“The sword in the hand of humanity”: Writings of Rebecca West 1911-1917

youngrebecca“Boldness is Rebecca West’s strength,” Jane Marcus says in  her edited collection The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West 1911-1917; “She polished the weapons of invective and denunciation into the tools of a fine art.” That combination of boldness and artfulness makes West irresistibly quotable: people who hang out with me on Twitter may have noticed that I, at least, couldn’t resist sharing some of her erudite zingers. As most of the essays and reviews in this volume are fairly short, it’s West herself that makes the biggest impression, though cumulatively her political and aesthetic commitments are clear: as Marcus outlines them, “the young Rebecca West stood for revolution, free love, equal pay, the working class, votes for women, and the most advanced ideas in literature.” Some samples — and keep in mind that between 1911 and 1917 West (b. 1892) was between 19 and 25:

On The Considine Luck by H. A. Hinkson, The Spinster by H. Wales, and The Trespasser by D. H. Lawrence.

The baldness and badness of popular novels is as touching as the ugliness of a cherished rag doll. What overflowing tenderness must be in the heart of the child who loves this monstrosity, we think. And so with the people who read these novels — what tireless imaginations they must have, to perceive joy in these bare chronicles! We superior persons are too feeble to go searching for beauty on our own like that. We wait idly until Thomas Hardy comes back from witnessing fierce wars between the flesh and the spirit, and Conrad sails home from the strangest and most distant tropic. But the common man picks up some artless work such as The Considine Luck by H. A. Hinkson and creates his own beauty. He takes the puppet heroine, Grace Smith, and paints her wooden cheeks with the flush of his sensuous dreams; he lights her eyes with the radiance he has seen in unattainable women in pictures or at theatres, till Grace Smith is more fair than his first love. In a sense he writes his own book. . . .

It is not unkind to say that the above two books need never have been written. Of course, one is glad that they have been written, just as one is glad that there are dog shows at the Horticultural Show, even though one never goes near the place oneself. One likes to think of all those jolly little puppies; and similarly one is glad that Mr. Wales feels up to his work, and quite certain that a lot of people will get ingenuous pleasure out of Mr. Hinkson’s book.

 On J. M. Kennedy’s English Literature, 1880-1905.

He misses the really high purpose which the Yellow Book school fulfilled. These young men of artistic ambition came into the world to find that style was held in contempt. Dickens had dragged the English language through the mud, Browning had thrown bricks at it, Trollope was sit on its chest and reading the lessons to it. The house of art was full of men who had magnificent messages, but nevertheless ate peas with their knives. This revolted Wilde, possibly because, coming from Ireland, he was accustomed to hear good, clean, English; but in any case he and his followers set about imposing style on English literature. That was the purpose of their existence, and they fulfilled it. There was no new philosophy in the air, so they had no new gospel to preach. But they improved our manners. It is thanks to them that we are as fastidious about words as we are about personal cleanliness.

 On The Carnival of Florence by Marjorie Bowen.

There are two kinds of historical novel: the dietetic and the dressy. In the first one cries ‘Tush!’ and calls for nut-brown ale and a pasty. In the second one sighs ‘Ah God, my lord!’ and wimples, when one does not stomacher. In both cases local colour is not the complexion of the story but an impediment in its speech, but the latter has attracted a higher type of intellect by the delicious opportunity it affords of spending the afternoon in museums, looking at pretty things in glass cases and pretending that one is doing a good day’s work. For the literary mind enjoys almost everything except its work. Chief among the students of upholstery of the past is Miss Marjorie Bowen, who brings to the research enormous romping vitality and a love for beauty of language in which one would believe more thoroughly if she did not so frequently split her infinitives neatly down the middle.

On The World of H. G. Wells, by Van Wyck Brooks.

 Mr Van Wyck Brooks is one of those young American writers who would have made excellent wives and mothers. He fails from sheer excess of the housewifely qualities. He is saving: just as in happier circumstances he would have put every scrap into the stockpot, so now he refuses to throw away the very driest bone of thought, and insists on boiling it up in his mental soup He is hospitable; the deadest idea does not get turned away from his doorstep. He is cleanly: his bleached, scentless style suggests that he hung out the English language on the line in the dry, pure breezes of Boston before he used it.

