The Young Rebecca

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3066

“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.”...

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“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 Mrs. Holroyd (1914). In several book reviews, she finds an appropriate place to remind her readers that women have always worked, that women are members of the human race and not saintly creatures, and that there is great variety among women. In a passage rivaling the best satiric prose in fiction, West creates a comic composite portrait of the various types of feminists she knew before August, 1914: “One sees passing before one the galoshes-and-velour-hat type of suffragist who was very well up in facts and figures, but a little unsympathetic about changes in the marriage laws; the amber-cigarette-holder type of suffragette who called stridently across the Soho restaurant for the wine-list, and whose trump card was her speech on unmarried mothers; the stoutish type who affected purple djibbahs and spoke in a rich, almost greasy, contralto about the Mother Soul; the white-faced type whose courage in jail was one of the few intimations of how we would meet our enemies.” This marvelous passage, occasioned by her review of a mediocre history of the suffragist movement, displays West’s good-humored refusal to idolize the peculiar individuals whose strength lay in their peculiarity. It is not a petty, spiteful attack on other feminists, nor is it a betrayal of West’s public feminist stance.

Chapter 6, “Miscellaneous Slings and Arrows,” groups fifteen essays written for the Daily Herald, Everyman, Manchester Daily Dispatch, and Daily Chronicle, from June, 1912, to November, 1916. The ambitious range of West’s periodical writing is evident in this final chapter. With splendid ease, West moves from a sardonic opening, “Politics is such a noble art,” to the breezy assertion that “politics are too childish for women.” Her strategy ridicules male politicians who would exclude women from exerting political power. Her Socialist analyses of contemporary legislation demonstrate her passionate concern that the woman’s movement address working-class as well as middle-class issues. Writing on the noblewomen opposing a compulsory tax to fund their servants’ disability insurance, West delights with a satiric fantasy of peeresses going to prison, or standing in the dock in their Paquin and Worth gowns. Her fantastic, humorous scene guides her readers to a mocking rejection of the feeble, selfish arguments against workers’ disability insurance. In an article written in 1912 for the Daily Herald, West begins by asserting that the “attitude of the public towards the woman’s movement is too horrible to be unimportant,” and then she addresses that antipathetic public with a complex analysis of the movement. Self-confidently, West concludes: “For certainly we need rebellion. Unless woman is going to make trouble she had better not seek her emancipation.” That radical stance characterizes the young Rebecca West.

Comparison of West’s essays written for different periodicals could have been made easier by the inclusion of each article’s title and date in the table of contents; nevertheless, the excellent index enables readers to collect from Marcus’ separate chapters West’s comments on individual authors and on specific issues.

The reader, turning to indexed remarks on August Strindberg, will find West’s condemnation of Strindberg’s drama grounded in a political and psychological analysis first stated in a 1912 review in The Freewoman: “The unsuccessful bully can always become the father of a family.” In 1913, she repeats her contempt for his misogyny and paternal ambition in The Clarion, and during World War I, in the Daily News, she suggests a link between his counterfeit ideas and deceptive patriotic revelry: “Unless one pays the bookseller with a Jubilee sixpence, gilt to look like a half-sovereign, and waits for the change, it is an act of folly to buy any work by Strindberg.” West adopts a slightly different tone for each audience, but in each review essay she condemns Strindberg’s antipathy to women.

West’s resistance to H. G. Wells’s fictional representation of the world also remains constant. West’s various reviews of books by or about H. G. Wells—in 1912, in Everyman and in The Freewoman; in 1913, two reviews in The New Freewoman; and in 1915, her savagely funny review of Van Wyck Brooks’s study of Wells’s novels, in the Daily News—span four years of her complex personal relationship with Wells, give evidence of her sharply critical intellect and uncompromising moral stance, and yet display her flexibility in presenting her judgment to different audiences. With wit modifying her morally superior tone, West admits in 1912 to “horror” that Wells accepts a female character’s “scoundrelism as the normal condition of women,” and she articulates the same critique in 1915, asserting that Wells’s heroines “have nothing in common except their persistent trait of dishonesty.” However West and Wells defined their emotional and intellectual accord over the years, they clearly differed in their assumptions about women in society.

Comparing West’s various articles on World War I, the reader can trace a gradual shift in her attitude. West’s implicit acceptance of at least some of the atrocity stories that came to light from 1914 to 1915 underlies her favorable review of May Sinclair’s A Journal of Impressions in Belgium (1915), written for the Daily News, August, 1915, twelve months after the war’s outbreak. Critical of the author’s tone, West nevertheless admires the book’s achieved impact: “It is merciful that, just as one discovers that the world is capable of being infinitely more atrocious than one had imagined, one learns that it is also capable of being infinitely more noble.” Writing two years into the war, in August of 1916, for the Daily News, while reviewing a book on women’s work, West notes sardonically that although the “Ministry of Munitions has not been an ideal supervisor of the employment of women in munition works . . . it has proved again and again that industry can easily meet the needs of women in high wages and decent conditions . . . and . . . women can easily and quickly acquire industrial skill enough to make them valued employees.” Here, West echoes her prewar articles on working women, and she continues her affirmation in three aritcles written for The Daily Chronicle, 1916, entitled “Hands That War,” reporting in vivid detail the working conditions and the competence of dedicated women war workers. In December of 1916, West wittily praises Havelock Ellis’ solemn, sincere Essays in Wartime (1916) for destroying “every kind of argument by which people pretend that warfare is anything but an offence against humanity, that it is anything more dignified than the frog-marching of an intoxicated Power to the police station.” She concludes her essay on Ellis by reminding her readers that women do not want special treatment, but only equal pay for equal work.

