Rebecca West Commonplace Book, Part 1

During my enforced time off, and my enforced time with no Internet or TV (and, intermittently, no power), I read The Selected Letters of Rebecca West, a giant volume I have been putting off tackling. Why I cannot imagine. I tore through it. Every page has something quotable and juicy on it. Here is a long post about Rebecca West. She is an idol of mine. She was a clear thinker, and for that she got shit her whole life. While she was ideological, and an early feminist and Socialist, she was able to see when those movements went off the rails, and so she would call them out on it. In many circles, she was never forgiven. Her feminism had to do with economic, political, and social power. When feminism began focusing only on sex, and on venereal disease, and on chastity, etc., she found it silly. Sex was fun, she loved it, and while she definitely thought that women’s economic power in many ways was tied to sex, the focus solely on that seemed to her to be misguided. The same thing with the Left (which is why Warren Beatty sought her out to be a “witness” in Reds.) Similar to George Orwell, Rebecca West was a card-carrying member of the radical Left in the 20s and 30s, but – as was the case with Orwell – she couldn’t not see the problems, she couldn’t not say what she thought was the problem. And she was punished for it. To this day, she still has a “right wing” or “reactionary” reputation. This just goes to show you the degradation of the Left’s ideology, and how in the 1930s, with the growing sense of Hitler’s menace as well as the horrors of the Soviet Union, the Left began to splinter. I mean, this is what happens with political movements. I think we are seeing that with the Right now. In many ways, it is a healthy political development. Because a Monolith of Agreement is fascism. Rebecca West experienced the blowback of that, and continued to be misquoted and misrepresented for the rest of her life. It’s so clear, when you read her, where she is coming from, however. It’s just that when you require a Monolith of Agreement, someone who has a more nuanced view, or is able to see the point of the “other side”, or who doesn’t swallow the Monolith whole, is seen as hugely threatening. George Orwell experienced this as well (Christopher Hitchens’ book has a whole chapter on how he is still misunderstood, and neither the hard Left nor the hard Right know what to do with him. That’s their loss.)

There is also the little matter of her sex. Because she was a woman, and because she wrote in such bracing confident prose (like a man, if you will, although I am angry even having to give credence to that stereotype), people were affronted by her – merely because she didn’t act the way a woman was supposed to act. Women are supposed to concede ground. If there’s one thing we are expected to do, it is that. But “conceding ground” is not only bad philosophy, it often leads to bad writing. Men are not expected to be conciliatory. Women are. For her entire life, she was condescended to and belittled. mainly because she was so formidable. (Humorously, in her Paris Review interview in the 80s, she expressed bafflement that she was so irritating to so many and said, “I don’t think I’m so formidable.”) But she was clearly a better writer than most of the men huff-puffing in annoyance at her. She saw farther, she saw clearer. You are never ever congratulated for such things. Many of her more ideological colleagues have since been discredited, since they were so clearly just working for the Cause, and so they had blinders on. Rebecca West couldn’t have worn blinders if she tried.

Unfortunately, I am not pleased with the editing of this volume, giant though it is. Her personal life was quite stormy, and included a 10-year long affair with H.G. Wells (who was married, and West was just one of many), which resulted in a son. It was the defining relationship of her life. She continued to have lovers, many of whom she remained friends with for decades. She married eventually and the marriage lasted until his death. It was a happy marriage although it appears to have also been a sexless marriage, which was a sacrifice for a vibrant sexy woman like Rebecca. But at least he didn’t bother her about her writing, or try to inhibit her career. I think that the editor of this volume finds all this (the personal stuff) far more interesting than West’s political observations. Obviously there is a ton of politics in the book, but not enough. Often in the footnotes, we are given glimpses of what was left out of the letters (“Two pages about the treason trial of William Joyce has been edited out …”) Excuse me, but that is what I want to hear. I don’t care so much about her love life. That is the least interesting part about her. I want to hear about the politics. There are only two or three letters from WWII. Now, granted, letters were being censored at the time, and so perhaps West wasn’t writing as much. But I think the book suffers from its focus on her personal life, and I have hopes that a more comprehensive volume will someday appear. She is one of the greatest political minds we have ever seen. Yes, love and sex is interesting. But not compared to the stature of her career and her work.

The letters are often laugh-out-loud funny. Dame could WRITE. She sounds like a hoot.

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 w omen 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 Harold Rubinstein, August 28 1912:

I am reading rather an interesting book of short stories – Pride of War by Gustaf Janson – about the Turco-Italian war. You, as a self-centred person [Compliment intended] will understand me when I say that it is only now, for the first time, that I have realized the existence of such a war.

I absolutely love that “Compliment intended.”

