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Book Review : Rebecca West's Thinly Cloaked Autobiography

April 03, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

Sunflower by Rebecca West (Viking: $18.95)

If formidable and august are the words that spring to mind at the mention of Dame Rebecca West's impressive record as a novelist and social critic, "Sunflower" will come as a surprise. Written in the 1920s, when West was already past 30 and had been H. G. Wells' mistress for 10 turbulent years, the novel is unabashed and barely disguised autobiography; the chronicle of a disintegrating liaison with that titantic figure and the beginnings of a heartbreaking passion for another; Lord Beaverbrook in real life, "Francis Pitts" in this roman a clef.

A skeleton key to Bloomsbury unlocks the book. Wells is called Essington; portrayed as handsome and mercurial, possessed of a towering ego, an overbearing intellect and a cruel wit. Beaverbrook is also painted directly from life. In the novel, Francis Pitt is short and homely; occasionally betraying his humble beginnings by lapses in speech and taste, but intense and magnetic, a romantic figure despite his unprepossessing appearance.

A Statuesque Actress

For the purposes of the book, West has altered only herself, making her heroine, Sunflower, a blond and statuesque actress. Though the author constantly insists that Sunflower is uneducated and "stupid," the sensitive observations about human behavior, the rich and original imagery in the writing, and the superb taste displayed by Sunflower herself are a showcase for West's own gifts, proving that pretending to be smart is always easier than pretending to be stupid. The book is so overtly a personal record of the end of the Wells affair and the frustrating association with Beaverbrook that West wisely refrained from publishing it at the time, abandoning the project before resolving the conflicts she established.

Victoria Glendinning, West's biographer, discovered the theme of the novel clearly stated in West's notebooks, a succinct and candid statement of the writer's ambivalence toward the life she found herself leading. "Women have remained close to the primitive type because (they have been) doing the same job--wifehood and motherhood. Men have departed from the primitive type because they are doing altogether different jobs.

The type of civilization men have produced demands great men--greatness that presses too hardly on the men. They are bound to buckle under the strain"; a fine description of precisely the sort of man who attracted her. At that moment in the author's own career, she was clearly yearning for marriage and motherhood, but the aging Wells was in no mood for domesticity and Beaverbrook was already married, though for the novel West turns his wife into a sister.

Brilliant, independent and strikingly beautiful in an individual way, West nevertheless had grave misgivings about her unconventional life, doubts given such free rein in "Sunflower" that they run away with the plot.

Though technically the story is unfinished, the ambiguity adds a dimension of sophistication to what might have been an overly tidy little romance and a tedious paean to domesticity. In the 60 years since West wrote "Sunflower," we've grown accustomed to open-ended fiction, relaxed structure and a less rigid definition of plot.

We no longer expect that a novel will progress in an unbroken line from climax through anti-climax to denouement, all trumpeted like flight schedules. It isn't the irresolution that's disconcerting here, but the desperate and hopelessly romantic longing for an idealized "simple life," an earth-mother existence that could never have satisfied either the worldly

Special Poignancy

With the perspective of hindsight, we know neither woman could have been fulfilled for long by passively playing house; knowledge lending the novel a special poignancy.

After 50 years, there are still no easy solutions to the question of how women should assign their priorities and order their lives. Two surges of so-called "liberation" have only emphasized the dilemma, as both this early novel and the recent deluge of post-feminist fiction demonstrate. Because of the issue is alive as ever, the book has a renewed relevance.

There are some splendid passages here, a lyrical quality seldom apparent in West's critical work. At the beginning of the novel, when Sunflower's car stalls and she waits at the garage for the repairs to be done, she projects herself into the simple role of the mechanic's adored wife. Later that day, she attends the county assizes at which an elderly woman is being tried for bigamy, identifying so thoroughly with the defendant's plight that she repeats the story to both Essington and Pitt.

Essington is loftly disdainful, Pitt warmly understanding. Effectively, this is the point at which the novel truly opens, as one love ends and another begins; the author ruthlessly abandoning discretion to tell us exactly what she felt and thought at the crisis in her life. Despite its obvious shortcomings and redundancies, "Sunflower" directly confronts the enduring puzzle of women's options.

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