“I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.” Happy Birthday, Rebecca West

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Dame Rebecca West is the grand dame on my very short list of “intellectual idols”.

It is her birthday today.

It is hard to talk about her without referencing the generations of writers she inspired, all of whom admit their debt to her. Robert Kaplan is the most open about it (his Balkan Ghosts, which launched his career, is a following-in-Rebecca-West’s-footsteps through Yugoslavia, when it was still, you know, Yugoslavia.)

Christopher Hitchens, too, who provided the foreword to a new edition of her masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. You can read a bit of that here, along with more of my excited babbling about Rebecca West.

A journalist, novelist, Suffragist, Socialist (and critic of Socialism and the pacifist Left), as well as author of one of the most important books of the 20th century, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West wrote novels, essays, op-ed columns, travelogues, reportage (she covered the Nuremberg Trials, as well as a lot of the treason trials that wracked England in the 50s and 50s). She kept up a voluminous and very entertaining correspondence (tons of quotes from it below).

She grew up in a family who came from great wealth, but for many reasons had lost that wealth in West’s time. There was an air of faded grandeur about her family, and it seems like her parents let their children run free and wild. Rebecca West went to school, but other than that, she spent her time un-managed, un-watched-over, unmonitored. Her parents didn’t impose any limitations on her. She grew up in a fairy-tale childhood where she could do whatever the hell she wanted to do. While that may have made life tougher for her later (to be taken seriously as a political writer who also happened to be female was no small task), it also gave her that clear-sighted unmistakable voice. She is unafraid of her own opinions. She has strong opinions. She had no respect for “the canon” just for being “the canon”. She made her own way through literature. She trusted her own taste.

She traveled through Yugoslavia with her husband in 1937 and 1938. Not only could she sense the cataclysm that was to come in WWII (she is especially brutal about some German tourists she observed on the train) but she also predicts the breakup of Yugoslavia some 50 years later, and the genocidal campaigns of people like Slobodan Milosevic. Nobody who read her book would be at all shocked that Serbia would rise in such a monstrous way (and West is extremely pro-Serb). Retrospect makes prophets of us all, and there are many who said, “I saw it coming …”

Yes: but could you have seen it coming in 1938?

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She seems to have always been on the side of the individual, which again separates her from her contemporaries, especially in the 1930s, when the worldwide collapse of the economy made Socialist ideas extremely attractive, putting the Group above the Individual. She considered herself a radical and a feminist, but she always had a very healthy suspicion of any group, and any groupthink. West saw what group-identity-politics could wrought, in places like Yugoslavia, and then also in places like Germany, and she consciously separated herself from the pack: “No, thanks. Not for me.” Not an easy stance to take, and she is often mistaken for a reactionary which makes me chuckle, because that is so often the accusation thrown towards someone who refuses to “play well with others”, who never drank the Kool-Aid in the first place.

The Left is often more organized in its campaigns against “apostates” to their cause. One is thrust outside the charmed circle. One is beyond the pale. Rebecca West, Orwell, and others (heady company), all felt that wrath.

Her book A Train of Powder is made up of four very long essays having to do with various trials that West, as a journalist, covered, one being the Nuremberg Trials. She sat in the press box in the court room at Nuremberg, for months on end, and observed, taking in everything: the zaniness of much of it, the behavior of the “defendants”, and thoughts on what all of this would actually mean. She makes insightful observations that probably rang uneasily in the minds of her contemporaries, who were still under the sway of the glorious revolution going on in Russia, something she did not fall prey to or embrace. For example, she notes that the international judges each read different parts of what each defendant was accused of. Here she writes:

It turned out that the Russian was reading the part of the judgment that condemned the Germans for their deportations: for taking men and women away from their homes and sending them to distant camps, where they worked as slave labour in conditions of great discomfort, and were often unable to communicate with their families. There was here a certain irony, and a certain warning.

The essay was written in 1946. It was unpopular, at that moment in time, to criticize Russia for various reasons and many just decided to stick their heads in the sand, to avoid uncomfortable truths. To make an omelette, you have to break eggs, right? Phone call for Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the #1 “useful idiots” in the world at that time along with NY Times columnist Walter Duranty who swallowed the lie of the Great Purge in mid-30s Russia hook, line, and sinker, taking the show trials at face value, but there were many many more (including Rebecca West’s former lover and father of her child, H.G. Wells who declared Stalin an “honest” man after meeting him. Wells eventually backtracked on that statement but it was too late. He had been used by Stalin as the “idiot” that he was.). Those who were perceived as “turning on” Russia once it became clear what was happening under Stalin are Heroes to me still, because they were the ones who experienced what amounts to shunning by their former ideological best pals, they were treated as traitors and branded right-wing reactionaries. (A similar thing happened to Camille Paglia in the 1980s, when she was shunned by mainstream feminism and Gloria Steinem referred to her in an interview as “dangerous”. The perception from mainstream feminism was that Paglia’s rhetoric didn’t have the stamp of their precious approval, and therefore she must be a Tool of the Righties. I’m extremely pro-Paglia, and that comment from Steinem was cowardly and disgusting. A huge turnoff and a symbol of everything that is wrong with strict us vs. them ideology.)

To suggest that things were less-than-perfect in Socialist Russia was to be a traitor to the Cause. (You can see why Warren Beatty was so excited, like little-boy-at-Christmas excited – that he got Rebecca West to be one of the “witnesses” in Reds. She had a grounds-eye view of that whole fight in the Left in the 1920s, 1930s.)

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Rebecca West on the right, one of the “witnesses” in “Reds.”

In Train of Powder, I was particularly riveted by West’s thoughts on Goering.

She certainly had a way with words.

