The Literary Legacy of Rebecca West
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The Literary Legacy of Rebecca West

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by Carl Rollyson

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The Literary Legacy of Rebecca West is the first book to explore the entire corpus of her extraordinary seventy-one year writing career. The general introductory studies of West are outdated and do not take into account her posthumous publications, or her large literary archive of unpublished letters and manuscripts. Previous scholarly books have chopped


The Literary Legacy of Rebecca West is the first book to explore the entire corpus of her extraordinary seventy-one year writing career. The general introductory studies of West are outdated and do not take into account her posthumous publications, or her large literary archive of unpublished letters and manuscripts. Previous scholarly books have chopped West up into categories and genres instead of following the evolution of her career. Rollyson, author of Rebecca West: A Saga of the Century, draws on new scholarship and his interviews with West's contemporaries to provide the first organic account of her esthetic and political vision.

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Explores the entire corpus of West's 71-year writing career, encompassing posthumous publications as well as unpublished letters and manuscripts. Emphasis is on the relationship between her fiction and her political, sometimes radical, nonfiction. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.

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The Literary Legacy of Rebecca West

By Carl Rollyson


Copyright © 2007 Carl Rollyson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-2990-2



In 1982, shortly before her death, Rebecca West published a memoir/history of the turn of the century. 1900 retains all of her sparkling style, and it is a fitting companion to The Young Rebecca, a collection of her early, irreverent journalism, also published in 1982. Indeed, the continuity between the nineteen-year-old upstart who rocked the literary and political world of Edwardian London and the ninety-year-old doyenne of Margaret Thatcher's first years in power is extraordinary:

Woman Adrift is a respectable piece of journalism, illuminated towards the end by some passages of meteoric brilliance, which starts out to prove that men are the salt of the earth, and women either their wives or refuse ... "Woman is wholly superfluous to the State save as a bearer of children and a nursing mother." There is a kind of humour in the way these things work out. Just as Napoleon proved in his latter end that no man dare be a despot, so Mr Owen finishes by showing that all men are fools and a great many of them something worse.

It looked as if society disapproved of homosexuality, since it was for long a capital offence, but on the other hand here in every generation were fathers sending their sons to the schools they themselves had attended, well knowing that what had happened to them within the ivied walls would happen to their children, and making no effort to change the pattern. Do not try to work this out. It is simply an illustration of the tropism by which male minds feel an instinctive desire to defend any unreasonable proposition.

West's sweeping judgments and sardonic tone owe much to her father's scornful sendups of the status quo. Writing as "Ivan" for a Melbourne newspaper, The Argus, he excoriated the governing class:

To-day, greatly given to cigarette-smoking, pigeon-shooting, dry champagne, and new ways indescribable, that class no longer believes in itself: if it still possesses the genius of command, it has more than once shown itself wanting in the loyalty to follow a capable leader, and courage to assert its constitutional position.

Charles Fairfield leveled his criticisms from the right, whereas West, following the lead of her sister Letitia, castigated society from the left.

Father and daughters agreed, however, on what Letitia termed "liberal imperialism," a concept championed by Edward Fairfield (Charles's brother) in the Colonial office. He believed that the empire could be a civilizing influence, expanding trade and improving living conditions throughout the world — even if certain imperialists corrupted the system and cheated colonials. Not to understand this fundamental attitude toward the Empire is to misunderstand much of what Rebecca West stood for politically, and it is an attitude that she and her sisters absorbed in their infancy from their father. Of imperialism, West writes in 1900: "In certain times and places it engendered such costly tragedy as the Boer War; in other times and places it abolished such accomplishments as head-splitting by sword. It has resembled parenthood as its most enlightened, and parenthood hostile and perverted" (108–09). As always, her metaphor had to be a familial one.

In an essay on Rudyard Kipling, West fondly remembers that during the Diamond Jubilee she had been petted by "dark men from the ends of the earth." To be part of an empire seemed indeed like having a charming and exotic extended family: "They were amiable, they belonged to our Empire, we had helped them to become amiable by conquering them and civilizing them. It was an intoxicating thought," and it gave the population of England, which had "slowly lost touch with their traditional assurances throughout the nineteenth century" a "new sense of religious destiny. Since they were subjects of the British Empire they were members of a vast redemptory force."