On Hatchways by E. Sidgwick.

With the possible exeption of Angela Carranza (condemned by the Inquisition of Lima in 1684), who claimed to have written her revelations with a quill from the wings of the Holy Ghost, Miss E. Sidgwick is the most pretentious woman writer who ever lived.

One more, on The Good Soldier, by Ford Maddox Ford (to show that she could praise as well as condemn).

 It is as impossible to miss the light of its extreme beauty and wisdom as it would be to miss the full moon on a clear night. Its first claim on the attention is the obvious loveliness of the colour and cadence of its language, and it is also clever as the novels of Mr Henry James are clever, with all sorts of acute discoveries about human nature; and at times it is radiantly witty. And behind these things there is the delight of a noble and ambitious design, and behind that again, there is the thing we call inspiration — a force of passion which so sustains the story in its flight that never once does it appear as the work of a man’s invention. It is because of that unison of inspiration and the finest technique that this story, this close and relentless recital of how the good soldier struggled from the mere clean innocence which was the most his class could expect of him to the knowledge of love, could bear up under the vastness of its subject. For the subject is, one realises when one has come to the end of this saddest story, much vaster than one had imagined that any story about well-bred people, who live in sunny houses with deer in the park, and play polo, and go to Nauheim for the cure, could possibly contain. . . . Indeed, this is a much, much better book than any of us deserve.

 Oh, OK, just one more, on The Lion’s Share, by Arnold Bennett (because it’s impossible not to think about Woolf’s much more famous essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” while reading this — though Woolf’s appears eight years later).

It is now the fashion in many intellectual circles to despise Mr Bennett, as it is the fashion to despise all authors who have performed the crude act of publishing anything. But it is interesting to notice that because has has worked so hard at the craft of writing, at the art of inventing the dreams of a not wild imagination with beauty, he cannot help but achieve good writing and beauty even in a book written without much devotion and with a light intention.

 Oh, and this one too, on Love and Lucy by Maurice Hewlett (because it takes up a pet theme of mine).

But Mr. Hewlett would probably object, the girl had charm. Yet can anybody who cannot grasp that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal have charm? Can anybody who cannot – to take a simple and revealing test of intelligence — fold up a deck-chair, have charm? Lucy, one feels, could not have passed either of these tests. Isn’t it a sign of commonness, like buying a watch with a handsome exterior and cheap works, to be able to regard such a person as charming? Isn’t intelligence not a separate inserted quality but a necessary condition of beauty, at once a manifestation of a subtle and healthy nervous system and a power which organizes mere physical perfection into beauty that stirs the soul?

 rwestAll of these reviews are, in their own ways, epigrammatically delightful. But they also have a quality of self-display that is in fact slightly wearing after a while: it is perhaps a symptom of West’s precocity, indicative of the youthful zest for being right, or of a critical sensibility compromised (as is so often the case today as well) by the journalistic need to be both pithy and memorable. To be quotable, that is, is not the same as to be impressive, and I find her reviews here more impressive when she tones things down and speaks less from her head and more from her heart. I quoted before from her essay on the death of Emily Davison, for instance; along with the suffering of the suffragettes, it’s the war about which she is most eloquent. Here are some excerpts from her review of May Sinclair’s  A Journal of Impressions in Belgium:

The contrast between the manner of Miss Sinclair’s genius and its achievements is difficult to define. It is as though the usual literary process had been reversed and a mouse had produced a mountain. She writes about life as though she were a little girl sitting on a tin trunk at a railway station and watching the people go by; she writes as though at the  most hopeful estimate she might be another Miss Mitford; and out of this piteousness and diffidence and round-eyed observation there amazingly comes a fierce, large vision of reality. It is entirely characteristic of Miss Sinclair that this record of seventeen days spent in Belgium, which is largely a record of humiliations, and is told with the extremest timidity and a trembling meticulosity about the lightest facts, should be one of the few books of permanent value produced by the war.

Partly it is because her meticulosity makes her describe what writers more accustomed to the battlefield leave one to take for granted. . . . And partly it is because she writes of such a company of heroes as never lived before: of girls of nineteen who trudge over turnip-fields among the bullets to look for the wounded, not in any sudden flame of courage, but as a daily occupation; of women who stayed in Antwerp at their posts till the red skies fell in on them. . . .

