the Archbishop of Canterbury and Regius Professor of History and Lord Chief Justice rolled into one, but an uneven writer who spans extremes of brilliance and disaster. The Return of the Soldier has just been made into a film, with Glenda Jackson as Margaret (shabby, with loyal gray eyes, and as full of natural goodness as a cup of Ovaltine) and Julie Christie as Kitty (dainty, rosebud-mouthed, very nasty—a recurring figure in West’s books). Caught between them is the shell-shocked booby Chris, a powerless hulk up for grabs by the women; for in the trenches he has lost the memory of his marriage to Kitty and thinks he is still Margaret’s lover. These two powerful females decide his fate: he must be woken from his shell shock, face the truth, and be handed back to Kitty. The final sentence sees her gloating over her repossession: “I heard her suck her breath with satisfaction. ‘He’s cured!’ she whispered slowly. ‘He’s cured!”‘

It is a curious amalgam of some of West’s themes: the necessity for truth at all costs; the ineffectuality of men as compared to women; the awfulness, however, of a certain kind of woman. But there is another element in her view of the sexes—and this is going to make modern readers squirm, for I assume the following to be serious:

…it was my dear Chris and my dear Margaret who sat thus englobed in peace as in a crystal sphere, [and] I knew it was the most significant as it was the loveliest attitude in the world. It means that the woman has gathered the soul of the man into her soul and is keeping it warm in love and peace so that his body can rest quiet for a little time. That is a great thing for a woman to do.

True. But it has been better put (Shakespeare, John Donne, Ella Wheeler Wilcox…).

Harriet Hume is even more of an oddity, given that it was written eleven years later, when West was in her midthirties and had meantime published a successful volume of essays and reviews, The Strange Necessity. Victoria Glendinning in her introduction to the novel charitably calls it “an exercise in the higher whimsy.” If the higher whimsy is what you want, it is your book; if not, it is simply embarrassing. West is nothing if not solid and vigorous and prosy, and this arch fantasy about two manikins (or manikin and womanikin) dances like an elephant. Dialogue such as, “You are riding softly down the moments as a snowflake rides down the airs, white, oh, so white, and weightless as anything in this ponderous universe, and you are trembling, trembling, trembling,” is neither serious nor a skit; simply skittish.


“I suspect you of being the embodiment of some principle,” says Arnold Condorex to Harriet Hume. “Are you love? Are you truth? You are not justice, though you might be mercy. Are you poetry? Or are you philosophy?” No, in fact. Not love, poetry, etc., but the Feminine Principle—“Write me down as all that Arnold Condorex rejected”—while the said Arnold stands for the Masculine. Harriet, who mews and twitters and scampers about on teeny birdlike feet, embodies things it would seem well worth rejecting; Condorex as masculinity, however, is simply a shit. They pursue each other through baroque landscapes and through the years, and the moral seems to be that the two principles must complement each other.

In fact, though, the female once again has the whip hand, for not only has Harriet the psychic gift of reading Condorex’s thoughts instantly—reasonable enough grounds for his eventual murder of her, one would imagine—but she is the one who enlightens him about what the two of them represent.

Humanity would be unbearably lackadaisical if there were none but my kind alive. ‘Tis the sturdy desire you have to shape the random elements of our existence into coherent patterns that is the very pith and marrow of mankind. Think, my love! You must admit that when you were not pursuing the chimera of greatness, you performed many very worthy achievements that enabled our species to establish itself on this globe more firmly.

In spite of this kindly pat on the head the Masculine Principle remains understandably gloomy, and the closing wish for the two ghosts—“A Very Happy Eternity”—seems unlikely to come true.

And this is the author who dismissed The Waves as pre-Raphaelite flummery! It is the crudeness of the revenge fantasy—superior women putting down inferior men—that stifles imaginative vitality in these novels. In The Thinking Reed of 1936, a much better book, this has been overcome.

It struck her that the difference between men and women is the rock on which civilization will split before it can reach any goal that could justify its expenditure of effort. She knew also that her life would not be tolerable if he were not always there to crush gently her smooth hands with his strong short fingers.

These are its closing words—an ending that veers rather endearingly between magisteriality and a touch of Forever Amber. But perhaps it is a handicap, in writing about the relationship between men and women, to be conclusive. To be aghast and muddled and fascinated is at least a good start.

