A dangerously honest and unconventional writer

 


Scottish PEN is the Scottish centre of PEN International, a worldwide Scottish PENorganisation committed to promoting literature and protecting freedom of expression. An important strand of PEN’s work is the support of women writers, so often marginalised. Scottish PEN has produced a revised version of its 100 Scottish Women Writers poster. Twelve writers from the poster will be featured as part of the Dangerous Women Project, in a contribution each month by a member of Scottish PEN.


by Faith Pullin

Rebecca West famously remarked that ‘people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute’.

When nineteen-year-old Cicely Fairfield renamed herself Rebecca West in 1912, twentieth century literature and society gained a unique and powerful female voice.

She took the name from Ibsen whose plays portrayed the rebellious spirit of the New Woman. West was a dangerous woman in many ways since she defined herself in opposition to all generic qualifications in terms of writing, gender, politics and religion. Although she considered herself a Christian, West often claimed that God was wicked or ineffectual. She was essentially anti-dogmatic and sometimes actually blasphemous.

In 1926, she made the dangerously unorthodox claim that Christianity must be regarded not as a final revelation but as merely a developmental phase. She rejected the virgin birth, original sin, the atonement and providence. West also opposed what she saw as the fatal obsession with sacrifice characteristic of Christianity:

All our western thought is founded on this repulsive pretence that pain is the proper price of any good thing …[Augustine] developed a theory of the Atonement which was pure nonsense, yet had the power to convince… This monstrous theory supposes that God was angry with man for his sins and that he wanted to punish him for these, not in any way that might lead to his reformation, but simply by inflicting pain on him, and that He allowed Christ to suffer this pain instead of man and thereafter was willing on certain terms to treat man as if he had not committed these sins. This theory flouts reason at all points, for it is not possible that a just God should forgive people who are wicked because another person who was good endured agony by being nailed to a cross.

Basically, West considered God to be evil, asserting thatthe case against religion is the responsibility of God for the sufferings of mankind, which makes it impossible to believe the good things said about Him in the Bible, and consequently to believe anything it says about Him.’

West has been said to believe in dualisms and to have taken a Manichaean view of experience. This is particularly the case with her attitude to men and women; she saw a great difference between male and female sensibility. In her text, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (said to be the greatest travel book ever written), West notoriously divides men and women into idiots and lunatics:

It seems to me in any assembly where you get people, who are male and female, in a crisis, the women are apt to get up and… say: ‘It’s all very well talking about the defences of the country but there are thirty-six thousand houses in whatever…that have no bathrooms…Silly stuff, when the enemy’s at the gate. But men are just as silly. Even when there are no enemies at the gate, they won’t attend to the bathrooms because they say defense is more important. It’s mental deficiency in both cases.

Nevertheless, West also insists that ‘I’ve never gone anywhere where the men have come up to my infantile expectations’.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Rebecca West’s work is the characteristic blending of the private and the public – the personal and the political. She was clear that sex was an important subject for women. She commended D.H. Lawrence for ‘placing sex and those base words for it on the salver of his art’.

She lived the way she wrote and this, of course, made her a danger to patriarchal society. By shamelessly mothering an illegitimate child, West became one of the first women to claim a female need for sex. She insisted that women could experience sexual desire as strongly as men. As a result of her work, it became possible for sex to be seen as the prime force in the life of an eminent, intellectual woman.

West’s son, Anthony West, was the product of her 10 year affair with H.G. Wells.

Her relationship with Anthony was not a happy or successful one. In 1955, Anthony West published Heritage, a fictionalised autobiography. Rebecca never forgave her son for portraying her in unflattering terms, in effect accusing her of being a bad mother. He blamed her for abandoning him as a child in favour of her career (though he did not make the same accusation against his father).

West was so wounded by Anthony’s view of her that she broke off all contact with him and threatened to sue any publisher who tried to promote the novel in Britain. Later, when she was dying, she refused to send for him as ‘he hates me so much’. Her novel, The Judge (1922) made the case for unmarried mothers, as well as placing the issues of rape, illegitimacy and motherhood in the context of the suffrage struggle. An early war novel, The Return of the Soldier (1918) had described the conventionalities and desexualisation of traditional marriage.

