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Monday, September 22, 2014

Harriet Hume (1929) by Rebecca West

Book Review
Harriet Hume (1929)
by Rebecca West

 The 1920s is actually the first decade in the 1001 Books Project that just seems insane.  277 titles in, the titles published in the 1920s are almost a fourth of that total (57 posts with 1920s literature label, 7 of which are Criterion Collection films.  Harriet Hume is actually the fiftieth title from the 1001 Books Project that I've tackled. There are probably another dozen or so books left to read, including Remberance of Things Past (3000 pages) and Ulysses (900 pages.)  Those two books are the functional equivalent of another 13 volumes, which means it's more like another 30 books to go, on top of the 50 already read.

  I don't believe this huge jump in volume is some kind of fluke.  I think there was drastic expansion of the field of "literature" in the 1920s that was the product of an increase in people "going to college" in core western markets, combined with the spread of the publishing industry to hitherto untapped markets for books.  It is also likely that the increase in the volume of literature was directly related to the good fortune that many people experienced in the west prior to the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression.

   Rebecca West is an author working out of the literary center of the world (London) but with an Irish (i.e. outsiders) perspective. She was very much involved in the London literary scene, going so far as to bear the illegitimate child of H.G. Wells, and she lands titles on the 1001 Books List in multiple decades.  The other 1920s title that Harriet Hume resembles is Orlando by Virignia Woolf, which also introduces an element of fantasy into an otherwise non-fantastical story about people ad their relationships.

  In Harriet Hume, the title character has an honest-to-God ability to know the thoughts of her paramour Arnold Condorex, a young politician who rises and falls within the context of the novel.  Although the publishers of the Virago Press "Women and Fiction" edition are keen to compare her to Robert Louis Stevenson in terms of her ability to be fantastical, I again, track back to Orlando, where the fantastic element is muted by the very real human emotions expressed by the characters.

 Here it's the same way, Harriet surely does have a fairy like quality, but Condorex is a 20s literature archetype: the striving man on the move trying to escape his penniless roots.   He is hardly a Prince Charming, whereas Hume is like a precursor to the manic pixie dream girl.  Were Harriet Hume written by a man, you might call her character insulting to women, but Hume is obviously written with great sympathy by West.

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