Rebecca West’s long and unsatisfactory liaison with H.G. Wells has been well known at least since it was made the subject of a book in 1974.* Writers’ personal lives, perhaps, shouldn’t be raked over while they are still alive; but since West the feminist has much to say about men and women, one cannot pretend that her life story is irrelevant. The experience clearly hampered and damaged her, but perhaps also enriched her writing by making her so well aware of the irrationality of passion and the inadequacy of brisk solutions. Two of the four novellas published under the title The Harsh Voice in 1935 are about sexual obsession (and both involve flimsy men being dealt with by women, though not so crudely as in The Return of the Soldier and Harriet Hume). In “There is No Conversation” a woman tracks down someone she thought had been in love with her own disastrous husband, and discovers that in fact the woman had never cared a pin for him.

I told you that there was no conversation; that no one listens to what the other one says. But it appears that the inter-silence of the universe is more profound even than this. It appears that even the different parts of the same person do not converse among themselves…. I was utterly desolate, because of a cry from my heart, which was not reasonable, and had not been understood by the rest of me, which is governed by reason…. I had wanted her to lay something before me which I realized I had never ceased to seek, something which would make it right and reasonable that I should have spent ten years of my life with my first husband, enduring unfathomable agony, sustained by unsurpassable pleasure, until I was overcome by a fatigue that seemed like the judgment of a third person…. An insane part of me feels that there is a sanction for my life in that miserable and fruitless time, if only I could lay my hands on it, which transcends all the claims that I can make for myself because of these later years when I have been building up a tranquil home for people who are among the salt of the earth.

Perhaps this early love affair was an influence on the guiding theme that runs through all West’s mature work: that man is crucially divided between affirmative and self-destructive passions. When she pursued the married and rather notorious Wells via two suicide attempts she was a brilliant twenty-year-old at the start of a successful career; what could have been more self-obstructing? But the strength of her best work is this very recognition of our partition between Eros and Thanatos; in this, without benefit of jargon, she is one of the few true Freudians.


Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations…. There is nothing rarer than a man who can be trusted never to throw away happiness, however eagerly he sometimes grasps it.

This was written not in the post-nuclear age but just before the Second World War, in her account of her journey through Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. This is a marvelous work that outshines everything else she has written: poetic, declamatory, shrewd, funny, immensely ambitious (it runs to some 2,000 pages). In the Balkans, with their extremes of cruelty and heroism, poverty and beauty, she finds a metaphor for this struggle between light and darkness; though the book returns continually to the tragic and abominable, it is suffused with a kind of glow of sensuous appreciation for everything beautiful—especially human beings. She describes, in one passage, an Easter service in Macedonia. The church is crowded and everyone holds a candle; she thinks of the beauty of flame, and its cruelty.

I could be burnt to death in this church, though the air smelt of honey…. I let myself feel these fears to their extreme, with a certain sense of luxury, for facing me was this Macedonian woman, who could, better than anyone else I had ever met, give me an assurance on these points…. She made no spectacular declaration that man is to be saved; simply her attitude assumed that this Easter would end with no more fatality than any other Easter she had known, and her body, wasted yet proud in its coarse and magnificent clothes, proclaimed that death may last five hundred years yet not be death.

Rebecca West celebrates woman as the first sex, the strong sex, and this is a constant throughout her work. But where the early novels are clogged with daydream and anger, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon radiates good humor. Her husband (she made a happy late marriage) is made an important character in the book, teased, admired, and given sagacious speeches (while a German woman who accompanied them is an embodiment of the anti-life principle). Simply, everyone is in a fix: men are insecure creatures with the double burden of physical strength and dependence on women; women are committed to maternity, but vulnerable to men’s revengefulness and unreliability.

In The Young Rebecca we have the first of the three versions of her feminism, a version genuinely innocent of pain and complexity, the early writings of a prodigiously talented and high-spirited girl just out of her teens. These pieces have the humor and glow of her later work without its dark side: “Submission to unhappiness is the unpardonable sin against the spirit” is their motto. About a third of the collection consists of articles written in 1912 and 1913 for The Clarion, a radical socialist weekly edited by Robert Blatchford; another bunch, mainly book reviews, are from The Freewoman, a feminist journal so shocking that Rebecca West had been forbidden by her family to read it. It is all irresistibly witty and quotable. Her easiest targets are the antifeminists of the time; they go down like ninepins—the “fluffy yet resistant manner of Dr. Saleeby,” “Dr. Lionel Tayler’s interminable sentences,” “the fog-like featureless gloom of Sir Almroth Wright.” And (since this was before the time of trying to grapple with the strong-tender-fingers problem herself) she has a remorseless way with the sentimental novelist: “I was held from the very first page, whereon I read: ‘There were reservoirs of love in her—of wife-love and of mother-love—accumulating reservoirs, which had never been tapped’…. The conception of fate as a Metropolitan Water Board regulating the flow of spiritual liquids is immense.”

