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Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson


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“Out of sync with their time, yet deeply, longingly feminine, neither knew how to be a woman.” I have been fussing over this sentence from Susan Hertog’s biography of two remarkable writers, Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson, for weeks now. Hertog is obviously not referring to how West and Thompson felt about themselves. She is instead raining down judgment from above. First came my kneejerk feminist response: Both women had unhappy marriages and serious ambivalence regarding motherhood, but when male writers disappear on their children or marry the wrong people, we don’t say they have failed as men. Then came my psychoanalytic parsing of the text, trying to glean Hertog’s particular issues with mothering and career and how they might skew her conclusions. Did Hertog’s mother miss important childhood milestones in her daughter’s life because she was working? None of my business, but it’s my typical irrational response when irrationality mars an otherwise good book. Underlying all of that was my simple fear that one day, after I croak, my hometown newspaper will run an obituary that admits sure, she accomplished some interesting things, but let’s face it: She was a total failure as a woman.

  • Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson: New Women in Search of Love and Power by Susan Hertog. 512 pages. Ballantine Books. $30.
  • The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood by Barbara Almond. 296 pages. University of California Press. $19.95.

Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson were kindred spirits, and they both came of age in the early 20th century, the era of the “New Woman.” The New Woman lived in debt to two of their contemporaries: Coco Chanel, who helped her discard the corset and the 12-pound 19th-century hat for dropped waists and the cloche or the boater; and Margaret Sanger, who helped guard her uterus with basic birth control methods. The New Woman drank, she smoked, she wore her skirt a little shorter and she had sex before marriage. But most important, the New Woman worked. Now, New Women had an awful habit of becoming Old Women as soon as they found themselves married or knocked up. The birth of the New Woman — exciting, edgy, urban — was timed perfectly with the birth of the suburb, as women tired of all of their new freedoms and fled to the outskirts to nest with their families. A few stubbornly held onto their careers, and two of those women were West and Thompson. West infiltrated the London literary scene as a critic with a bluestocking vibrancy, and Thompson traveled the tumultuous post-World War I Europe as a foreign correspondent. Both longed for love, but both were acutely aware that a person gives up something in order to get married. Even if you are the blissful bride, radiating an aura of love and joy, you are sacrificing something at that altar. Thompson classified that something as, “I’ll never take risks in the same way. I’ll never start off across the world with nothing in my pocket again, and be able to say, ‘well, it’s my own life, isn’t it?'” She was conflicted, but she married. She may have regretted it. In fact, both women had some regrets about the men in their lives. Neither managed to make a picturesque match. Their relationship issues began with the fact that both women wanted to date only their intellectual equals — and from recent conversations with my peers, it seems this remains a contemporary concern. Or, more important, someone who sees you as an intellectual equal and respects you as such. If you are the type of woman who doesn’t merely want someone to assist you in creating a quiet home, but someone with whom you can conversationally wrestle, a relationship where no one is the muse but both are inspirations (and there is a difference), if you are lucky enough to find that you might forgive any emotional tumult or plates hurled at the head that come with. Rebecca West started out with H.G. Wells who was, inconveniently enough, already married and a bit of a slut as well. He had a nasty habit of disappearing, of being stingy with child support, and of needing his women to provide unconditional love and support. Dorothy Thompson married Sinclair Lewis, who was a mean drunk, but from Hertog’s report it seems that Thompson hit back. Both women stayed beyond the point that made sense externally. Both women were ambitious — and the fact that Hertog labels their ambitions “dangerous” in her book title is as revealing as an awkward Freudian slip. Neither followed up any of their multiple marriages with a quiet retreat into obscurity. They were instead revitalized by the chaos of their love lives. As much as women judge each other — and surely West and Thompson were surrounded by friends who clucked their tongues and bemoaned the sad states of their marital affairs, offering such wisdom as “But she’s so pretty!” and “She could do so much better” — a few bad pairings do not a failure-as-a-woman make. As long as a woman does not die a spinster, she’s usually given a little leeway. Someone wanted her, how bad could she have been? There has to be something else fueling Hertog’s particular fire. Which brings us to West’s and Thompson’s sons. Reading Barbara Almond’s The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood, I was struck with the realization that we do not forgive our mothers for anything. She writes, “We expect everything from mothers, and we excuse little,” and her case studies support this assertion. That time our mother spent a month in bed after her sister’s death? That hurt us. That time she suddenly stopped breastfeeding after only a few months because she hated it? Don’t get us started. Our relationships with our fathers are much more rough-and-tumble. It takes a series of missed games and forgotten birthdays before real resentment kicks in, but we carry even the slight hurts from our mothers for eternity. Part of that, Almond reminds us, is physical. A newborn’s life depends on her mother, and she needs one secure bond to feel like the world is not a horrible place. But part of that is still social. Children are selfish little tyrants, and when the mother is expected to give endlessly, to the point of not having any small thing like work to distract her, we can build up unrealistic expectations and hold grudges well into adulthood. The result of those grudges play out when we become parents. We either repress to such a degree that despite vowing, “I will never be like her!” — particularly when drunk at Christmas gatherings — we will probably end up doing exactly that. We mother the way we were mothered, most of the time. Other times we overcorrect their faults until we go veering off in equally crazy directions. Both Thompson and West had childhoods that were, let us say, less than ideal. There were dead mothers, dead fathers, evil stepmothers, and poverty aplenty. Neither was exposed to tremendous models of parental behavior. And both had sons and both kind of fucked them up. Both sons responded in turn by becoming resentful little creatures, alcoholics and failed actors and frustrated writers and deadbeat dads. You have not heard of either one of them. It’s true that Thompson and West did not do a great job at motherhood. When they should have been gazing lovingly down at their children, they were checking the horizon for other opportunities. Thompson interviewed Hitler and influenced foreign policy. West wrote masterpieces of travel writing and fiction. And there must have been in there somewhere a tingle of “Come on kid, suck it up.” They certainly didn’t do any worse than their own parents had done, and yet instead of the sons thriving under such harsh conditions as their mothers did, they withered. And that is the source of Hertog’s uncertainty about West’s and Thompson’s female status. Holding onto our mother’s grudges isn’t just affecting our current or future children. It also has to make us snipey and judgey about how other women raise their children. It can make us take two powerful women and diminish them down to “failed mothers.” Perhaps the most feminist thing we can do is simply forgive our mothers whatever slights. Unless she was putting her cigarettes out on your arm when you were a kid, of course. If we can see the Good Enough Mother that Winnicott championed in our own flawed mothers, maybe we can see the same in the women around us. We can appreciate them for something other than the products of their womb. Or, at least not let their specific missteps overshadow the rest of their lives. Doing a little daytime drinking with a friend recently, the conversation circled around to our mothers. We went through the usual list of complaints, dredging up old hurts and comparing stories. My friend told me he had recently read that Spinoza, through his entire life, carried with him the bed in which his mother died. He carted it from residence to residence, sleeping every night literally in his own mother’s deathbed. Sure, it was a different world, before IKEA and constantly renewing mattress technology, but come on. He surely could have swapped or sold the bed, but he held onto it. And if Spinoza — fucking Spinoza, man! my friend said, shaking his head — couldn’t let go of his mother issues, then we must be doing all right, him and me. There’s another side to that, of course: That if Spinoza — fucking Spinoza, man! — couldn’t get over his mother issues, then surely we are all doomed to the same fate, no matter how much psychotherapy or how many philosophical structures we go through. I didn’t say it out loud then, because really, there’s not enough alcohol in the world to make that all right. • 12 December 2011