Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Rebecca West part 1

I'm reading a biography of Rebecca West, a prominent feminist and socialist writer of last century.

I've only read the first few chapters, but already there's much to comment on. West's parents met on board a ship to Australia; her father became a conservative writer in Melbourne in the 1880s. Rebecca, the youngest of three daughters, was born after the family had returned to the UK to live in Glasgow.

Unfortunately, the parents' marriage wasn't close and the father left the family when Rebecca was eight. The consequences were predictable: all three daughters became, when still in their teens, radical feminists.

It's such a common pattern: a spirited and intellectual daughter is abandoned by her father and becomes a feminist activist. This, for instance, is what the biography tells us of West's feminist friend Dora Marsden:

Dora and Rebecca shared certain searing family experiences. Dora's father had left the family when she was eight, after years of a strained marriage, causing extreme financial hardship ...


There are plenty of more recent examples of feminist women with similar backgrounds. Germaine Greer once wrote a book entitled Daddy, We Hardly Knew You. Gloria Steinem said of her father that he "was living in California. He didn't ring up but I would get letters from him and saw him maybe twice a year." Jill Johnston wrote frequently about her missing father who never tried to contact her. Kate Millett adored her father but when she was thirteen he abandoned the family to live with a nineteen-year-old. The father of Eva Cox left the family to pursue a relationship with a pianist "leaving an embittered wife and a bewildered and rebellious daughter".

Why would paternal abandonment provoke feminist activism? It's often said that a father embodies within a family the outside social order. So if the father fails the daughter, it makes sense that the daughter would set herself against this order.

It's possible too that for a proud young woman the loss of status brought about by paternal abandonment cuts deeply; she believes she has been robbed of the place she rightfully deserves to occupy in society by untrustworthy or unreliable men.

The lesson for conservative men is clear enough: we shouldn't underestimate how important our role is in our daughter's lives, not just in personal terms, but also in influencing the attitude of our daughters (and sons) to society itself.

To return to Rebecca's biography, although the family now lacked money she was provided with a scholarship to a private school; she distinguished herself as a student but left the school at the age of sixteen when she contracted tuberculosis.

She recovered and attended drama school, intending to become an actress, but she failed in her efforts. In 1911 she began writing for The Freewoman, an English feminist magazine.

The following year she met the 46-year-old novelist H.G. Wells. He already had both a wife and a mistress, but she pursued him. She got a kiss out of him, but he told her that he wasn't interested in an affair with her. She travelled to France and Spain and twice attempted suicide. She wrote a letter to Wells, which included the following lines:

Dear H.G.,

In the next few days I shall either put a bullet through my head or commit something more shattering to myself than death ... I am always at a loss when I meet hostility, because I can love and I can do practically nothing else ... You've literally ruined me ... I would give my whole life to feel your arms around me again ... Don't leave me utterly alone.


I've included these lines because they run so much against one of the currents of feminist thought, namely that men have no necessary role in a woman's life ("a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle", "I might want a man but I don't need a man" etc). Rebecca West did need a man in her life, to the point that she felt "ruined" when left "utterly alone".

In 1913 Wells' mistress left him and he offered the position to Rebecca West. She accepted.

As for the feminism of the period, it seems to have generated the same kind of tensions in its principles that it does today. For instance, in 1913 The New Freewoman declared to its readers:

Women's movement forsooth ... Why does not someone start a straight nose movement ... or any other movement based upon some accidental physical contournation.


In other words, the magazine set up to lead the women's movement believed that the category of "woman" was insignificant, a mere accident of physiology.

Rebecca West wasn't one who followed through with the idea that "woman" was an artificial category; for instance, she praised her feminist friend Dora Marsden for being an "exquisite beauty," a "perfectly proportioned fairy," and so "flower like". She appears to have appreciated the distinctly feminine qualities of her friend, at the same time that her feminist magazine was suggesting that womanhood could be dismissed as a merely accidental attribute of a person.

2 comments:

  1. It's possible too that for a proud young woman the loss of status brought about by paternal abandonment cuts deeply

    The loss of love (or feeling loved) is worse.

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  2. The lesson for conservative men is clear enough: we shouldn't underestimate how important our role is in our daughter's lives, not just in personal terms, but also in influencing the attitude of our daughters (and sons) to society itself.

    Quite right. This cannot be overstated.

    ReplyDelete

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