Unfeeling and Embodiment in the Balkans in the 1930s: Rebecca West in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

By Nicola Dimitriou

Rebecca West, in recent years, has been rediscovered in her own right. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941) [1], Andrew Hammond highlights, is a prime example of a travelogue that would ‘most surely be considered one of the greatest works of the modernist period if only it had not been written in a genre (travel writing) and on a region (Eastern Europe) marginalised alike in British literary studies’ [2]. Timothy Wientzen also described it is a ‘massively ambitious 1941 travelogue’ which offers a ‘meditation on the history and culture of the Balkans [;] … a region West (rightly) feared would soon come under the domination of fascism’ [3]. The text was importantly written on the brink of World War II; it is a close examination of the history, people, and politics of Yugoslavia, discussing three trips that West took between 1936 and 1938 while interweaving her travel narrative with a thorough history and ethnography of the region.

West begins her journey by travelling to Zagreb and is shown the city by Constantine, a poet and a Serb, and two Croats, the mathematician Valetta, a young separatist, and a journalist, Marko Gregorievitch, a believer in the nation of a united Yugoslavia. Throughout the book, West discusses her views on politics, society, feminism and fascism. In this context, West demonstrates unfeeling in a number of instances as an attempt to discuss the multiple races, ethnicities and nationalities in the borderland that the Balkans constituted, between the West and the East. In the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘unfeeling’ is described as a noun and an adjective. As a noun, it is defined as ‘lack of feeling’ while as an adjective, the entries offer further depth such as ‘having no feeling or sensation, insensible; figurative not sensitive to impressions’ and ‘devoid of kindly or tender feelings; uncompassionate, unsympathetic’ [4]. This fact, namely, that my research had not come across many instances of feeling in West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, intrigued me, as West undoubtedly was, and is, a female writer renowned for never failing to express her opinion, thoughts and political voice. This led me to want to further research this lack of feeling and attempt to answer the question: why did such a strongly opinionated female writer not express feeling?

The following, longer passage, in which West describes Gregorievitch, Valetta and Constantine, is a prime example:

They are standing in the rain, and they are all different and they are all the same. They greet us warmly, and in their hearts they cannot greet each other, and they dislike us a little because it is to meet us that they are standing beside their enemies in the rain. We are their friends, but we are made from another substance. The rich passions of Constantine, the intense, graceful, selected joys and sorrows of Valetta, and Gregorievitch’s gloomy Great Danish nobility are all cut from the same primary stuff, though in very dissimilar shapes. Sitting in our hotel room, drinking wine, they showed their unity of origin. A door opens, they twitch and swivel their heads, and the movement is the same. When these enemies advance on each other, they must move at the same tempo.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon [5].

Unfeeling, in the above instance, is found in collaboration with affect theory. As Sara Ahmed points out, ‘maintaining public comfort requires that certain bodies “go along with it”, to agree to where [one is] placed. To refuse to be placed would mean to be seen as trouble, as causing discomfort for others’ [6]. Gregorievitch, Constantine and Valetta have to remain placed, in the order they were put, ‘agree to where [they are] placed’, and should demonstrate unfeeling towards one another so that West and her party do not sense discomfort. This ‘critical discourse of emotion’ and the forces between their bodies have offered these marginal Balkan figures the ability to ‘forcefully question the privilege and stability of individualized actants possessing self-derived agency’ that West owns [7]. It is only through their bodies and their awkward stance that they are able to show their dissatisfaction for the manner in which they have been placed, waiting forcefully and obediently to welcome their Western guests, for whom they are forced to hide their feelings and demonstrate unfeeling. Deborah Nelson also highlights that ‘affect theory is a nexus in which painful emotion is studied’, which, at first glance, seems to be in conflict with unfeelingness [8]. For her, affect theory is ‘a source of dread in studies of crowds, masses, and fascism in the first half of the twentieth century’; indeed, it is so in West’s work, when the forces between the bodies and the analysis through affect theory bring to the surface West’s worries about fascism in Europe [9].

Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg describe affect theory as the ‘ever-gathering accretion of force-relations that lie the powers of affect, affect as potential: a body’s capacity to affect and to be affected’; about ‘belonging and non-belonging to a world’ [10]. The bodies of the characters described in the quotation, as described by Seigworth and Gregg, are interacting with one another and the smallest of movements, such as the manner in which they ‘twitch and swivel their heads’, betray these intensities and the similarities that exist between them. Superficially, they wish to be different due to political circumstances linked to war and tensions. On a deeper level, however, their bodies are naturally drawn to one another and imitate each other’s movements, as they all belong to this world, a world in which West, rightly so, considers herself an outsider, notwithstanding her knowledge on the history and area.

West also practices detachment and unfeeling in order to take a scientific or sociological view of the Balkans, thus echoing Barbara Laslett’s thoughts that ‘scientists characterise their work as nonemotional to differentiate science from nonscience as they compete with others for social respect and resources’ [11]. By becoming nonemotional and describing painful and difficult situations in an objective, cold manner, West fancied herself as a ‘realist of a certain kind’ which meant adopting a kind of ‘toughness’ that ‘demanded a heightened sensitivity to reality, just not to other people’s emotions’ [12]. Unfeeling, therefore, is seen as a way in which to validate her journalistic opinion on the three men’s feelings for one another and about the political situation. She wanted her voice to be seen as equally valid to scientists’ conclusions and findings and to, consequently, be held in esteem.

West tried to adopt a realistic, distant viewpoint, which could only be achieved through unfeeling, but which she believed could echo, for instance, Valetta’s words, such as when she used the phrase ‘unjust authority’ to describe his feelings she assumed he felt towards Yugoslavia [13]. These words are hers, but she makes them become Valetta’s and how she imagines he feels for Yugoslavia. She undertakes a similar path for all characters; she fabricates and creates their reality and emotions according to her own perspective, under the façade of scientific and journalistic objectivity and under the prism of unfeelingness.

In conclusion, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a means for West to express her unfeeling towards a multitude of subjects, issues, people and races, in order to demonstrate scientific objectivity in a world and society that doubted her claims and ability to be serious. She demonstrates a conflicting attitude towards these subjects, as she does present their bodies, mind and expressions as naturally similar to one another, but she also demonstrates how external circumstances have influenced this natural relationship. Her inner-conflicting attitude is a prime example of a modernist text and author, one that demonstrates conflict with one’s self and who alters their attitude depending on the changing context and influences. West is anything but clear, when travelling, in her demonstration of unfeeling regarding the Balkans, its politics and its people. On the contrary, this reading of the time’s context, as well as of West’s description of the people, demonstrates that she reformed, hid or appropriately demonstrated unfeeling. When doing so, as a female writer with Western political power over words and politics, she was completely dependent on her ulterior goal which was to influence the political circumstances and express her hopes and fears for Britain and Europe’s future.

Nicola Dimitriou is a 2nd Year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Sheffield. She is currently working on a thesis that looks at how walking, embodiment, as well as the figure of the urban and rural flâneur are used in modernist texts in order to express a political stance against power – be that capitalism, overt liberalism or fascism. She holds an MA in English Studies from the University of Nottingham. Her MA thesis focused on the figure of the white woman as the racial ‘Other’ in three short stories by D. H. Lawrence.

[1] Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2006).

[2] Andrew Hammond, ‘Memoirs of conflict: British women travellers in the Balkans’, Studies in Travel Writing, 14 (2010), 57-75 (p. 66).

[3] Timothy Wientzen, ‘An Epic of Atmosphere: Rebecca West, Black Lamb, and Reflex Author(s)’, Journal of Modern Literature, 38 (2015), 57-73 (p. 59).

[4] Search, ‘unfeeling, n.’ in Oxford English Dictionary https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/213270?rskey=fFHRDQ&result=2#eid [accessed 20 February 2022].

[5] West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, p. 86.

[6] Sara Ahmed, ‘Happy Objects’ in The Affect Theory Reader, ed. by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, (Durham, North Caroline: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 39.

