Books: Circles of Perdition

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Brushing Off the Webbs. In less time than it takes to say Emmeline Pankhurst, Rebecca West was in London writing literary criticism on the Freewoman's staff. A year later she was a full-fledged political writer on the old Socialist Clarion, and a member of that Socialist intellectual advance guard, the Fabian Society. Its pundits, Sidney & Beatrice Webb, had her in for dinner, but "I argued with the Webbs, so I was never invited back."

Plenty of other doors flew open. Rebecca, despite a somewhat unconstructed chin, had a beauty of face which was heightened by a beauty of the mind when her dark brown eyes grew intense with the animation of ideas. Talk poured from her in a brilliant jet, and had upon her listeners the effect of an electric impulse. She has been talking ever since, for her writing is, in fact, a burst of brilliant conversation.

Rebecca also possessed two other provocative talents—an ability to put her mental finger on the key detail of a complicated situation or character, and a sharp tongue. She is still in brisk command of both assets. In Manhattan last summer, she was introduced to arch John Erskine, author of The Private Life of Helen of Troy, The Human Life of Jesus and some 40 other books. Said Erskine: "I've been reading your clever articles and I wonder if they're sincere." Snapped Miss West: "I've been reading yours, and I never wonder about either of those things."

Feet First. Rebecca had not been in London long before she sat at the feet (a vantage point of signal value) of practically everybody worth observing. Her great friend, Novelist G. B. Stern, with whom Rebecca shared meager quarters in those pioneer days, would be struck speechless by the arrival of successive literary lions with whom Miss West would chat, easily and informally, about the private lives and feuds of the legendary characters then dominating the British literary scene.

On high reigned the Big Four—"The Uncles," Miss West called them in The Strange Necessity. There was Uncle John Galsworthy, Uncle H. G. Wells, Uncle Arnold Bennett and Uncle Bernard Shaw, of whom she now observes: "The trouble with Shaw is that he was a wonderful writer with nothing important to say. It's too bad he couldn't have been a Christian."

"Uncle Wells arrived always a little out of breath, with his arms full of parcels, sometimes rather carelessly tied, but always bursting with all manner of attractive gifts that ranged from the little pot of sweet jelly that is Mr. Polly to the complete Meccano set for the mind that is in The First Men on the Moon. . . . One had, in actual fact, the luck to be young just as the most bubbling creative mind . . . since the days of Leonardo da Vinci was showing its form."

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