The next post will be on or before Monday September 18th
THE WOMAN WHO MOCKED HG WELLS
‘We all knew that Mamma was not good-looking. She was too thin, her nose and forehead were shiny like bone, and her features were disordered because her tortured nerves were always drawing a rake over her face. Also we were so poor that we never had new clothes. But we were conscious that our Papa was far handsomer than anybody else’s. He was not tall, but he was slender and graceful, he stood like a fencer in a picture and he was romantically dark; his hair and his moustache were true black, and his skin was tanned, with a faint rose under the tan on his cheeks; and he had high cheekbones which made his face sharp like the muzzle of a cat.’
Rebecca West The Fountain Overflows
Rebecca West (1892-1983) whose real name was Cicely Fairfield (her pen name was taken from an assertive character in an Ibsen play, Rosmersholm), was one of the major literary figures of the 20th century, a leading international journalist and political commentator as well as highly successful novelist. In 1912 she accused literary giant and world celebrity HG Wells (1866-1946) of being the ‘old maid’ among English novelists, whereupon he invited the rising star to his house for lunch and she subsequently became his lover for a decade and they stayed friends until his death aged 80. Like Wells she made considerable money out of her writing and by 1940 owned a Rolls Royce and a mansion where she sheltered displaced Yugoslav victims of the War. A lifelong visitor to the States it was rumoured she also had affairs with Charlie Chaplin and back at home with the newspaper tycoon Lord Beaverbrook. She was commissioned to write books about the Nuremberg trials (A Train of Powder, 1955) and in the 1949 The Meaning of Treason, about ‘Lord Haw Haw’, William Joyce, the US born British Fascist who made propaganda radio broadcasts to the UK from Nazi Germany, and who was executed as a traitor in 1946. An early suffragette and nominally a lifelong socialist, she was prescient about the nature of Soviet communism and saw Stalin for what he was long before many others on the liberal left. This skewed her in later life towards anger against union power in 70s Britain, so much so that as Doris Lessing said many on the UK left stopped reading her and especially when she expressed her admiration for Margaret Thatcher, not because of her libertarian politics but because of her achievements as a woman.
The Fountain Overflows (1956) set in the late 19th century, is a highly autobiographical work and the first volume of a trilogy, the other two, The Real Night (1984) and Cousin Rosamund (1985) appearing posthumously. It tells the story of the Aubrey family, the father Piers being a deluded and improvident journalist, chronic gambler and speculator as indeed was West’s father Charles Fairfield. The long-suffering mother, like the author’s, was an Edinburgh Scot and also like her a gifted amateur pianist who encouraged all her children to become proficient musicians. The Aubrey children comprise 3 young daughters: Cordelia, Mary and the narrator Rose, plus infant brother Richard and they live in a decaying regency villa in Streatham, London where they are subsidised by its owner, a wealthy cousin. Piers has an office provided for him by a mysterious Mr Morpurgo, where he pens articles against socialism and the iniquities of inheritance tax, but he has the habit of blowing all he earns on the stock exchange and doing things like selling the family furniture behind his wife’s back. His family therefore survives in far from genteel poverty and the children are both badly dressed and awkward at school where they appear arrogant and unworldly. Their mother is the power house that instils pride and ambition into them, so that Mary and Rose take their music seriously and like their anxious mother who is harassed to the point of emaciated ugliness, they embrace perfectionism and discipline and scorn of worldly success. Cordelia the domineering oldest daughter takes her music seriously too, but is chronically untalented as a violinist and her mother winces every time she hears her practising.
‘She had a true ear, indeed she had absolute pitch, which neither Mamma nor Mary nor I had, which was a terrible waste, and she had supple fingers, she could bend them right back to the wrist, and she could read anything at sight. But Mamma’s face crumpled, first with rage, and then just in time with pity, every time she heard Cordelia laying the bow over the strings.’
Unfortunately, a comically witless schoolteacher called Miss Beevor decides that she is a future genius and comes round for tea to request that Cordelia be trained by her for a professional career. Mrs Aubrey is aghast but the teacher actually succeeds in getting her prodigy bookings at local events and paid bookings at that. Her mother tries to scotch the career of this unwitting impostor of a daughter, whereupon Cordelia makes a heartfelt speech pointing out that she will be the only one making any income, that the family is penniless and that their father though lovable, is hopeless. Her devastated mother, faced with this unwonted candour from a mere child, has no option then but to go round and apologise to Miss Beevor and permit the career to commence.
Meanwhile Mrs Aubrey is trying to make contact with her favourite cousin Constance who lives nearby in London but her letters receive only cool and hurtful replies, neither encouraging a visit nor offering to call on the Aubreys. At last Mamma takes a deep breath and with Rose in tow locates the house where Constance lives with her ethereal and mysterious daughter Rosamund and her unsavoury and mocking husband, a vulgar Scotsman, successful businessman and virtuoso flautist, Cousin Jock. The reason for Constance’s coldness becomes all too clear for as they approach the house a poker flies terrifyingly through the window and lies at their feet. However it is no human hand has flung it but a supernatural one, for the cousin’s house is haunted by an uproarious poltergeist and has even been visited by the national press as a result. Compulsive and tautly written as the novel is from start to finish, this comes across as an abrupt, bizarre and oddly melodramatic twist in the plot, even if West admitted in an interview in 1975 that long ago South London cousins of hers had been haunted by a saucepan throwing ghost and that a cousin of her mother, Thomas Mackenzie, the prototype of Jock, spent much of his time at seances. Even less convincing in plot terms is a that a single visit from Mamma and Rose causes the ghost to depart, albeit when Jock belatedly turns up, his mocking and bantering give a subtle and suggestive sense of brooding nastiness and you all but feel Constance and Rosamund flinching at his brutal presence. Jock in his way is a sizeable quantity of vaunting bullying evil, which somehow makes the supernatural presence seem more credible within its own terms.
