Rebecca West, Harriet Hume

I read somewhere that this would be an ideal companion to May Sinclair’s salutary The Life and Death of Harriett Frean (I wrote about it here). Subtitled ‘A London Fantasy’, Rebecca West’s Harriet Hume (first published 1929) has some of the qualities of that novel (apart from the same name of the protagonists): fable, fairytale, allegory of how a life could or should be lived. The spiritual-supernatural elements are similar to those in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (posted about here) – especially as the eponymous Harriet is endowed with qualities and ‘occult gifts’ that cause her to be likened at times to an angel, and at others to a ‘damnable’ or  ‘lying witch’. She has ‘burgled the mind’ of her young lover, Arnold Condorex, enabling her to read his thoughts and predict his future actions. This both attracts and alarms him.

Harriet Hume cover

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics edition shows a detail from ‘The Studio Door, Charleston’, by Vanessa Bell

He abandons her after their idyllic post-coital first chapter because she’s a poor concert pianist who, like him, has no ‘family or fortune’. He’s ambitious, determined to use his skills of ‘negotiation’ (i.e. treachery, duplicity, cunning and ruthlessness) to ‘rise’ in the world – he has a fatal inferiority complex.

Of course, Harriet is able to read all these ignoble thoughts. She tries to warn him against this single-minded, selfish course of action, but she also knows it’s futile: he’s doomed. ‘Advancement’ to him is what music is for her.

So in several subsequent meetings over subsequent years we see him gradually acquire the trappings of power and worldly success he craved: a grand house, servants, ostentatious wealth, a title, political power. On each meeting he finds Harriet bewitching, enchanting – and terrifying. She’s like his bad conscience. Yet she never importunes him. Variously described as like a doll or indolent cat, she has a ‘face almost insipid with compliancy’; not the most prepossessing oracle

Arnold’s downward moral and spiritual trajectory accompanies his mundane rise. In a final, bizarrely fantastic scene he enters another zone of being where he and Harriet can commune on a different level, watched by two comic policemen. Suicide or murder are involved.

So what’s this fantasy or fable about? As Victoria Glendinning suggests in her Introduction, it’s perhaps the ‘opposites’ with which Arnold becomes increasingly obsessed that drive him and Harriet: the male and female principles, perhaps. Yin and yang. Or the public, status-conscious versus the private and intimate, emotional life. Political chicanery v. art (especially music – a key feature in much of West’s other fiction).

He marries a woman for her wealth and rank, then grows to despise her. The moral here is clearly to be careful what you wish for. His ultimate failure, he comes to realise, wasn’t Harriet’s fault:

[I] have contrived my own ruin by my own qualities.

Unfortunately such portentous themes are less than engagingly narrated. The message at times comes across as a blend of Jiminy Cricket and a fortune cookie motto. There’s some of the digressive supernatural stuff about the changeability of matter that is seen in other novels by Rebecca West (poltergeists, etc.) – Arnold sees by the end that Harriet simply shapes ‘the random elements of our existence into coherent patterns’. Obviously.

But my main difficulty was with the prose style. It’s so florid, poetic and mannered as to make the narrative turgid at times – despite occasional flights of beauty. Here’s a random example of what looks almost like blank verse; Harriet is addressing Arnold, coming as close as she ever does to admonishing him for the ambition that has led him into criminality:

“Oh, Arnold! This is the midnight of your destiny. Bit all your principles and motives doff their masks and sever all connection with this scheme!”

Arnold has an odd habit of referring to Harriet – to her face or to himself, as a ‘little trollop’, ‘slut’ or – in Shakespearean mode – ‘jade’. Not an endearing quality.

I wrote about Rebecca West’s ‘Aubrey trilogy’ and The Return of the Soldier in various previous posts, link here. They’re all, to my mind, much better than this curiosity.