[7] Gregory J. Seigworth & Melissa Gregg, ‘An Inventory of Shimmers’ in Affect Theory Reader, ed. by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010, p. 8.

[8] Deborah Nelson, Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), p. 11.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Seigworth and Gregg, p. 2. [1] Barbara Laslett, ‘Unfeeling Knowledge: Emotion and Objectivity in the History of Sociology’, Sociological Forum, 5(1990), 413-433 (p. 414).

[11] Barbara Laslett, ‘Unfeeling Knowledge: Emotion and Objectivity in the History of Sociology’, Sociological Forum, 5(1990), 413-433 (p. 414).

[12] Nelson, p. 10. It is also worthy to highlight that, as James Chandler explains in his work, Archeology of Sympathy, ‘sentimental’ had become permanently and irrevocably associated with bad taste and moral simplicity and ‘unsentimentality’ with good taste and moral acuity. See James Chandler, Archeology of Sympathy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013). [1]

[13] West, p. 85.

A Web-Accessible Database and Travel Map Tracing Rebecca West’s Journey Through Yugoslavia as Described in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

By Mark Polczynski ~ https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5427-7601


Novelist, biographer, journalist, and critic Rebecca West (born Cicily Isabel Fairfield) has been called one of the 20th century’s most brilliant and forceful writers. In the mid-1930s she made several trips to the Balkans to gather materials for her 1941 opus magnum Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – A Journey Through Yugoslavia. Her obituary in The Times (London) remarked that the work is “as astonishing in its range, in the subtlety and power of its judgement, as it is brilliant in expression”. For the historian, West’s book provides insightful observations about the people and places of a lesser-known region of the world just a few short years before the region was devastated by World War Two and subsequent violence[1]. Beyond this snapshot in time and place, the book includes detailed historical background reaching back hundreds of years in a region that gave rise to the term balkanization[2], and at over 1,000 pages in two volumes, the reader (and historian) can become overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of the material. Consequently, a straight read-through of the work can make it difficult to follow the many historical and geopolitical threads entangled in the region.

The purpose of the project described here was to create a web-accessible database and travel map tracing West’s route that can aid in navigating these threads. This post provides descriptions of the project materials generation process, the data repository where project materials can be accessed, and the on-line web map where the places and travel routes cited in the book can be viewed. The post concludes with a brief discussion of the means whereby ambiguities regarding places and routes described in West’s book were resolved.

Project Materials Generation Process

The first step in creating the project materials was to generate a table of the places mentioned in the book. This table was then checked against West’s hand-written diary[3] covering the journey, and adjustments were made as needed. Table 1 shows the top portion of the places table.

Place IDBLGF NameModern NameTypeWeb LinkGeoNames ID
2Babun MountainBabunaWaypointhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babuna_(mountain)https://www.geonames.org/796084/
3Bad GasteinBad GasteinWaypointhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bad_Gasteinhttps://www.geonames.org/2782058
4Badia IslandOtok BadijaWaypointhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Badijahttps://www.geonames.org/3204641/
Table 1: Top section of places table

The first column of the table gives the place name as spelled in West’s book, the second column gives the modern name and spelling of the place. Places are of two types: layovers where West spent one or more evenings, and waypoints where West passed through, visited on short excursions off the main travel route, or viewed from the travel route. The Link column provides a link to a website for the place (usually a Wikipedia entry), and the GeoNames ID column provides a link to the GeoNames[4] database entry for the place. Both the web link and GeoNames link can be used to locate the places on web maps such as Google Map and Google Earth.

The second step in the process was to create a table of travel routes between places as described in the book and checked against West’s diary. The top section of the routes table is shown in Table 2.

Route IDFromToMode
Table 2: Top section of routes table.

The first column of the table identifies the route segment numbered sequentially starting with the first segment mentioned in the book, and the second column shows the mode of travel. The third and fourth columns show the starting and ending point of each segment. For example, the first route mentioned in the book is a train ride from Salzburg to Zagreb.

The next step in the process was to create a map of the places and routes in the tables described above. Map creation was done using QGIS[5] . Places were located on the map using coordinates provided by the links in Table 1. Travel routes were traced by incorporating an OpenStreetMap[6] layer into the QGIS project and visually tracing the routes on the map. The places and routes layers created in QGIS were stored in GPKG format[7] . Three period maps were also checked to aid in identifying the most likely auto and train routes traveled by West in 1937. The maps were accessed through the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection[8], as shown in Table 3. The maps can be accessed through the links shown.

Map NamePublicationDateDavid Rumsey Historical Map Collection Link
Nr. 16. Oesterreich-UngarnSteiler’s Hand-Atlas1911https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/s/pg47ot
Nr, 51. Balkan-HalbinselSteiler’s Hand-Atlas1911https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/s/cq75t5
51. SerbienSteiler’s Hand-Atlas1914https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/s/bct89i
Table 3: Period Maps.

Once the places and routes were added to the QGIS project, these features were converted to a KMZ format file[9] that can be displayed by applications such as Google Earth[10]. Figure 1 shows the KMZ file map displayed in Google Earth[11]. Here, layovers are shown as red points and waypoints are shown as green points. Auto, boat, and train routes are shown as brown, blue, and magenta lines. The figure shows an example information box for Travnik (opened by clicking on the place’s associated point) containing information derived from the places table.  Similarly, information boxes for travel routes show information derived from the routes table.  The links in the information box are live and lead to the associated web pages.

Figure 1.  Map of travel places and routes displayed using the project’s KMZ file displayed in Google Earth.

The final step in the process was to make the places and routes tables, the KMZ map, the GPKG files, and the web-based map generated by the project available to the public, as described below.

Access to Materials

The places and routes tables, the KMZ map file, and the GPKG format files created in QGIS can be accessed through the Harvard Dataverse, a free data repository open to all researchers from any discipline, both inside and outside of the Harvard community, where researchers can share, archive, cite, access, and explore research data, available at: https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataverse/BLGF-TM/.  The on-line web map can be accessed through HarvardWorldMap, an online, open-source mapping platform developed to lower barriers for scholars who wish to explore, visualize, edit, and publish geospatial information, available at: https://arcg.is/0aqzrn.  Figure 2 shows this map and the information box for a place on the map.  Here, the Link and Geo-ID links in the information box are live and lead to the associated web addresses contained in the places table.  Similar information boxes are provided for travel routes.

Project materials contained in the project’s Harvard Dataverse repository and those provided through the Harvard WorldMap are covered by a Creative Commons CC0 license – No Rights Reserved.  To the extent possible under law, the creator of these materials has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to the materials.

Resolving Ambiguities

Two types of ambiguities were encountered during this project.  First, occasionally sections of West’s book do not correlate with equivalent sections of her diary.  Second, in some cases modern maps show multiple potential routes between places mentioned in the book.

Regarding the first case, an example of a discrepancy between the book and the diary occurs in the book’s Epilogue, where West traces the route Budva to Kotor by auto – Kotor to Sushak by boat – Sushak to Zagreb by train with a side-trip to Plitvise Lakes by auto, but her diary traces the route Budva to Raska by auto – Raska to Belgrade by train – Belgrade to Zagreb by train – Zagreb to Plitvitse Lakes and back to Zagreb by train and auto.  Another example is her boat trip from Sushak to Rab.  The book has a chapter on Senj, but this place is not mentioned in the diary.  The diary does mention a stop at Krk on the way from Sushak to Rab, but examination of the map’s travel route by boat from Sushak to Rab via Krk indicates that it might be difficult to view Senj from the boat.  In situations such as this information provided by the diary supersedes descriptions in the book, with places and travel routes portrayed accordingly.

Figure 2.  On-line web-accessible Harvard WorldMap of book travel places and routes.

Regarding the second case of multiple potential routes, period maps were used to select the most likely route.  For example, there are several train routes from Belgrade to Skoplje shown on OpenStreetMap, but Figure 3 shows a section of the Oesterreich-Ungarn map cited above with a rail line from Belgrade to Skoplje running through Kraguevac-Kraljevo-Raska as described in the book.  Using these places and the other places on this rail line as shown on this period map allows selection of West’s likely route from Belgrade to Skoplje.


