Literary Daybook, March 15

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published March 15, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On March 15, 1986, the Pushcart War starts when a truck runs down a pushcart belonging to a flower peddler.
-- "The Pushcart War" (1964)
by Jean Merril

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1983, Rebecca West died, at the age of 90. Cicily Fairfield took her pseudonym from the passionate, outspoken heroine of Ibsen's Rosmersholm; from her early days writing about suffragists to her last days writing about Marshall McLuhan, she lived up to it. Her 70-year writing career -- novels, essays, journalism, literary criticism, books on psychology and philosophy -- earned her a reputation for having something to say, and saying it in style.

In 1912, West published a review of H. G. Wells' new novel, "Marriage," in the feminist magazine Freewoman. Though just 19 years old, her acerbic reviews -- "Writers on the subject of August Strindberg have hitherto omitted to mention that he could not write" -- had already caused, as one contemporary put it, "not so much a splash, as a hole in the world." In her "Marriage" review, West derided Wells' depiction of passion, calling him "the Old Maid of novelists," his mind, "too long absorbed in airships and colloids" to react properly to a woman. The 45-year-old Wells was the most celebrated novelist of the day and a noted philanderer; he invited West to tea, so beginning their volatile, 10-year affair.

By the end, Wells was complaining of how West "splashed her colours about" and "exalted James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, as if in defiance of me." Realizing that Wells would never divorce his wife for her, West settled for a substantial support payment for their son, and the last word: "The greatest use of marriage is for riveting the fact of paternity in the male mind."

In her last decades, West was England's foremost woman of letters, a Dame of the British Empire, and as engaging as ever: "I do not myself find it agreeable to be 90, and I cannot imagine why it should seem so to other people. It is not that you have any fears about your own death, it is that your upholstery is already dead around you."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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