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The Young Rebecca
Writings of Rebecca West 1911â?"1917
By Rebecca West
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Rebecca West
All rights reserved.
The Lamp of Hatred
Selected Articles from The Freewoman and The New Freewoman, November 1911 – October 1913
The Position of Women in Indian Life
The Position of Women in Indian Life by the Maharani of Baroda and S. M. Mitra
THERE ARE TWO kinds of imperialists – imperialists and bloody imperialists. The feminist who belongs to the first variety, and considers blood to be an incident in imperialism and not its aim and glory, has long wanted some sort of description of Indian womanhood and how its conditions have been affected by British rule. And this is what the title of the book written by the Maharani of Baroda and S. M. Mitra, The Position of Women in Indian Life, seems to promise.
However, it turns out to be an account of the various social organisations and activities of women in Great Britain, and a rough sketch of the path down which Indian feminism is going to progress – or rather toddle. For the Maharani's aims would not justify a quicker pace. She seems to regard the unseemly muddle into which women's affairs have fallen today in Europe as something for which Indian women should strive. In fact, she takes a step backward. She actually recommends women to take up 'genteel callings', such as enamelling, furniture carving, decorative needlework, illuminating. Her timid attitude towards the woman worker may be estimated from the following extract:
The profession of domestic architect is in itself exceedingly interesting, and one which Indian women might, in part, very well take up. The oversight of the workmen would have to be left to men, nor could women very well climb the scaffolding to superintend the progress of the building; but the drawing of the plans and the details could easily be done by our women if they made it the subject of professional study. There is, however, no need for women to undertake the entire architecture of the house. There is ample room for their talent in designing portions of the interior – such as useful wall-cupboards, mouldings, friezes, ornamental designs for doors and windows, and the general decorative details of construction.
Now we in England know what this playing at wage-earning, this pathetic skulking on the outskirts of industry, brought us to during the Victorian era. It brought to women the most humiliating and the most hungry period of oppression they had ever endured. The feminist must take a bolder line. If she is going to enter the labour market she must take capital with her – she must try from the first to capture the commanding fortresses of industry, from which she can dictate the conditions of her own labour.
Moreover, the authors repeat over and over again that most malignant libel spoken by the rich against the poor – that the average housewife of the lower and middle classes is an ignorant incompetent. This is one of the most cherished beliefs of the wholly undomesticated women of the aristocratic classes. It is, of course, a device to cheat poor girls out of their education. 'Domestic science' is designed to elbow out of the school curriculum all subjects likely to develop the minds of the girl scholars, and thus leave them, irrespective of their individual gifts, fit for nothing but domestic service. The authors err, too, in attributing the over-supply of 'poorly paid governesses and half-educated girl-clerks' to 'a training ... far too abstract, too intellectual'. It is obvious that this glut of worthless labour is partly due to the desire of parents to absorb their daughters into unprofitable domestic labour, partly to the lack of first-rate educational facilities, and partly to the fact that a woman knows that her labour capital – her education, her talent, her experience – is confiscated on her entrance into marriage.
The truth is, the authors' feminism is out of date. They apologise for woman, and nag at her for the inborn failings of human nature. They are too complaisant about her underpayment, blandly remarking, after a comment on the miserable wages of matrons, that 'salaries in England are not large. For instance, the Prime Minister of England gets a smaller salary than the Governor of an Indian Province.' And they are confused by the old-fashioned idea that it is the labour of women who are not wholly dependent on their own earnings which depresses the general level of women's salaries. As a matter of fact, we know that these make the finest trade-unionists. Surely the authors misinterpret the feminist opposition to regulative legislation of women's labour. It is not the regulative aspect of it that the women object to, but the fact that it is regulation framed according to the conception of woman held by the public-schoolboys who make up the House of Commons.
Yet the authors have an immense enthusiasm for the cause of feminism, and see it as a coming force in the movement towards the unity of India. The pity is that they have not seen beneath the surface of English life. They do not realise that in spite of that august institution, the International Council of Women, the average woman worker is growing thin on 'no salary but ample opportunities for Christian work'.
[This article signed Cicily Fairfield.]
