Tuesday, October 17, 2006

R.I.P. Challenge: Harriet Hume

I conceived of my Rebecca West project --to read all of her fiction, in order published-- not long after reading The Return of the Soldier, a slim, every-word-tells account of a battle-injured man who returns home without a memory of the last 15 years of his life. I became even more of a West fan after reading The Judge, a great big sprawl of a novel that H.G. Wells made sure West knew he hated.

He was enthusiastic over her third, Harriet Hume, which she called a fantasy, not a novel; but then, main character Arnold Condorex was modeled on ambitious men of Wells' type, and Harriet herself was an embodiment of his belief in "the essential 'secondariness' of women," according to the Glendinning bio.

After an afternoon of love-making, Harriet Hume discovers that she can read Condorex' mind. She is dismayed to learn that no matter how idyllic their love, it is much more important for Condorex, a man without family or financial connections, to rise to political power than to remain with her. She lets him go without a fuss.

Aggressive and lacking scruples, Condorex manages to exalt himself to a lordship in large part due to his invention of a ficticious country in the far east on which he speaks most elegantly and knowingly. He marries for money and connection. Periodically he will run into Harriet Hume, largely unchanged, and realize that an unnerving connection remains between them: she can still read his mind and unearth the nasty truths he's managed to keep hidden from himself.

Twenty years later, financially and politically destroyed, abandoned by his friends, Condorex sets off to kill Harriet, his opposite, and thus, to his crazed mind, the author of his ruin. Harriet has told him earlier that she will not allow him to kill her, that it is her one duty not to die, so when he shows up in her garden brandishing a pistol, she calls the police.

"Oh, God above," he muttered, squirming and looking from the face of one to another and seeing nothing but patches of white dimness between a helmet and a chin-strap. "Has my opposite not only done me all this spiritual mischief, but has raised up a material army against me also!"

From this point on I cannot speak definitively. I think readers are supposed to believe that Condorex killed himself back in his study before setting off to Harriet's house, and that Harriet herself was buried a few days earlier in her hometown ("I was obliged to go there to assist at a religious ceremony," replied Harriet, "since they informed me they could not well have it without me.") but I can't quite square that with the conversation Condorex has with his servants after leaving the study or with Harriet's need to call the police, even if they are ghosts. Or why she says she won't allow Condorex to kill her. At any rate, once Harriet gets her house clean and permits Condorex to come in, the policemen wish them "A Very Happy Eternity."

And honestly, I just don't care to attempt to make sense out of it. West deliberately writes in an affected, archaic style (one V. Woolf would call "foppish") which I didn't enjoy in the least and sometimes couldn't make heads or tails of--there were three or four times in a descriptive passage when I just had to admit defeat and move on; repeated readings were not going to reveal the sense in a sentence inexplicable to me.

And I winced every time Harriet opened her mouth: she mews, she bleats, she sobs and she trills and titters. Condorex thinks of her most condescendingly: the little slut, the little hussy, the little silly dish of curds and whey. Ugh.

Fortunately for my Rebecca West project, the book is regarded an an aberation: critics "have tended to pass over Harriet Hume rapidly, labelling it mannered and insubstantial." For the R.I.P. Challenge, it was perfect--discussions of ghosts and other imaginary beings, London described as being "the colour of a grave," dead people at the end, and of course the unsettling notion of having every thought you have being transmitted into the mind of a woman who will then know you better than you know yourself.

If you're an ambitious man like Wells or Arnold Condorex, it will help if the woman who knows you also knows her place. Titter, titter.


  1. Don't know that I've ever heard of this author but the works sound fascinating. Even this one with its problems.

  2. How sad that this is the book that Wells liked of hers. It sounds like from your description she wrote is just to please him. What did she ever see in that man?

  3. I think it's interesting to read an author's less-successful books if you are really interested in that person -- there's something to be learned about the writer even in the failures.

  4. I read some early Lois McMaster Bujold, and it was crap. Made me think I might actually be a writer of at least low expectation genre books.

  5. Rebecca West actually considered this her own favorite of her works--that's what bothers me the most. She and Wells had been split for six or seven years, I think, by the time HH was published.

  6. Michael Moricz, NYC8:52 PM

    I have to admit that I greatly enjoyed this book as a kind of fable, written in sparkling prose. Condorex is hardly deified -- if anything, he is constantly shown as a charlatan and a pathetic man who lies to himself. His character (and the book as a whole) seem to illustrate a kind of cautionary tale about how shallow and morally corrupt the contemporary man of business or politics is. I found this book perceptive, scathing, satirical and haunting.

  7. hello, do you know my friend Dr. Ann Norton at St. Anselms? She is a West scholar. I forwarded this to her. She is anorton@anselm.edu ann norton, phd.

  8. Hi Parker! No, I don't. I assume she goes to the Rebecca West conferences in NY? One of these days I'm going to attend and maybe I'll get the chance to meet her.

    Off to google Ann Norton. . .


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

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