Rebecca West Commonplace Book Part 2

Here is Part 1.

Letter to S.K. Ratcliffe, summer 1922

I feel dead beat and never want to write another line – I hate hate HATE journalism. I want to write a light book before I do my vast ghost story but I have no lightness in me.

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

The Statue of Liberty is a washout – she gets her stays at the same place as Queen Mary.

Letter to sister Winifred Macleod, Nov. 3, 1923

I simply cannot convey to you how unlike America is to what it says it is and gets other people to say it is. I have been in three places now – New York, Springfield (Mass.) – and here [Philadelphia] – everywhere the women are hideous and beyond all belief slovenly. A certain number are good looking between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five – they get even that good looks simply by force of slimness and careful management – There are very few good looking women of thirty – the middle aged women are repulsive wrecks – bad skins, and untidy though elaborately dressed hair – and at all ages the most terribly bad carriage. They wear very expensive and solid clothes which they huddle round them in such a way as to spoil all their lines – and they walk and dance with their feet wide apart. Almost every woman not theatrical who has spoken to me has worn an untidily adjusted hairnet dragging over her forehead and round the nape of her neck. Their utter and complete lack of sex attraction is simply terrifying. Not that it matters – for the men seem entirely lacking in virility. They wear spectacles almost as commonly as the Germans – and they are beyond belief slow. The mechanical side of life here whirls – telephones, taxis, trolleys, but a pale humanity patters along in the midst of it. (The only attractive and thoroughly male personality I met in New York was my publisher George Doran – an elderly man – between sixty and seventy – and he turned out to be a Canadian.) They are slow in speech, slow in movement, slow in thought. The irritation of receiving a telephone message from an American is almost past belief – the service is incredibly quick and good – one is connected at once – and then a slow, dry voice drawls interminably.

Letter to sister Winifred Macleod, Nov. 3, 1923

I spoke in the evening to four or five hundred people – the College Club – and gave them a lecture on the novel – how more and more people are writing in fiction the kind of lyrical emotion they would have reserved for poetry before with special references to Conrad and Katherine Mansfield. It was a fairly closely wrought thesis, and they loved it – came crowding to me afterwards and saying quite interesting things and asking interesting questions. The thing that startled me and will give you an idea of how odd the atmosphere of New England is that several of them said things like – “I must tell you something – I hope you won’t think it odd of me to say it. But you did look so beautiful against that rose-coloured curtain. And how lovely your dress is.” Can you imagine anything so queer – said with a curious earnestness?

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 Sinclair and Gracie Lewis, Dec. 9, 1923

I met a peach of an elderly clubwoman in Milwaukee who pleased me very much by telling me that it didn’t really matter if the young American girls got tight at dances and stripped to the skin – “because the American man is, beyond the comprehension of you Europeans – PURE.” So there. The Clubwoman I’ve hated worst yet was one who penetrated to my room at the Drake and for one hour and a half read me the poems of her deceased daughter, aged twelve, collected under the title “Lovely Thoughts of an Angel Child.” You can guess what lovely thoughts this angel child had. I love America and I loathe it. I can understand that people like you must be in an amazing state of conflict about it.

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 fancy I wrote you the last time I saw Jerry. Didn’t I tell you that the deplorable Bille was married to her Yiddish boss and having her honeymoon at the Biltmore of chaste memory and had disconcerted the bridegroom by manifesting herself as a dyed-in-the-wool dope addict? It is morphine and I understand of years’ standing. Jerry consoled himself by an affair with a woman called Catherine Brodie (Jerry doesn’t know I know this) who is almost as offensive as Billie except that she has a good figure. She has a face like a skull and all her light chitchat is of her husband’s strange sexual habits. I rather weary of Jerry’s crescendo of undesirable females.