The Freewoman, 30 November 1911
The Gospel According to Mrs Humphry Ward
Barricaded from the fastidious craftsman behind the solid Tottenham-Court-Road workmanship of her mental furniture, Mrs Humphry Ward has been able to preach her gospel unappreciated by revolutionaries. This is a pity. Because Mrs Ward reveals to us the psychology of the clergyman class – the class which throughout the Victorian era peopled the Church and the universities to the exclusion of any other. With the single exception of the scientist group, they have sent no message of inspiration to this generation. Yet the excellent economic position which they enjoyed, which enabled them to monopolise the higher education, made it inevitable that they should leave their mark on England. To take only one instance of their activities, they were responsible for the beginnings of modern journalism – God forgive them! But, on the whole, they mean very little to us – Matthew Arnold, Kingsley, Coventry Patmore, Anthony Trollope. But it helps us to understand the House of Commons if we can grasp their point of view: and that is most lucidly and naively shown in the works of Mrs Humphry Ward.
Even her deficiencies are of value to the student. For instance, at first sight it seems merely a very damning proof of the worthlessness of Mrs Ward's writing that she should have written her two most pretentious works, Robert Elsmere and The Case of Richard Meynell, about a national movement which could not exist, but a movement which she describes as sweeping over the country and turning the hearts of Englishmen to flame. This modernist movement, which aimed at regulating the Church of England's doctrine and ritual according to the conclusions of historical research upon the life of Christ, is alien from, not only the Englishman, but the human mind. Jesus of Nazareth sits in a chamber of every man's brain, immovable, immutable, however credited or discredited. The idea of Christ is the only inheritance that the rich have not stolen from the poor. It is now a great national interest (not a faith), and as such is treated with respect, and as securely protected from 'modernising' as the tragedy of Hamlet. And although Mrs Ward has been 'turning her trained intellect' (to quote her publisher) on the universe for nigh on sixty years, that has not struck her. She regards the Englishman as going to church with the same watchful eye of possible improvements as when he attends the sanitary committee of the borough council. She does not understand that the Englishman, having discovered something that, whether true or not, is glorious to the human soul, is not going to tamper with it. This misunderstanding is so typical of her class. For, see how in the House of Commons the respectable always try, by encouraging mean thrift, to rob the poor of their improvidence, which, uncomfortable as it is in its results, is nevertheless their one means of protest against their conditions.
A defect which Mrs Ward shares not only with her own class, but with the modern world, is her lack of honour. Honour, in the time of Elizabeth, was quite a lovely and sensible thing. It was a jolly sort of code, such as holds good between skippers on the high seas, a fine cheerful recognition of mutual responsibilities. It bound together those bands of pioneers as they trampled down dangers on the virgin shores of the New World in loneliness and thirst. It made literature beautiful with discussion of the debts of the soul. The difference between our outlook and theirs is very well illustrated by Thomas Middleton's imperial tragedy, The Changeling. Beatrice, a noble lady, is betrothed to a man she hates. She hires de Flores, a poor gentleman, to kill this man. That service done, de Flores demands that she should become his mistress. On her refusal, he holds the secret of their conspiracy over her head. Now, what struck the Elizabethan about this ghastly story was not the blood-guilt of Beatrice, nor the brutal lustfulness of de Flores, but the treachery of de Flores in blackmailing the lady, and the nice point as to exactly how far Beatrice had contracted these base obligations. We have travelled far from that now. For the Englishman became spoilt by too much prosperity, and began to worry about his soul and, as a Puritan, reverted to savagery. For henceforth he did not regulate his moral conduct according to honour, but according to his various taboos. So honour left us, to shine only in broken reflections from the work of our great artists.
Mrs Ward is not one of these. For an example of her complete lack of sense, let us turn to Daphne. There you see, set down without disgust, the wooing of an underbred American heiress, Daphne, by an able-bodied young Englishman, Roger Barnes, who is frankly in love with her money. Mrs Ward seems to think it quite a wholesome arrangement, even setting down in cold fact that Roger blamed his wife for extravagance. They live an uneventful and, one might say, animal life in England for some years, and then Daphne gets bored with Roger. She moves over to America and divorces him according to the kindly laws of that country, taking custody of their only child. With a fine sense of what is fitting, the child dies. Hence the father takes to drink and lives with a shop-girl. Had he been a workman who had lost his job, how disgusted and contemptuous Mrs Ward would have been! So, overcome by remorse, Daphne returns to England and offers to live with him again. Then comes the one gleam of horse-sense discernible in Mrs Ward's books. Roger prefers to die without the companionship of a woman he dislikes. Mrs Ward does not see it like that, however. It seems to her the most tragic note of all.
Now, what lesson does Mrs Ward learn from this rather trivial story? The chief lesson would be, one would think, that it is a bad thing that a man should eat if he does not work; and that it is a very vile thing that a man should earn his living by entering into a sexual relationship. But actually the only thing it suggests to Mrs Ward's trained intellect is that divorce is too easily granted in America. Unmoved and undismayed, she suggests that the rich woman and her parasite should have continued to live together until death corrupted their mean bodies. And why? Mrs Ward never answers that question. She never hears it, because she does not consider that personal relationships need the sanction of honour. To her, all things done in the name of the taboo of marriage seem beautiful.