And though one had read surprising news of Goering for years, he still surprised. He was so very soft. Sometimes he wore a German Air Force uniform, and sometimes a light beach suit in the worst of playful taste, and both hung loosely on him, giving him an air of pregnancy. He had thick brown young hair, the coarse bright skin of an actor who has used grease paint for decades, and the preternaturally deep wrinkles of the drug addict. It added up to something like the head of a ventriloquist’s dummy. He looked infinitely corrupt, and acted naively. When the other defendants’ lawyers came to the door to receive instructions, he often intervened and insisted on instructing them himself, in spite of the evident fury of the defendants, which, indeed, must have been poignant, since most of them might well have felt that, had it not been for him, they never would have had to employ these lawyers at all. One of these lawyers was a tiny little man of very Jewish appearance, and when he stood in front of the dock, his head hardly reaching to the top of it, and flapped his gown in annoyance because Goering’s smiling wooden mask was bearing down between him and his client, it was as if a ventriloquist had staged a quarrel between two dummies.

Goering’s appearance made a strong but obscure allusion to sex. It is a matter of history that his love affairs with women played a decisive part in the development of the Nazi party at various stages, but he looked as one who would never lift a hand against a woman save in something much more peculiar than kindness. He did not look like any recognized type of homosexual, yet he was feminine. Sometimes, particularly when his humour was good, he recalled the madam of a brothel. His like are to be seen in the late morning in doorways along the steep streets of Marseille, the professional mask of geniality still hard on their faces though they stand relaxed in leisure, their fat cuts rubbing against their spread skirts. Certainly there had been a concentration on appetite, and on elaborate schemes for gratifying it; and yet there was a sense of desert thirst. No matter what aqueducts he had built to bring water to his encampment, some perversity in the architecture had let it run out and spill on the sands long before it reached him. Sometimes even now his wide lips smacked together as if he were a well-fed man who had heard no news as yet that his meals were to stop. He was the only one of all these defendants who, if he had the chance, would have walked out of the Palace of Justice and taken over Germany again, and turned it into the stage for the enactment of the private fantasy which had brought him to the dock.

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In 1981, Rebecca West was interviewed by The Paris Review. She was 90 years old and living in London. Cataracts had ruined her eyes, she wore glasses that distorted her eyes completely, she was arthritic. But her mind was sharp and she was still working, writing book reviews, keeping up to date on things, and she’s a lively and beautiful interview. She can be biting in her criticism, especially of other writers.

The interviewer asks her if she does many drafts of her writing. She replies, “I fiddle away a lot at them. Particularly if it’s a fairly elaborate thing. I’ve never been able to do just one draft. That seems a wonderful thing. Do you know anyone who can?” The interview says, “I think D.H. Lawrence did” and Rebecca replies, “You could often tell.”

She speaks in the interview about her break with the suffragette movement:

“I admired them enormously, but all that business about venereal disease, which was supposed to be round every corner, seemed to me excessive. I wasn’t in a position to judge, but it did seem a bit silly.”

She talks of Christabel Pankhurst, a leading suffragette, who ran a chastity campaign for women. While West disagreed with many of Pankhurt’s opinions, she despised all of the retrospective analysis done on her by people who weren’t there, who didn’t know what it was like on the ground at the time, and frankly didn’t know what they were talking about. For example: The name David Mitchell comes up in the interview. West mentions him as the man who “writes silly, hysterical books about Christabel Pankhurst. What is he? Who is he?” West goes on to destroy him in a couple of paragraphs which shows her logical, flexible, and sometimes startling brain:

“[His book was] absolutely rubbish and nonsense. He writes about how she went to Paris and how she didn’t go down to the cafes and meet the young revolutionaries. But how on earth was she to find out where they were? Because, you see, the Bolshevik generation was not yet identifiable. How would she find out any of the people, who hadn’t really made their mark? It was an obscure time in the history of revolution. It was a time when very remarkable people were coming up, but they weren’t visible yet. She did know the people like Henri de Rochefort very well. Mitchell also says she took a flat and had a housekeeper, who was also a very good cook, and didn’t that show great luxury? Well, if he’d asked anybody, he would have found that, in those days, you couldn’t take a furnished flat or house in Paris, nor, so far as I know, in most parts of France, unless you took a servant, who was left by the owner. All the furnished houses I ever had in France, modest as they were, had somebody that I had to take with the house.”

While this may seem like a minor thing to get up in arms about, it is not. Mr. Mitchell was making a judgment on Pankhurst’s seriousness as a revolutionary and thinker through a false assumption. He makes that false assumption because he comes from an ideological standpoint. Ideological purity can narrow how the brain allows itself to function. (See Michele Bachmann.) Mr. Mitchell had a bone to pick with Christabel Pankhurst, and wanted to take her off her pedestal (“some revolutionary – she had a maid!!”) and Rebecca West calls him out on it, despite her own feelings about Pankhurst’s later work and how she broke with the movement because of it. THAT is clarity of thought.

Here are some excerpts from the interview, including her famous “women are idiots and men are lunatics” theory.

On losing her hearing:

“From an early age – but it was not detected for many, many years – I’ve had difficulty about hearing. Finally, I lost my hearing almost entirely in this ear, I got pneumonia in it, which I think is rather chic.”

On going to school:

“We had large classes [at school], which was an ineffable benefit, because the teachers really hadn’t time to muck about with our characters.”

Women=idiots/Men=lunatics

“[Women] are idiots and men are lunatics. It’s a perfectly good division. The Greek root of idiot means “private person”; men “see the world as if by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature”. It seems to me in any assembly where you get people, who are male and female, in a crisis, the women are apt to get up and, with a big wave of the hand, say, It’s all very well talking about the defenses of the country, but there are thirty-six thousand houses in whatever (wherever they’re living) that have no bathrooms. Surely, it’s more important to have clean children for the future. Silly stuff, when the enemy’s at the gate. But men are just as silly. Even when there are no enemies at the gate, they won’t attend to the bathrooms, because they say defense is more important. It’s mental deficiency in both cases.”