And against this background, which is a miracle of of dreadfulness, there moves the Ambulance Corps, which is a miracle of human splendour. It is merciful that, just as one discovers that the world is capable of being infinitely more noble. One perceives quite clearly that some members of this Ambulance Corps must have been intolerable as individuals: ‘practical’ women who use their common sense to rasp their neighbours’ shins and regard suavity as a part of incompetence. And yet, united by their collective purpose of courage, they become an organisation so magnificent in its fearlessness that one accepts as a real tragedy the personal grief which makes this book muted like words spoken by one who holds back the tears. No triumph of good work that may come to Miss Sinclair will ever make up to her for the discovery that the artist is unfit for the life of action. And yet every page of this gallant, humiliated book makes it plain that while it is glorious that England should have women who walk quietly under the rain of bullets it is glorious too that England should have women who grieve inconsolably because the face of danger has not been turned to them.

 Faced with that ‘miracle of dreadfulness,’ West is angrily impatient with wishful “emotional” solutions or simplistic pacifism, such as the proposal by Ellen Key’s Women, Peace and the Future that “mere femaleness is going to end the war”:

 Mere platitudinous assertions as to the niceness of peace and the nastiness of war are useless in such crises, and the ‘motherly’ advice of Miss Key that the belligerent nations should refrain from denouncing the sins of others and should turn their attention to their own defects, is actively mischievous.

If we refrain from regarding the invasion of Belgium as a crime, we foment a state of public opinion which would tolerate England’s commission of a similar crime if the occasion arose. It is alert and vigorous thinking about specific points, it is the very quality of intelligence which Miss Key belittles, which brings an end to war. The intellect is the sword in the hand of humanity, without which its tears and laughter are as impotent as the tears and laughter of children. That is why Miss Key’s feminism, this woman-worship that would have women cultivate laxness of mental tissue so that they shall dissolve into a hot emotional vapour that shall act as a Turkish bath to the Superman, is an offence not only against women but against the race.

Reading through this collection I was frequently reminded of Testament of a Generation: what years these were of passionate, uncompromising, yet humane writing in the service of both political and literary ideals! How well did West know Holtby and Brittain? Marcus’s introduction notes that to Brittain West was “the embodiment of the feminist cause, the twentieth-century successor to Mary Wollstonecraft.” The Berry / Bostridge biography mentions West’s friendly treatment of Brittain at a party in 1933 and there are scattered further references to letters and meetings. How stimulating it would have been to share in their conversations — and yet I’ve also been thinking, as I read West’s ruthless pronouncements, that this is not the kind of person I might like best in real life (West sounds difficult, if not quite as challenging a personality as Olivia Manning). Also, much as I appreciate West’s rhetorical flair, this is not the kind of writing I seek out in contemporary contexts, when I tend to find it tiresome. Though I certainly identify as a feminist, I let my Ms. subscription lapse in the mid 90s. I wonder why I enjoy polemics so much more at some historical distance. Or is it that these particular polemicists bring something to their work that isn’t there in the contemporary equivalents? Who would be the equivalents today of this “Fleet Street feminism” anyway? Jezebel? Feministing? What critics would you point to who combine strong political critique with a strong literary sensibility?

“That promise will not be kept”: Rebecca West, This Real Night

westrealnightEvery time we left our pianos the age gave us such assurances that there was to be a new and final establishment of pleasure upon earth. True that when we were at our pianos we knew that this was not true. There is something in the great music that we played which told us that promise will not be kept . . .

This Real Night is the sequel to Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows. It was published about thirty years later, and apparently there was to be a third volume completing the series. This Real Night was published posthumously, and the publisher’s note to my edition suggests she hadn’t entirely finished working on it when she died. That might explain the odd tempo of the novel, which is extraordinarily dense — almost tediously so at times — through the first two thirds or three quarters and then concludes with a rush of emotional intensity. It feels compressed more than incomplete, though, and perhaps that sensation of lopsidedness is not a defect but a strategy to make the ending strike the reader, as it does the characters, as a transition from a long, complex, but unified and meaningful past into a future tragically unmoored from it. “I am writing all this down,” Rose says at one point,

in full knowledge that it will not now seem important, for the reason that that is just what marks off that past from our present. Everything was then of importance. Everything was of equal value. In life we were not divided. Life itself was not divided.

