This novel, Harriet Hume, has a subtitle, and the reader should note it: a London fantasy. Both the elements of fantasy and the passages relating to London are significant in this novel. In addition Rebecca West added a quotation from John Dryden to the title page:
… And like white witches, mischievously good …
This mischievous novel contrasts two attitudes to life and relates how they play out over five meetings across two decades or more between two lovers.
Harriet Hume is beautiful, rather strange and unorthodox, a concert pianist with strong ideas about beauty. We first meet her with Arnold Condorex, her lover, as they emerge from an afternoon of lovemaking in her Kensington home. They are deliciously happy together, but Harriet perceives that he intends to get on in the world. She has the ability to read his thoughts. Arnold Condorex is ambitious. While happy to love Harriet, he does not wish to sacrifice his ambitions for her, and she discovers that he will cast her aside for a more advantageous connection. They quarrel and separate.
They meet four more times, always in a part of London, Hyde Park and Portland Place where he has bought a magnificent house, and after an interval of some years. Each time Condorex has achieved more of his ambition to become someone important in politics. Harriet perceives he has achieved this through chicanery, a loveless marriage and conspiracy. He calls this last negotiation. He is in politics to win, not to ameliorate the lot of the people. Each time they meet they are drawn to each other, but also find it impossible to be together.
There are some moments of humour, such as the confusion between Pondh and Mondh. They might as well be the same place as far as Condorex is concerned, and he does indeed achieve a peerage as Lord Mondh.
And there is some engaging whimsy, such as the story Harriet tells her lover about the trees in her garden, who were once three society young ladies. And then there are two very sympathetic and tactful policemen who appear in the final scene, who are from a different era.
The couple are doomed to oppose each other, indeed they agree that they are opposites, and although he hates her for knowing the truth about him and blames her for his downfall when it comes, there is a sense in which they are better when they balance each other.
Yet they could not have been together. For one thing there is his sexism. He thinks of his wife Lady Ginevra in this way:
There was no occasion in life when she was not limp; no, not one. (158)
And a few pages later
… he saw the Lady Ginevra as she would be at this hour, dancing at the Embassy, limp in the limp arms of one of her own kind, like two anchovies side by side in a bottle. (177)
The terms he uses when he thinks of Harriet reveal his patriarchal attitude: slut, witch, poor lass, little wench, girl and so on. And when he thinks she has been having an affair with a man called Karinthy he is disapproving and xenophobic.
… it would be against nature if such loveliness were not enjoyed. Still, I could have wished it had not been a foreigner. (140)
Karinthy is in fact a notable violinist of great age, and this reaction reveals much about Condorex.
The content of the novel is clearly not meant to be seen as realism. Harriet’s ability to read Condorex’s thoughts, her conjuring of fantastic stories, and above all the fanciful language used by Rebecca West remind the reader that this is a fantasy, a fable. I collected some examples of the vocabulary: infrangible, multitudinous, avow, perturbation, obdurate, orgulous (which means haughty or proud my dictionary tells me), languishment, complaisance … These are not words in everyday use and are a little affected even.
But the intent of the author is to set the values of the two characters against each other, and to reveal something of post war life in London. I don’t think that people write in this way or on these kinds of topics these days.
All of which makes it an interesting read, but does not hold the reader in the way, for example, her first novel The Return of the Soldier does.
Rebecca West lived a long and productive life. She was born in 1892 and Harriet Hume was her third novel. She did not live as a young woman of her class was expected to. She had been a suffragette before the war and was a feminist and journalist. A provocative article calling HG Wells an ‘Old Maid among novelists’ led to their meeting, a long affair and a son born in 1914. She supported herself through her writing. She wrote and published a great deal of fiction, non-fiction and journalism and died in 1983 aged 90.
Harriet Hume: a London Fantasy by Rebecca West first published in 1929. I used the edition from Virago Modern Classics, published in 1980 with an introduction by Victoria Glendinning. 288pp I found it at Second Shelf in Soho.
Some relevant links
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West in December 2018
Thoughts from Simon Lavery on Rebecca West, Harriet Humeon his blog Tredynas Days.
The cover of the Virago edition shows a detail from ‘The Studio Door, Charleston’ by Vanessa Bell.