By April of 1917, in her Daily News review of Ellen Key’s War, Peace and the Future (1916), West was plainly sick of the war and of careless sentimentality. Her attack on Key’s dubious thesis displays uncontrolled sarcasm: “Women need not trouble to develop any human qualities. They are merely to sit still and be as female as they can, taking as their ideal not the untiring St. Teresa, but the Sacred Cow of the Universe. There is a magic about mere femaleness which will enable them so to regenerate the world.” West disputes Key’s assumption that “mere femaleness is going to end the war.” Even in that terrible war year, 1917, West’s critique is grounded in an astute analysis of power: “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.” West’s refusal to swallow Key’s sentimental woman-worship is perfectly consistent with her 1913 Clarion essay, “The Sin of Self-Sacrifice,” in which she celebrates the splendid selfishness of militant feminists and rejects as impractical women’s self-sacrifice for the sake of the race. Her rational argument in 1913 was: “There is nothing behind the race but individuals. If half the individuals agree to remain weak and undeveloped half the race is weak and undeveloped.” She argues from the same position in 1917. Her support of the British effort in World War I included her continued opposition to the dictum that woman’s place was in the home.

Reading Rebecca West’s essays is a great pleasure, for her prose style is incisive, whimsical, rhetorically tricky, and persuasive. Her opening sentences seize the reader’s imagination and quickly establish a sympathy for her point of view. Three examples demonstrate the variety of tones she adopts: “We have asked men for votes, and they have given us advice”; “I love the intellectual modesty of the Fabian”; “Charity is an ugly trick.” The serious tone of the epigram on charity also appears within the body of her essays, as she states uncompromising moral principles so concisely that the reader has to choose either to accept or to deny her position. She calculates when a tone of moral absolutism may be most useful to her argument, selecting the impartial third person (“The cool assumption that woman is weaker than man is impertinent”), the inclusive first person plural (“we have no right to stand between a human being and its desires unless they take the form of an attack on others”), or the compelling first-person singular mode (“I loathe this anti-Semitism as I loathe the devil”). In the service of a serious argument, West can employ humor effectively. Responding to critics of the suffragists’ violence, she belittles the opposition in a way that reestablishes a reasonable perspective on the political issue: “It is true that the women have burned a tea-house in Kew Gardens, but it was only a little one.” Later in the essay, her exaggerated vision of sending Maxim guns against the women cuts two ways: suggesting that the public is overreacting and at the same time reminding the public of the violence against imprisoned suffragettes. She attacks her political opponents with wit and style: the “extraordinary person who ought to be secured for the nation and kept on view in the British Museum” becomes an object for her readers’ laughter. She ridicules writers who fail to meet her high standards for prose: “He does not so much split his infinitives as disembowel them.” She professes to have nightmares about another writer’s “limp sentences wandering through the arid desert of his mind looking for dropped punctuation marks.”

Her literary allusions are never pretentious display but, rather, persuasive strategy. She demonstrates the subtlety of this tool in an article on the death of Emily Davison, the militant feminist who chose to commit suicide by throwing herself in front of the Derby racehorses in 1913. West does not rehearse the facts of the death, but instead describes the effect of Davison’s funeral on herself. Noting that, on the day of the funeral, the government, acting under the “cat and mouse” act, had taken the hunger-striking Pankhurst back to prison, West evokes the sleeplessness of the murderer Macbeth: “But England has murdered sleep.” Her allusion implies that the government shares Macbeth’s guilt.

Jane Marcus’ selection of these essays and her introductory remarks to each chapter reclaim a young radical feminist and Socialist who had been nearly lost to modern cultural history. The Young Rebecca portrays a bold and brilliant literary stylist, an activist who articulates her anger and her principles with wit, and a self-determined personality who stirs a reader’s intellect and imagination.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 53

The Atlantic. CCXLIX, May, 1982, p. 106.

Contemporary Review. CCXL, June, 1982, p. 333.

Library Journal. CVII, February 15, 1982, p. 460.

Ms. X, March, 1982, p. 32.

New Leader. LXV, May 31, 1982, p. 17.

The New York Review of Books. XXIX, August 12, 1982, p. 12.

The New Yorker. LVIII, July 19, 1982, p. 95.

Newsweek. XCIX, May 17, 1982, p. 95.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXI, February 21, 1982, p. 56.

Saturday Review. IX, April, 1982, p. 55.

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