She’s always the subject of grand narratives about the “strong,” “modern,” or “new” woman, but it ought to go without saying that Rebecca West, the grand dame of criticism of her day, was not all bluster and perfection in her private life. By the age of just twenty-one, she was already a single mother, and the affair that gave her her son was far from ideal, nevermind the frustrated mother-child relationship it led to.
West met H.G. Wells, the great love of her life, when she was just nineteen, after he invited her to dine with him. In the pages of her weekly, the Freewoman, she’d just called the man an “Old Maid among novelists.” Wells styled himself a sexual revolutionary, though as West’s biographer Victoria Glendinning observed, he was the type whose concept of free love was one “in which the man somehow always ended up the freer comrade, both sexually and intellectually.” He was long since past The War of the Worlds and his classic science fiction. Now his fiction had plunged instead into the war of the sexes, writing cloaked fictional accounts of his affairs with various women. Wells was married, even happily so, though his wife’s real name so displeased him that he christened her “Jane,” and called her that all her life. He also kept her informed of his affairs. She had a habit of sending friendly cards to his paramours.
But despite her age, West smelled him coming, to put it bluntly. Her review of his latest novel, Marriage, had likened the sexuality in his novels to “clotted… cold white sauce.” Others have long observed that these later books of Wells’ lacked some emotional core, some aim above and beyond social criticism and pretty description, a contrast to his sometime rival Henry James, as Vivian Gornick observed: “The outcome: James made art, Wells made polemics.”
But evidently the effect was quite different in the presence of the man himself. West found herself attracted to his “hunger for ideas,” she told a friend. They spoke for almost five hours, the wife withdrawing elsewhere to let them talk. The feeling was evidently mutual. “I had never met anything quite like her before, and I doubt if there ever was anything like her before,” he’d record, at the end of his life, in a volume of autobiography entitled H.G. Wells in Love.
From the start Wells seems to have meant to seduce West, who was still a virgin. In his parlance, his seduction would make her “sexually free.” But at the behest of Elizabeth von Arnim, his then-current mistress, he changed his mind. Sadly, by that time West wanted him, and when he left England for the continent she was devastated. She travelled a little with her sisters but was not soothed by the experience, and wrote him an anguished love note:
You’ve literally ruined me. I’m burned down to my foundations. I may build myself again or I may not. You say obsessions are curable. They are. But people like me swing themselves from one passion to another, and if they miss smash down somewhere where there aren’t any passions at all but only bare boards and sawdust.
We don’t know that West ever actually sent this letter; Wells would destroy all her letters to him at the end of his life. It was in response to some of her travel articles, instead, that he’d eventually write, and invite her to become friends again. By the autumn of 1913, they were lovers. and West became pregnant only the second time they had sex. There was never any question of Wells divorcing Jane and marrying West; he refused to consider it, though he did help pay Rebecca’s expenses. The child, born to West in seclusion in a seaside town in Norfolk, was named Anthony Panther West. “Panther” was the pet name Wells had for West; she called him Jaguar. These nicknames are in all their letters.
Wells and West fancied that their intellectual union benefitted their writing, and saw it as energizing. But from the start it was clear that the raising of Anthony would be another story altogether. Late in life, she’d write to her sister that she regretted not sending Anthony away for his first year so she could work. “As it was,” she wrote, “I had to work hard later on, so that I could not give Anthony all the time he needed when he was a little older.” Plus, as she complained to a friend who’d come to visit her at home with a tiny Anthony, “I hate domesticity. I can’t imagine any circumstances in which it would be amusing to order 2 ounces of Lady Betty wool for socks for Anthony.” This rather marked her out from her Edwardian counterparts, though it still is the kind of thing a mother can be pilloried for saying publicly.
A worse effect of the mores of the time was that they prevented West from public honesty about Anthony’s paternity, too, a fact which leaked into their private lives. He was encouraged to call her Auntie Panther, as a young child, before he learned she was actually his mother. There appears to have been no single revelatory moment. He was gradually let in on the secret of his parentage, with Wells beginning to sign letters as his father around the age of either. Wells, had also quietly put the child in his will, acknowledging him as a son and leaving him £2,000.
Their affair continued in the background, still rich and heavily-felt in letters to her. But Wells was, as could perhaps be expected, not wholly faithful to Rebecca. In 1920 he met Margaret Sanger, and had an affair with her, one he’d later allegedly memorialize in The Secret Places of the Heart. In that novel, Sir Richmond Hardy, now chairman of the fuel commission, has an intellectual affair with a young Red Cross worker. Hardy is married, but also has a woman by whom he has a child, a character planly based on West, and of this affair he writes:
He was inclined to think that she and Sir Richmond were unduly obsessed by the idea that they had to stick together because of the child, because of the look of the thing and so forth, and that really each might be struggling against a very strong impulse indeed to break off the affair. It seemed evident to the doctor that they jarred upon and annoyed each other extremely. On the whole separating people appealed to a doctor’s mind more strongly than bringing them together. Accordingly he framed his enquiries so as to make the revelation of a latent antipathy as easy as possible.
Biographers do not seem to record what Rebecca thought of this, but perhaps her reaction was encapsulated in what came next: In 1923, West finally issued Wells a “marry me, or I’ll leave,” ultimatum. He turned her down, and she went off to America on a book tour. He professed, all summer, to miss her, addressing her as “Dear Sweet Phantom Panther,” but gradually both moved on to other affairs.
Anthony, the lingering evidence of the ten years they spent together, grew up in boarding schools. Eventually, in the sort of unconscious homage many parents dream of, he become a novelist and critic himself. But by far, all his best-remembered work would be about his parents, particularly an autobiographical novel called Heritage he published in 1955. In it the mother-figure is careless, capricious, and neglectful. The bitterness is palpable. West, naturally, hated it: “You are a gift to me — but in your book you did everything you could to withdraw that gift.”
But Anthony thought of himself as only telling the truth. His unhappiness with his mother, combined with her efforts to thwart his (hagiographical) eventual biography of his father, led to a permanent estrangement between mother and son, too. And when the book was finally published in England in 1984, after West’s death, he wrote a preface in which he conceded only that: “Time softens all things, and I can now also allow that my own mother never went as far with me literally as the Countess of Macclesfield felt able to go with her son. That, however, brings me to the end of the concessions I feel able to make in that quarter.”
West was much less firm on the “real truth.” Her feeling was perhaps best summed up in a letter she wrote early in the estrangement: “Motherhood is the strangest thing, it can be like being one’s own Trojan horse.” I feel like I know more than a few “modern” women who would agree.
Works consulted in writing this include Victoria Glendinning’s Rebecca West: A Life, Elaine Showalter’s Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage, and Susan Hertog’s Dangerous Ambition: New Women in Search of Love and Power.