“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?

“It is only War in the abstract that is beautiful”: Letters from a Lost Generation

poppyIn remembrance, from the Novel Readings archive.


This volume is subtitled “The First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends: Roland Leighton, Edward Brittain, Victor Richardson, Geoffrey Thurlow.” The editors, Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge, explain in their ‘Note to the Text’ that they have abridged the letters, sometimes significantly, in order to “lay bare the vivid and moving personal stories they tell, against the historical background of a cataclysm that destroyed four of the five writers.” In their ‘Introduction,’ they sum up the story the letters tell, one of “idealism, disillusionment, and personal tragedy.” Though excerpts always make me wonder whether the material omitted might have changed the story, there’s no doubt that the letters as presented here do follow just that arc. The four young men in the correspondence are all products of the British public school system which taught them the values they lived and then died for: “traditions of chivalry,” the editors explain, “the values of self-sacrifice, fair play, selfless patriotism, honour, duty.” War, in their view, was the ultimate proving ground for these qualities as well as their defense. Remnants of what can only look to us like a narrow-minded as well as naive idealism linger on throughout their letters, especially in their poignant wish to show courage in the face of incessant horror and imminent death: “I only hope I don’t fail at the critical moment,” writes Geoffrey, in what turns out to be his last letter to Vera, “as truly I am a horrible coward: wish I could do well especially for the School’s sake.” But it doesn’t take long for the realities of the trenches to disillusion them about war itself. “I used to talk of the Beauty of War,” Vera’s fiancé Roland writes to hear early in August 1915, “but it is only War in the abstract that is beautiful.”

After Roland’s death, in late December 1915, Vera’s brother Edward writes to her that Roland “considered that in War lay our one hope of salvation as a Nation, War where all the things things that do not matter are swept rudely aside and one gets down to the rock-bottom of the elementary facts of life.” Their friend Victor, the most militaristic of them (Geoffrey, in contrast, is the least militaristic, telling Vera that “he objects to War on principle”) argues at one point to Edward that “the Allies are God’s instrument by which He will remove that spirit and doctrine which is the cause of such Wars as this one.” To Vera, Victor writes that “The thing one appreciates in the life here more than anything else is the truly charming spirit of good fellowship & freedom from pettiness that prevails everywhere.” But these theoretical, wishful, or compensatory arguments are inadequate bulwarks against passages like this one:

I have been rushing around since 4 a.m. this morning superintending the building of dug-outs, drawing up plans for the draining of trenches, doing a little digging myself as a relaxation, and accidentally coming upon dead Germans while looting timber from what was once a German fire trench. This latter was captured by the French not so long ago and is pitted with shell holes each big enough to bury a horse or two in. The dug-outs have been nearly all blown in, the wire entanglements are a wreck, and in among this chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country’s Glory or another’s Lust [for] Power. Let him who thinks that War is a glorious thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country with as thoughtless and fervid a faith as inspired the priests of Baal to call on their own slumbering deity, let him but look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin bone and what might have been Its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half crouching as it fell, supported by one arm, perfect but that it is headless and with the tattered clothing still draped around it; and let him realise how grand & glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence. Who is there who has known & seen who can say that Victory is worth the death of even one of these? (Roland to Vera, 11 September 1915)

“It seems to me now,” Vera writes back soon after, “that this War is scarcely for victory at all, for even if victory comes it will be at the cost of so much else, so many greater things, that it will be scarcely worth having. No, this War will only justify itself if it puts an end to all the horror & barbarism & retrogression of War for ever.” After Roland’s belongings are returned to his family, Vera writes to Edward,

I was glad that neither you nor Victor nor anyone else who may some day go to the front was there to see. If you had been you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory. For though he had only worn the things when living, the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards & the Dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies – dead that had been dead a long, long time. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes.

“Dear child,” Edward writes to Vera after the news of Geoffrey’s death, “there is no more to say; we have lost almost all there was to lose and what have we gained?”

What’s so surprising and touching about their letters is not what was gained or lost, but what was somehow retained–in spite of everything, you never lose the awareness that they are just (just!) five young people making their way forward a day at a time, in the best way they can find. They have school memories and career ambitions, favorite novels and poems, families that frustrate as well as comfort them. They worry, too, about how the war might be changing them. “I don’t think,” Roland writes to Vera, “that when one can still admire sunsets one has altogether lost the personality of pre-war days. I have been looking at a bloodred bar of sky creeping down behind the snow, and wondering whether any of the men in the trenches on the opposite hill were watching it too and thinking as I was what a waste of Life it is to spend it in a ditch.” Geoffrey’s final letter (paraphrased in Testament of Youth) includes an evocative description  of the trenches in the setting sun, a line of men “outlined against a pale yellow sky with dark purple clouds low down in the sky: over to the right tall trees astride a river also looking gold in the last rays of the sun and beyond the river more ruined houses from which occasionally flashed a large gun.” Though his life will so shortly be wasted, he at least has not lost his ability to appreciate that “it was all quite beautiful.”

geoffreyGeoffrey’s letter ends with lines from Rupert Brooke’s sonnet “Safety” – “War knows no power safe shall be my going / Safe tho’ all safety’s lost, safe where men fall / And if these poor limbs die, safest of all.” (Vera to Edward: “I had a letter from him, within 3 days before his death, which was in all ways a farewell. . .. it made you feel that Death could not conquer a person of such fine & courageous natures.”) He had written earlier to Vera about Brooke: “Yes! I love Rupert Brooke & took him up with some of the other verses which Edward gave to me, to the trenches the last time but owing to wet, mud and squashed cake in my pack, which, the cake, seemed to permeate everything my edition is somewhat dilapidated now tho’ the dearer for that.” But much of their daily life is much more mundane than poetry, and that’s really where we realize “the pity of war.” There’s the long saga of Edward’s missing valise, for instance. Apparently claiming lost luggage wasn’t any easier in the trenches than it is with Air Canada: “I have got various papers on which to write my claim but I don’t konw when I shall have time to write it all out as it will probably take about 2 hours as it has to be done in duplicate,” he writes in some frustration to Vera, asking her to send along new shorts and sundries. Then there are his confidential remarks to Vera that he never seems to meet any “decent girls”–“Can you throw any light on the matter and do you think I shall ever meet the right one because at present I can’t conceive the possibility?” (Vera replies, “I think very probably that older women will appeal to you much more than younger ones”). These are the moments that restore these painfully young men to the normalcy that their extraordinary circumstances have stripped away, the moments that help us see them as our own sons or brothers or loved ones. “The reason why your last letter was so beautiful,” Victor writes to Edward in May 1916, “was because it was so very human. And after all to be human is better, and greater, and more beautiful than anything else.”

Originally posted March 14, 2012