The Young Rebecca
“I have read in an anti-suffrage publication that wife-beating is not a serious offence because many women like to be beaten and thus feel that they have really married a man. But such scenes of masculine dominance, delightful as they may be to the participants, are bad for the children.” Rebecca West’s mordant wit still strikes sparks. In The Young Rebecca, her rational arguments for social reform and her passionate denunciation of the poverty forced upon working-class women by a capitalist system reveal a political stance at odds with West’s later public image. Jane Marcus’ selection of essays reminds readers that Dame Rebecca, the fervent anti-Communist, began her career as a radical Socialist.
The excellent working relationship between West and Marcus contributed to the accuracy of the portrait that emerges from West’s early periodical writings and from Marcus’ insightful introductions to each chapter. Rebecca West supplied Marcus with clippings and photographs and identified some anonymous publications. Marcus, who is Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, has drawn upon her extensive knowledge of the woman’s suffrage movement in England, and her familiarity with the political and cultural transition that took place during the first two decades of the twentieth century informs her analysis of West’s achievement as an essayist.
That West was a polished essayist is evident in her public voice, which is philosophical, comic, abrasive, or persuasive, as required. Her joy in making fine discriminations animates her book reviews and political analyses. The ninety-one essays reprinted here suggest a prolific intellect engaged fully in the public life of her day. (Only in Marcus’ notes is one reminded that West bore a child in 1914 and managed a household in which she was a single parent.) From the age of eighteen, West displayed self-confidence, sharp judgment, a sense of humor, and a range of prose styles, all demonstrated in the essays that Jane Marcus has arranged into six chapters, corresponding to the periodicals where the essays first appeared.
Under “The Lamp of Hatred,” chapter 1 of this selection, Marcus groups the sixteen book reviews and three long letters published in The Freewoman and The New Freewoman between 1911 and 1913. With deliberate rage, West exposes pompous, foolish, malicious, and invidious ideas in the books she reviews. Counterbalancing the Victorian image of the lady with the lamp, Rebecca West imagines another idealized, questing woman: “A strong hatred,” she wrote in The Freewoman, “is the best lamp to bear in our hands as we go over the dark places of life, cutting away the dead things men tell us to revere.” Her image carries an allusion to Diogenes, as well as to Florence Nightingale, and West’s vocation as an essayist combines a ruthless search for integrity as well as a compassionate zeal for reform.
Chapter 2, “Battle-Axe and Scalping Knife,” includes all thirty-five essays Rebecca West wrote for the Socialist paper, The Clarion, from September, 1912, to December, 1913. In them, she demands consideration of neglected women’s issues: equitable pay for work inside and outside the home, a working woman’s right to a pleasurable life, the primacy of a child’s hunger over its political and religious education. She also addresses the most prominent feminist issues of her time: the violent demonstrations of suffragists, force-feeding in prison and the “cat and mouse” rule, and the betrayal of woman’s suffrage by those politicians who had promised their support.
Marcus has included the 1933 portrait, “A Reed of Steel,” to balance the Socialist’s early, sharp attacks on Emmeline Pankhurst. Writing to an audience who had forgotten the violence of women’s campaign to win suffrage, West combines sympathy and deliberate historical judgment in portraying a feminist leader with whom she differed, to create a comprehensive appreciation of Pankhurst’s strength and persistence throughout her extraordinary private history and public career. West gently mocks her provinciality and her romantic, impractical idealism. References to the work of other women activists and astute analyses of the political opposition to woman’s suffrage give the biographical sketch a broader historical purpose. The individual wearing “a little pink straw bonnet,” who endured imprisonment, force-feeding, and physical abuse in the cause of woman’s suffrage, becomes a symbol for the movement that did triumph. To characterize this symbol, West highlights the paradox of fragility and determination: “She was vibrant. One felt, as she lifted up her hoarse, sweet voice on the platform, that she was trembling like a reed. Only the reed was of steel, and it was tremendous.”
Uncovering the radical affirmation of female sexuality in West’s short story, “Indissoluble Matrimony,” Marcus supplies a new title: “A Blast from the Female Vortex.” In so doing, Marcus correctly places the fiction in its literary and historical context, since “Indissoluble Marriage” was published in the first issue of Wyndham Lewis’ periodical, Blast, a product of the English Vorticist movement which, imitating the Italian Futurists, intertwined celebration of masculine sexual violence with a destructive and creative energy associated with the future. Writing this story was a feminist writer’s revolutionary act, in which she took over and restructured the aggressive, misogynist assumptions of Vorticist and Futurist theory. One wonders how deeply Lewis understood the story he published. The story, narrated from the husband’s point of view, is marred by an offensive racism implicit in the association of Evadne’s sexuality with her black ancestry, an attitude that may not have been West’s, since it is articulated by such an unsympathetic and discreditable persona. The husband, at first attracted by his wife Evadne’s powerful and sensual voice, comes to resent her using that voice to advocate woman’s suffrage. Her sexual desire becomes, for him, an unedurable challenge to which he responds with false prudery. Evadne, unlike Euripides’ heroine of the same name, does not commit suicide; her self-determined individuality is symbolized in her strength as a swimmer. She is indestructible, but her husband, trying to drown her, nearly exhausts himself in the obscure oblivion of a watery grave. By playfully reversing the significance of conventional images, West avoids the stale didacticism imposed by her melodramatic form. For its psychological insight into the sexual politics of a marriage, this forgotten short story deserves to be more widely known.
In her introduction to chapter 5, “Fleet Street Feminist,” Jane Marcus notes that “Rebecca West’s absence from the history of English journalism is striking.” As this editor correctly implies, any study of the Daily News that omits West’s essays cannot claim completeness. West’s eassays introduced a feminist and Socialist voice to a liberal newspaper, and she demonstrated in them her ability to reach a large, general public. Among these essays are her brilliant, laudatory review of Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier (1915), in which she analyzes the achievement of his narrative technique, and her sympathetic review of D. H. Lawrence’s potential, which she judges him to have betrayed in his play, The Widowing of...
(The entire section is 3066 words.)