On disapproval:

“I should like to be approved of, oh, yes. I blench. I hate being disapproved of. I’ve had rather a lot of it.”

On Mark Twain:

“Well, I longed, when I was young, to write as well as Mark Twain. It’s beautiful stuff and I always liked him. If I wanted to write anything that attacked anybody, I used to have a look at his attack on Christian Science, which is beautifully written. He was a man of very great shrewdness. The earliest article on the Nazis, on Nazism, a sort of first foretaste, a prophetic view of the war, was an article by Mark Twain in Harper’s in, I should think, the nineties. He went to listen to the Parliament in Vienna and he describes an awful row and what the point of view of Luger, the Lord Mayor, was, and the man called George Schwartz, I think, who started the first Nazi paper, and what it must all lead to. It’s beautifully done. It’s the very first notice that I’ve ever found of the Austrian Nazi Party, that started it all.”

On fascism:

“I just saw violence [before the First World War]. There was the race thing and sacred Germanism and all that, but the enemy before the First World War you can’t really compare with fascism. It was the imperialism of Germany and the supremacy of the army, but that isn’t exactly fascism. I think you could say, there was more fascism, but of an intellectualized kind, in France. The crux of the Dreyfus case was that it didn’t matter whether Dreyfus was guilty or not, you mustn’t spoil the image of the army. That was more or less fascist.”

On being a “woman writer”:

“People were very rude just because they’d heard I was a woman writer. That kind of rudeness is as bad as ever.”

On being a woman:

“No [advantages in being a woman] whatsoever. You could have a good time as a woman, but you’d have a much better time as a man. If in the course of some process, people turn up a card with a man’s name on it and then a card with a woman’s, they feel much softer toward the man, even though he might be a convicted criminal. They’d treat the man’s card with greater tenderness.”

On Tolstoy:

“I’m a heretic about Tolstoy. I really don’t see War and Peace as a great novel because it seems constantly to be trying to prove that nobody who was in the war knew what was going on. Well, I don’t know whoever thought they would – that if you put somebody down in the wildest sort of mess they understand what’s happening.”

On writing books:

“I write books to find out about things. I wrote Saint Augustine because, believe it or not, there was no complete life in English at that time.”

On Virginia Woolf and English literature:

“It’s an absurd error to put modern English literature in the curriculum. You should read contemporary literature for pleasure or not read it at all. You shouldn’t be taught to monkey with it. It’s ghastly to think of all the little girls who are taught to read To the Lighthouse. It’s not really substantial food for the young because there’s such a strong feeling that Virginia Woolf was doing a set piece and it didn’t really matter very much. She was putting on an act. Shakespeare didn’t put on an act. But Orlando is a lovely original splash, a beautiful piece of fancy. Leonard Woolf had a tiresome mind. When you read his books about Malaya, and then the books of the cadets who went out there, he’s so petty, and they have such an enthusiasm and such tolerance for the murderous habits of the natives. But he was certainly good to Virginia. I couldn’t forgive Vanessa Bell for her awful muddy decorations and those awful pictures of Charlotte Bronte. And I hated Duncan Grant’s pictures too. The best thing that was ever said about Bloomsbury was said by a lovely butler of mine. At dinner one evening, they began to talk of Faulkner’s book in which someone uses a corncob for the purposes of rape. They were being terribly subtle, and doing this and that gesture over the table. The butler came into my son Anthony’s room and asked, Do you know where they keep the Faulkners? It seems they’re very saucy. Virginia Woolf’s criticism was much better than criticism others were writing then.”

On why she chose to write about Yugoslavia:

“I wanted to write a book on Finland, which is a wonderful case of a small nation with empires here and there, so I learned Finnish and I read a Finnish novel. It was all about people riding bicycles. But then, when I went to Yugoslavia, I saw it was much more exciting with Austria and Russia and Turkey, and so I wrote that. I really did enjoy it terribly, loved it.”

On Tom Stoppard and Shaw:

“I find Tom Stoppard just as amusing as I ever found Shaw. Very amusing, both as a playwright and as himself. But I’m not now an admirer of Shaw. It was a poor mind, I think. I liked his wife so much better. He was conceited, but in an odd way. Usually, you know, it’s people shouting to keep their spirits up, but he really did think he was better than most people.”

On Yeats:

“What [Yeats] liked was solemnity, and, if you were big enough, heavy enough, and strong enough, he loved you. He loved great big women. He would have been mad about Vanessa Redgrave.”

On arousing hostility in others:

“I’ve aroused hostility in an extraordinary lot of people. I’ve never known why. I don’t think I’m formidable.”

On the Donatists:

“I like to think about people like the Donatists, who were really suffering agonies of one kind and another because the Roman Empire was splitting up and it was especially uncomfortable to be in Roman Africa. But they didn’t know anything about economics, and did know about theology. Theology had taught them that if you suffered, it was usualy because you’d offended God – so they invented an offense against God, which was that unworthy priests were celebrating the Sacraments. So that satisfied them and then they went round the country, looting and getting the food and the property they wanted because they said that they were punishing heretics. I think it’s wonderful that in the past people overlooked things that now seem to us quite obvious, and thought they were doing things for the reasons they weren’t, and tried to remedy them by actions. Perhaps there’s some simple thing we’ll think of someday, which will make us much happier.”

Rebecca-West

She’s funny. She’s smart. She’s a little bit scary.

Here are some excerpts from her correspondence. I pulled out stuff I found funny, or well-written, or memorable. Every letter, though, is filled with gems like these.

Letter to sister Letitia Fairfield, 1909, describing a riot at the polls in Whitley, and a battle between the feminists and the Liberal women (the Liberal party was anti-suffrage for women). Rebecca is just a teenager here.

