Posted by: mattcolvin | February 12, 2012

Rebecca West on Manly Men and Womanly Women

One summer some years ago when I was looking for something to read I picked up Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon from my father-in-law Mickey’s bookshelf. It is a 1,150 page tour through Yugoslavia, full of political and literary history, and has proved a delightful source for bedtime reading for Sora and me. West has a way with words and doesn’t pull punches:

[After discussing the ship-building trade on the island of Korchula, West describes three Dalmatian gentlemen:] They were all three beautiful, with thick, straight, fair hair and bronze skins and high cheekbones pulling the flesh up from their large mouths, with broad chests and long legs springing from arched feet. These were men, they could beget children on women, they could shape certain kinds of materials for purposes that made them masters of their worlds. I thought of two kinds of men that the West produces: the cityish kind who wears spectacles without shame, as if they were the sign of quality and not a defect, who is overweight and puffy, who can drive a car but knows no other mastery over material, who presses buttons and turns switches without comprehending the result, who makes money when the market goes up and loses it when the market goes down; the high-nosed young man, who is somebody’s secretary or is in the Foreign Office, who has a peevishly amusing voice and is very delicate, who knows a great deal but far from all there is to be known about French pictures. I understand why we cannot build, why we cannot govern, why we bear ourselves without pride in our international relations. It is not that all Englishmen are like that, but that too many of them are like that in our most favoured classes.

West then describes a Korchulan woman from a patrician family, a relative of one of the aforementioned three men. In so doing, she gives an account of the female in the East and West:

She said, “It’s too quiet. I liked it when there were children about, laughing, and then crying, and then laughing again. That’s how it ought to be in a house.” She spoke with complete confidence, as one who expresses an opinion held by all the world. A house with children is better than a house without children. That she assumed to be an axiom, on that she had founded al her life and pride. It was as if she were a child herself, a fragile child who had escaped death by a miracle and was boasting of its invulnerability to all ills. Her life had for the most part been secure because in her world men had been proud to be fathers, and had marvelled gratefully at women for being fine-wrought enough to make the begetting of children an excitement, and sturdy enough to bear them and rear them, and had thought of the mother of many children as the female equivalent of a rich man. Because these masculine attitudes had favoured her feminine activities, her unbroken pride was lovely as the trumpet of a lily. It might have been different for her if she had been born into a society where men have either lost their desire for children, or are prevented from gratifying it by poverty or the fear of war. There she would have been half hated, and perhaps more than half, for her sex. Her womb, which here was her talisman, would have been a source of danger, which might even strike at the very root of her primal value, and one day make her husband feel that the delight he had known with her was not worth the price he must pay for it. It was terrible that this fate, even if it had failed to engulf her, was certain to annihilate many of her blood, of her kind, and that the threat was implicit in many statements that she made without a shadow of apprehension, as when she told us that her husband and all his forebears had been sea captains, and that her sons were still of the tradition and not of it, for they were agents for great steamship lines.

One thing that West did not foresee was that children would be seen as a threat not because of poverty or fear of war, but because they are inconvenient in the modern age.

It is touching how West sees these Slavs through a mist of wistfulness, as one might view some endangered species of animal in a zoo. They are odd because they are manly men and womanly women. The begetting and bearing of children is the glorious seal of that fact.



  1. Hmm…after reading the first paragraph I seem to have removed my spectacles to read the rest…

    • Yes, that was the best line in the whole chapter, I thought.

      As a counter to “men…who could beget children on women,” I recall Steve Schlissel’s line about how “a cockroach can reproduce. You’re a man if you can take care of other people.”

      • Schlissel too has a way with cutting right to the heart of a matter. Well now I’ve gone out and downloaded West onto my Kindle. I suspect she wouldn’t approve.

  2. You should have given more of the background…the fact that this was written in 1937 is even more especially damning with regard to how long we’ve been in this funk regarding men, women and the begetting of children. Can you imagine her description in light of the yobs that inhabit her little island now? Quite possibly she might have found her masculine men and women (albeit warped) in Leeds attending a mosque and wouldn’t have had to travel so far. Social commentary aside, you’re right about her way with words.

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