As West undermined social and sexual categories, so she denied generic distinctions, working in areas such as journalism and travel writing, rather than concentrating on the novel itself. Many recent critics and biographers consider Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941) to be the central book of her life. It is a portrait of Yugoslavia and of Europe on the brink of the Second World War and has been described as a kind of metaphysical Lonely Planet that never requires updating.

In this text, West constantly moves between registers, demonstrating an enviable command of different tones. It is complex, densely written and, at the same time, essentially playful. Characteristically, it combines the personal and the political. Her point of view is always original and unorthodox and also strikingly humane – as in this quotation from Journey:

Rain was falling heavily, and the mud shone between the railway tracks. An elderly man, his thin body clad in a tight-fitting, flimsy overcoat, trotted along beside the train, crying softly, ‘Anna! Anna! Anna!’ he held an open umbrella not over himself but at arms’ length. He had not brought it for himself, but for the beloved woman he was calling. He did not lose hope when he found her nowhere in all the long train, but turned and trotted all the way back, calling still with anxious sweetness. ‘Anna! Anna! Anna!’ When the train steamed out he was trotting along it for a third time holding his umbrella still further away from him. A ray of light from an electric standard shone on his white hair, on the dome of his umbrella, which was streaked with several rents, and on the strong spears of the driving rain. I was among people I could understand.

This kind of empathy is typical of West’s digressive and meandering text. It is also apparent in West’s writing about espionage and spies. As usual, the people working in the intelligence services rarely agreed with her views. However, she was dangerously useful in presenting unconventional judgements.

West was well aware that she provoked hostility ‘in an extraordinary lot of people’ (as she claimed in the Paris Review interview with Marina Warner), though she never knew why and hated to be disapproved of. In the same interview, she asserted that she had a very unhappy time with H.G. Wells: ‘I was a victim of a sort of sadistic situation. Partly people disapproved of H.G. so much less than they did of me and they were very horrible to me, and it was very hard.’

It’s clear from West’s autobiographical novel, The Fountain Overflows (1956) that her family operated on a different wavelength from the conventional norm. Her family members seemed to specialise in a rather disconcerting honesty and this made them all rather dangerous to ordinary people (‘my mother…was too brave about putting things into words’).

West’s mother was Scottish and the family lived in Edinburgh; for a time Rebecca attending George Watson’s school. She was typically ambivalent towards her Scottish heritage, though well aware of its distinction. One of her more revelatory remarks was that her mother helped her because she always talked to her as if she were grown-up.

West’s father was a political journalist, concentrating on controversial topics. He made friends with activists and Russian revolutionaries, incidentally giving West material for her novel, The Birds Fall Down (1966), set in pre-revolutionary Russia. The family was very distinguished but, because of poverty, did not feel able to live on equal terms with their peers.

West had an unusually perceptive grasp of the psychology of politics – of the need to believe against all odds – but always maintained her own critical detachment.

She was a feminist and a suffragette but was critical of the tactics of the Pankhursts. Similarly, although a woman of the left, she condemned Communism as well as the actions of western democracies. As Bonnie Kime Scott points out in The Gender of Modernism, West applauded the Pankhursts for paying attention to subjects such as venereal disease, but blamed them for what she considered other lapses of judgement.

As a journalist, West regarded herself as a worker, different in kind from the kept women of patriarchal society. She was active in proposing equal pay for women, as well as championing divorce, property rights and female education. All in all, West took a progressive stance to the ways in which gender issues operated in her society.

However, her writing itself was subjected to the prejudices of male critics who did not rate her journalism as literature and condemned her work for denying conventional generic categorisation. She was the victim of the sexual politics of her time.

In the essay, What Is Mr. T.S. Eliot’s Authority as a Critic? West refuses to accept Eliot’s views on tradition and goes so far as to claim that ‘the years this American has spent in England have inflicted damage on our literature from which it will probably not recover for a generation’. This typically iconoclastic statement reveals West at her most dangerously polemical. She preferred Lawrence, as some of his views about women and sex chimed with her own.

Throughout her long and varied career, Rebecca West never wavered from expressing her own views, however unpopular she must have known them to be.

She was a writer of exceptional integrity whose honesty made her a truly dangerous woman.