The young cousin Rosamund is a beguiling, indeed mesmerising character. She has an occasional nervous stammer and yet a strikingly calm and prophetic, if not visionary aura about her.
‘We met halfway down the garden, where the lawn touched a vegetable patch. As soon as I could see her face my heart began to beat very fast. She was not blind. Indeed, what I saw in her face was chiefly that she was seeing me and that she liked the sight. This I knew not because she gave a friendly greeting, for it took a moment to recall that this would be expected of her, but because her grey eyes rested on me with a wide contented gaze and her mouth though hardly smiling, had a look of sweetness about it.’
Later when she is invited to the Aubreys, Rosamund plays a game of chess with Rose’s father and soon beats him, so that he makes a solemn public declaration of her precocious talent. This in turn presents another problem when it comes to overall plot convincingness and a necessary suspension of disbelief. Piers Aubrey is a reckless improvident, but at crucial times has a subtle and prophetic mind himself, and passes authoritative judgements on the most difficult matters in hand, which makes him less of a feckless monster and more of a prescient hero, by which I mean fictionally speaking his registers keep shifting confusingly. Ditto in the way that his work scenario is left infinitely vague. The bill for the newspaper office is footed by an enigmatic Mr Morpurgo, but the latter never actually wishes to see his employee and has all dealings done by an intermediary. This all seems borderline whimsical at times and especially when we have to be convinced by the ghostly invasion and later by the shock of a melodramatic murder of a husband by his wife.
The build up starts innocently enough when Rose and Rosamund (soon she and Constance have regular periods of staying with the Aubreys ) are invited to the birthday party of pampered schoolfriend Nancy Phillips. Her buffoonish Dad (he calls his chauffeur Georgie Porgie) is so rich he actually owns a car, but her Mum is spectacularly rude to her daughter’s guests until she discovers that Rose has possible clairvoyant powers. Rose had been showing off at the party with a number guessing game so that Mrs Phillips wants her to tell her her future, and bribes her with a huge box of chocolates. Rose wisely postpones doing so and in the interim Mrs Phillips swiftly disappears after the sudden death of her husband by apparent poisoning. Ultimately she is found in her native town living in a deserted shack and is taken for trial where the senile judge is seen by Piers Aubrey, who is chaperoning the culprit’s feckless sister Aunt Lily, to be on the brink of clinical madness. He harasses and insults the accused, be badgers the witnesses, his summing up is preposterous. When Queenie Phillips is sentenced to hang Piers is so incensed he arranges to meet, in the House of Commons and with Rose present, the nephew of the Home Secretary, where he informs him he has had printed 10,000 copies of a pamphlet exposing the lunacy of both the judge and the trial. If there is no reprieve he will willingly go to jail for slandering the judge, but the ultimate scandal when the judge does inevitably go publicly insane will be catastrophic for the Home Secretary.
Piers wins the reprieve of course and again his dialogue when telling the nephew the reality of things is marvellously cogent and assured.
‘I will write with the authority of a martyr; and I will have behind me the support of quite a number of reasonable citizens who prefer judges to be in their right mind, and of a huge army of idiots who believe Queenie Phillips to be innocent. For no better causes than these, people will believe every word I write, and make a saint and hero out of me, and will think your uncle a monster, and you another though on a smaller scale.’
By the end of the novel this principled, brave, shrewd and ultimately authoritative father has vanished into thin air, eloped and deserted his family who are without exception bereft by the loss of their guiding spirit. In the course of the novel then he goes from feckless gambler to borderline saint, and as an interesting parallel there is a subsequent scene where Cousin Jock comes to the Aubreys to reclaim his wife and daughter, and undergoes a like transformation. At first, true to form, he harasses his audience in broad hectoring Scots, but then reluctantly decides to bewitch them with his flute playing, and finally, in polite received English movingly admits that he hates the terrible emptiness of his life and he cannot bear it any longer.
The lesson would seem to be then that, adopting the quaint old terminology, an undeniably Great Woman like Rebecca West sees Great Men like Piers the Swiftian pamphelteer and Jock the virtuoso musician, as inevitably flawed and insufferable people who can neither cope with the world nor be coped with as individuals. In response to which at random one can agree yes yes DH Lawrence and Dostoievsky and Strindberg would have driven anyone who got in their way half mad, but surely a minute’s reflection would confirm that there are numerous objections to this ultra-romantic take on art and artists apropos gender and infantilism.
One worth considering is that West herself spent over 30 years as intimate friend of the Great Man HG Wells, who therefore cannot have been all that insufferable.
But then you have to remember that they only met in the first place because she called him an Old Maid.