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 Jonathan Cape, Dec. 1927

The essay “Strange Necessity” (god dammit) has gone from 6,000 to 30,000 words. It begins with a discussion of James Joyce’s Ulysses which is probably the first estimate to be done neither praying nor vomiting. In it I come to the conclusion that though it is ugly and incompetent it is a work of art. That is to say it is necessary. Then I go on to discuss what is this “strange necessity, art” which is so inclusive of opposites? – as for instance the paintings of Ingres and the books of James Joyce? This leads to an analysis of literature and the discovery of a double and vital function it fulfills for men. Firstly it makes a collective external brain for man; secondly it presents certain formal relations to man which suggest a universe more easy in certain respects than the one he knows.

Letter to Letitia Fairfield, New York, autumn, 1928

The gang warfare here (especially in Brooklyn) is becoming as bad as Chicago – and everybody is simply thrilled and amused by it. Nobody reads anything but murder stories – and all the plays are about crime. The other night some people took me to a nightclub and we got in just as the police were taking charge of it because Texas Guinian’s brother had struck a chorus-girl there the night before and during the day she had died. All these horrors simply amuse people, though the crime is just as sordid as it is anywhere else.

Letter to Sylvia Lund, South of France, August 31, 1929

I would give anything in the world to own this particular villa, which is just as I like it – the property of an old opera singer, entirely decorated with portraits of herself. It must be so funny to sit in a room with portraits of yourself for the last 40 years candidly showing the change from black to red that came about 1895 and the change from red to gold that came about 1902.

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 – this 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 Bye, West’s American agent, August 30, 1930

But do you think I will ever fit into the Outlook? It seems so damned earnest.

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.

Letter to Henry Andrews (her husband: their pet names for one another were “Ric” and “Rac”. Rebecca also used “Rac” as a term for “woman” and “Ric” as a term for “man”.) This anecdote makes me laugh out loud. The punchline is not just a joke – the actual Prince of Wales (Edward, who abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson) was actually at this party.

Yesterday I went to dinner with Anna May Wong and Joe – and we had a lovely dinner but Anna May Wong is too stupid to be a useful Rac. Old Joe said, “Anna May, you look so lovely you’ve made me fall in love with you,” and instead of taking this as tummy-rubbing she said gravely, “Oh, Mr. Hergesheimer, I hope not, that would spoil our friendship. For I am very much in love with someone else.” We went on to Lilly’s party – which was very pretty but not very good – the food was inaccessible and we couldn’t go home at a reasonable hour – for why? There was a superb dialogue – Mrs. Gilbert Miller (a horrid very snobbish daughter of Julius Bache) came in and rustled over to Lilly and said – “I am so sorry – will you forgive me – we had a guest and when he heard where we were going to he did so want to come – I do hope you won’t mind me bringing him – I know it’s so awkward having this sort of guest at a party because of all the curtseying – you see it’s the King of Greece.” Lilly lethargically replied, “I wouldn’t mind a bit if he’d only get out of the doorway – he’s standing right in the way of the Prince of Wales.”

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6 Responses to Rebecca West Commonplace Book Part 2

  1. ted says:

    I hope in my life that I find the opportunity to call someone “rabbit-witted” and mean it.

  2. sheila says:

    hahahahahaha I know. Let’s try to make that happen.

  3. Wotta pill! I mean re all those remarks about the looks of American women and that snark about class. Dickens was annoying, too, when he went off on Americans. I mean, I’m sure we were a bunch of yobs and all, but obviously these writers were hanging out with the wrong crowd. Or deliberately seeking out people to ridicule. She’s great when she’s not doing this, though.

  4. sheila says:

    Jincy – I know, right? “repulsive wrecks”. Ouch. She is brutal about women who let themselves go and men who don’t seem manly – she harps on it over and over in her writing!

  5. april says:

    Of all the fascinating people and perspectives your writing has brought into my life, your introduction to Rebecca West is the one I most treasure. And while I can certainly understand your frustration about the omissions, I can’t *wait* to read this book! Thanks for whetting my appetite once again… and for carrying on this great woman’s tradition.

  6. april says:

    [Compliment intended]

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