1900 by Rebecca West


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As those who know their West might expect, this small coffee-table-style book has a very un-coffee-table text--once you get past the first 50 pages of bland lists and photo captions (highlights of the year 1900). In other words, don't look for much nostalgia here: West (b. 1892) starts off with some notes on the period's sexist double standards, moves on to the Boer War (if it ""was not old-fashioned Sweeney Todd villainy, it was certainly the opposite of glory"") and Cecil Rhodes (""Poor man, he could do anything but keep sane""). And there are portraits of colonial administrators, bits on religion and education and Fabians, plus, inevitably: ""I will swear that the most important event in 1900 was the meeting held on 17 February of that year, at the Memorial Hall. . . which was the beginning of the British Labour Party."" On the arts, West is equally idiosyncratic: in England she fastens on ""the two butlers,"" John Singer Sargent and Henry James (""he diagnosed the world's sickness, though that hardly excuses the too pliant knee of his nature"") and laments the chilling effect of the Wilde trial; in Europe she finds a provocative puzzle (""Why did Proust use such delicate pastels for his account of the Dreyfus case?""). And, proto-feminist that she is, West winds up with sketches of three women--two who carried the 19th century into the 20th (Edward VII's mistress Mrs. Keppel, Alice Roosevelt), one who took a first great step into the future, ""like a strong woman"": Colette. Hardly full-fledged West, and the book as a whole has no thematic or visual coherence--but many of the 100 photos are handsome and on every other page you'll find a zappingly eloquent paragraph from a great, greatly opinionated writer.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1982
Publisher: Viking