I very much enjoy Rebecca West’s work (The Return of the Soldier ranks amongst my absolute favourites), and was so looking forward to beginning Sunflower. It is the 362nd book upon the marvellous Virago Modern Classics list, and the novel itself is also part of both my Classics Club and 20 Books of Summer lists. Rebecca West forms an entry upon mine and Yamini’s Fifty Women Project too, so Sunflower was a marvellous investment, which made me feel temporarily ahead in the seas of lists which I am essentially drowning in.
The ‘Sunflower’ of the novel’s title is a rich and famous actress, originally known by the name of Sybil Fassendyll, who is ‘mistress to the ageing Lord Essington. She has the world at her feet, except that Society shuns her as it shuns all women who transgress its codes. Though the tyrannical Essington is destroying her self-esteem, she fears the loss of his protection – until she meets the millionaire politician Francis Pitt, vulgar, ugly and utterly captivating. Oblivious to all his faults, Sunflower pins her hopes on this new relationship. Essington’s love is dead; Pitt’s has yet to be conquered’.
Upon her wishes, portraying as it does her tumultuous relationship with H.G. Wells, Sunflower was not published during West’s lifetime, and first reached the public eye in 1986. Throughout, West – sometimes heartbreakingly – writes of some of the aspects of their intense liaison, which would have been, one imagines, incredibly difficult to recount in such detail: ‘It was all right. There was really no reason at all why she should not go. It was simply that she was so unused to liberty, so seldom free of the leash that jerked her back to heel whenever she was doing anything she enjoyed, that she felt at a loss when she was on her own’. West demonstrates the complex cruelties of Essington from the very beginning, ensuring in consequence that he is fully-developed as a protagonist in just the first few pages of the story alone: ‘Though he behaved to her much of the time as if she were his most alienated enemy, he could simultaneously behave to her as if he were an ardent lover in the first and most sensitive days of courtship, so far as the ready harbouring of tender grievances was concerned on the ground that she did not love him as much as he loved her, that she had missed some fine shade of his devotion, he would hate her malevolently for a week’.
Throughout, West is incredibly assertive, and aware of the depths of human feeling and emotion: ‘Indeed, she [Sunflower] contained within herself two of the great legendary figures that man has invented everywhere and in all times: Venus and Cinderella. And they were not – he bade her remember – invented idly. They fed desires that must be fed if man is not to lose heart and die. For Venus promises him that there shall be absolute beauty in this world, that the universe shall bring forth perfection which shall make its imperfection a little thing, lightly to be borne; and Cinderella promises him that this harsh order of things which is life may be only temporary and subject to reversal at any time, so that the mighty may be put down from their seats and those of low degree exalted’. Another such instance of this is as follows: ‘But if a man says you are beautiful and you are not, then it is a proof that he loves you. The alchemy of loyalty is working on him, he is not separate from you… Decidedly there are other fair seasons than the spring, other conditions than beauty for making people live kindly’.
As ever, I also very much admired how original West’s character descriptions are: ‘He paused and looked at her out of queer grey eyes which were the colour of bad weather, with extreme appreciation and utter lack of interest’. Sunflower is a rich and vivid novel, packed with equal measures of introspection and heartache. It is one which I would heartily recommend.