Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. September 2004

4.6. Re-telling the Past, Mapping the Future: Feminist Interventions across Times and Cultures
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Ludmilla Kostova (Veliko Tarnovo)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Taking Care of Nations: Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and the Ethics of Self and Other

Ludmilla Kostova (University of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria)


A number of commentators have recently drawn attention to the establishment of ethical criticism as a recognizable field within the broader area of literary studies.(1) The interpretive practice in question has taken a variety of forms as litterateurs have chosen different practitioners of moral philosophy for their mentors. The present article is an attempt to apply some of the insights of moral philosophy and ethical criticism to Rebecca West's monumental political-allegorical travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. A Journey Through Yugoslavia (1941)(2) and thus leave the precinct of what may be termed literature proper for that of travel writing. The latter is a hybrid discourse cutting across generic and disciplinary boundaries and providing diverse perspectives on a wide gamut of intercultural relations. While its proximity to literature is indisputable it also differs from it by being "rooted in an experience proposed and received as real and a narrative progression which includes departure, transit and return [my emphasis]" (Fortunati et al. 5).

Because of its focus on encounters with various forms of otherness travel writing is a particularly fruitful field for the practice of ethical criticism. My own reading of Rebecca West's text will engage with aspects of Carol Gilligan's research on moral development and gender as well as with Syed Manzurul Islam's Deleuzian-Levinasian vision of relations between self and other as expressed in his The Ethics of Travel from Marco Polo to Kafka (1996). Both Gilligan and Islam favour narrative contextualist approaches to ethics.

In her seminal 1982 book In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, Gilligan presents an account of women's moral development based on empirical studies carried out by herself and her colleagues. The book's central claim is that there is a different developmental schema for women and that it is focused on a morality of care and responsibility rather than on a male predilection for abstract rights and rules. The idea of women as caring and emotional was not novel in 1982 when Gilligan's book first came out. It had a number of analogues in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century contexts. What distinguishes Gilligan's reasoning from that of her predecessors, however, is an emphasis on the social conditioning behind women's tendency to think in terms of relationships rather than rules and justice. Her argument is informed by the conviction that women are taught to care for other people and for this reason expect others to care for them. Significantly, Gilligan complements her field work with stories taken from literary texts to construct a general narrative of women's development. This feature explains the appeal that her writing has had for literary critics.

The relevance of Carol Gilligan's theorizing to Rebecca West's text appears indisputable insofar as West herself has been noted for her "outspoken, even pugnacious liberal feminism" (Scott 169). It is my contention in the present article that the narrative of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is organized through a set of ethical assumptions that are in many ways similar to Gilligan's. The main difference is that West's ethics of care, like the rest of her ideology, is highly essentialist in character.

As my reading will show, this essentialism has a negative effect upon her position as a critic of political and moral prejudice and exclusion.

My choice of Syed Manzurul Islam's Deleuzian-Levinasian ethics as a theoretical foundation for the present reading may at first glance appear less justified. Islam's book is only tangentially linked to feminism and his moral position is very far removed from the ethics of care expounded by West and Gilligan. However, his distinction between sedentary and nomadic travellers sheds light on West's preferred position vis-à-vis her objects of representation in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Furthermore, my critical engagement with Islam's text aims at uncovering significant contradictions in both his and West's comments on encounters between self and other. A brief summary of his account of sedentary and nomadic travellers will therefore prepare the way for my reading of West's text.

According to Islam, sedentary travellers "inhabit a striated space, moving only from point to point [...], dragging their 'moved body' along a rigid line, failing to encounter difference, and returning the same" (209). Because of their failure to "encounter difference" they do not qualify as travellers in the strict sense and must therefore be designated by the oxymoronic label mentioned above. Conversely, nomadic travellers "dwell in a smooth space, letting their 'moving body' slide along the supple line, crossing boundaries with speed and experiencing the intensities of encounter, never returning the same and becoming-other" (209). To my mind, Islam's argument in favour of "nomadic travel" decidedly moves in the direction of a normative didacticism when, following Levinas, he prescribes to would-be nomads "a relationship of obligation towards the other" based on an acceptance of the other's "irreducible alterity" (211). This is a necessary prerequisite for a utopian exchange between self and other, a "joyful conjugat[ion]" between them taking place against a background of border crossings and other cross-cultural exercises (211). The author's rhetoric smacks of the kind of saccharine idealism that we have grown accustomed to associate with uncritical support for certain kinds of multiculturalism. I suspect, however, that West would have found the ideas it expresses congenial. For better or for worse, the persona she has fashioned for herself in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon appears to aspire to the position of a nomadic traveller in the sense in which Islam has defined the concept.

Commentators on Black Lamb and Grey Falcon have repeatedly warned readers against mistaking West's monumental opus for "a mere travelogue" (Rosslyn 102). Such statements express a conventional dismissive attitude to travel writing and fail to take into account the fact that the despised genre has long been characterized by a tendency of using observations on a particular place as a point of departure for political-allegorical meditations upon the destiny of the place in question and the world at large. West's text illustrates this time-honoured tendency and has a number of notable precursors among political-allegorical travelogues produced by Victorian travellers to Central and Eastern Europe.(3) However, it must be admitted that West's extended meditation upon the "Land of the South Slavs" and related areas significantly modifies the "tradition" by placing a characteristically modernist emphasis upon the narrator's subjectivity and her quest for spiritual regeneration. While carrying out this quest she weaves an allegorical web focusing on a selection of more or less mythologized historical events and some of the human characters caught up in them. In a perceptive commentary on West's text, Felicity Rosslyn underscores the "mythological value" of Gerda, one of its Germanic villainesses (107), thus alerting us to the fact that such characters represent particular approaches to the world and specific systems of morally acceptable - or unacceptable - choices and notions. It is the autobiographical narrator who judges the moral acceptability or unacceptability of those choices and notions.

