Kathryn Laing's remarkable detective work has unearthed the manuscript of Rebecca West's first-known novel from the archives at the University of Tulsa. The Sentinel is an arresting account of suffragette experience and an energetic discussion of feminist concerns of the time, expounding the young West's ideas around the "New Woman".
As a 16-year-old, West was involved with the Women's Service and Political Union. Like her heroine, Ellen Melville, in her later novel The Judge, she was romantically entranced by the figures of Mary Gawthorpe and Mrs Pankhusrt, both of whom appear in fictional versions in The Sentinel and other suffrage fiction. West sold Votes for Women and attended rallies, but was never directly involved in militant action. "Though once," Victoria Glendinning writes in her biography, "she had to wriggle out of her coat, leaving it in the hands of two policemen."
Like other suffrage fiction (much no longer in print), The Sentinel is at once documentary and polemic, running its story of the campaigns alongside a romantic plot. The heroine, Adela Furnival (after Mrs Pankhurst's third daughter), becomes a militant campaigner alongside Mrs Charteris and her daughters Britomart and Psyche. Though not obviously identifiable as a particular Pankhurst daughter, Psyche is nevertheless a figure of the time.
Described as "faery", she holds the physical fascination of a feminine but fiery suffragette, belying anti-suffrage notions of unattractive womanhood.
Psyche is a "dragon-chasing" Joan of Arc-like figure, reminiscent of those depicted in suffrage posters and banners.
She bears physical violence with warrior-like bravery: "The bruises are purple and green! So it's only wearing the colours." West's accounts of imprisonment and force-feeding are echoed in suffragette journals and accounts and do not shirk stark detail: the airless cells, the smell of sewage, and force-feeding through a long india rubber tube that "irritated her throat and lacerated the mucous membrane". These graphic descriptions can be read as powerful source material.
Adela's prison experience brings her up against women imprisoned because they are poor. The indignation of the middle-class political prisoner shut up with common prisoners has an uncomfortable tension here as it often did in letters and poster campaigns of the movement. However, West also uses prisoners as a platform for her social polemic. Adela's life is "blackened by the sense of Injustice" and she "saw the poor, a pitiful people of shadows flittingI in pale anguish to escape the complex falling nets".
The Sentinel's parallel plot provides a stage for West to test out ideas around socialism, sexual freedom and the New Woman. Here is an emerging and well-read mind confronting public and private matters.
Adela's love for the socialist Robert Langlad embodies a search for sexual fulfilment that runs through West's work and life, unresolved as it is in this unfinished novel. Almost anticipating West's personal story, motherhood is a pressing concern of the novel. She denies it is an "inevitable calling for women" (Psyche, childless and free is dedicated to the cause), but motherhood is also hallowed. An alternative view is offered through the suffragist Leslie Macarthur (whom Laing likens to Mrs Pethick-Lawrence), a warm mother whose children's nappies are held with "Votes for Women" pins.
Laing's scholarly introduction is a rich tool for reading this text. Though unsophisticated and fragmentary as a novel, The Sentinel is nevertheless a richly worked resource; a readable and fascinating historical document that brings much of the time and its author to life.
Antonia Byatt is director, The Women's Library, London Metropolitan University.
The Sentinel: An Incomplete Early Novel by Rebecca West
Editor - Kathryn Laing
ISBN - 1 900755 51 3
Publisher - Legenda, EHRC: Oxford
Price - £35.00
Pages - 7