The Liberal women are ghastly! They stood on the other side of the gate and shouted insults at us the whole time. I had five large Liberal ladies bearing down on me calling me a hooligan and a silly fool and other pretty names. One Liberal man tried to shake me and hurt me, much to their delight; but the police man settled all that. However, our Suffragette, Mrs Brown of New Castle, was knocked down and tramped on by a member of the Woman’s Liberal Federation. They tried to make me stop shouting, “Keep the Liberal out” but of course it was no good. I kept on from 10 till 8! Of course I got my meals all right. Everybody was very nice except the Liberal women – who have a repertoire of vituperation that I cannot believe to be equalled anywhere. They looked exactly like comic postcard Suffragettes. The police were quite all right, so I was always safe. The police warned me not to get up to hear the poll unless I was with plenty of friends, as the women would scratch my eyes out! I knew Kenwick was in. Shortt is a most attractive man, and was followed about by bevies of adoring damsels. He lost a good many workmen’s votes on account of a motor he sent round the town – full of his children, with a huge placard, “Vote for Daddy!” They couldn’t stand that. A great number of working men voted for woman’s Suffrage – spoiled their papers or voted Socialist. In most cases, I am told. I haven’t seen an analysis of the votes yet, as I didn’t go up. I was agreeably impressed with Miss Mattel. She’s a dear old soul in spite of the hair.

Letter to Ford Madox Ford, 1912:

I am remembering your dinnerparty with passion in this dreadful place – I concentrate on it in the middle of lectures on the Decentralisation of Labour till I feel a little happier. It is curious about Miss Sinclair’s sealed air. Don’t you think that ever so many distinguished women with degrees and things have that shut effect? Perhaps it is an effect of the Puritanism of women. Most men have so much more to repent that they must be amusing to justify their existence.

Letter to Dora Marsden and Grace Jardine. Nov. 1912:

The Discussion Circle is quaint. That dandy of cranks, D’Aubergne, is always jumping up demanding that we should all be kind to illegitimate children, as if we all made a habit of seeking out illegitimate infants and insulting them.

From a heartbreaking letter to H.G. Wells, March 1913:

I haven’t anything to give you. You have only a passion for excitement and for comfort. You don’t want any more excitement and I don’t give people comfort. I never nurse them except when they’re very ill. I carry this to excess. On reflection I can imagine that the occasion on which my mother found me most helpful to live with was when I helped her out of a burning house.

Letter to Sylvia Lund, autumn 1915:

I moved from there to another riverside inn which would have been delightful had not the landlord and his daughter escaped out of a Conrad novel. The father was an apish man with a monosyllabic manner who had come from South Africa, his daughter was beautiful and passionate – that is, she used to wander about the hotel caressing her opulent figure, which is what I have always suspected Conrad heroines of doing. And at night they used to have fierce sharp monosyllabic quarrels. One evening I was standing on the verandah when a voice suddenly came out of the dusk. I quote the remark with diffidence, but it does really seem to me to be one of the most marvellous remarks ever made. “If it were not for the great love of God in my heart I would strangle the damn bitch.”

Letter to Sylvia Lund, 1916:

It’s good to be conceited – I don’t mind a bit.

Letter to Sylvia Lund, 1917, written during air raids:

Talking of these nasty foreigners I cannot agree with you about Tolstoy. I wish I could. Twice have I read War and Peace and found nothing but stuffed Tolstoys, and such lots and lots of them. And plainly Anna Karenina was written simply to convince Tolstoy that there was nothing in this expensive and troublesome business of adultery and oh Gawd, oh Gawd, Kitty! And about Resurrection I cannot speak, but only yawn. And those short stories seem to me as fatuous as the fables of La Fontaine. But Dostoevsky –! The serenity of The Brothers Karamazov, the mental power of The Possessed, the art of The Raw Youth! Isn’t it awful to think that nothing can ever decide this dispute?

Letter to Sylvia Lund, 1917: West sold a novel, and spent the check on “the most expensive hat I have ever bought in my life.”

The hat was a direct consequence of the Italian disaster. All these war horrors instead of making me ascetic make me turn furiously to sensuous delights. Such a pleasure to think that if all the world’s gone wrong that hat at least is right. And after [and during] the air raids I don’t pray or speculate on the World State but drench myself in scent and eat chocolates. Perhaps it’s only a reaction against an unusually abstinent life – I’ve never had any amusing trimmings to life – but I think there is an impulse to reassure oneself that life’s worth living by simple pleasures.

Letter to Sylvia Lund, 1917:

[I] do so love estuaries. It’s awful to have a fancy for anything so large and rare.

Letter to S.K. Ratcliffe, Christmas 1917

Talking of Laurence Hope did I tell you got out Stars of the Desert (from the London Library – for reference – ) and found among the leaves a sheet of notepaper inscribed in a fatigued female handwriting “Remember to order beeftea for baby” – potted tragedy.

Letter to Sylvia Lund, July 28, 1918

The National News is an amiable newspaper & I refuse to speak ill of it any more. After all we don’t know its temptations and perhaps it had no mother.

Letter to novelist Louis Golding, 1922:

My family vampires me. There seems no way out save the suicide’s noose. As an alternative I have been learning to ride. This process is extremely perilous because my dramatic instinct makes me look and behave as if I could ride magnificently the minute I put on my riding kit. I force myself to tell the people at any new stables I go to that I can’t ride but in spite of myself I do this in such accents that they don’t believe me and put me on the bloodiest of all their blood hunters. The result of this was that when I went to Exmoor I was bolted with for three miles – but there again my damned dramatic instinct told – for I looked as if I was enjoying it so convincingly that some people who saw me insisted on me following the stagehounds next day because it was over specially dangerous country that they knew I could tackle. (Black terror it was, black terror.) Some day I will stray into the foxhunting country and that will be the death of me. They’ll make me the Master of the Pytchley on sight and I will break my neck over the first gate.

Letter to Ottoline Morrell, Dec. 28, 1922

Thank you so much for the diary. Its blue watered silk is a special joy to me as I hate leather anywhere except on my feet.