West turned to journalism in the autumn of 1911 after a disappointingly brief career in the theater (studying at the Academy of Dramatic Art in London and taking roles in regional productions). A bout of tuberculosis ended her formal education; there was no money to send her to college — which she seemed not to want anyway, since she chafed at the formal requirements of the school curriculum and saw little to emulate in the careers of the educated women who had taught her at The George School in Edinburgh. She regretted that her mother's concert career had been hampered by lack of equal opportunity and then cut short by marriage and child rearing. Isabella Fairfield, a bright, articulate artist should have dedicated herself to music, West believed. Instead Isabella had relied on an adulterous husband who gambled away his salary, abandoned his family, and died destitute in Liverpool when West was only thirteen.

Although Isabella did not approve of radical politics, she had a critical and esthetic temperament that her daughter emulated. Isabella took her young daughter to concerts and to political meetings. But West could not "remember a woman asking a politician a question at any meeting, though this was in Edinburgh, where women were given more leash as intellectuals than they were in London" (1900, 79). On one occasion, she observed a trembling woman stand up to put a question that took issue with a Protestant clergyman, who rebuked her: "Madam, you are dressed as a lady. Please behave as one" (1900, 79).

West believed that the structure of a male dominated society enforced the injustice that her mother and millions of other women suffered. British society, West later avowed in 1900, was like

a huge nesting-box containing many compartments which were designed according to a number of patterns; one was expected to behave in different ways, according to the type of compartment in which one had come out of the egg. One knew what one could and could not do, and everybody one met shared one's knowledge of the pattern laid down for one; if one performed unusually well, or unusually badly, one moved into another type of compartment, and found oneself following another pattern. (113–14)

Only through political action and the power of the pen could the nesting-box be changed. In West, writing — the search for new metaphors — was a political act, a way of altering human consciousness and actions.

"Indissoluble Matrimony," one of West's first accomplished works of fiction evoked the fluid world of human consciousness a la D. H. Lawrence, whose writing she would champion in reviews and articles throughout her career. George Silverton is married to a woman with "black blood in her," with "great humid black eyes," a "mass of large hair," and a large mouth. Evadne attracts and repels him — a goddess of sex, he hates her because she holds him in thrall. "The disgust of women," he thinks, "the secret obscenity of women!" He feels demeaned and inadequate beside her ease of movement, comparing her to a cat and also to a "grotesquely patterned wild animal" as she runs down to the lake for a swim, her white flesh reflected brilliantly in the moonlight. So powerful is her sexuality that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, he suspects her of being unfaithful, for he can only suppose that such voluptuousness must seek out male lovers. The quarrel between them, however, is provoked by her insistence that she will accept an invitation to speak at a public meeting, for she is much in demand as a passionate socialist journalist, and he cannot abide this additional sign of her superiority. At the lake, an angry husband and wife are about to strike each other, but Evadne hesitates:

There entered into her the primitive woman who is the curse of all women: a creature of the most utter femaleness, useless, save for childbirth, with no strong brain to make her physical weakness a light accident, abjectly and corruptingly afraid of man, A squaw, she dared not strike her lord.

Her lord, having "no instinct for honourable attack," strikes her in the stomach, and she pulls him into the water with her. After a struggle he drags himself on to a rock and then forces the head of his struggling wife down into the water, exulting in her death: "I must be a very strong man." In fact, she has swum away from the pressure of his hands, and on his return home, an exhausted Silverton finds his wife soundly sleeping and "distilling a most drunken pleasure." Admitting that he is "beaten," he "had thought he had had what every man most desires: one night of power over a woman for the business of murder or love." He undresses and goes to bed, "as he would every night until he died. Still sleeping, Evadne caressed him with warm arms" (Marcus, 267–89).