West’s work provides valuable insights into the origins and nature of conditions in a region of the world that continues to see violent confrontations among many ethnic groups.  It is hoped that the materials described here can aid in an understanding and appreciation of those conditions.

Figure 3: Section of train route from Belgrade to Skoplje through Kraguevac and Raska as shown on the Nr. 16. Oesterreich-Ungarn map (image used with permission).


[1] Indeed, the book’s dedication reads: “To all my friends in Yugoslavia, who are now all dead or enslaved”. 

[2] Balkanization can be defined as the fragmentation of a larger region or state into smaller regions or states that may be hostile or uncooperative with one another – usually caused by differences of ethnicity, culture, religion, and other factors such as past grievances.  This definition fits the subjects of West’s book perfectly.

[3] Access to a scan of the diary was provided by the  Beinecke Library (https://beinecke.library.yale.edu/) at Yale University.

[4] GeoNames (https://www.geonames.org) is a free geographical database containing over 25 million geographical names and over 11 million unique features that can be added to and edited by users.

[5] QGIS is a free and open-source cross-platform desktop geographic information system (GIS) application that supports viewing, editing, and analysis of geospatial data (https://qgis.org).

[6] OpenStreetMap is a collaborative project to create a free editable geographic database of the world.

[7] GPKG (GeoPackage) is an open, standards-based, platform-independent, portable, compact format for transferring geospatial information.  GPKG files can be imported into GIS applications such as ArcGIS and QGIS.

[8] The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection is one of the world’s largest private map collections with over 150,000 maps and cartographic items(https://www.davidrumsey.com/).

[9] KMZ is a compressed form of a Keyhole Markup Language (KML) file format for expressing geographic annotation and visualization within two-dimensional maps and three-dimensional Earth browsers. KML was developed for use with Google Earth, which was originally named Keyhole Earth Viewer.

[10] Google Earth is a free computer and mobile device app that renders a 3D representation of Earth based primarily on satellite imagery (https://earth.google.com).

[11] Use of the image of Figure 1 conforms to Google Earth permission guidelines. (https://about.google/brand-resource-center/products-and-services/geo-guidelines/).

Beyond liberation: using Rebecca West to complicate images of Muslim womanhood

By Zehra Munir

Early on in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West describes a veiled woman drinking coffee. She sketches out the scene in careful detail, and pays special attention to a moment when the wind presses against the woman’s clothing [1]. Throughout the book, West varies in her attitude towards the Muslim women she encounters. At times, she fixates on their attire, or romanticises imagined relations between Muslim men and women. During her time in Sarajevo, she writes of a “tranquil sensuality of Moslem origin” [2]. In other moments, she speaks for the Muslim women she is introduced to, despite having had little interaction with them. She says of her friend Hassanovitch’s wife, “she was for me as pathetic as the women of Korcula, who believed that they had earned their happiness because they had passed certain tests of womanhood” [3]. But despite the variations in West’s approach, her writing is mostly defined by her commitment to contextualising and complicating the experiences of the historical actors she meets with, or hears about. In our current political climate, defined by simplistic narratives about Muslim women, we would do well to cultivate West’s emphasis on distinction and lived experience, and apply it to today’s discussions. Using Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as a template for moving beyond superficial analysis, we can evaluate the ways in which tropes of Muslim womanhood serve to prop up various political projects.

In his book Orientalism, Said uses the example of Flaubert’s courtesan as an Oriental figure whose cultural impact was undeniable despite being fundamentally misrepresented. When Flaubert slept with the Egyptian courtesan Kuchuk Hanem and began in his writings, to associate the Orient with sexual promise and untiring sensuality, he did so by silencing Kuchuk herself. According to Said, “she (Kuchuk) never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence or history. He spoke for and represented her. He was foreign, comparatively wealthy, male, and these were historical facts of domination that allowed him not only to possess Kuchuk Hanem physically but to speak for her and to tell his readers in what ways she was typically Oriental” [4]. Said is known for his assertion that a whole host of Western thinkers and authors, from Austen to Forster, knowingly and unknowingly bolstered beliefs in Western superiority and the Otherness of non-Europeans. In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West is not immune to such influences. In her description of a banker friend’s female relatives, she says of them that “they reminded the banker and my husband that it must have been very pleasant to keep a covey of darlings in brocades behind latticed windows, who would laugh and scuttle away…and sing and touch the strings of the gusla and mock the male and be overawed by him, and mock again, in an unending, uncriticized process of delight” [5]. It may appear that though West was famous for her incisive political analysis and multi- dimensional readings of her subjects, she too views ‘Oriental’ women as fundamentally existing for the delight of Western men (not unlike Flaubert), in all their malleable sensuality. Yet, a closer reading could suggest that while West is distanced from these women by her European gaze, she is equally critical of white men’s reaction to them. It is the men who are Othering the women in their minds, and one feels that she is almost mocking their Orientalist desires which centre on female submission and exotic beauty.

West and her perspective become particularly relevant for us because one-dimensional views on ‘Oriental’ women, and particularly Muslim women, persist to this day. In their seminal paper dissecting mainstream feminist sympathy with Afghan women, Mahmood and Hirschkind look at the trope of the ‘Oppressed Muslim Woman’, used to justify the invasion of Afghanistan by President Bush and his contemporaries. Their emphasis is on the way “the burqa-clad body of the Afghan woman became the visible sign of an invisible enemy that threatens not only ‘us’, citizens of the West, but our entire civilisation” [6]. Much has been written about the shallow and non-factual thinking and writing that defined this political moment. For example, the Feminist Majority Foundation is a non-profit that led calls to save Afghan women from their suffering under the Taliban. Although there is no denying that women experienced a great deal of brutality and hardship under the rule of the Taliban, they had long suffered from many of the ills that the Feminist Majority attributed to the Taliban. For instance, in addition to being one of the poorest nations in the World, Afghanistan had, for a number of years, one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates. Mahmood and Hirschkind contend that such conditions were only exacerbated by twenty years of war that the US had supported in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union [7].

Similarly, a 2010 TIME magazine cover that portrayed a woman named Bibi Ayesha with a severed face was widely received as implying that women would be tortured in this manner were the US to pull out of
Afghanistan. This was despite the fact that the photo was taken while American forces were still in Afghanistan [8]. These reductive political statements served time and time again to conjure up an idea of the inherently patriarchal and repressive Muslim world, in which women could never be free, and men were forever beasts. The only way to save these women was foreign intervention, led by the United States [9]. Crucially, these analyses and images ignored the fact that a few decades prior, the CIA had channeled funds to the most extreme authoritarian elements of the Afghan resistance to the Soviets [10]. Thus, the tropes of Muslim womanhood became embedded in a military campaign that relied on ahistorical and imprecise knowledge-spread for its popularity.

In her writing, West offers us an alternative approach to such political thinking, one that does not depend so heavily on constructed binaries of Western freedom and Eastern oppression. She treats her subjects with humanity. Though she rarely refrains from making a moral judgment about their actions, their internal complexity is not under question, and nor does she posit herself as a potential saviour. Writing about Astra, the belly-dancer she befriends, she speaks of the trials and tribulations of her line of work (as told to her by Astra), but does not cast her as oppressed or unfree. Rather, West portrays her as a woman who has faced great difficulty, but has valid aspirations, such as a desire to give her young son a better life [11]. When West criticises the work that Astra does, it is only by giving voice to what Astra has told her that her job is not usually so bad when she is in Greece or Bulgaria, or in the North of Yugoslavia, but she particularly dislikes her encounters with Turks in South Serbia. Astra’s profession is not exoticised, and West’s poison is reserved only for the Turkish men who patronise the dancer. In this sense, West’s perspective is in sharp contrast to Flaubert’s encounter with the Egyptian courtesan, and to the narratives of the Bush era. In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Astra the belly-dancer is not brimming with limitless sexuality, but nor is she veiled and voiceless. Instead, she is a middle-aged woman, at the “homely and vanishing point of voluptuousness” [12], who has had to navigate difficult socio-economic circumstances to make her way in the world.