Letter to S.K. Ratcliffe, March 21, 1923

I have tried to leave H.G. innumerable times, but never without his following me and asking me to come back. I have as a matter of fact left him in the moment but I am dreading another attempt to get me to come back. It is also as I have a steady monogamous nature and would have been the most wifely wife on earth extremely difficult not to take on the job again. My one hope therefore of getting and keeping clear is to get to America! Therefore this news does depress me. I would be glad if you would tell me all about it. I have a book (about 30,000 words) in my head, Second Thoughts on Feminism which I could write – if I keep free – in 2,000 word articles – which would make it plain where I stood and how unlikely it was that I should preach anything too revolutionary.

Letter to John Middleton Murry, May 30, 1923

I would like to tell you how deeply I feel the loss of Katherine Mansfield. It has meant more to me (and many of our generation) than I would have thought any but a personal bereavement could mean. She gave one the pleasure of feeling absolutely unstinted admiration.

Letter to sister Winifred Macleod, Nov. 3, 1923

I went back from Springfield with two notabilities – a “Mayflower” woman – the trouble is Mayflower doesn’t mean a thing except that your ancestors like to take their Bible reading seriously; it doesn’t give you any breed at all. I don’t suppose democratic pioneering does for an aristocratic type – you have to have the element of leadership.

Letter to sister Winifred Macleod, Nov. 3, 1923

The journey from Philadelphia here (I am finishing this letter in Chicago) took eighteen hours – The first six followed alongside the Susquehanna and Julietta Rivers. Nothing in the world could convey the wistful beauty of American river scenery – the serenity of the wooded heights – wave-like in their skyline – the beauty of the wide shallow waters. I was adopted in the train by a charming old Texan, who called me “Ma’am,” paid me old-fashioned compliments (“If I may ask, Ma’am, how is it that such a charming lady as yourself have escaped matrimony?”) insisted on treating me to all my meals, and escorted me to my hotel here. The amount of attention one gets from men here would turn one’s head if one didn’t look round at the sallow hags of American women and realise that the standard is very different from Europe !

Letter to H.G. Wells (her pet name for him was “Cat” and “Jaguar”, among other things):

I’ve been shepherding Emma Goldman who is a very sensible body. She has a lot of very interesting facts about the treatment of intellectuals. Shaw won’t see her, and the Daily Herald and Labor Party people are rude to her before she begins to speak. Clever, flexible Jaguar that has always kept himself out of these fossilising party influences.

Letter to Max Beaverbrook, autumn 1924

The Express published today a story about Emma Goldman in which your (not inappropriately) rabbit-witted subordinates laid stress on her anarchist record, and mentioned casually that she had returned from Russia disillusioned with the Bolshevists. The effect of that article was distinctly unfavourable to Emma Goldman. Now, not only is Emma Goldman worth six of you (or three of me) but she is the most powerful Anti-Bolsh eyewitness I have yet encountered. Her effect as an Anti-Bolsh speaker ought to be tremendous. (Some of us are getting up a Queen’s Hall meeting for her.) I know that your interest in politics is restricted to personal gossip, but you might try to understand and sympathise with people who are interested in deeper issues. If you attack her as an anarchist she (being as pigheaded as a mule) will probably get defiant and declare that she still is an anarchist and queer her own and the Anti-Bolsh pitch. Therefore it would be seemly and consistent with its own politics if the Daily Express and the Evening Standard refrained from attacking Emma.

Letter to John Gunther, France, summer 1926

I have been having a real old-fashioned nervous breakdown, and it hasn’t seemed to me that it mattered where anybody was as all people on this globe seemed equally miserable anywhere. This nervous breakdown earned its keep, I think, because I am now so tough that I could keep my head up and see where I collapsed and why, and I have found out something useful. My breakdown was due to Lettie. And it was due to the fact that she hasn’t a thought about me that goes more than two centimetres below the surface which isn’t dislike and shame. She wishes I didn’t exist. She thinks I look awful. She thinks my career is a despicable failure… She is constantly embarrassed by my conversation and my manner. She treats Anthony as if he were the most appalling freak because he is mine. She actually has delusions about him. She alleged to me quite solemnly just before she left that he was so dark that of course it would be a handicap to him all through his life because people would think he had coloured blood in him. She is nearly crazy with an elder sister desire to call her little sister down. And that is a force that all my life has been depressing and annoying me. I am perfectly sure that is that and nothing in the way of a morbid neurosis which makes me dread going back to England. It isn’t, as my family has always conspired to make me believe and as H.G. in his sadism loved to tell me, that I am a neurotic who cannot stand up to life, but that I am healthy and I have been preyed on by neurotics till they have bled me nearly white.

Letter to John Gunther, Dec. 1926

I oddly don’t want to tell you who my lover is. Not one soul knows of it. He is a Californian, and a banker, and a terrific gambler, and he is so illiterate that he reads poetry and remembers it and gets a kick out of words, and he is broke one day and a millionaire the next, and he has been in love with me for three years without knowing me. I don’t know if it’ll last.

Letter to Vyvyan Holland (Oscar Wilde’s son), July 1927

I feel my bad luck is comic.

Letter to John Gunther, fall, 1927

This flat has a lovely view, but a bathroom that only a virgin could tolerate.

Letter to Sylvia Lund, August 31, 1929

I must confess I love France more and more – though what an insane people! We have neighbors in the next villa who glower at us and insult us in every way to such a degree that in England would make one go to the nearest police station to report the presence of lunatics.

Letter to Bertrand Russell, Sept. 1929

[H.G.’s] behaviour 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. But it seems to me to be reaching demented extremes. I hear from the lady with whom he lives at present (whom is quite mad) that he frequently hits her and gives her black eyes, and so on, which is surely not done in our set. (This was not cited as evidence of cruelty, but as evidence that they were living a rich and satisfying life.)

