Tag Archives: Rebecca West

Harriet Hume by Rebecca West

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

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 

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.

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The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

A birthday is a good time to remember a neglected author, especially one of the many neglected women authors. Rebecca West was born on 21stDecember 1892. She was progressive, radical in her early life, and her first novel, The Return of the Soldier, was considered quite risky. It was published in the last year of the First World War. It is an unusual criticism of the harm that war can do.

Rebecca West herself had not lived her life as she a girl 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.

Jane on beyondedenrock blog posted A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authorsand I support her suggestion that we celebrate birthdays of the more neglected women writers.

Cover: detail from The Other Room by Vanessa Bell

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

The wife and cousin (Kitty and Jenny) of the soldier, Chris, wait for their hero to return and for the war to end. In anticipation they have spent time and money of the house he redesigned. They have made it beautiful for his return. Kitty herself is a beautiful woman, very conscious of her social value and of the persuasive powers of her beauty.

The novel is narrated by Jenny, Chris’s cousin, and she is in love with this man whom she has known since childhood. She lives with Kitty and believes that she shares Kitty’s values: the importance of behaving properly, and the value of beautiful things and surroundings. As they wait, a little anxious for they have not heard from Chris for a couple of weeks, Jenny reflects on the money they have spent on the garden and the furnishings of Baldry Court.

I was sure that we were preserved from the reproach of luxury because we had made a fine place for Chris, one little part of the world that was, so far as surfaces could make it so, good enough for his amazing goodness. (16)

Notice the word ‘surface’, for eventually both Jenny and Chris, but not Kitty, would see the life they had created and were preserving for Chris was just that – a surface. Underneath there was a vacuum.

As they are waiting news comes from a strange woman, lower class, not wearing beautiful clothes and her body not well preserved. Jenny and Kitty are revolted by the poverty and careworn appearance of Mrs Grey. This is Margaret who Chris had loved 15 years before. She tells Kitty and Jenny that Chris has amnesia.

The soldier is sent back from the war. He has forgotten Kitty, the remodelled house, the war – everything of the last few years. In talking to Jenny he reveals that he only feels comfortable around Margaret and she agrees to come and be with him, even though she too is now married.

The situation is difficult. Kitty, used to getting her own way, finds herself replaced by Margaret in Chris’s affections, who comes to share her days with Chris. It is not spelled out precisely how intimate they become, but Kitty finds it more and more intolerable. Jenny, on the other hand, finds herself increasingly respecting Margaret and her relationship with Chris.

Eventually, Margaret sees that the way to ‘cure’ the soldier is to remind him of his dead son. Here is a dilemma: to bring back his memory will mean he has to return to the front, and he will loose the happy state into which he has entered with Margaret.

It is also clear that it is more than the war that has caused his amnesia: his life with Kitty is all on the surface. The reader sees that relationships which are all about servicing and pleasing the men are flawed.

In the final scene Kitty asks Jenny to watch from the house for his return after Margaret has forced Chris to see the truth and regain his memory. Jenny sees him approach the house across the lawn.

He wore a dreadful decent smile; I knew how his voice would resolutely lift in greeting us. He walked not loose limbed like a boy, as he had done that very afternoon, but with the soldier’s hard tread upon the heel. It recalled to me that, bad as we were, we were not yet the worst circumstance of his return. …

“Jenny, Jenny! How does he look?”

“Oh …” How could I say it? “Every inch a soldier.”

She crept behind me to the window, peered over my shoulder and saw.

I heard her suck her breath with satisfaction. “He’s cured!” she whispered with satisfaction. “He’s cured!” she whispered slowly. “He’s cured!” (187-8)

It is a victory for appearance, surface, doing things because others say they are right, ignoring your own heart. And the warning that Chris must return to the front suggests that the war is itself an attack on deeper, more decent ways of loving and being.

Rebecca West lived a long and productive life. She died in 1983 aged 90. She had written and published a great deal of fiction, non-fiction and journalism.

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca Westwas first published in 1918. I read the edition by Virago Classics (1980) which has an introduction by Victoria Glendining. 188pp It has been reissued with a striking new cover.

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