Beyond allowing for the complex nature of her actors, West also situates them in their political and historical contexts. Muslim women were rarely treated with such courtesy by most politicans and commentators in the buildup to the war in Afghanistan. However, thinkers and ethnographers who do practice in this manner are often able to identify the external forces that have impacted these women, besides their relationships with Muslim men. Lila Abu-Lughod writes poignantly in her book Do Muslim Women Need Saving? about her Muslim aunt, who has lived a difficult and fractured life. After her aunt sings about her struggles, she explains them to her niece. Abu-Lughod writes “The song about herself as a wounded bird… was about more than her personal plight. She explained to me ‘I am like Palestine. My wounds are deep. We Palestinians are all wounded and strangers in this world’” [13]. Thus, her aunt’s plight is inseparable from that of her Palestinian homeland, and her life-story cannot be viewed without taking her estrangement from it into consideration. Abu-Lughod goes on to say of her, and the other women she has interviewed in the book – “we see that the most basic conditions of these women’s lives are set by political forces that are local in effect but national and even international in origin” [14].

There is a startling parallel to this approach in West’s treatment of the youths of the Black Hand. Of them, she writes “What these youths did was abominable, precisely as abominable as the tyranny they destroyed. Yet it need not be denied that they might have grown to be good men, and perhaps great men, if the Austrian Empire had not crashed down on them in its collapse” [15]. Earlier on in the book, she notes that Princip declared “he had committed his crime as a peasant who resented the poverty the Austrians had brought on his kind” [16]. In her analysis, West asserts that historical winds from across borders can cause lives to change and twist, and that no one individual can be regarded in a political vacuum. Just as the actions of the Black Hand gang can only be understood as part of what the Serbian people experienced, so the experiences of Muslim women around the world should be understood and unpacked in their specific contexts. As Mahmood and Hirschkind point out, “Whereas the veil was forced on urban women in Afghanistan by the Taliban under the threat of physical violence, in France its adoption has, in many instances, come in the context of young women going against their parents’ more assimilated lifestyle” [17]. There is no homogenous, ahistorical Muslim woman, and there is no one attitude towards the veil.

West’s insights relied on her semi-ethnographic approach, and her interest in hearing the histories of those minimised in mainstream narratives. In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon she writes of rural women participating in a fertility ritual, “I suspect that women such as these are not truly slaves, but have found a fraudulent method of persuading men to give them support and leave them their spiritual freedom” [18]. In her text, women are granted agency, cast as resourceful and even conniving. The complexity of their lives is not shied away from; rather, it is embraced. Many commentators today diverge from this attitude in the
way they speak about Muslim women, seemingly uncaring of the weight of their words. In September 2019, after now-Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote an article in which he compared burka-clad women to letterboxes, Islamophobic incidents shot up. Over 40 percent of these incidents directly referenced either Boris Johnson and/or his words [19]. Johnson’s remarks were rooted in an historical obsession with the bodies and choices of Muslim women, but were remarkable for their simplicity. It is this reductive approach to Muslim womanhood that recent books such as It’s Not About the Burqa and photography collectives such as the Muslim Sisterhood seek to challenge. The self-professed aims of such initiatives is to highlight the variations in the lives of Muslim women, and to move away from public perceptions of an oppressed monolith [20]. But they are in a minority, and instead, the same stereotypes crop up repeatedly in media narratives, and serve to justify invasions and rescue missions. West’s approach to political thinking is unfashionable, bound up as it is in real research and reams of historical knowledge. It is, however, a sorely needed alternative to the clichés that define mainstream political enquiry regarding Muslim women today.

Zehra Munir is a History Undergraduate at the University of Oxford and the winner of the Rebecca West Prize for Writing 2020.

[1] West, Rebecca. Black lamb and grey falcon: a journey through Yugoslavia. Open Road Media, 2010, p422
[2] Ibid, p424
[3] Ibid, p462
[4] Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Penguin Books, 1979, p6
[5] West, Rebecca. Black lamb and grey falcon: a journey through Yugoslavia. Open Road Media, 2010, p455

[6] Hirschkind, Charles, and Mahmood, Saba. ‘Feminism, the Taliban, the politics of counter-insurgency’, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol.75 (2),
Spring 2002, p341
[7] Ibid, p355
[8] Abu-Lughod, Lila. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Harvard University Press, 2013, p28
[9] Ibid, p30
[10] Hirschkind, Charles, and Mahmood, Saba. ‘Feminism, the Taliban, the politics of counter-insurgency’, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol.75 (2),
Spring 2002, p343
[11] West, Rebecca. Black lamb and grey falcon: a journey through Yugoslavia. Open Road Media, 2010, p440

[12] West, Rebecca. Black lamb and grey falcon: a journey through Yugoslavia. Open Road Media, 2010, p441
[13] Abu-Lughod, L. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Harvard University Press, 2013, p23
[14] Ibid, p24
[15] West, Rebecca. Black lamb and grey falcon: a journey through Yugoslavia. Open Road Media, 2010, p542
[16] Ibid, p537
[17] Hirschkind, Charles, and Mahmood, Saba. ‘Feminism, the Taliban, the politics of counter-insurgency’, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol.75 (2),
Spring 2002, p350

[18] West, Rebecca. Black lamb and grey falcon: a journey through Yugoslavia. Open Road Media, 2010, p469
[19] Dearden, Lizzie. ‘Islamophobic incidents rose 375% after Boris Johnson compared Muslim women to ‘letterboxes’, figures show’. The
, Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/boris-johnson-muslim-women- letterboxes-burqa-islamphobia-risea9088476.
[20] Thompson, Storm. ‘Meet the Muslim Sisterhood’, gal-dem, Available at https://gal-dem.com/meet-muslim-sisterhood-the-collective-exploring-muslim-womanhood-in-london/ and Maher, Sanam. ‘Thinly Veiled’, TLS, Available at https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/thinly-veiled/

The Rebecca West Mystery

By Carl Rollyson

I admire Sylvia Plath’s concern with politics, with understanding how her own life is connected to the polity. She shares this conviction with Rebecca West, and almost every day I think about what an opportunity was missed because Plath did not know or understand Rebecca West. Plath watched West testify at the pornography trial of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) In her journal Plath called her “Lady Rebecca West,” revealing she really had no idea who West was.

How could this be? Plath had been well educated at Smith College and Cambridge University. She had read through the canon of Western philosophy and literature. She had worked as a journalist while still at Smith but seemed not to know about West’s own groundbreaking journalism in The New Yorker, one of Plath’s favorite magazines and the one she wanted publish in. She was taught by a generation of women who would certainly have read West and perhaps even taught her. But, with the exception of the Chatterley trial, there is no sign of West on any Plath syllabus, letter, or journal entry.

It would be easier to understand if Plath had simply rejected West, an ardent anti-Communist that could well have put off Plath, a pacifist who decried anti-Communist hysteria and the execution of the Rosenbergs. A generation of women had been put off by West. So Doris Lessing told me, saying West’s politics had delayed by decades Lessing’s own understanding of West’s importance. Only when Lessing’s own leftist politics changed to a critique of Communism did Lessing begin to take West’s measure and realize what she had denied herself.

In Plath’s case, I suspect the example of Virginia Woolf obliterated any alternative—as it still does today for many scholars who ignore West or just treat her as a difficult case. Even rehabilitations of West, like Jane Marcus’s Young Rebecca (1982), rhapsodize about her early feminism and attacks on the Conservative establishment. West’s marriage to a banker and her country estate did not sit well with her earlier nonconformity. Woolf’s novels and essays, coupled with her suicide and the sense of loss that self-annihilation instilled in her readers robbed West of an audience. West was simply too robust, too extroverted, too much a part of the established world. Woolf herself recoiled in her meetings with West and yet could not get enough of a West so attuned to the world OUT THERE.