Letter to Irita Van Doren, autumn, 1929

I found I could write of nothing but my sick loathing for every blighter writing except James Joyce whom I think a pretentious nitwit but who has guts, guts of the moonlight, beautiful guts, as Lewis Carroll nearly wrote.

Letter to Irita Van Doren, autumn, 1929

As a result of the reflection of this on my material affairs I became engaged to a man named Cohen, but I couldn’t go through with it. Since then however I have discovered that earth has few negative pleasures greater than not being engaged to a man named Cohen.

Letter to Henry Andrews (she would marry him a couple months after writing this letter – he was her husband for decades, until his death), spring, 1930

I liked your last long letters so much. I was amused by the young man who took you out to dinner to talk about his love-affairs on the sound assumption you knew a great deal about love. He sounded so much less nice than you are that I can’t help feeling a little sorry for the girl. But this involves me in being sorry for all girls – except myself. I am glad you are so nice about Harriet [Cohen]. She has had such a strange story – of people getting near her and winning a place by her simply in order to gratify something jealous in themselves by refusing her the tenderness and honour that she ought to have – that that self-assertion is pardonable. It is, I know quite well, as “shymaking” – to use Evelyn Waugh’s word – as anything I know, and you are a darling to get behind it.

Letter to George Bullett, Dec. 11, 1930

I am so glad you quoted and approved the passage about Lady Chatterley’s Lover, because I think it was such a great and endearing effort of Lawrence’s mind, and I am very conscious of how it wasn’t honoured by the world in the horrible reviews I am getting of this book – not that I attach any great importance to it as far as my own literary powers are concerned, because I write it as my monthly letter to the American Bookman and it was entirely Secker’s idea to reprint it. What I hate is the sniggering about Lawrence and the actual candid joy in his death which is expressed in review after review – particularly in the illustrated weeklies and the provincial papers. The tone is savage and indecent. There is a kind of lewd hysteria about it – which declares itself more unpleasantly still in the personal letters, most of them anonymous, that I am receiving. [Lawrence] was right – he was and is hated. And that he was hated by vile people makes one revere him more – but the frightful vitality of their vileness, and the amount of it, makes one despair – if it wasn’t for such pleasant reviews as your own.

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Here are some excerpts from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, the first being about the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 (the entire section is a masterpiece).

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June 28, 1914: Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie setting out in their motorcade in Sarajevo that fateful morning.

This [June 28th] was a day of some personal significance to him [Franz Ferdinand]. On that date in 1900 he had gone to the Hofburg in the presence of the Emperor and the whole court, and all holders of office, and had, in choking tones, taken the oath to renounce the royal rights of his unborn children. But it was also a day of immense significance for the South Slav people. It is the feast-day of St. Vitus, who is one of those saints who are lucky to find a place in the Christian calendar, since they started life as pagan deities; he was originally a Vidd, a Finnish-Ugric deity. It is also the anniversary of the battle of Kossovo, where, five centuries before, the Serbs had lost their empire to the Turk. It had been a day of holy mourning for the Serbian people within the Serbian kingdom and the Austrian Empire, when they had confronted their disgrace and vowed to redeem it, until the year 1912, when Serbia’s victory over the Turks at Kumanovo wiped it out. But, since 1913 had still been a time of war, the St. Vitus’s Day of 1914 was the first anniversary which might have been celebrated by the Serbs in joy and pride. Franz Ferdinand must have been well aware that he was known as an enemy of Serbia. He must have known that if he went to Bosnia and conducted maneuvres on the Serbian frontier just before St. Vitus’s Day and on the actual anniversary paid a state visit to Sarajevo, he would be understood to be mocking the South Slav world, to be telling them that though the Serbs might have freed themseves from the Turks there were still many Slavs under the Austrian’s yoke.

To pay that visit was an act so suicidal that one fumbles the pages of the history books to find if there is not some explanation of his going, if he was not subject to some compulsion. But if ever a man went anywhere of his own free will, Franz Ferdinand went to Sarajevo.

The book is full of sweeping generalizations, broad statements of assumptions, and observations taken as truth. She gets some things wrong, she gets other things way right.

For example, West and her husband traveled by train to Zagreb in 1937. Europe teeters, teeters, on the edge of the abyss. The train was full of Germans on their way to vacation on the Adriatic coast. West observes human behavior, she watches closely, she picks up on signals and then makes huge assumptions based on her observations. This type of writing can be extremely obnoxious when not utilized sharply and concisely. Rebecca West, with her cold detached glare, saw something, saw something true and disturbing beneath the surface of those rowdy German tourists. It takes courage to not only write, but think, like this.

I got up and went out into the corridor. It was disconcerting to be rushing through the night with this carriageful of unhappy muddlers, who were so nice and so incomprehensible, and apparently doomed to disaster of a kind so special that it was impossible for anybody not of their blood to imagine how it could be averted. Their helplessness was the greater because they had plainly a special talent for obedience. In the routine level of commerce and industry they must have known a success which must have made their failure in all other phases of their being embittering and strange. Now that capitalism was passing into a decadent phase, and many of the grooves along which they had rolled so happily were worn down to nothing, they were broken and beaten, and their ability to choose the broad outlines of their daily lives, to make political decisions, was now less than it had been originally. It was inevitable that the children of such muddlers, who would themselves be muddlers, would support any system which offered them new opportunities for profitable obedience, which would pattern society with new grooves in place of the old, and would never be warned by any instinct of competence and self-preservation if that system was leading to universal disaster. I tried to tell myself that these people in the carriage were not of importance, and were not typical, but I knew that I lied. These were exactly like all Aryan Germans I had ever known; and there were sixty millions of them in the middle of Europe.