This Real Night picks up the story of the Aubrey family, now without their mercurial burden of a father and relatively prosperous thanks to their mother’s cleverly having preserved some valuable paintings as insurance against his fecklessness. The musical daughters, Mary and Rose, have progressed to studying in musical academies in London; the unmusical daughter Cordelia, who had so distressed the rest of her family by her insistence on playing the violin, pursues conventionality with the same single-mindedness and self-assurance that they bring to their art. In this novel West continues her ruthless cultural elitism: there’s a particularly painful scene in which Cordelia’s former mentor Miss Beevor (“the poor, poor idot”) is accidentally shown how little the musical Aubreys think of her when their mother tries (tactfully) to get out of taking Miss Beevor to a concert that’s beyond her musical reach:

“If it is not to be the St Matthew Passion,” said Miss Beevor, implacably, “let it be this young woman you have been talking about.”

“No, no,” said Mamma, “do not think of her either. Let us leave such things to the young, we will go to the Queen’s Hall.”

“I do not want to go to the Queen’s Hall,” said Miss Beevor. “I have been to the Queen’s Hall. On several occasions. I know that I am not a gifted musician. Nor a highly trained one. But surely it need not be taken that I am quite without musical taste.”

 That night Rose finds “Mamma sitting there among the shadows, the gas not lit,” in tears. “Why are you crying,” she asks. “I was awful to Miss Beevor,” is the reply. She is remorseful about Miss Beevor’s hurt feelings, but she has no second thoughts about her judgment of Miss Beevor as someone who is beneath a great performance of the St Matthew Passion or a performance by Wanda Landowska. Great art requires just such ruthlessness. Cordelia has already suffered for it, and in This Real Night Rose too has a brush with it, thanks to her new teacher Mr. Harper:

I was fairly certain that if I had played to Mamma and Mr Kirsch as I was playing to Mr Harper I would have rated the compliment of denunciation . . . Their scorn would have meant that I was walking with them in the procession that would gloriously never arrive at its destination; but Mr Harper’s embarrassed indifference implied that so far as he was concerned I had never joined it.

It turns out, though, that Mr. Harper just wants Rose to learn to play as herself, not as an imitation of her mother: “She’s taught you to play as if you were her, and you’re not , by a long chalk.” So Rose sets out to relearn how to play, and it’s hard, hard work: “it was animal warfare, such as a mongoose might wage against a snake.”

I find West’s treatment of the artistic life fascinating because it is at once so utterly committed and so unsentimental: no Aeolian harps here! There’s much more sweat and tears than inspiration. Mr. Harper gets particularly exercised over a picture showing people “woozy” over music: “and it was Beethoven, Beethoven, of all composers, who was supposed to have put them into that state. Music was something you had to do sober as a judge. Hard, you had to be.” But it turns out that this novel is not about Rose and Mary maturing into the musicians they are meant to be, or capable of being. Rather, it’s the story of the lesson the music teaches them: that the promise of pleasure on earth will not be kept. Because while they are practising and, eventually, performing, and becoming gold medallists, and playing at the Proms, and waltzing in the moonlight in this “age of success” — while all this rich living is going on, a cataclysm is in the making. When the novel begins, everyone knows “there were to be no more wars,” but when it ends it is 1914 and their golden age is over, though the extent of the catastrophe is not immediately apparent:

Our careers for some time continued. The First World War did not suddenly turn on civil life and strangle it as the Second did. Simply we saw a fungoid bloom of ruin slowly creep across the familiar objects among which we had been reared.

The greatest threat, inevitably, is to their cherished brother Richard Quin, who is caught on the very threshold of adulthood, who instead of going to Oxford goes to war, and to death. His leaving is protracted in the novel: it takes up many long pages of memory and anticipation and repressed dread. When they finally take him to the station, it’s music that provides a fantasy of evasion:

Under his breath he sang the aria from The Marriage of Figaro which Figaro sings when Cherubino is going to war, and weaved talk through it. There was no difference between the youth of Cherubino and the youth of Richard Quin, and it was delightful to pretend that we were in an opera, that Richard Quin would go to the war again and again for hundreds of years and never get there.