Virginia Woolf, if I may start an argument, fits very well into English departments. You can teach her novel after novel. West wrote novels too, of course, but they have been crowded out by her journalism and the verdict that she is not modernist enough, alienated enough, and did not suffer in quite the right way to serve as a role model or a canonical figure. West herself referred to the interstices in her body of work, and the canvas of her achievement is too much for most English professors to cover, since they would have to encompass history, journalism, art history, biography, esthetics, philosophy, politics and much more. Far more convenient to reside in Woolf’s compact novels and essays and avoid the brilliant sprawl of Rebecca West’s work.

West would seem less untidy if, as in the case of Isaiah Berlin, her essays were collected. They would fill several volumes. But she opposed such repackaging, telling Berlin to his face that she did not see why he came out with essay collections so often. She collected herself once, in Ending in Earnest: A Literary Log (1931). Her other essay-driven collections, like The Meaning of Treason (1947) and A Train of Powder (1955), were rewritten and augmented as book-length narratives. She did not publish volumes of literary logs, as have writers like John Updike and Gore Vidal. She seems to have treated work once published as just that—a one off—not to be served again like leftovers. Yet her remains are brilliant and survive in her astringent prose, whatever you think of her opinions. No one reads Vidal, I hope, because they agree with all that he says. But to West such essay-mongering seemed stale. New work engaged her. She wanted to know what was next.

I don’t know if a collected edition of West’s essays would revive her reputation, but they deserve that treatment for both their historical and literary importance—to show how much of her writing defined an age but also what we still need to know about how literature, history, politics, art, and so much more, come into the purview of a great writer.

Carl Rollyson is the author of Rebecca West: A Life (1996), The Literary Legacy of Rebecca West (1998) and American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath (2014).

For more from Carl, please visit: http://www.carlrollyson.com/index.htm

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My Famous Great Aunt Rebecca: Chronicles of a Struggling Literary Executor

By Helen Macleod Atkinson

Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright natures fight in us with this yeasty darkness, and neither part is commonly quite victorious, for we are divided against ourselves.” – Rebecca West

Chapter One – The Poor Relation

I received today the proof copies of the cover for a Spanish translation of The Fountain Overflows – “La Familia Aubrey”. It’s all very exciting, of course. Rebecca’s work is being translated into more languages than Donald Trump’s tweets these days (including Catalan). Battling my rudimentary grasp of the language, I noticed they had spelled her name wrong on the fly-sheet author blurb – “Cecily Fairfield” instead of Cicely. Catching this sort of error is, of course, the daily grind of being a literary executor.

But what really caught my eye was that the publishers described Rebecca as a “friend of Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing”. Huh? For a start, Doris Lessing shunned Rebecca for her politics (too critical of Russian communism), which she later said she regretted. Too right! Lessing could have had some of the most entertaining and memorable gin and tonics of the 20th century, holed up in Rebecca’s elegant flat opposite the Albert Memorial AND had the benefit of being on the right side of history, to boot. And, although Virginia Woolf offered Rebecca a grudging admiration, they clearly didn’t like one another and were definitely not friends.

I have written to the agent in London protesting two problems with this perfectly understandable attempt to promote Rebecca’s brand through association. Firstly, why, oh why, oh why do her “friends” have to be women writers? She was mentored by G.B. Shaw. She defended D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in court (that took some ovaries). She had a child by H.G. Wells, for the love of Venus! Why not mention them?

I mean, look, one of the challenges of promoting Rebecca as a person worthy of interest is avoiding going straight to the H.G. Wells connection.

Here’s how it usually goes:

Rebecca West? I think I’ve heard of her. Tell me more.

She was one of the great minds of the 20th century. She was a very early proponent of gender equality. She denounced Stalin’s Russia when the Westy Lefties were still in love with the idea of Communism, no matter how it was dished up. She covered the Nuremberg trials for the New Yorker.

I see. That’s interesting. What did she write?

Her most famous book is a 1,500-page travelogue through Yugoslavia just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Okay. Uhhh…

…but it isn’t just about Yugoslavia. It’s about the causes of war and mankind’s hostility to mankind, the battle of the sexes, the Hapsburg empire, the Romans, the Ottomans… gosh, so many important things. And it’s funny, too!

What else?

She was on the cover of Time magazine in 1957, hailed as “the World’s No. 1 Woman Writer”.

Cool. 1957. I see.

Plus, she had an illegitimate child by H.G. Wells. And she had an affair with Charlie Chaplin. And Lord Beaverbrook, who was the Rupert Murdoch of his day.

H.G. Wells! You’re kidding! Wow!! What happened to the child? Is he still alive? What about Charlie Chaplin?

Ad nauseum…

The irony of getting people interested in my superstar feminist great aunt by listing the famous men she slept with is not lost on me. It is a burden I bear with a pained grin. Nevertheless, why do we have to corral her in with the female writers? I have mixed feelings about that Time magazine cover. Okay, it was more than 60 years ago, but would they have dared feature anyone as “the World’s No. 1 Man Writer”? Of course not. Enduringly, even in 2019, there’s the underlying assumption that men write for both male and female audiences, but women are expected to be read, mostly, by women.

And here’s the second source of frustration – what is it with Virginia Woolf these days? How did she end up with the mantle of Most Famous Feminist Writer Ever? She’s all over social media, and there’s a growing society of women called Woolfers, self-described as “literary-minded feminists over 40”, with an associated Facebook group called “What would Virginia Woolf do?” Forgive me, but I can think of a much better role model for literary-minded feminists over 40. Rebecca was still writing insightfully incendiary columns for the London Telegraph at 90, gloriously single and in complete charge of her marbles. And, by the way, she got chick-knighted in 1959, which shows she was a culturally important person. Virginia Woolf didn’t even get an OBE. I’m just sayin’.

Okay, it’s sour grapes. I freely admit it. Woolf pretty much set modern feminism on its course (discuss). She has far more academics studying her than are interested in my Famous Great Aunt. And, since The Hours, she has name recognition like a leading brand of laundry detergent (make your feminist credentials sparkle!). I mean, good for her (and her beneficiaries), but Rebecca deserves equal, if not greater, fame. And, somehow, at present, it feels like there’s only room in the world for one Famous Feminist Writer. When we had a Rebecca West Society conference at University College London, back in the Noughties, there was an incident that just about sums it up. Here we were, all 18 of us, maybe, huddled in a small conference room deep in the bowels of the University’s lovely art deco building. A Very Literary Looking Woman, festooned in vivid scarves, opened the door and poked her head in, halting proceedings. She surveyed our modest gathering and asked, sceptically, “Virginia Woolf?”

“No,” we said. “Rebecca West.”

Rebecca West,” she sniffed, derisively, as if she had ordered an expensive glass of Bandol rosé wine and instead been presented with a jug of white Zinfandel. Without further salutation, she turned and closed the door behind her.

Curious as to what was going on, I went on an exploratory mission. As I walked down a long, solemn corridor, a giant pair of double doors swung open, unleashing an enlivened hubbub of many voices followed by a giant crowd of Very Literary Looking People, eagerly conversing in earnest. They spilled out from a vast auditorium, at the apex of which was a huge screen emblazoned with Woolf’s image. No doubt they were headed to a splendid luncheon of rare meats at a nearby Bloomsbury swankery, where deep draughts would be drunk to Woolf’s glittering legacy, and new ideas for books and films would be spun like gossamer in the high-ceilinged sunlight, buoyed by intoxicated, intelligent laughter. I returned deflated to my tribe, who were politely picking over a collection of dismal sandwiches. I don’t think I ever quite grasped before how it might feel to be described as a poor relation. But I did now.

Well, I have my work cut out for me. Since my father – Rebecca’s favourite nephew – died in 2017, I’ve been left in sole charge of my Famous Great Aunt Rebecca’s literary estate. My mission is to bring her back to the standing she deserves, as one of the most significant, entertaining, arresting and clever commentators on the human condition that ever lived. I’m going to do it, too. Just watch me.

