I refuse to be cheated out of my deathbed scene
A distraught Rebecca West writes to H. G. Wells
This remarkable letter can be found in the Letters of Note book. And if you keep scrolling, beyond the transcript, you’ll be able to listen to a masterful reading of this missive by the great Juliet Stevenson. That recording is taken from the Letters of Note audiobook.
In 1912, in what was a scathing review of his latest novel, Marriage, author and journalist Rebecca West called the great H. G. Wells, “the Old Maid of novelists.” Naturally, his response to such a slight was to invite her out to dinner; she agreed, they dined, and then fell in love. The often-explosive affair that resulted lasted for some months, until, in March 1913, Wells—26 years her senior and already a married man—broke off their relationship. West, distraught, responded with this intense letter.
West didn’t carry out her threat, and in fact they eventually got back together and went on to have a son, Andrew, in 1914. The couple split up permanently nine years later.
Dear H. G.,
During the next few days I shall either put a bullet through my head or commit something more shattering to myself than death. At any rate I shall be quite a different person. I refuse to be cheated out of my deathbed scene.
I don’t understand why you wanted me three months ago and don’t want me now. I wish I knew why that were so. It’s something I can’t understand, something I despise. And the worst of it is that if I despise you I rage because you stand between me and peace. Of course you’re quite right. I haven’t anything to give you. You have only a passion for excitement and for comfort. You don’t want any more excitement and I do not give people comfort. I never nurse them except when they’re very ill. I carry this to excess. On reflection I can imagine that the occasion on which my mother found me most helpful to live with was when I helped her out of a burning house.
I always knew that you would hurt me to death some day, but I hoped to choose the time and place. You’ve always been unconsciously hostile to me and I have tried to conciliate you by hacking away at my love for you, cutting it down to the little thing that was the most you wanted. I am always at a loss when I meet hostility, because I can love and I can do practically nothing else. I was the wrong sort of person for you to have to do with. You want a world of people falling over each other like puppies, people to quarrel and play with, people who rage and ache instead of people who burn. You can’t conceive a person resenting the humiliation of an emotional failure so much that they twice tried to kill themselves: that seems silly to you. I can’t conceive of a person who runs about lighting bonfires and yet nourishes a dislike of flame: that seems silly to me.
You’ve literally ruined me. I’m burned down to my foundations. I may build myself again or I may not. You say obsessions are curable. They are. But people like me swing themselves from one passion to another, and if they miss smash down somewhere where there aren’t any passions at all but only bare boards and sawdust. You have done for me utterly. You know it. That’s why you are trying to persuade yourself that I am a coarse, sprawling, boneless creature, and so it doesn’t matter. When you said, “You’ve been talking unwisely, Rebecca,” you said it with a certain brightness: you felt that you had really caught me at it. I don’t think you’re right about this. But I know you will derive immense satisfaction from thinking of me as an unbalanced young female who flopped about in your drawing-room in an unnecessary heart-attack.
That is a subtle flattery. But I hate you when you try to cheapen the things I did honestly and cleanly. You did it once before when you wrote to me of “your—much more precious than you imagine it to be—self.” That suggests that I projected a weekend at the Brighton Metropole with Horatio Bottomley. Whereas I had written to say that I loved you. You did it again on Friday when you said that what I wanted was some decent fun and that my mind had been, not exactly corrupted, but excited, by people who talked in an ugly way about things that are really beautiful. That was a vile thing to say. You once found my willingness to love you a beautiful and courageous thing. I still think it was. Your spinsterishness makes you feel that a woman desperately and hopelessly in love with a man is an indecent spectacle and a reversal of the natural order of things. But you should have been too fine to feel like that.
I would give my whole life to feel your arms round me again.
I wish you had loved me. I wish you liked me.
P.S. Don’t leave me utterly alone. If I live write to me now and then. You like me enough for that. At least I pretend to myself you do.
Originally from Selected Letters of Rebecca West, edited by Bonnie Kime Scott (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). © The Estate of Rebecca West. Reprinted by permission of SLL/Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.
This is the Friday edition of the Letters of Note newsletter, and it’s free to read. Become a paid subscriber and I’ll send you many more.