Beginnings at the End of Love: Rebecca West’s Extraordinary Love Letter to H.G. Wells in the Wake of Heartbreak
By Maria Popova
“If during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe,” the great English writer and feminist Rebecca West (December 21, 1892–March 15, 1983) wrote as she contemplated suffering, survival, and the will to keep walking the road to ourselves in her 1941 masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
Three decades earlier, West had honed this heroic insistence on inquiry into suffering on the bludgeoning whetstone of her own heartbreak. At only twenty, after calling him “the Old Maid of novelists” in a scorching review of his novel Marriage, she had fallen madly in love with H.G. Wells — one of the era’s most venerated writers, twenty-six years her senior, married (to a woman who shared his skepticism about the institution of marriage), and the father of two young boys. The magmatic affair ended after several months, severed by Wells. At first attracted to West’s electric intellect, he cowered upon discovering that this selfsame electricity coursed through the whole of her being — she was too intense, her love too alive — affirmation of Henry James’s famous indictment of Wells: “so much life with (so to speak) so little living.”
In one of the most remarkable letters ever composed — a masterwork of inhabiting one’s multitudes and contradictions with the full dignity of each faction, the bold along with the desperate, the broken along with the whole — penned in March 1913 and found in Anna Holmes’s delicious Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library), West channels the confused magnetic maelstrom of push and pull familiar to any rejected lover, but channels it with a level of lucidity and fiery self-awareness rarely accessible to the rest of us:
Dear H. G.,
During the next few days I shall either put a bullet through my head or commit something more shattering to myself than death. At any rate I shall be quite a different person. I refuse to be cheated out of my deathbed scene.
I don’t understand why you wanted me three months ago and don’t want me now. I wish I knew why that were so. It’s something I can’t understand, something I despise. And the worst of it is that if I despise you I rage because you stand between me and peace. Of course you’re quite right. I haven’t anything to give you. You have only a passion for excitement and for comfort. You don’t want any more excitement and I do not give people comfort. I never nurse them except when they’re very ill. I carry this to excess. On reflection I can imagine that the occasion on which my mother found me most helpful to live with was when I helped her out of a burning house.
I always knew that you would hurt me to death some day, but I hoped to choose the time and place. You’ve always been unconsciously hostile to me and I have tried to conciliate you by hacking away at my love for you, cutting it down to the little thing that was the most you wanted. I am always at a loss when I meet hostility, because I can love and I can do practically nothing else.
And then, in a passage that justifies Virginia Woolf’s later description of West as “hard as nails… a cross between a charwoman and a gipsy, but as tenacious as a terrier, with flashing eyes… immense vitality… suspicion of intellectuals, and great intelligence,” she adds:
I was the wrong sort of person for you to have to do with. You want a world of people falling over each other like puppies, people to quarrel and play with, people who rage and ache instead of people who burn. You can’t conceive a person resenting the humiliation of an emotional failure so much that they twice tried to kill themselves: that seems silly to you. I can’t conceive of a person who runs about lighting bonfires and yet nourishes a dislike of flame: that seems silly to me.
As the universal pendulum of the jilted swings from blame to self-blame, from self-righteousness to self-abasement, she throws herself from the clocktower of heartbreak into the always impenetrable unknown that follows the end of a great love:
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. You have done for me utterly. You know it. That’s why you are trying to persuade yourself that I am a coarse, sprawling, boneless creature, and so it doesn’t matter. When you said, “You’ve been talking unwisely, Rebecca,” you said it with a certain brightness: you felt that you had really caught me at it. I don’t think you’re right about this. But I know you will derive immense satisfaction from thinking of me as an unbalanced young female who flopped about in your drawing-room in an unnecessary heart-attack.
That is a subtle flattery. But I hate you when you try to cheapen the things I did honestly and cleanly. You did it once before when you wrote to me of “your — much more precious than you imagine it to be — self.” That suggests that I projected a weekend at the Brighton Metropole with Horatio Bottomley. Whereas I had written to say that I loved you. You did it again on Friday when you said that what I wanted was some decent fun and that my mind had been, not exactly corrupted, but excited, by people who talked in an ugly way about things that are really beautiful. That was a vile thing to say. You once found my willingness to love you a beautiful and courageous thing. I still think it was. Your spinsterishness makes you feel that a woman desperately and hopelessly in love with a man is an indecent spectacle and a reversal of the natural order of things. But you should have been too fine to feel like that.
I would give my whole life to feel your arms round me again.
I wish you had loved me. I wish you liked me.
She adds a postscript of heartbreaking resignation:
P.S. Don’t leave me utterly alone. If I live write to me now and then. You like me enough for that. At least I pretend to myself you do.
But just as Wells had failed to account for the consanguinity of her character qualities, West too failed to account for his — the all-consuming love confessed in this letter, aimed at winning him back, was the very thing that had made him run in the first place. His curt three-line response, found in Lesley MacDowell’s excellent Between the Sheets: Nine 20th Century Women Writers and Their Famous Literary Partnerships (public library), made this painfully clear:
How can I be your friend to this accompaniment? I don’t see that I can be of any use or help to you at all. You have my entire sympathy — but until we can meet on a reasonable basis — Goodbye.
For all her passionate nature, West’s intellect was too great to let her make the same mistake twice. She issued no more personal appeals. Instead, she threw herself into what had brought them together in the first place — her professional devotion to her craft. And then the seemingly miraculous but not altogether unexpected happened. When she published a characteristically perceptive and lyrical essay about a Spanish café singer in the July issue of The New Freewoman, she received a letter from Wells that must have honeyed her soul both as a writer and as a lover, but also bittered with its confused mosaic of professional praise and misogynistic punishment. (It is telling that Wells found and read the essay despite its publication in a literary magazine that only existed for six months — he was clearly keeping a keen eye out for her work, perhaps the era’s equivalent of Instagram stalking.) He wrote:
You are writing gorgeously again. Please resume being friends… [Your essay] was tremendous. You are as wise as God when you write — at times — and then you are atortured, untidy… little disaster of a girl who can’t even manage the most elementary tricks of her sex. You are like a beautiful voice singing out of a darkened room into which one gropes and finds nothing.
West took her time to respond. No record survives of when and how she did. But by November, they were lovers again. In January, West found out she was pregnant and decided to keep the child. Wells would later blame himself for impairing her promising career with his carelessness:
It was our second encounter and she became pregnant. It was entirely unpremeditated. She wanted to write. It should not have happened, and since I was the more experienced person, the blame is wholly mine.
Their son, Anthony West, was born in the final months of World War I. West and Wells remained lovers for a decade, but grew increasingly unhappy in the relationship, both personally and professionally, until Wells was ready to admit that they “did harm to each other as writers.” Only when they separated did West’s career soar to its influential heights. They remained friends until Wells’s death. “We did at times love each other very much,” he reflected after the collapse of the romantic relationship. “We love each other still.”
Perhaps the rift came not from the absence of love but from the misalignment of values in what they both held at the center of their being: their identity as writers. Wells, by his own admission, would “rather be called a journalist than an artist.” West, in her trailblazing account of Balkan culture — the culture of which I myself am the product, — went on to pioneer a new aesthetic of journalism that was equally a work of truth and a work of art, animated by her fundamental conviction that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted.”
Complement with Rilke on how to break up with integrity and Van Gogh on heartbreak as a vitalizing force for creative work, then revisit Hannah Arendt on how to live with the fundamental fear of love’s loss.
Published November 12, 2019