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Red Hands and Cheap stays: class in the return of the soldier

By Rachel Malik

Rebecca West’s first novel The Return of the Soldier was first published in 1918 and has just been republished for the Virago 40 series. At the beginning of the novel, the soldier of the title is injured and sent back from France.  But Chris Baldry, though an important character, is secondary to the women who must care for him. The novel itself is primarily about the role and labour of women in wartime. Not the nurses, ambulance drivers or munitions workers but all the nurturing, disciplining and symbolic work done by sisters, wives, mothers and lovers, who try to maintain the home fire and the soldiers who defend it.

West’s first novel is a variation on a story familiar from romance and melodrama: two women who have claims on one man. What does each woman promise? What values does each represent? And who will the man eventually choose? Wife Kitty and old sweetheart Margaret are the undeclared rivals for Chris. But this is the scaffold for a far more complex and demanding drama about class and gender pressed to extremes in wartime.

For a start, the narrator Jenny is Chris’s cousin, half in love with Chris herself and alternately jealous of the other two women. Chris is also a man of substance, the owner of Baldry Court with its stables, kennels and views of wet ‘emerald pastureland’ – a home made beautiful by Kitty and Jenny. The novel begins when Jenny and Kitty discover that Chris has been injured. They don’t receive this news through the usual channel though – the dreaded letter or telegram. A woman called Margaret Grey arrives with the message – a stranger to Jenny and Kitty – and this is the first sign that something is wrong.

Chris’s injury isn’t immediately clear: he’s been ‘hurt’, ‘wounded, but not dangerously’; Kitty is soon speculating that Chris may be ‘all broken and queer.’  For Chris has amnesia (a ‘shellburst’, ‘shellshock’ – there isn’t a settled word) and he has lost – or rejected – fifteen years of his life. He is unable to remember his wife, his marriage, his business, or the birth and death of his young son. He is locked in a time before the onset of responsibilities, when he was in love with Margaret, then unmarried. After a disastrous first evening at Baldry Court, Chris declares: ‘If I don’t see Margaret Allington I shall die.’  Kitty reluctantly accedes to his request.

The competition between Kitty and Margaret is unequal – in so many ways. To Kitty and Jenny, Margaret’s class represents a crisis and a terrible disruption to the life of Baldry Court. Jenny’s first description of Margaret fixates on her cheap clothes – the re-dyed feather on her hat, her ‘red, seamed hands’ – with a particularly feminine antagonism. She is described as something dirty, ‘repulsively soiled with poverty and neglect’, likened to a forgotten glove in a hotel room.

Worse is what Margaret says to Kitty by way of an introduction: ‘”My general is sister to your second housemaid”’. Margaret has a maid, Kitty has numerous – Margaret is not working-class but lower middle class. Like the clerk Leonard Bast in Howards End (1910), it is Margaret’s social proximity that renders her repellent and dangerous, not her distance. Initially Kitty refuses to believe that Margaret could even know Chris, accusing her of extortion. Jenny is kinder and unwillingly senses Margaret is telling the truth. Nevertheless, Jenny quickly rewrites honesty from the standpoint of pity, likening Margaret to a ‘clumsy animal’, ‘a draught ox or the big trusted dog.’ The differences between Jenny and Kitty’s understanding of Margaret are central and as the novel progresses the question of who Margaret really is comes to the fore.

When Kitty and Jenny allow Margaret into their lives for the sake of Chris, her social danger multiplies. Jenny must visit Margaret’s house Mariposa in ‘a town of people who could not do as they like’, too close to the railway line and with a sofa upholstered in a ‘sickish green’ velveteen. Margaret greets her with ‘disordered hair’ and ‘floury hands’. The novel is obsessed with hands and Margaret’s red, seamed ones in particular. In contrast, Baldry Court, redesigned by Kitty at enormous expense, is full of shining, shallow luxury and nearly invisible labour.

But whilst one part of Jenny’s narration focuses on the all too palpable social world, a second strand, consciously, sometimes awkwardly, symbolic, introduces another world or dimension. Associated first with Jenny’s anxious dreams about Chris in No Man’s Land and her childhood memories, Jenny’s Chris was the imaginative boy who believed that ‘the birch tree would really stir and shrink and quicken into an enchanted princess.’ Much later, Jenny has a vision of the Front as a literal hell in which Chris must choose between two crystal balls he is offered by a malevolent shopkeeper: one contains Jenny and Kitty, the other Margaret. This hell dreamt by Jenny has an alternative though, which is different from both Baldry Court and Mariposa. This place is Monkey Island, where Chris and Margaret fell in love.

Two long passages from Chris and Margaret’s points of view, look back to this past together (before they meet in the present). Monkey Island is a ‘real’ place, near Bray and the rural, water-bound inn, its garden fringed by chestnuts and walnuts, is where Margaret and her father live and work. Prosaically, Margaret is the innkeeper’s daughter but in Chris’s account she is the spirit of a secret pastoral.  While Margaret’s father chases after his beloved ducks and rabbits and Margaret prepares tea, a Romantic evening settles, transforming everything and everyone. Later in the moonlight, Margaret becomes a goddess when she is lifted by Chris into one of the niches of a Greek-style temple. ‘By its light he could not tell if her hair was white or silver or yellow or gold … His love was changeless.’ And nothing changes when he sees her again. In Chris’s eyes, Margaret isn’t a publican’s daughter or a married woman with cheap, clicking stays and red hands, she is the woman he loves and the ageless and classless essence of the nurturing feminine. Later on, Margaret seems to acquire the powers of a medium when she seems able to conjure the very character of Chris’s dead son by touching the little boy’s things. The novel’s story is as much about Jenny’s learning to see Margaret in these same hallowed terms as it is about the struggle over Chris.

In a letter to The Observer from June 1928, responding to a negative review of a stage adaptation of the novel, West wrote that the idea for the story came:

from two sources … It happened that in 1914 I heard of one of the first cases of amnesia the war produced; this reminded me of a paper I had read in a medical journal before the war in which a factory doctor had recorded without comment the case of an elderly factory hand who fell down a staircase on his head and came to himself under the delusion that he was a boy of twenty; and later gave great pain to his wife by repudiating and demanding a sweetheart from whom he had been separated for many years.

Later she found the character model for Margaret and ‘the whole story slipped into wartime.’ West translated the story she read about the old factory hand who fell down the stairs into an upper middle class setting (probably not surprising) but the war – rather than a fall down the stairs – and Chris’s relative youth steer West’s narrative carefully away from any comic possibility. The phrase ‘slipped into wartime’ suggests both inevitability and chance, and this seems congruent with the peculiar status the war has in the novel. On the one hand there is a familiar juxtaposition between England and the Front.

England is represented as the land itself and a feminine that must be protected at all costs. John Buchan’s South African hero James Hannay, finally ‘gets’ England in Mr Standfast (1919) when he spends a charmed afternoon in the Cotswolds having met the woman – working as a nurse – whom he will later marry. Baldry Hall with its horses and dogs seems to be an emblem of the England that makes the war worth fighting. It certainly is for Kitty and Jenny at the start of the novel. But not it seems for Chris. By refusing to remember, by aligning with the Margaret of Monkey Island, he is also refusing to fight. The wartime horizon also means that this isn’t just Chris’s story but the story of any man who returns from the horrors of the front and finds home means nothing to him. The surplus of women in the novel, the failure of a new generation (Kitty and Margaret have both had children who die very young), the uncanny alienation and disorientation experienced by Chris but also Kitty and Jenny when the soldier returns – these too are the effects of war. There are moments too when the war blasts through the apparent solidity of home, of England (compare Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Repression of War Experience’ or Septimus Warren Smith’s visions of dead soldiers in Regents Park in Mrs Dalloway). Jenny sees Chris in No Man’s Land in her dream, but it is Margaret who finally brings the war home to roost when she goes out to meet Chris for the first time at Baldry Court:

How her near presence had been known by Chris I do not understand, but there he was, running across the lawn as night after night I had seen him in my dreams in No Man’s Land. I knew that so he would close his eyes as he ran; I knew that so he would pitch on his knees, when he reached safety. I assumed that at Margaret’s feet lay safety, even before I saw her arms brace him under the armpits with a gesture that was not passionate, but rather the movement of one carrying a wounded man from under fire.”