But the moment of real parting inexorably comes: “He said, “I want to swim. And lie in the sun.'” They are together for a few more moments and then “he was not there.” It seems as if everyone including Richard Quin knows he will not come back; it was only my own optimism that kept me hoping, even as I ran out of pages, that the book would end but Richard Quin would not. “I saw the life of those days as a flagon of grey glass, filled with salt water, with collected tears” Rose says;

The occasion of our grief was classically decorous, our brother had died for his country. But our grief was useless. Salt water, spilled on the ground, does not feed what grows there, but kills it.

 There will be more tears, this time for their mother, whose death follows closely on Richard Quin’s. “We had known her to be ill for a long time, all people die,” Rose reflects, “yet we felt as if she were the first person to die, and we the first people to suffer a beloved’s death.” They tend her “with the extremest gentleness” to the painful end, as if to prove the truth of her own despairing cry: “Yet what is useful except love?”

“In the courts of heaven”: Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows

fountainPejorative generalizations about the ‘traditional novel,’ like debates over the ‘death of the novel,’ often seem to me unduly preoccupied with form, as if broadening the range of human possibilities expressed through fiction isn’t also a literary innovation or revision. The Fountain Overflows is a good reminder that  just because a novel is linear, has characters, and tells a story attached (however lightly) to life at all four corners, it isn’t necessarily derivative, tired, or predictable. All the way through it I was marveling how unfamiliar it was — even though to all appearances it is perfectly conventional. It is its own strange world, populated with utter conviction, and, best of all, told in West’s endlessly unexpected (and always, in unexpected ways, thrilling) sentences.

The Fountain Overflows tells the story of the formative years of the Aubrey children: Cordelia, Mary, Rose (who narrates), and Richard Quin. Their father Piers is a journalist and political radical, fierce, inspiring, improvident. His indifference to his family’s well-being is a palpable thing (“I had a glorious father,” Rose reflects, only to conclude the thought, “I had no father at all”), yet they are devotedly loyal to him even as their lives follow his erratic, disruptive path from job to job and patron to patron. Their mother Clare is a pianist whose brilliant career was cut short by illness. Her absolute, uncompromising commitment to music pervades the children’s lives and, ultimately, the novel, which turns out to be as much an exploration of art as a values system as it is a family saga. Though a sensational murder story takes over the plot of the novel at one point, it seems a drearily mundane crisis compared to the catastrophe that is Cordelia’s insistence on playing the violin. “Cordelia had no idea that she was not musical,” Rose explains, and once she began lessons, she had “shown an extreme and mistaken industry”:

She had a true ear, indeed she had absolute pitch, which neither Mamma nor Mary nor I had, which was a terrible waste, and she had supple fingers, she could bend them right back to the wrist, and she could read anything at sight. But Mamma’s face crumpled, first with rage, and then, just in time, with pity, every time she heard Cordelia laying the bow over the strings. Her tone was horribly greasy, and her phrasing always sounded like a stupid grown-up explaining something to a child. Also, she did not know good music from bad, as we did, as we had always done.

“It was not Cordelia’s fault that she was unmusical,” as Rose makes sure to acknowledge, but it does define her to Clare, to whom “Cordelia was someone who could not play the violin and insisted on doing so.” Worst of all, Cordelia’s technical proficiency deceives her pathetic teacher Miss Beevor into believing she has a great talent, and so the tension builds: how far will Miss Beevor’s insistence on fostering Cordelia’s “genius” take her? Will Cordelia ever realize that her playing is wholly inadequate? To her sisters, ruthless purists, her performances are an abomination:

Had the spirit of music appeared before her, it would have spanked her for there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in her performance except the desire to please. She would deform any sound or any group of sounds if she thought she could thereby please her audience’s ear and so bribe it to give her its attention and see how pretty she looked as she played her violin.