Here she is on the assassination of the King of Yugoslavia in Marseille, which Rebecca West heard about from her sick-bed in the hospital, recovering from a hysterectomy, and is what triggered her second visit to the Balkans. She knew she MUST go back before it was too late. (And, exemplifying West’s “women are idiots and men are lunatics” theory, the nurse in the hospital cannot understand why West would be interested in the assassination of a King far away from England. What has that got to do with HER life? Did it affect her personally? Did she know him? And if not, then who cares, when there are so many problems right here at home! Woman as totally Private Person. West wrote such people off. I do, too, I have to admit. And she doesn’t let men off the hook either. Men being “lunatics” sweep the world into wars that bring about total worldwide insane carnage. So, yeah. Men are guilty too.) West got out of the hospital and watched the existing film of the assassination. Here is her description of what she saw.

A few days later my husband told me that he had seen a news film which had shown with extraordinary detail the actual death of the King of Yugoslavia, and as soon as I could leave the nursing home I went and saw it. I had to go to a private projection room, for by that time it had been withdrawn from the ordinary cinemas, and I took the opportunity to have it run over several times, while I peered at it like an old woman reading the tea leaves in her cup. First there was the Yugoslavian warship sliding into the harbor of Marseille, which I know very well. Behind it was that vast suspension bridge which always troubles me because it reminds me that in this mechanized age I am as little unable to understand my environment as any primitive woman who thinks that a waterfall is inhabited by a spirit, and indeed less so, for her opinion might, from a poetical point of view, be correct. I know enough to be aware that this bridge cannot have been spun by a vast steel spider out of its entrails, but no other explanation seems to me as plausible, and I have not the faintest notion of its use. But the man who comes down the gangway of the ship and travels on the tender to the quay, him I can understand, for he is something that is not new. Always the people have had the idea of the leader, and sometimes a man is born who embodies this idea.

His face is sucked too close to the bone by sickness to be tranquil or even handsome, and it would at any time have suggested a dry pedantry, unnatural in a man not far advanced in the forties. But he looks like a great man, which is not to say that he is a good man or a wise man, but that he has that historic quality which comes from intense concentration on an important subject. What he is thinking of is noble, to judge from the homage he pays it with his eyes, and it governs him entirely. He does not relapse into it when the other world fails to interest him; rather does he relapse into noticing what is about him when for a moment his interior communion fails him. But he is not abstracted; he is paying due respect to the meeting between France and Yugoslavia. Indeed he is bringing to the official occasion a naive earnestness. When Monsieur Barthou, the French Foreign Minister, comes and greets him, it is as if a jolly priest, fully at ease in his orders, stood before the altar beside a tortured mystical layman. Sometimes, too, he shows by a turn of the head, by a dilation of the pinched nostrils, that some delightful aspect of the scene has pleased him.

About all his reactions there is that jerky quickness which comes of long vigilance. It was natural. He had been a soldier from boyhood, and since the Great War he had perpetually been threatened with death from within, by tuberculosis, and with death from without, by assassination at the hand of Croats or Macedonians who wanted independence instead of union with Serbia. But it is not fear that is his preoccupation. That, certainly, is Yugoslavia.

Now King Alexander is driving down the familiar streets, curiously unguarded, in a curiously antique car. It can be seen from his attempt to make his stiff hand supple, from a careless flash of his careful black eyes, that he is taking the cheers of the crowd with a childish seriousness; it is touching, like a girl’s putting full faith in the compliments that are paid to her at a ball. Then his preoccupation veils his brows. He is thinking of Yugoslavia again. Then the camera leaves him. It recedes. The sound track records a change, a swelling astonishment, in the voice of the crowd. We see a man jumping on the footboard of the car, a gendarme swinging a sword, a revolver in the hand of another, a straw hat lying on the ground, a crowd that jumps up and down, up and down, smashing something flat with its arms, kicking something flat with its feet, till there is seen on the pavement a pulp covered with garments. A lad in a sweater dodges before his captors, his defiant face unmarked by fear, although his body expresses the very last extreme of fear by a creeping, writhing motion. A view of the whole street shows people dashed about as by a tangible wind of death.

The camera returns to the car and we see the King. He is lying almost flat on his back on the seat, and he is as I was after the anaesthetic. He does not know that anything has happened; he is still half-rooted in the pleasure of his own nostalgia. He might be asking, ‘Et en quelle saison Revoiray-je le clos de ma pauvre maison, Qui m’est une province et beaucoup d’avantage?’ It is certain that he is dying, because he is the centre of a miraculous manifestation which would not happen unless the living had been shocked out of their reserve by the presence of death. Innumerable hands are caressing him. Hands are coming from everywhere, over the back of the car, over the sides, through the windows, to caress the dying King, and they are supremely kind. They are far kinder than faces can be, for faces are Marthas burdened with many cares because of their close connection with the mind, but these hands express the mindless sympathy of living flesh for flesh that is about to die, the pure physical basis for pity. They are men’s hands, but they move tenderly as the hands of women fondling their babies; they stroke his cheek as if they were washing it with kindness. Suddenly his nostalgia goes from him. His pedantry relaxes. He is at peace; he need not guard against death any more.

There’s a reason why other journalists bow down before Rebecca West.

West

Here she is on Austria:

Proust has pointed out that if one goes on performing any action, however banal, long enough, it automatically becomes ‘wonderful': a simple walk down a hundred yards of village street is ‘wonderful’ if it is made every Sunday by an old lady of ninety. Franz Josef had for so long risen from his camp bed at four o’clock in the morning and worked twelve or fourteen hours on his official papers that he was recognized as one of the most ‘wonderful’ of sovereigns, almost as ‘wonderful’ as Queen Victoria, though he had shown no signs of losing in age the obstinacy and lack of imagination that made him see it as his duty to preserve his court as a morgue of etiquette and his Empire as a top-heavy anachronism. He was certain of universal acclamation not only during his life but after his death, for it is the habit of the people, whenever an old man mismanages his business so that it falls to pieces as soon as he dies, to say, ‘Ah, So-and-so was wonderful! He kept things together so long as he was alive, and look what happens now he has gone!’