Here Margaret becomes the comrade who rescues Chris’s battle-worn body. Her goodness and nurturing strength are what enable Jenny to understand that the world represented by Baldry Court is not worth fighting for. Positioning Margaret in an alternative realm allows the ‘horror’ that Jenny (and Kitty) feel at her class to be side-lined. By turning Margaret into an exceptional figure and giving Chris a kind of preternatural vision, she transcends the ugly stain of class. Goodness and love are not where you always expect to find them, the novel seems to say, but the ugly place from which Margaret comes remains ugly and dangerous.  Part of what makes the novel so compelling is that it can’t quite shut the box of frogs it opens with Margaret’s calling card.

At the end, Margaret is once again the agent of change; she who, with regret, agrees to return Chris to the present, sharing with the psychiatrist brought in to treat Chris, the understanding that normality and happiness rarely align. Neither Chris nor Kitty, can choose their futures. Only Margaret the outsider (old sweetheart, other woman, lower middle class) can make the choice that remakes normality, but this is only possible through a profound act of renunciation. She gives up her own happiness and also any hope that Chris will have a good life. She has knowingly returned the soldier. The novel is also Jenny’s grim Bildungsroman, the story of her education, grim because she must then continue to live amongst what she knows to be ruins. She must conspire in the terrible twist that the ending adds to the novel’s title: remaking Chris as the soldier. This moment too is multiplied by the wartime context and the novel leaves us asking how many other women contributed to making soldiers fit for sacrifice in this way?

You can read more about the role of women in World War One propaganda at the British Library Website

For a very different account of the war, try Mary Borden’s Forbidden Zone, first published in 1929, which offers an extraordinary, nightmarish, and in places, surreal account of the front line and is based on her experience as a nurse.

Read more from Rachel Malik here: https://rachelmalik.com/category/home/

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Book Review: The Business of Reading: A Hundred Years of the English Novel by Julian Lovelock

The Business of Reading: A Hundred Years of the English Novel, by Julian Lovelock (The Lutterworth Press, £20), https://www.lutterworth.com/product/business-of-reading/

By Danny Kielty

In recent years it has proved harder to bump into anyone who has read Rebecca West’s writings outside of the rather cloistered environs of postgraduate literature seminars. This is especially true of The Return of the Soldier (1918), the novel with which Dr Lovelock begins his exploration of the English novel. Yet you only have to look at the large numbers of people who cite some of the more acerbic and memorable quotations from West’s writings on Twitter to see that there are non-academic readers of West out there. At least in part, we have the popular reprints of her work released by Virago Modern Classics to thank for that.

It was encouraging to see Virago issue a new edition of The Return of the Soldier in 2018, though it feels fair to say that there is still a need to promote West’s writings to new general readers. It is for this reason that it is a welcome sight to see West’s great novel included in what Lovelock states is a ‘book about books … for the general reader, the book club member and the student – for those who like to talk seriously about novels over tea (or coffee) and cake, or something stronger if the sun is over the yardarm.’ Lovelock includes The Return of the Soldier as one of his designated ‘books to read’ from the period 1918-1939, with E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1927), E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) making up the roster.

In his six-page chapter on West’s novel, Lovelock provides a detailed synopsis of the book and briefly touches on some of the broader social and literary contexts that inform it. Fans of West will agree with Lovelock that The Return of the Soldier is ‘an arresting novel … suffused with startling images and intriguing possibilities.’ Yet Lovelock also argues that Frank Baldry’s ‘clumsy letter’ and the suddenness of the ending give the novel ‘the feeling of apprentice work.’ It would be interesting to see if readers new to the book share Lovelock’s view in an age that seems to love an ironic and abrupt ending!

It is not often that you see The Return of the Soldier (or, indeed, several other titles featured in The Business of Reading) discussed in a book aimed at general readers. Lovelock is to be applauded for his attempt to bring such works to a new audience.

Recent work in rebecca west studies, 2017-Present

Recent years have seen a steady stream of new academic work published on Dame Rebecca’s extraordinary body of work. As the list of new journal articles and book chapters below demonstrates, the sheer range of West’s oeuvre and interests lends itself to an ever-increasing number of academic approaches.

Journal Articles

Scanlon, Mara. ‘Gender Identity and Promiscuous Identification: Reading (in) Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier‘, Journal of Modern Literature, 2017, Vol.40(3), pp.66-83

Kielty, Daniel. ‘“Hands That War: In the Midlands”: Rebecca West’s Rediscovered Article on First World War Munitions Workers’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 2017, Vol.36(1), pp.211-217

Glover, David. ‘Rebecca West and the “Radio Traitor”: The 1351 Treason Act in 1945, The Space Between, 2017, Vol.13, p.1

Hutchison, H. ‘A bit of string: Rebecca west on Henry James’, Henry James Review, Fall 2018, Vol.39(3), pp.247-255

Brian, R. ‘ The Return of the “Spiritual Soldier”: Rebecca West’s Henry James, Henry James Review, 2018 Fal, Vol.39(3), pp.256-266

Corne, Jonah. ‘Regicide on Repeat: The Pensive Spectator of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon‘, Criticism, 1 January 2018, Vol.60(1), pp.47-73

Spitzer, Jennifer. ‘“I find my mind meeting yours”: Rebecca West’s Telepathic Modernism’, Studies in the Novel, 2018, Vol.50(4), pp.543-562

Rosenblum, Lauren M. ‘Rebecca West and newspaper writing as modernist genre’, Feminist Modernist Studies, Jun 2019, Vol. 2(2): pp. 180-193

Mourant, Chris. ‘Rebecca West, the Forgotten Vorticist?’, Modernist Cultures, Nov 2019, Vol. 14(4) : pp. 469-497

Baehr, Peter. “Defending HUAC: Rebecca West and American Liberalism,” Times Literary Supplement, May 22, No. 6112, 2020: 14-15, https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/rebeccawest-

Baehr, Peter. ‘Whittaker Chambers through the Eyes of Rebecca West’, National Review, April 29, LXXII (7) 2020: 42-45, https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2020/04/20/whittaker-chambers-through-the-eyes-of-rebecca-west/

Baehr, Peter. “Liberals on Trial: Rebecca West and Alistair Cooke,” The New Criterion, November, 2020, 29 (3): 22-27, https://newcriterion.com/issues/2020/11/liberals-on-trial-rebeccawest-

Kielty, Daniel. ‘”For at her touch our lives had at last fallen into a pattern”: Tactility in Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, Feminist Modernist Studies, Nov 2020, Vol. 4 (1): 53-70.

Williams, Annabel. ‘Fantasias on National Themes: Fantasy, Space, and Imperialism in Rebecca West, Twentieth-Century Literature, Dec. 2020, Vol. 66 (4): 405-430.

Baehr, Peter. ‘The Intelligent Liberalism of Rebecca West’, New English Review, Feb. 2021: https://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm?frm=190493&sec_id=190493

Anson, Patrick. ‘Rebecca West’s “seamed red hand”‘, Modernist Cultures, May 2021, Vol. 16 (2): 139-163.

Baehr, Peter. ‘Rebecca West on communism’s allure for the intellectuals: An Appraisal’, Thesis Eleven, Nov. 2021: 1-18.

Williams, Annabel. ‘Modernity’s Rolling Stock: Henry James, Rebecca West, and Transatlantic Travel’, Symbiosis (2021) Vol. 25.1: 117-135.

