A Pre-War Idyll

by Rebecca West.Viking, $16.95.
DAME REBECCA, since her death, at the age of ninety, in 1983, has suffered the resurrection of her personality in a rather remote historical context. Anthony West, her and H. G. Wells’s illegitimate son, has been enabled to write candidly about her sexual relationship with the man who offered his sexual favors to all comers, the young and beautiful Rebecca West being among the first. More important, the long-withheld postscript to Wells’s Experiment in Autobiography, which deals openly with his erotic life, has been permitted publication (by Anthony West’s half brother, G. P. Wells), and Rebecca West is one of the principal characters. There is a danger that this character—ebullient, sexy, not yet respectable—may overshadow her real achievement in the field of letters. Fortunately, This Real Night has come out as a reminder of West’s large intelligence and talent. She is blazoned in the publisher’s blurb as “one of the greatest writers of this century,” but that claim goes too far. Her association with Wells was as close as she got to real greatness. Dame Rebecca was a graceful and thoughtful writer—at her best in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her study of Yugoslavia, and in The New Meaning ofTreason, which dealt profoundly with a theme troubling to the British in the Cold War era. Despite the continuing vitality of her first fiction. The Return of the Soldier (made recently into a very acceptable film), her situation as a novelist seems to be in some doubt.
It is always dangerous for a male writer to make judgments on the fiction of the other sex. Women writers seem to me to have certain advantages over the male—a sharper eye for the external world, along with a much wider vocabulary of color, an interest in the close notation of manners and dress, and, of course, concern with the deeper and more tender emotions—but they lack a willingness, or an ability, to make their fiction move. H. G. Wells would have been the first to praise the sensuousness and sly wit of This Real Night, but he would have asked legitimate questions: When is this novel going to start working its way toward a declared intention? What is the novel about? In other words, where is the plot?
This Real Night was intended as the second volume of a trilogy that began in 1957 with The Fountain Overflows—produced so long ago that it is difficult in memory to attach it to its successor (happily, a reprint is about to be published). The middle section of an unfinished trilogy has to have singular virtues to stand on its own. The virtues of This Real Night are considerable, but they are not those of a fully shaped novel. Nor do they suggest a novel that is not really intended to be a novel, like something by Virginia Woolf.
The title presumably refers to the Great War of 1914-1918, which erupts at the end of the book. Before it we have the pleasure of living in a leafy and flowery neo-Georgian England that is not unlike that of Wells’s Mr. Britling. The story is told by Rose Aubrey, a young woman learning, along with her twin sister, Mary, to become a concert pianist, like their mother before them. The mother’s achievement lies in the past, the daughters’ in the future: we are caught in between. There is another sister, Cordelia, and a brother, named Richard Quin, and also a cousin called Rosamund. The father of the family, a higher journalist, has left, not because of a failure of affection but because of an inability to conquer his own weakness: we gather he was something of a gambler. There is a kind of father-substitute in Mr. Morpurgo, a wealthy Jewish gentleman of refined tastes and great kindness, and an uncle-substitute who keeps an inn called the Dog and Duck, on the rural Thames. The quasi-idyllic scene of pre-war life in a London suburb is well caught at the very beginning:
It was warm as high summer, and bars of sunshine lay honey-coloured across the floor, the air above them shimmering with motes; and bees droned about a purple branch of viburnum in a vase on the mantelpiece. . . .We sat in the sunlit room as much at ease as if we had been flowers instead of girls.
The flower motif is a constant one. Mr. Morpurgo, who admired the girls’ mother in her platform days, expresses his affection for the family in gifts of cut blooms, far too many. Flowers may be beautiful, but they do not do anything. The flower-girls and their mother and brother talk, entertainingly, but the talk fails to adumbrate even the ghost of a plot. Now, we don’t doubt that a novel has to establish tone and present live people (Dame Rebecca’s people are very much alive), but there ought to be a suggestion that something significant is going to happen, apart from a great war. The Aubrey family has a long luncheon with the Morpurgos, and there is talk of art. Then the scene changes to the Dog and Duck, at Harplewood on the Thames.
The connection with this inn and its family comes from a school acquaintance, Nancy Phillips, whose mother has poisoned her father but has been saved from the hangman’s noose by the polemics of the absent and possibly dead Mr. Aubrey. The imprisoned Mrs. Phillips’s sister, Lily, works as a barmaid at the Dog and Duck, and the landlord, Uncle Len Darcy, thinks highly of the Aubreys because of the father. Here is another aspect of the pre-war idyll. The lower orders can, with enterprise and personality, make their way: the authority of an inn landlord is no mean thing. Uncle Len and the aristocracy meet in an appreciation of well-bred horseflesh and, by extension, good human stock. The aristocracy is acceptable as a kind of stable of pedigreed beasts with wellcared-for coats. The weather is always fine in the rich Home Counties country that surrounds the Dog and Duck, there is food in excess, all crops are bumper. The only breath of evil is to be met in the public bar on a Saturday night, when a rogue tries to pass a dud five-pound note and nearly gets a broken beer glass thrust in his face.
Back in winter London the Aubrey girls get down to their pianistic studies. Dame Rebecca is very accurate indeed in representing the agonies of fingering and scales, the hopes and despairs of the aspirant. Then we get the following:
We were not surprised when the war came, for we had heard our father prophesying it all through our childhood. . . . We had also been warned by our music. Great music is in a sense serene; it is certain of the values it asserts. But it is also in terror, because those values are threatened, and it is not certain whether they will triumph in this world, and of course music is a missionary effort to colonise earth for imperialistic heaven. So we were not so sorely stricken by August, 1914, as many other people. Indeed we had our consolations. It was proved to us that music was not making a fuss about nothing, and that the faces of our parents had been distorted out of common placidity not by madness but by the genuine spirit of prophecy.
One does not quite know how to take this, or indeed whether to take it at all. In what way are the values of music threatened? What are these values? Can music really warn in this way? We have here a brilliant intellectual speculation, not untypical, which refuses to yield to analysis. It also seems to justify a curiously heartless attitude toward what comes with August, 1914. Richard Quin, the brother, is going to be killed. It is foreseen, possibly by the music, and it happens. Then, after a brief and implausible illness, the mother dies. The pre-war English idyll is over. We wait for the story to continue, but Dame Rebecca died without giving us more.
The confusion of the final episodes is curious and uncharacteristic. Dame Rebecca had painted a very accurate prewar middle-class England. Then she seems to have confounded it with a later pre-war England. She has dart-playing in pubs in 1914. My youth was spent in pubs, and if my experience be any warrant, darts did not come in till the middle thirties. The Aubrey family has ration cards three years before rationing was introduced. The term enemy is strangely diminished: “The enemy in our household was what made cakes burn when they had been in the oven not nearly so long as the cookery book said they should be, what gave one a cold just before a concert.”
But the major problem of the novel is perhaps the problem that faces all writers who think it enough to present character and atmosphere. In Ulysses Joyce demonstrated that you could show the current of daily life without much of a plot as long as you found a plot-substitute—in his case a complex symbolic structure. This Real Night has none of that: it reads like part of an exceptionally well composed memoir whose backbone is nothing more than time (and not the philosophical time of Proust). The book says, This is what it was like to live then if you had talent, sensibility, and a little money.
In her second novel, The Judge, written when she was Wells’s mistress, during the early days of the Great War, Rebecca West, in Wells’s view, ruined the structure by not thinking her plot through to the logical finish. In her critical book The Strange Necessity Wells was lampooned for a certain slickness and vulgarity. (This led to the end of the relationship.) Rebecca West needed more of that vulgarity: exquisiteness, like patriotism, is not enough. □