In physical appearance — "I should love to be a cat," she divulged in one of her Clarion articles (Marcus, 170) — in sensuality and intellectuality, West and Evadne are coevals, and the story is an early dramatization of what West would call in her feminist book reviews "sex-antagonism" (Marcus, 97–101). The conflict between George and Evadne is so melodramatic that it verges on the comic, an effect West apparently intended, for she could not help fancying her story as a "jest," she confided to novelist Violet Hunt. Yet the ironic reference to George as "lord" also evokes West's ambivalence about the male prerogative.

The young Rebecca West favored a radical tone: "There are two kinds of imperialists — imperialists and bloody imperialists," she declared on November 30, 1911 in her first article in The Freewoman, a journal dedicated to furthering the equality of women in all realms of society (Marcus 12–14). In her second, an attack Mrs. Humphrey Ward, the reigning female novelist of the Edwardian period, West observed that the "idea of Christ is the only inheritance that the rich have not stolen from the poor" (Marcus, 14). She reviewed literature, drama, social theory, and political tracts. In less than a year (from late 1911 to the autumn of 1912), she established her reputation as a witty and formidable critic.

As literary editor of The Freewoman, West strove to create a journal whose political and literary program coalesced. As she wrote to the journal's founder, Dora Marsden: "I don't see why a movement towards freedom of expression in literature should not be associated with and inspired by your gospel." West's own writing constantly melded the esthetic and the political, demonstrating how character development in a novel, for example, reflected political judgments. Praising novelist Rose Macaulay's "exquisite" style, West nonetheless chides her for creating Louie in Views and Vagabonds as a "representative of the poor." Macaulay equates, in West's judgment, decreasing vitality with lowered social position, implying that Louie's weak grip on life is what makes her a typical peasant. "If this were so it would be an excellent thing to form immediately an oligarchy with the proletariat in chains. But the proletariat isn't like that. Even the agricultural labourers have shown in their peasant revolts that they have courage and passion" (Marcus, 27).

West herself was struggling to find a form for the novel that would do justice to both literary values and politics, shaping a vision of history that would transcend her work as a journalist and critic. Her most significant effort, "The Sentinel," an abortive novel written sometime between 1911 and 1912, concerns a troubled science teacher, Adela Furnival, who feels the lack of art in her life. Her school work exhausts her, and she comes under the spell of a staunch Tory, Neville Ashcroft, an architect whose principles repel her and yet who exerts a narcotic and sexually arousing influence on her. She succumbs to his advances — in part because he is an artist whose style she finds irresistible. Instead of feeling fulfilled, she feels defiled and turns to a fierce involvement in the feminist cause, now that an inheritance releases her from the drudgery of teaching. In Robert Langlad, a Labor M.P., she glories in the principle of opposition, in joining an army of women fighting for the vote and for, as she sees it, the "earth's redemption." Life is not worth living without a protest, she affirms.

Yet Adela cannot give herself to Langlad any more than she can to Matthew Race, a robust Labor candidate for Parliament. She shies away from both men because she feels she is unworthy, having submitted to the erotic yearning that Ashcroft had excited. Instead, she takes on the most punishing protest assignments, getting herself arrested, beaten, and brutally force fed in prison. It is as if she is punishing the body that once betrayed her in an act of pleasure with a man she wanted but did not love. For Adela, as for Rebecca West, the personal and the political are one. Or as Adela asserts, "politics is minding the baby on a large scale." By having given into her body's craving once, Adela fears she has conceded the anti-feminist argument that women are primarily bodies, not minds.

The mind/body split, like the art/politics split, remains in tension in this uncompleted novel and would become the central theme of much of West's fiction and nonfiction. It is at the heart of the book review that brought her to H.G. Wells's attention on September 19, 1912. She attacked the famous novelist on the very ground he thought himself most advanced: the emancipation of women. While she conceded that too many women had been encouraged to please and prey on men, she rounded on Wells for his failure to conceive of a thinking woman. Marjorie Trafford, the heroine of Marriage, dislikes her scientist husband's work and overspends him into a domestic crisis. Why can Wells only think of women as drags on men's souls? West wonders. Has he taken a good look lately at his male fellow passengers on the tube? He would find them no more prepossessing than unimaginative women, West assures him. In effect, then, Wells was merely perpetuating a feminine stereotype that surely existed but that was unworthy of a writer who also claimed that women were as capable as men and ought to be treated as equals.

