Monday, June 09, 2008

Rebecca West: A house of one's own

I've read a few more chapters of the biography of Rebecca West. If you recall she was a British feminist and socialist writer, who, at the end of my first instalment, had agreed to become the mistress of H.G. Wells.

In short, she then fell pregnant and decided to keep the baby, a son named Anthony. Wells was unfaithful to her (if you can be unfaithful to a mistress), but the relationship continued for many years. She became well-known as a reviewer and wrote several novels. There was a messy break up with Wells, followed by affairs with a newspaper magnate, Max Beaverbrook, and several Americans, including Charlie Chaplin. She had a nervous breakdown and consulted a psychiatrist. At age 38 she married a banker, Henry Maxwell Andrews.

I can't in a short post like this attempt a universal critique of this stage of her life. All I aim to do is to pluck out a few themes that are of interest to me as a conservative.

The first theme is straightforward. It is striking just how privileged Rebecca West was as a writer. There is an idea at large that women artists were held down by a male dominated society and lacked a room of their own to create their art. This view doesn't hold true in the case of Rebecca West.

She began as a radical writer who wrote scathingly of male authors such as Wells and Ford Madox Ford. These male writers responded sympathetically to her and used their connections to promote her work. When Rebecca West became pregnant, Wells set her up in a house, with a nurse, two servants and a housekeeper.

She was paid handsomely for her literary work; receiving at one time, for instance, a guaranteed payment of $10,000 from Cosmopolitan magazine. In the 1920s and 30s, she travelled the world, taking frequent trips to New York and holidays in tourist resorts in Italy and France.

She lived better then as a writer and single mother than would most upper middle-class couples of today.

The second theme concerns her love life. There is an obvious disparity between Rebecca West's political beliefs as a feminist and socialist and what she instinctively was drawn to in her relationships with men.

She was a socialist and yet she was romantically attracted to wealthy, powerful men. First there was H.G. Wells and then later the newspaper magnate Max Beaverbrook. When she jumped ship (so to speak) she justified the move on the basis that Beaverbrook was the more masculine, unreconstructed kind of man. She wrote a novel in which the character based on Wells is described negatively as a "more recent, more edited kind of man". The Wells character is rejected as being too intellectual and sensitive compared to the more direct and unfiltered masculinity of Beaverbrook.

Nor was Rebecca, in her own love life, content with the feminist goal of independence. She could have lived independently as a single mother with a good income. We are told in the biography, though, that "Rebecca yearned for male companionship and marriage". She seems to have sought out a strong, protective type of man; the biography says of her marriage that:

... Rebecca revered Henry. He was a man who would take on any burden for her sake - a strong man, physically active ... Rebecca could do things for herself, but oh what a pleasure to have Henry do them for her, especially with such loving grace.

She praised her husband too for his emotional support, for being "So sensible when it's needed, and so insensible when that's needed."

In the early 1930s, Rebecca met the French writer Anais Nin. Both women expressed a preference for strong men:

Neither Rebecca nor Anais liked what they termed weak men. Rebecca was especially harsh on what she called pansies.

So whereas feminism leans toward female independence and non-traditional gender roles, Rebecca West in her personal life needed a relationship with a man and was attracted to strong, protective, "unedited", masculine men. Rather than the personal being the political, there was a major, unexplained disparity between the two in Rebecca's life.

The third theme is more difficult to explain. I'll have to introduce it in the broadest of terms. There have been three important "conversations" in European culture. One is the materialistic, naturalistic, scientific one. Another is the formal religious one, marked by a Christian concern for individual salvation through the avoidance of sin. The third conversation is also spiritual, but not tied formally to religion or theology or to salvation or sin; it is a conversation on what impressed the European mind as being of spiritual meaning or worth in life.

We are used now to the materialistic conversation dominating what we discuss and in what terms. The Christian conversation is still there, but cordoned off to a minority of the population. The third conversation is now almost entirely lost to us, even though it was once as prominent as the other two.

What is also striking is that there is so little crossover now between the conversations. It was once not unusual for an individual to hold all three realities together: a man could be a believing Christian, conversant in theology; he could at the same time recognise the reality of the material world, and be educated in the scientific processes describing this world; and still again take part in a conversation about the role of character or moral virtue in the spiritual life of man.

And here's the thing. When I read books about the radicals of the early twentieth century, I recognise immediately what I dislike about their politics. At the same time, though, it's hard not to notice that even the radicals of the time were usually more embedded in all three of the European conversations than an ordinary, conventional man of today. In this sense, they were still more cultured, in spite of their political radicalism.

Rebecca West is no exception. Yes, she did have her materialistic side, sometimes taken too far. She wrote, for instance, a book outlining a theory of art which appears to reduce art to a kind of scientific experiment on the human mind:

She has to work terribly hard at showing how Pavlov's experiments with dogs resemble the artist's experiments with humanity, since each, she believes, carries on a methodical inquiry into the mind that has advanced knowledge.

One reviewer, Edward Garnett, criticised her "materialistic confusions" and even H.G. Wells, more technocratic in his thinking than most, thought the book "ought to have music by Stravinsky":

And religion? We learn that:

Rebecca occasionally attended Catholic services, finding in ritual "a picture of spiritual facts which human language still finds it difficult to express adequately". She admired the spiritual discipline the church inculcated in its members.

We learn too that Rebecca found:

her own touchstone in St Augustine, the great Church father whom she had been reading since her teens ... Rebecca employed Augustine's belief in original sin as a symbol of the neuroses that made a mockery of free will ...

Finally, as you would expect of a well-educated, cultured woman of the time, Rebecca also participated in the third great conversation, the one turning on what was found to be of spiritual worth in life. She described herself at one point as being "interpenetrated with interests of the soul and the intellect". She admired other women for their beauty, grace and nobility. She praised D.H. Lawrence for being,

intent on revealing the spirituality of human beings even as the England of his day was "swamped in naturalism".

I'm not claiming that Rebecca West was especially adept at holding the three conversations in balance. It does seem clear, though, that she was able to participate in each, to a degree that would be rare for an intellectual of our own times. And I admire her for it. She still had something that we have lost.

1 comment:

  1. Jim Kalb has written an interesting short article in response to this post (see here).