Following the publication of Harriet Hume in 1929 (see my opinion of the book here), Rebecca West focused on journalism for several years, writing essays, book reviews for both British and American audiences, as well as biographies of literary and historical figures and a play that would never be produced. Her next book-length work of fiction wouldn't be published until 1935, when four long short stories, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post and the Woman's Home Companion, were reprinted in a volume titled The Harsh Voice.
According to biographer Victoria Glendinning, the stories in The Harsh Voice are her best. Despite this, Glendinning devotes no more than a paragraph to them: West was paid between $2,000 and $3,000 for her individual stories, she dedicated the volume to her New York agent George T. Bye, and the bit of verse attributed to Richard Wynne Errington as an epigraph
Speaks the harsh voice
We hear when money talks, or hate,
Then comes the softest answer.
was actually written by West herself.
Carl Rollyson provides more info in his biography: she spent more than a month in NYC in late 1928 gathering material for her short fiction (all the stories are set in the U.S.), the collection received "good to mixed reviews" and sold almost ten thousand copies in just a few weeks. Her London publisher entertained hopes that she might be built up "as an author, rather than as a writer of scattered books." Virginia Woolf sent praise and H.G. Wells (their relationship long over, West had married Henry Andrews in 1930) congratulated West for killing off a character who reminded him of her sister Lettie ("If she had been killed ages ago the world might have been very different").
The character killed is one Alice Pemberton, loving daughter, loving sister, loving wife, the "Salt of the Earth," as the story's title tells you, as well as the salt continually rubbed into everyone's psychic wounds. Alice can make anyone feel worse while trying to make them better. Servants, family, neighbors, everyone comes in for a hearty dose of perfect Alice's criticism and unsolicited advice--always delivered with the sincerest intentions of improving the object of her attentions to her own high standards--until her otherwise doting husband decides that for the sake of everyone else, he will have to poison her via her bedtime glass of chocolate. After watching her in action and realizing her steadfast commitment to changing everyone but herself, I can't imagine many readers were sorry to see Alice's milk mustache in the final paragraphs.
And speaking of poison, Corrie does just that to his relationship with Josie by admitting to cold feet just before their wedding in "Life Sentence." Although he agrees to go on with the wedding if she desires, he's taken back when she requires him to do just that. Throughout their marriage Corrie blames Josie's reserve and refusal to truly connect with him on his bout of cold feet. Eventually Josie inherits money, makes smart investments, and takes off to Reno so that she can marry the man who was her willing partner in a risky real estate venture Corrie had earlier refused entanglement with. Corrie moves West and starts afresh, remarrying and becoming more financially successful than he had been before. Yet when the news of Wall Street's crash hits the newspapers, Corrie immediately takes off to meet Josie in Chicago. He's sure she's bankrupt and he intends to bail her out; he's managed to hold on to all his assets and he's already glorying in how his more cautious approach has ultimately been proven to be the better one. Unfortunately, Josie's kept hers as well, and only wanted to meet with Corrie to offer her own aid since she expected him to have lost it all; they fight bitterly, realizing only minutes before Corrie is to take the train back to his second wife that they have been sentenced to love one another for life.
My favorite story was "There is No Conversation." A woman--we don't know her age or marital status for quite some time--encounters an older Parisian, a known womanizer, who she'd once known socially. Rather reluctantly, she agrees to go to his apartment to hear the long version of how he's lost everything and will have to sell all of his beloved art, the apartment, etc. It seems a sweet, unassuming American woman Etienne had shown attention to-- out of pity since she wasn't his type-- took revenge when he tired of her--she's caused his financial ruin through a business deal that devalued all his stock.
I had to meet this woman. I had to meet this marvel who had felt an emotion so strong that it had been able to break the mould of her character when it had hardened for nearly half a century; so strong that it had demanded for its expression not a day's hysterics, not some nights of weeping, but weeks of complicated and murderous operations on the stock market. As I have told you, that is the kind of thing I like. It amused me. And until I met Nancy Sarle I felt as a collector might who knows that somewhere, say in one of six small towns in the province of Lombardy, there is a lost Donatello.
The narrator returns to the U.S., contrives to cultivate friendships with people who have connections with businesswoman Nancy Sarle, eventually meeting her and realizing how much she likes her. When the women's relationship evolves into a close friendship the narrator mentions that she once lived in France, and casually drops Etienne's name. Nancy proceeds to tell the story of her own trip to Paris and time with Etienne, and her version casts a different color on things and leaves the narrator desolate: Nancy never loved Etienne, although for awhile she'd wondered if he loved her, and his financial ruin was not caused by revenge, but sheer indifference. It seems the narrator had once been married to Etienne, had suffered greatly during her decade with him, and expected Nancy "to disclose some detail, such as had not been apparent but must be latent in [her] own story, which would prove that it may be inevitable for a woman to love a cad." With Nancy unable to make valid the narrator's own repressed feelings towards Etienne, she knows "the glow" will now be off their friendship.
The final story in the collection, "The Abiding Vision," centers around a wealthy businessman who juggles both an aging wife and a young mistress until the crash of '29 when he loses his money, his company, and his prospects. Sam's wife has a stroke and has to be institutionalized; his mistress develops from shallow creature to worthy companion who cares for him and is willing to die with him if he should decide he can no longer go on. Shady business dealings before the crash land him before a congressional hearing in Washington, where he makes an unexpected impassioned speech worthy of a Hollywood movie; suddenly he is employable again and expected to regain his wealth. An otherwise happy conclusion is turned on its head when Sam begins to visualize his next mistress, one with "a face unlined with care, a body still smooth and shining, undepleted by self-sacrifice, restorative with youth" while plotting to put his current one aside.
Next up in the Rebecca West project: The Thinking Reed.
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