Book Chapters

Green, Barbara. ‘ Feminist Spaces and Women’s Pages: Rebecca West and Socialist Periodicals’, in Feminist Periodicals and Daily Life
Women and Modernity in British Culture
(Palgrave, 2017)

Laing, Kathryn. ‘Am I a Vorticist?: Re-reading Rebecca West’s “Indissoluble Matrimony” and BLAST‘, in BLAST at 100: A Modernist Magazine Reconsidered (BRILL, 2017)

Fielding, Heather. “From Empathy to the Super-Cortex: Rebecca West’s Technics of the Novel”, in Novel Theory and Technology in Modernist Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)

Laing, Kathryn. ‘‘An Outpour of Ink’: From the ‘Young Rebecca’ to ‘the most important signature of these years’, Rebecca West 1911–1920’, in Women, Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1890s-1920s:
The Modernist Period
(Edinburgh University Press, 2019)

Stetz, Margaret. ‘Time and Tide Waited for Her: Rebecca West’s Journalism in the 1920s’, in Women, Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1890s-1920s: The Modernist Period (Edinburgh University Press, 2019)

Have we missed your publication off of this list? Please contact us at rebeccawestsociety@gmail.com to let us know and we will add your publication to the list.

Grim’s Dyke: The Real Baldry Court?

By Daniel Kielty

Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier was first published in the February and March 1918 numbers of The Century magazine. This was one of the first modernist novels to portray a shell-shocked soldier of the First World War and to consider the impact of his return home on the domestic lives of family members. Though supposedly ‘about’ the returning soldier Chris Baldry, whose shell-shock has induced amnesia which has suspended his memory of the previous fifteen years, West’s novel is entirely narrated from the perspective of his cousin Jenny. She relates how, unable to fully recognise his upper-class wife Kitty, Chris instead rekindles a love-affair with the working-class Margaret Grey and takes comfort in memories of his boyhood life before marriage and war. By having Jenny relate the turmoil which ensues, West deftly explores the social and personal fissures opened up by the soldier’s return to his secluded country home at Baldry Court, Harrow Weald.

The re-printing of The Return of the Soldier as part of the celebrations marking forty years of Virago Modern Classics in 2018 is an indication of the esteem in which this fantastic novel is still held. However, a century after its initial publication, no real-life architectural model for Baldry Court has ever been proposed in the existing scholarship. My research into West’s descriptions of Baldry Court and its surrounding environment strongly suggests that she based it on Grim’s Dyke house in Harrow Weald, North London.

A ‘Tudor-Style house […] designed by Norman Shaw in about 1870 for the painter Frederick Goodall’, Grim’s Dyke ‘took its name from the original Grimes Dike that ran from Harrow Weald Common to the edges of Pinner’. The novel’s descriptions of Baldry Court are frustratingly lacking in any telling references to architectural features which might recall the distinctive Tudor-style of Grim’s Dyke. However, West does seemingly refer to the nearby Iron Age earthwork Grim’s Ditch/Dyke in her description of Jenny’s walk near the house: ‘I found a stream in the fields and followed it till it became a shining dyke embanked with glowing green and gold mosses in the midst of woods’. Bonnie Kime Scott records in her chronology for The Selected Letters of Rebecca West (2000) that, between 1914 and 1917, West lived a mere twenty-five minute walk away from Grim’s Dyke at ‘“Quinbury”, Alderton, Royston Park Road, Hatch End’. It is therefore conceivable that she became aware of the house either before or during the composition of The Return of the Soldier.

More telling than any architectural or topographical similarities with Grim’s Dyke, however, is West’s repeated framing of Baldry Court as a theatrical space. As women of the Edwardian upper-class, Jenny’s and Kitty’s chief role in life has been to arrange a ‘gracious life’ for Chris at Baldry Court. Following his departure to the Western Front, Jenny conceptualises the loss of this role in theatrical terms: ‘But now, just because our performance had been so brilliantly adequate, how dreary was the empty stage’. Later, when Margaret Grey arrives at Baldry Court to bring news of Chris’ shell-shock in France, Jenny wishes that ‘this queer ugly episode […] would dissolve and be replaced by some more pleasing composition in which we would take our proper parts’. West’s references to the stage and playing parts may have drawn inspiration from Grim’s Dyke’s most famous owner, the dramatist W.S. Gilbert, who owned and lived at the house until he tragically drowned in the lake there in 1911. In Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography (2002), Michael Ainger notes that the dramatist penned many of his librettos here – including ‘a children’s version of The Mikado’. Tantalisingly, like Chris Baldry’s spouse, Gilbert’s wife Lucy Agnes Turner was also known to him as “Kitty”.

In the novel, West likely drew upon the theatrical associations of Grim’s Dyke to help her portray Baldry Court as a space which brings the supposedly fixed social and gender roles being ‘performed’ by its inhabitants into sharper relief. Jenny makes it clear that the dwellers of Baldry Court are criticised for failing to perform their ‘proper parts’. When Chris, forgetful of the new steps added to the hall of house, ‘stumble[s]’, his wife is not amused: ‘Kitty knitted her brows, for she hates gracelessness and a failure of physical adjustment is the worst indignity she can conceive’. Like an actor who unwittingly trips over part of the stage set, Chris’ failure to maintain the graceful poise of an upper-class gentleman jarrs with the performance expected of him by his wife and upper-class Edwardian society as a whole.

Today, Grim’s Dyke is a rather swanky hotel. As well as hosting weddings and corporate functions, the hotel also offers an annual entertainment programme of Gilbert and Sullivan ‘opera dinners’. Given that Gilbert’s former home is the likely model for Baldry Court, it would be fitting if in future years this programme also included yearly readings, dramatisations and discussions of West’s most famous novel.

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Recent work in rebecca west studies, 2017-Present

Recent years have seen a steady stream of new academic work published on Dame Rebecca’s extraordinary body of work. As the list of new journal articles and book chapters below demonstrates, the sheer range of West’s oeuvre and interests lends itself to an ever-increasing number of academic approaches.

Journal Articles

Scanlon, Mara. ‘Gender Identity and Promiscuous Identification: Reading (in) Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier‘, Journal of Modern Literature, 2017, Vol.40(3), pp.66-83

Kielty, Daniel. ‘“Hands That War: In the Midlands”: Rebecca West’s Rediscovered Article on First World War Munitions Workers’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 2017, Vol.36(1), pp.211-217

Glover, David. ‘Rebecca West and the “Radio Traitor”: The 1351 Treason Act in 1945, The Space Between, 2017, Vol.13, p.1

Hutchison, H. ‘A bit of string: Rebecca west on Henry James’, Henry James Review, Fall 2018, Vol.39(3), pp.247-255

Brian, R. ‘ The Return of the “Spiritual Soldier”: Rebecca West’s Henry James, Henry James Review, 2018 Fal, Vol.39(3), pp.256-266

Corne, Jonah. ‘Regicide on Repeat: The Pensive Spectator of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon‘, Criticism, 1 January 2018, Vol.60(1), pp.47-73

Spitzer, Jennifer. ‘“I find my mind meeting yours”: Rebecca West’s Telepathic Modernism’, Studies in the Novel, 2018, Vol.50(4), pp.543-562

Rosenblum, Lauren M. ‘Rebecca West and newspaper writing as modernist genre’, Feminist Modernist Studies, Jun 2019, Vol. 2(2): pp. 180-193

Mourant, Chris. ‘Rebecca West, the Forgotten Vorticist?’, Modernist Cultures, Nov 2019, Vol. 14(4) : pp. 469-497

Book Chapters

Green, Barbara. ‘ Feminist Spaces and Women’s Pages: Rebecca West and Socialist Periodicals’, in Feminist Periodicals and Daily Life
Women and Modernity in British Culture
(Palgrave, 2017)

Laing, Kathryn. ‘Am I a Vorticist?: Re-reading Rebecca West’s “Indissoluble Matrimony” and BLAST‘, in BLAST at 100: A Modernist Magazine Reconsidered (BRILL, 2017)

Laing, Kathryn. ‘‘An Outpour of Ink’: From the ‘Young Rebecca’ to ‘the most important signature of these years’, Rebecca West 1911–1920’, in Women, Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1890s-1920s:
The Modernist Period
(Edinburgh University Press, 2019)

Stetz, Margaret. ‘Time and Tide Waited for Her: Rebecca West’s Journalism in the 1920s’, in Women, Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1890s-1920s: The Modernist Period (Edinburgh University Press, 2019)

Have we missed your publication off of this list? Please contact us at rebeccawestsociety@gmail.com to let us know and we will add your publication to the list.

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