It may strike one in reading Daphne that it shows a strange habit of mind to consider whisky and shop-girls as the only alternative to a happy married life. But Mrs Ward has a poor opinion of men, and a worse one of women, whom, with Zarathustra, she considers 'still cats and birds: or, at the best, cows'. Of course, Mrs Ward is largely in agreement with Nietzsche – not only in this, but in her firm belief in the Superman, whom she considers to be realised in the aristocratic classes of this country, her contempt for democratic art and her voluble prejudice against socialism. But Nietzsche's Superman is to have quite a good time, exulting in his eternal Bank Holiday, with the wide world on Hampstead Heath. But Mrs Ward's characters, judging from her ideal figure, Catherine Leyburn, would at their highest fail to enjoy the spiritual exhilaration of a meeting of the Poor Law Guardians.
Catherine Leyburn is revealed to us in her youth and in her late middle-age in the pages of Robert Elsmere and The Case of Richard Meynell. The distinguishing characteristic which differentiates her from, for instance, Isabel, in The New Machiavelli, is her physical abandonment. On every page her face works with emotion and is illuminated by a burning flush; once she has slowly succumbed to the turgid wooing of Robert Elsmere, she drenches him with tears and kisses. A spiritual upheaval is a picnic to her. Whensoever she approaches a deathbed, one has an uneasy suspicion that she is glad to 'be in at the death'. After many years of widowhood, whiled away by the perusal of the lives of bishops, she dies as easily as she has lived. What a life! Never once had she earned the bread she ate. She had spent her life in thinking beautiful thoughts, in being a benign and beautiful influence ... Never will Woman be saved until she realises that it is a far, far better thing to keep a jolly public-house really well than to produce a cathedral full of beautiful thoughts. 'Here they talk of nothing else than love – its beauty, its holiness, its spirituality, its Devil knows what!... They think they have achieved the perfection of love because they have no bodies! – sheer imaginative debauchery!' It was of Hell that that was said. When people plead that 'Woman should stand aside from the ugly mêlée' of things as they are, and 'hold high the banner of the Ideal', which is the usual way of alluding to Catherine's life of loaferdom, they are instructing her in her damnation.
Mrs Ward's gospel is an easy one. If she was Mrs Mary A. Ward, of Port Matilda, Pa., USA, it would be expressed something like this: 'Girls! Make life a joy-ride! But don't talk back to the police!' This easy gospel will give its disciples the heritage one may see in the faces of so many 'sheltered women': a smooth brow, that has never known the sweat of labour; the lax mouth, flaccid for want of discipline; eyes that blink because they have never seen anything worth looking at; the fat body of the unexercised waster. And within, the petulance of those who practise idealism on the easiest methods: a pastime that develops the conceit of the artist, with none of the wisdom and chastening of art.
The Freewoman, 15 February 1912
Letter to the Editor of The Freewoman
A Reply to Mr Hubert Wales
This is most damping. In 'The Gospel of Mrs Humphry Ward' I write a positively eloquent paean on energy, and hurl my thunderbolts at the woman who will not think. And three weeks later Mr Hubert Wales startles me by accusing me of worshipping industrialism, and despising the contemplative life (in which he seems to include the practice of art and philosophy). I feel hurt.
Of course, I meant nothing of the sort! How could a feminist worship the industrial system? It makes the same demand from women as does the home – physical drudgery, combined with mental inertia.
When I wrote that sentence, 'Never will woman be saved until she realises that it is a far, far better thing to keep a jolly public-house really well than to produce a cathedral full of beautiful thoughts,' I was writing about the parasitic women of the upper and middle classes, whose 'beautiful thoughts' are the effortless pulp of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, not the fierce struggles towards the light of George Bernard Shaw. The Catherine Leyburns of England are about as fit for the stern intellectual discipline of the contemplative life as are the loafers on the Embankment.
I really advised the parasitic women to become publicans because it occurred to me that the various duties of that profession, such as wringing a licence out of a bench of insolent country gentlemen, paying the rent regularly on quarter-days and chucking out the drunkards on Saturday night, might foster the qualities of independence, thrift and firmness of character, so sadly lacking among upper-class women of today.
The Freewoman, 14 March 1912
Excerpted from The Young Rebecca by Rebecca West. Copyright © 1982 Rebecca West. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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