It was true that there was already shaping in his court a disaster that was to consume us all; but this did not appear to English eyes, largely because Austria was visited before the war only by our upper classes, who in no country noticed anything but horses, and Austrian horses were good.

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Rebecca West and Ingrid Bergman

She helps make the 20th century comprehensible and very few people have been able to do that. Orwell did. Arthur Koestler did. Mikhail Bulgakov did. Those in the generations following, thinkers and writers like Robert Conquest, Robert Kaplan, Ryzsard Kapuscinski and Christopher Hitchens all acknowledge how much they owe her.

But there’s a danger in that, too.

To paraphrase W.B. Yeats who once said of Jonathan Swift: “Imitate her if you dare.”

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Reading List

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20 Responses to “I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.” Happy Birthday, Rebecca West

  1. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Oh, my. Haven’t thought about her in years. Didn’t even realize how much I missed reading her stuff. Am amazed at how undated her stuff seems to be! And the “bits” you picked were brilliant, right to the point. I guess I’m always a little surprised at how well read you are. My bad. Merry Christmas.

  2. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Sheila, I “mis” spoke. I’m not surprised by how well read you are. I’m surprised by how often I FORGET how well read you are. There, now that feels better. Merry Christmas.

  3. sheila says:

    Melissa – Merry Christmas to you too!

    Yes: her stuff doesn’t date at all, unlike some of the other contemporary commentators in her day – who may have been fine writers but didn’t have her fine mind.

    God, I wish she was still alive. I’d love to track her down and get her in a room for an interview.

  4. Cara Ellison says:

    That picture of her alone is “formidable”; I find it fascinating that she doesn’t think she is formidable. It might be one area her context is limited. I think I need to read some of her stuff – she is exactly the kind of woman I need to read about right now.

  5. sheila says:

    Cara – she is a daunting intellect and her books are unbelievable. She wrote novels, too – which I haven’t read – but have heard are wonderful. She could do ANYTHING.

    And yes, it’s interesting that she would not perceive herself as formidable. She had a pretty tempestuous personal life and a dreadful relationship with her son once he was an adult – and felt completely helpless to do anything about it. Her collected letters are really interesting.

  6. Kate says:

    Fascinating Sheila! As someone whose liberal leftie husband recoiled and walked away quickly when I asked for a Republican primary ballot (Ron Paul makes SENSE to me) I find I need just this inspiration as another vote nears.

    • sheila says:

      Kate:

      Ha! Yes: stay strong in your convictions! If you come by them honestly, then there’s no reason to allow yourself to be bullied.

      Fuck ’em!!

      and yes: I find inspiration in Rebecca West for so many reasons!

  7. Kate says:

    Have you read The Fountain Overflows—actually the whole trilogy is amazing (This Real Night, and Cousin Rosamond are books two and three)? I liked the first the best, for several reasons. It is funny and charming, but also contains a tragic streak that nearly tears the reader apart. Beautiful writing!

    Kate

  8. sheila says:

    Kate – I really must, I haven’t read them – thank you for the recommendation!

  9. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    Definitely adding her to my reading list…Always had her on the “some day” list, but that description of Fat Herman in the dock alone makes me want to read everything else she wrote….

  10. sheila says:

    NJ – she’s a powerhouse! I would recommend Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, although you might hate me forever because it is 1000 pages long.

    But A Train of Powder is magnificent – (about the Nuremberg Trial) as well as her book on the treason trials in England throughout the 20th century: The Meaning of Treason.

    You’re in for a treat!!

    • Nondisposable Johnny says:

      Hah…I’m a HUGE Tolstoy fan. 1,000 pages don’t intimidate me none!

      Anyway if the samples in your post are any way typical, I’ll probably only wish it was longer…As I used to tell people, War and Peace is a LOT shorter than many 200 hundred page novels I’ve read!

  11. mutecypher says:

    For some reason – perhaps due to Amazon’s roll out of their Kindle Unlimited service – some of her novels are available for free on the Kindle version, The Return of the Soldier and The Judge. I picked up her book on Henry James (also free on the kindle version). I need some help in appreciating him and I suspect she will provide insight.

    Those comments about D.H. Lawrence, and Yeats + Vanessa Redgrave get me every time.

    • sheila says:

      The Vanessa Redgrave comment is so great!

      She was pretty brutal about Henry James, actually. She practically destroys him at the same time that she tries to appreciate him.

      • sheila says:

        Similar to her throwaway comment on Joyce – she calls him a “pretentious nitwit” but then goes INSANE for him by the end of the sentence. I love the way her mind worked.

  12. mutecypher says:

    Re: Henry James

    Oh, well maybe she’ll help me understand why he’s such a struggle for me. I have my theory (too much telling, not enough room for imagination), but we’ll see.

  13. mutecypher says:

    I’m making my way through The Portrait of a Lady now, and finding that I’m enjoying it more than when I’ve attempted it in the past. Jessa Crispin’s “Spolia” issue on him got me in the mood to try again. I’d only finished The Turn of the Screw and The Golden Bowl before.

  14. mutecypher says:

    Perhaps it’s that lunatic thing, I only want to see the outlines!

    • sheila says:

      Ha!! Please, for the sake of all us female “idiots” back home, don’t start some bloody war. Thanks very much.

      Jessa’s passion for him has definitely been a motivating factor. The recent conversations on Book Slut about film adaptations of Henry James’ stuff has been incredible!

      I re-read What Maisie Knew before I reviewed the film – and it is a harrowing description totally from a child’s point of view of what it is like to have two narcissists as parents. The child doesn’t know what narcissists are – and doesn’t know her parents are awful – all she knows is what they say to her and what they do. How James manages to create this incredibly terrifying mood of total-loss-of-innocence from the point of view of an 8 year old girl … Now THAT was impressive to me.

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