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:

Here is everybody getting out nice fat books and I sit at home with a hacking cough and a kind of morbid infiltration of the brain with discontent that prevents me from working. I hate domesticity. I don’t want to stay here and I don’t want to go to Westcliffe; I can’t imagine any circumstances in which it would be really amusing to order 2 ounces of Lady Betty wool for socks for Anthony, or to try to get a fawn-coloured mail-cart. I want to live an unfettered and adventurous life like a Bashibagonk, and spend all my money on buying clothes in Bond Street. Anthony looks very nice in his blue lambs-wool coat, and I feel sure that in him I have laid up treasure for the hereafter (i.e. dinners at the Carlton in 1936) but what I want now is ROMANCE. Something with a white face and a slight natural wave in the dark hair and a large grey touring-car is what I really need. Are these a girl’s natural aspirations when she is faced with last quarter’s unpaid gas bill [-- it isn't that I can't pay it but to pay for gas!], or have I a wanton temperament?

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:

Such a lovely note about [novelist Fryniwyd Tennyson Jesse] in “The Sketch” not long ago. “She is what the world will never believe in, a beautiful girl who is also clever.” (Yes, Sylvia. They said that.) “She has a dear little house in Gordon Place, bought and furnished with her own money.” Thank God, the reputation of our writing woman is cleared ….

Letter to Sylvia Lund, 1917:

Miss Stern is a great standby in this life of struggle. To cheer me up she invited me to tea with Violet Hueffer & May Sinclair the other day but it was one of her failures. Violet was talking about C.F. Keary & his death, and said, exactly in the tone appropriate to – “It was so pretty – she’s Irish, you know, so the bridesmaids wore emerald green sashes and there was a harp on the wedding cake” — this different sentence — “You know, he’d died such an author’s death – fell down by the table and dragged over the cloth, so that a bottle of ink fell all over his face!” It was the most macabre, insanely funny thing I have ever heard. Miss Stern & I went into peals of half hysterical laughter. May Sinclair stared at us, “You think that funny? Ought I to laugh? I’m sorry. It doesn’t strike me as funny.” And presently she left coldly. It was strange to see them exhibiting the essences of themselves – Violet saying something that was distraught and inappropriate but wholly memorable, and May being conscientious and genuinely inquiring but hopelessly missing the point of the situation.

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 Sally Melville, from Capri, 1920

This is a heaven upon earth. (But man is very vile.) Faith Mackenzie’s house is built halfway up a limestone cliff, 300 ft. above the water, which usually looks (in this recent rough weather) like dark blue crystal, just above the three famous rocks I Faraglioni. The exact position was used by Turner in his picture of Ulysses and Polyphemus. This place, by the way, completely explains Turner’s pictures. The mountains are limestone, which is light in colour and very smooth, so that it reflects colour with extreme vividness – consequently under any strong light they simply cease to look as if they had any form at all and become masses of different tones of the same colour, losing all suggestion of solidity. Turner’s wildest pictures are really strictly realistic.

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.

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4 Responses to Rebecca West Commonplace Book, Part 1

  1. george says:

    Sheila,

    It’s a great deal of gratitude I have for you having introduced Ms. West to me. I have never been so moved to diligently recording so much of a writer’s lines and observations after having been moved by them as I have of Ms. West. From Black Lamb and Gray Falcon:

    Re painting of an aristocratic women:
    “Enormous flushed nudes which would have made a cannibal’s mouth water.”

    “It takes the extreme assault of urban conditions to bring on humanity the curse of a craving for insipidity”

    “it is strange, it is heart-rending to stray into a world where men are still men and women still women”

    “Tidiness is a creation of the middle classes who have had their tendency to bare and purging Protestantism reinforced by their panic-stricken acceptance of the germ theory”

    I have, so far, eight pages of such as these and had I even a touch of OCD it’d be treble that.

    And now from this post:
    “…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.”

    Gawd I love that. She is truly a great writer of whatever sex or alien life form. And I’d note this also: you share with Ms. West what I so much love about great writers – the power of observation.

    Thank you.

  2. sheila says:

    George – wow, I am so happy you have responded to her the way you did. I had a feeling!! Yes, her writing … it’s just overwhelmingly good, and like you it is almost a struggle to not underline every other sentence.

    I mean, honestly: “Tidiness is a creation of the middle classes who have had their tendency to bare and purging Protestantism reinforced by their panic-stricken acceptance of the germ theory”

    She’s so brutal! And yet she’s downright cuddly at times in her letters!

  3. Shelley says:

    What a picture!

    So much in that face.

    • sheila says:

      I know – such a beautiful woman. She studied as an actress as a teenager, it gave her a certain flair. Or maybe she just had that naturally.

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