Woolf and West

Rebecca West—could that possibly have been her real name? It is far too awesome. No, she would’ve had to ride a horse and carry a holstered gun to be Rebecca West. Or she would’ve had to float down 5th Ave in monochromatic, impeccably crafted clothing from wool coat down to unmentionables. Nope, she was neither of these people. She was Cicely Isabel Fairfield, writer, critic, person. Now who is Evadne? Show me that woman.

 Don’t get me wrong, I loved reading West’s “Indissoluble Matrimony.” It made my blood boil over with hatred for the imperial mamma’s boy, George. I loved the slippery and strong Evadne. Those characters flawlessly represent the struggle between husband and wife, colonizer and colonized—a tasty comparison. But the key word here is “flawlessly.” These characters are not realistic. Evadne is quasi-immortal, seemingly drowned by her husband but still beating him home. Furthermore, she is unphased by all this violence. She caresses him as he climbs in bed. A little much, no? Even Sally in Mrs. Dalloway is not that irrepressible.

 Ah, but we never meet Evadne. No, we meet George’s idea of her. Here is the horse I’ve beaten before: men’s mystical perception of women.  Septimus and Peter think Clarissa and Rezia can save them; George thinks Evadne has corrupted his soul, that he needs an absolution from the church. He confesses that he wants “a child’s God, an immense arm coming down from the hills and lifting him to a kindly bossom” (a.k.a. his mama). West and Woolf grapple with this same issue: men’s oppressive expectations of women. But in Mrs. Dalloway, we see beyond these expectations.  When Clarissa and Peter meet after years of estrangement, we see inside Peter’s head, where Clarissa can make him suffer like no other human being.  Then we see inside Clarissa’s, where her need for Peter’s approval renders her somewhat pathetic. Woolf does not leave us with the inflated perception of Clarissa. West, though, gives us only the male gaze. We can only see Evadne as a mysterious, cat-like porpoise thing.

 Though Woolf and West were contemporaries, “Indissoluble Matrimony” came before Mrs. Dalloway. It was not influenced by the groundbreaking Mrs. D. West’s characters would be much more relatable if the narration had woven through different psyches the way Woolf’s narration does--perhaps West kicked herself in the pants when Mrs. D was published. Or maybe she didn’t. Side-by-side these texts are wonderful. We have West saying “Yeah, just try and repress us. We can swim better than you.” Then we have Woolf saying, “Ouch, boys, that hurts.” Both are true.