Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

1900 ()

I'm sort of surprised, amidst all the hoopla about the end of this century, that noone has reprinted this delightful little book about the turn of the last century.  A lavishly illustrated extended essay with numerous insightful profiles of leading figures of the day like Proust, Einstein & Henry James, it recaptures much of the mood and social milieu of that time and West is a witty and perceptive guide.

Here are some of her better observations:

    On the Boer War and the rise of guerilla warfare:

    On the Boer side there had come into existence that terrible being, the soldier who is not a
    professional nor a conscripted soldier, but an amateur who has learned his craft by doing odd
    lethal jobs round the old homestead, dismissing to paradise the casual robber of his chickens and
    his grain through careful use of an old blunderbuss, keeping off the brigands and the tax collectors
    alike by his swift manoeuvres on an old pony, and melting into the landscape when the punitive
    forces of the state (or the even stronger league of brigands) came looking for him.  Men like this,
    men who were two kinds of men--at once simple farmers at the mercy of trained armies, and
    untrained soldiers who exercised almost magical power over trained armies--had developed the
    technique of the little war, of guerilla tactics, and the Boers were expert at it, having had so much
    trouble with the black African.  The British, though they had learned some dexterous moves in
    places like Afghanistan, had little practice in the game.

    On the rise of the British Labour Party:

    The truth is that the English went into the twentieth century certain of only one thing:  they
    wanted nobody to be poor.  And this was the obscure conclusion of an obscure train of thought
    that had started in the Boer War.  We had a nagging certainty that the upper classes in parliament,
    in Whitehall and in the army had led many of the common people of England to die years before it
    was necessary, and had left their widows and orphans to go hungry; and we had a nagging
    feeling, which grew stronger as the years went on, that the war had been badly negotiated (though
    oddly enough it was the Afrikaner Smuts who persuaded us of that more than any English

    It was the resultant feeling of guilt which handed the British in the twentieth century over to the
    idea of an equalization of circumstance in our country.  It was not Marx or Engels that did the
    trick.  They were academics; the British are governed by emotion.  The Marxists in England are
    the same sort of people who went on and on studying the classics out of snobbery not love to
    show they could pursue mental activities too difficult for the common herd.  The reason for the
    kindness of our social will is our sense that unless one protects the next man one offends, deeply,
    forever, to the point of damnation.

    On the grandiose political and social pronouncements of Einstein:

    His curious blend of intellectual wealth and starveling poverty of personal intercourse accounted
    for two curious phases in his life.  The earlier began when he went to the United States for the
    first time in 1921.  Crowds followed him through the streets in a state of reverence that would
    have been a just tribute had he been Jesus of Nazareth but was ridiculous over-valuing of Albert
    Einstein.  Jesus must, if one accepts his existence as a fact, be credited with universal knowledge
    and perfect estimation of values, and the power to communicate with those who desired to be
    saved.  Einstein's wisdom covered only a fraction of human problems, and though he loved to
    share it with his fellow physicists, the rest of humanity would find it difficult to understand his
    expositions, if only because of his highly technical vocabulary.

    Nevertheless, the crowds in Washington and New York and Los Angeles looked at him as if he
    might tell them at any moment something which was going to make it quite easy for them to solve
    all their problems, and this feeling persisted on the visit he paid to America twenty-five years later.
    They were now not hoping so much for general wisdom to drop from his lips as for a message
    concerning a particular object: the atomic bomb.  That inconvenient creation of man's genius is
    indeed made by mixing a pudding of nuclear power and had only come to existence by reason of
    Einstein's theory of relativity.  However, Einstein's scientific labour occupied most of his time, and
    hence he knew less about national and international relationships and resources than many of the
    people in the streets who were looking to him for guidance on the political effects of the atomic

Rebecca West was a literary prodigy (published at 19) and sort of the Madonna of her day, a cultural phenom who knew everyone & seems to have slept with many of them--including H.G. Wells, Charlie Chaplin & John Gunther.  But her very precociousness and her intimacy with the major figures of her day, give this account an immediacy that really brings the era to life.  By the time you finish the book, you have to agree with her assessment that:

    There was anyway an attractive saltiness in the flavour of the period, though it might have been
    more digestible.  But probably that is true of any year since the world began.

I'm sorry that you may have some trouble finding a copy of this charming book, but there's a real treat available on the Web.  The Atlantic has posted a six part excerpt from her classic travelogue  Black Lamb and Grey Falcon : A Journey Through Yugoslavia (1941), which made the Modern Library Top 100 Non-fiction Books of the 20th Century.  I urge you to check it out.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Rebecca West (2 books reviewed)
Rebecca West Links:

    -REVIEW: of "Survivors in Mexico" by Rebecca West (Jorge G. Castaneda, NY Times Book Review)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Rebecca West (1892-1983)(kijasto)
    -Rebecca West 1892-1983 Writer (Women's History, Gale Group)
    -EXCERPT: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in 6 parts (The Atlantic, January 1941)
    -ESSAY: The Duty of Harsh Criticism by Rebecca West  An argument in favor of the criticism that allows art to save people's souls--and an example of the same. (1914, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: Rosemary Dinnage: Staying the Course
        The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
        Harriet Hume: A London Fantasy by Rebecca West
        The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West, 1911-1917
        1900 by Rebecca West
    -REVIEW: of Rebecca West Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: ├ŁA Journey Through Yugoslavia (1941) (Alan Jacobs, First Things)
   -REVIEW: John Gross: Un-English Activities
        Lord Haw-Haw by J.A. Cole
        The New Meaning of Treason by Rebecca West
    -REVIEW: Denis Donoghue: Magic Defeated
        The Time of the Angels by Iris Murdoch
        The Birds Fall Down by Rebecca West
        The Animal Hotel by Jean Garrigue
    -REVIEW: V.S. Pritchett: Invader
        Rebecca West: A Celebration selected from her writings by her publishers with her help, with a critical introduction by Samuel Hynes
    -REVIEW: of  Selected Letters of Rebecca West Edited, Annotated, and Introduced by Bonnie Kime Scott The Extremist  (FRANK KERMODE, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of THE YOUNG REBECCA Writings of Rebecca West, 1911-17 (John Leonard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of  FAMILY MEMORIES An Autobiographical Journey By Rebecca West (Humphrey Carpenter, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of REBECCA WEST A Life By Victoria Glendinning (Justin Kaplan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of REBECCA WEST A Life By Carl Rollyson (Walter Kendrick, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of REBECCA WEST A Life By Victoria Glendinning (John Gross, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of H. G. WELLS Aspects of a Life. By Anthony West (John Gross, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Brigid Brophy: Sons and Lovers
        H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life by Anthony West
    -REVIEW: Noel Annan: The Charms of H.G. Wells
        H.G. Wells by Norman MacKenzie and Jeanne MacKenzie
    -REVIEW: Michael Ignatieff: The Balkan Tragedy
        The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War by Misha Glenny
        The Destruction of Yugoslavia: Tracking the Break-up, 1980-92 by Branka Magas
        The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War by Slavenka Drakulic1
    -ESSAY: Aesthetic Awareness in the Work of Rebecca West (James Roy King)
    -REVIEW: of  SELECTED LETTERS OF REBECCA WEST Edited by Bonnie Kime Scott  Under Western Eyes (Adam Kirsch, Washington Post Book World)