The contest between Cordelia’s determination to keep on playing and the visceral horror her “musical idiocy” arouses in her family is at once acidly hilarious, and — once we realize that Cordelia hopes her violin will be her ticket out of her family’s isolating poverty — tragic. That Cordelia is profoundly misguided in thus attempting to use music to her own ends is never in doubt, though: all the energy of the novel supports Clare’s dedication to the highest ideals of art, by which “being fit to play Beethoven to Beethoven and Mozart to Mozart in the courts of heaven . . . is the impossible aim that all pianists must hold before themselves.” One of the most moving moments in the novel occurs when seedy, leering Cousin Jock — a man with no saving graces otherwise — stuns the gathered family with an extraordinary performance of the flute solo from Gluck’s Orpheo and Eurydice:

When I had heard Cousin Jock play before, I had thought he played too perfectly; it was as if he had sold his soul to the devil for power of performance and naturally enough performed without a soul. But now his powers dwelt humbly and faithfully with the triply mystery of the music he had chosen . . . That passage is sublime as pure sound; the mere relationship between the notes must cause delight. It is also a clear rendering of the climate of the legend, of the pure light of imagined classic Greece. It also states what is felt by all human beings when they have suffered a deep grief which is still, because they are not barbarians, within control, but is yet irreparable, even if its consequences should be afterwards annulled. . . .

When he came to an end we sat silent in the darkness.

Any sense we might have had that their revulsion at Cordelia’s playing was absurd, or at least disproportionate — that to compain “the music was profaned” when she played was to take music too seriously — is dispelled as we share in the respectful hush. To be “row[ed] away to the land where people were who are not musical” seems an exile more painful than the more literal isolation of the Aubreys in their shabby suburban home.

So that is one great surprise and pleasure and provocation of The Fountain Overflows: it challenges us to think about what music really is, and what it is worth — which is another way of saying that the novel is about life, and what it is for. “What is music about,” Rose asks Mary near the end of the novel. “Oh, it is about life, I suppose,” answers Mary, “and specially about the parts of life we do not understand, otherwise people would not have to worry about it by explaining it by music.”

Rose and Mary — and, in her own way, Cordelia — are part of this cerebrally artistic world, but another fascination of the novel is that they are nonetheless children, and the novel also evokes the child’s world of imaginary animals and perverse adults who refuse to treat children as whole people. As the narrator, Rose seems anything but innocent, as she and her sister manage their unworldly mother and cope with their father’s eccentricities and withdrawals, yet she also reports things she sees but does not fully understand, West playing her point of view with Jamesian subtlety. She also (something else unexpected) accepts without question the presence of supernatural elements, from poltergeists at her cousin Rosamund’s home to her own ability to read minds — which, to her mother’s displeasure, she uses as a party trick. “We are Scottish,” Clare finally explains as she tries to deflect the interest Rose’s display has attracted; “we take these things more seriously than the English,” but the real reason is that Clare considers it unsafe to unleash these forces, which are not to be dismissed as childish fancies but rather repressed as only too real: “If there is a wall between the present and the future it is not for us to pull it down.”

The Fountains Overflow is apparently autobiographical: my Virago edition has an introducton by Victorian Glendinning that lays out the many connections between characters in the Fairfield family and those in the novel. I never know quite what this kind of information adds to our understanding of a novel: it’s not as if saying that Cordelia “is a portrait of Rebecca’s eldest sister Letitia” tells us what to make of Cordelia. It’s more revealing about West, really, that she would draw up such a portrait and then, apparently, have the nerve to dedicate the novel to Letitia, as if — what? she wouldn’t recognize herself in it? In a way, that would be the ultimate insult, perfecting the critique of Cordelia’s self-deception. I don’t know much about West’s personal life or character, but from that gesture I intuit that she (like Rose) put many qualities higher than kindness. There is in fact a cruel edge to The Fountain Overflows; that it’s expressed through aesthetics makes it none the less lacerating, and indeed another way of reading Clare and Rose’s musical idealism is as an elitism every bit as exclusive as the social snobbery the Aubreys disdain. Yet as I’ve said before, I think “the chief obligation of a writer . . . is not that she be nice but that she be interesting,” and I found The Fountain Overflows consistently interesting — not only for its intellectual preoccupations but for its human drama, which is as intense as it is bizarre. And I just loved turning every page wondering what sentence — funny or fierce, poetic or pathetic — would catch me up next.