But she is as sharp as a knife, too, over women and the things they get away with. “A little later,” runs the summary of a novel, “he discovers that to furnish her house daintily with Bokhara hangings and brass-footed workboxes she has spent every penny of his income of six hundred and frittered away a thousand of his capital. She avoids discussion by having a baby in a sentimental and rather pretentious way.” For the middle-class lady “loafing about the house with only a flabby mind for company” she has no mercy. Nor has she for the creed of “virtue” and self-sacrifice:

Anti-feminists, from Chesterton down to Dr Lionel Tayler, want women to specialise in virtue. While men are rolling round the world having murderous and otherwise sinful adventures of an enjoyable nature, in commerce, exploration or art, women are to stay at home earning the promotion of the human race to a better world. This is illustrated by the middle-class father who never goes to church himself, but always sends his wife and daughters.

For the working woman she fights like a tiger; feminism never distracted her from economic injustice. Three vintage essays from The Clarion, 1913, show her at the top of her form. In “The Sheltered Sex: ‘Lotus-Eating’ on Seven-and-Six a Week” she casts an eye on a politician’s pronouncement that something must be done about women drawing too much welfare benefit. In a blazing rage she compares statements about the sanctity of motherhood with the wages that women in “the graceful feminine occupation of chain-making” are getting for an eighty-hour week.

If we want to make every woman a Madonna we must see that every woman has quite a lot to eat. But the working woman never has even enough to eat…. No civilisation has ever burdened woman so heavily before as the capitalist does today by making her a factory-hand by day, domestic drudge by night. The human frame is not built for such a strain.

In “The Sterner Sex” she compares the lot of the government employee in Whitehall—“cool and uncreased young men emerging from the cloister of their offices”—with its other employees, machine sewers of uniforms, whose wages had just been reduced by two shillings to seventeen-and-fourpence a week. And in “Mother or Capitalist? What the World Asks of Women” she attacks upper-class abuse of the working-class mother: “It is so much easier to accuse working women of feeding their babies on pickles and tea than to accuse society of poisoning these babies long before their little bodies came into being….”

Her contempt for charitable patronage is rock-firm. Charity is “an ugly trick,” “a virtue grown by the rich on the graves of the poor,” “cheap moral swagger.” And “attempts to poke the sickly and exhausted into unspontaneous gambols” (good phrase! take note, street theaters and community art centers and neighborhood play schemes) provoke her special scorn. “Surely everyone can see that a community must be sick unto death before its amusements have to be organized and imposed upon it…. You won’t get them to practise art now any more than domestic economy. They’re tired and cross and hungry, and they won’t play.”

A writing career of seventy-one years is a rare phenomenon; 1911 seems immeasurably distant even to those of us who are middle-aged. What consistency is there between the young journalist and the eighty-nine-year-old author of the text of 1900 (a better-than-average picture book based on that year) and the author of the books and articles in between? Certainly the twenty-year-old who wrote loftily that “the only way to medicine the ravages of this fever of life is to treat sex lightly,…to think no more hardly of two lovers who part soon than we do of spring for leaving the earth at the coming of June” differs from the writer who struggled ambivalently but more realistically with the relation between men and women. The red-hot socialist of 1913 is not the same as the grave indicter of communism and its spies. And she never did succeed with the idea she proposed in 1912: “Some woman ought to write a novel about a man and the struggle of his soul with the universe, as moving and as pathetic as Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It would be a great thing for a woman to do as much for one man as Meredith did for all his women.”

But in 1900 (a year in which men, “poor stuff” though she once called them, did a lot beyond annexing the Tonga Islands for Britain—discovered Knossos, composed Tosca, wrote Uncle Vanya, elaborated the quantum theory) the young writer is still clearly visible. The wit is as sharp as ever (“It is extraordinary how dangerous an upright piano covered with mother-of-pearl looks: it seems to be about to shoot the pianist for not doing his best”), and the hauteur (“There was too much German schmaltz, too much banality, about Einstein”), and the wry view of the sex war (“Men and women do not really like each other very much”), and the empathy for the working woman (“Looking into doorways one saw dark garments lying in heaps round sewing machines, and thoughtful women looking down at them in a dedicated pose”). And what could be more remarkable than that?

This Issue

August 12, 1982