Rebecca West (1892–1983) was born Cicely Isabel Fairchild. Following a brief period on the London stage, West took her nom de plume from the outspoken heroine of Henrick Ibsen’s Rosmershalm when she began her writing career with the suffragette magazine the Freewoman. Besides her fiction, literary criticism, journalism, political analysis, and history, West’s most notable feminist writings include a piece on the suffragette Emily Davidson, who threw herself in front of the king’s horse at the Derby. In 1912 she wrote a taunting critique of H. G. Wells’s Marriage, calling him “the Old Maid of novelists.” Piqued by West’s acerbic wit, the celebrated novelist invited her to tea, a meeting that marked the start of their stormy 10- year affair (the 45-year-old Wells was married). In 1914, West gave birth to their son Anthony.
That same year West published her short story “Indissoluble Matrimony” in the first issue of Wyndham Lewis’s Blast alongside the work of Ezra Pound and Ford Madox Ford, firmly establishing her place amongst the modernists. She was a committed and outspoken suffragette, and her views on female sexuality remain distinctly modern. Like Lewis, West mocks English middle-class respectability and exposes the fear and loathing fueling obsessive propriety. In addition, the young West masterfully demonstrates how discourses of race are inextricably bound to issues of class, gender, and sexuality. While providing a darkly ironic psychological commentary on “the tie that binds,” this incisive feminist reveals an all-too-clear understanding of the power struggle that shapes modern marriage.
“Indissoluble Matrimony” is presented from the husband’s point of view, thereby providing direct insight into a white middle-class male’s fearful view of the emergent New Woman and her rise in social status. To complicate matters, we learn that George Silverton’s wife Evadne has “black blood in her,” although she looks almost white. In contrast to her repressed, sickly husband, who has “a natural incapacity for excitement,” Evadne is bursting with life. Physically strong and athletic, she is repeatedly compared to an animal or described as catlike, emphasizing her sensuous nature. George, who has always been slightly scared of women, is initially seduced by the sound of her voice, her soulful singing, finding her exotic and falling in love with her childlike simplicity: her helplessness, her innocence, and her natural sexuality, so free of complexity in contrast to proper, white middle-class women. However, after 10 years of marriage, the prudish George now finds his wife’s “voluptuous presence” intolerable and is consumed by his “sense of outraged decency.”
Although the couple had fancied themselves “orthodox Radicals” in the early years of their marriage, Evadne has gone on to embrace socialism, which George finds too extreme—a violation of his deeply entrenched middle-class values. After marrying, moreover, Evadne began studying economics and writing for the socialist press. Learning that the socialist candidate for the town council has asked his wife to speak at a local meeting pushes George over the edge. In the face of Evadne’s intellectual superiority and her unflinching determination to make this speech, George becomes enraged. When Evadne storms out of the house, George follows her, imagining she is off on some secret tryst, since his middleclass beliefs dictate that feminine virtue and female sexuality are not compatible.
Evadne, we discover, has gone for a moonlight swim in the lake on the neighboring moor. By the time George catches up to her, he is overcome with murderous rage; they engage in a deadly struggle, during which Evadne disappears into the darkness of the pond, so that George believes he has drowned his wife. Ravaged but alive, he slowly makes his way home, savoring his one night of triumph over a woman. However, when George finally arrives home, he finds Evadne tucked into their warm bed, sleeping soundly. Shivering with cold, George collapses into the bed, surrendering to the primal power of the female body. “Bodies like his,” he realizes, “do not kill bodies like hers.” Once the irony evaporates, West leaves her readers with Freudian insight into the unconscious forces that render the marriage bond “indissoluble.”
Widely regarded as an important feminist writer, West developed similar ideas in her novels. The Return of the Soldier (1918), dealing with a soldier who is suffering from shell shock and the women who wait for him, reveals West’s grasp of Freudian psychology as well as her socialist sympathies. In her second novel, The Judge (1922), she bravely explores the torment of a single mother and the legacy it bestows: “Every mother is a judge who sentences the children for the sins of the father.”
Glendinning, Victoria. Rebecca West: A Life. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987.
Marcus, Jane. The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West, 1911–1917. New York: Viking Press, 1982.
Norton, Ann V. Paradoxical Feminism: The Novels of Rebecca West. Lanham, Md.: International Scholars Publications, 2000.
West, Rebecca. The Only Poet and Short Stories. London: Virago, 1992.