If West's critique had gone no further, Wells might not have invited her to his home or begun an affair with her several months later. But she gave evidence of a sensibility not only like his own but of one from whom he could learn. She pinpointed a scene in which a cold, self-pitying Marjorie called for tea:

That repulsive desire for tea is a masterly touch. It reminds one of the disgust one felt as a healthy schoolgirl when one saw the school mistresses drinking tea at lunch at half-past eleven. It brings home to one poignantly how disgusting the artificial physical weakness of women, born of loafing about the house with only a flabby mind for company, must be to an ordinary, vigorous man. (Marcus, 67)

In effect, West was presenting herself as the thinking woman whom Wells had failed to create in his fiction, a woman with literary and political insights on a par with any man's, and a woman unafraid to assess her own sex in terms that acknowledged Wells's but showed that he had not gone far enough in conceiving a liberated female mind.

At their first meeting Wells found West's aggressive and forthright personality attractive, though he believed that she was still unformed and did not know quite as much as her confident reviews suggested. He was also wary. He had already had one scandalous affair with a young woman, Amber Reeves, and fathered an illegitimate child. He had a wife, two children, and a cozy life in a country home — not to mention the attentions of a mistress, the novelist Elizabeth von Arnim. He wanted a hand in West's career, but his first impulse was to deflect her obvious interest in having an affair. The evidence of her letters shows that she thrilled at Wells's attention.

Later in 1912, the novelists Ford Madox Ford and Violet Hunt took West up after her review of a Ford novel, The New Humpty Dumpty. Just as she skewered Marriage, she excoriated Ford's stodgy championing of an aristocratic hero — hardly a replacement for the roguish radicalism of Wells's The New Machiavelli, the novel Ford was satirizing. West surveyed both men and found them somewhat wanting, but in such a deft way that each literary lion sought a share in her budding success. Wells kept up a steady drumbeat of letters to West about her articles, and Ford commissioned her to review books for his prestigious journal, The English Review.

When The Freewoman lost its financial backer in the middle of October 1912 and ceased publication, West was already working for The Clarion, a feisty socialist paper that allowed her to write about sex-antagonism, the conditions of women workers, the Labor Party, the women's movement, socialists and feminists, and the Church. She seemed to take on every major institution of society in a heady prose that brought Wells round to make love to her after his liaison with Elizabeth von Arnim soured. Wells saw in her not just an attractive young woman (she was twenty and he forty-six when their lovemaking began) but his "lover-shadow," a kind of female twin with whom he could debate any subject. Like him, she had a gift for fables and exuberant play and soon the couple took to calling themselves Panther and Jaguar. Their lovemaking was like her writing — robustly physical and metaphorical, a give-and-take like the tussling of two jungle cats. West's lack of cant and gift for the arresting image enchanted Wells as much as it did her readers. The personal and the political came to vivid life in her prose:

At its best the Liberal Party is a jellyfish. Sometimes the milk of human kindness which flows through it, instead of blood, gets heated, and then it flops about and tries to do good. This warm milk enthusiasm soon evaporates, and it lies inert. At present it is lying on top of the Labour Party. Through the transparent jelly one sees dimly the programme of socialist ideals which those who have gone before wrote in their heart's blood. To be wiped out by the Liberal Party is a more inglorious end than to be run over by a hearse. (Marcus, 110)


Excerpted from The Literary Legacy of Rebecca West by Carl Rollyson. Copyright © 2007 Carl Rollyson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Carl Rollyson Professor of English, Baruch College, New York

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Guest More than 1 year ago
The Authors Guild and iUniverse are published a new edition of THE LITERARY LEGACY OF REBECCA WEST. The list price will be $19.95. This is the only book on West that discusses the developmehnt of her her writing career in a chronological, organic, order.