The text's moral concerns were themselves conditioned by history: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was published in 1941 when the Second World War had reached one of its most hopeless phases. It therefore opens with a series of images and emblematic situations suggestive of an ailing civilisation. Predictably, violence is one of the signs of civilizational disease. West indirectly experiences a manifestation of violence when the news of the assassination of the King of Yugoslavia in Marseille is broadcast on the radio. Significantly, she herself is ailing - having had an operation she is recovering in a nursing home. When West mentions the news to her nurse she is confronted with yet another sign of civilisational disease: an indifference to the problems of the world at large. Her nurse's response to her shocked reaction at the news is: "Oh, dear! Did you know him?" (3) When West replies in the negative, the nurse simply asks: "Then why do you think it's so terrible?" (3) Her question "ma[kes] [West] remember that the word 'idiot' comes from a Greek root meaning private person [my emphasis]" (3). In a manner that latter-day feminists are likely to find objectionable, West diagnoses "idiocy" as a "female defect" (3). Its male counterpart is said to be lunacy (3). West defines the latter as an obsession with "public affairs" as a result of which "men see the world as by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature" (3). In the context of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, lunacy cannot function as an antidote to idiocy. Instead West stresses the importance of an interplay between private and public, personal and political.

Early in the book this interplay is expressed in narrative terms in the story of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, one of the historical-mythological agents imparting meaning to West's allegorical web. She attempts to tell her story to the "idiotic" nurse as part of an attempt to broaden her horizon and re-educate her. Significantly, West adopts a narrative format, which is strongly reminiscent of the fairy tale, and uses the scanty knowledge that the nurse already has of Elizabeth as a point of departure. All the "idiotic" nurse knows about the Empress is that she was beautiful but also mad (3). West counters this biased account of Elizabeth's personality and life by claiming that she was not merely beautiful but "one of the most beautiful women who ever lived" (3) as well as by emphasizing her exceptional intelligence and political achievements and partially disavowing the nurse's imputation of madness: "'But wasn't she mad?' she asked. 'Perhaps,' I said, 'perhaps, but only a little, and at the end. She was certainly brilliantly clever. Before she was thirty she had given proof of greatness." (3)

West's attempt at re-educating the nurse eventually fails: she has only managed to get halfway through the story of Elizabeth and the destiny of the Hapsburg Empire when the nurse grows bored and leaves her to contemplate the Empress's greatness on her own. Left to herself, West reinterprets the history of the Hapsburg Empire in feminist terms by placing a special emphasis upon Elizabeth's caring attitude to it. In the writer's view, this attitude impelled the Empress to set out on a mission of reform and modernization. West also points out that Elizabeth's marriage was "the medium for her work" and when it "ceased to be tolerable" she was unable to go on with it. She thus underscores the important role of the emotional factor in Elizabeth's life. Like the women whose moral development was studied by Gilligan, Elizabeth of Austria - as represented by West - tended to approach the world and her own mission in it through the prism of relationship rather than abstract rules and justice. Besides, for West Elizabeth's mission was also linked to the "womanly virtues" which she possessed (5). Those virtues should have guaranteed her husband's love for her and the continuation of her work for the Empire's subjects. According to West, the imperial relationship failed because Elizabeth's husband was "divided between the love of life and the love of death", that is, between affection for his wife and emotional dependence on his "abominable mother", the Archduchess Sophie (5).

Sophie is a major presence within West's historical-allegorical scheme. She is said to have been "the kind of woman whom men respect for no other reason than that she is lethal, whom a male committee will appoint to the post of hospital matron" (5-6). Like Gerda, who is taken to task for her "moral somnambulis[m]" (Rosslyn 105) further on in the book, she is the embodiment of a decidedly negative femininity. Significantly, she does not appear to have understood the value of relationships: West claims that "there is no record of her ever having said a gentle word to the girl of sixteen whom her son brought home to endure [] troublesome greatness" (6). Besides, she "snatched Elizabeth's children away from her and allowed her no part in their upbringing" (6) Another sin that West lays at the Archduchess's door is her inability to understand the need for change and modernization: "she was also a great slut [my emphasis] [and] had done nothing to reform the medievalism of [] Austrian palaces" (6). Sophie is not credited with any "womanly virtues" and this lack explains her inability to embrace an ethics of care similar to Elizabeth's.

West thus represents the Hapsburg Empire as having been at the mercy of two antithetical female agents: the "womanly" Elizabeth, who did her best to nurse the ailing state back to health, and the "great slut" Sophie, who actively interfered with her plans for reform and improvement. To my mind, the fairy tale effect of the whole was sought by West quite deliberately as part of an attempt to challenge conventional "lunatic" representations of Hapsburg history. Significantly, some male critics of her book have seen her interpretation of the role of Elizabeth in Hapsburg and European politics as a weakness indicative of the author's amateur and idiosyncratic approach to history (Simmons 111).

West further assures us that despite the Archduchess's obstructions, Elizabeth managed to alleviate the Empire's diseased state: she forged a link between German Austrians and Hungarians as a result of which the Empire survived into the twentieth century (5). West takes her to task, however, for having remained largely unresponsive to the Slavs in the Empire and for having done little to dispel the German Austrians' "violent instinctive loathing of [them]" (5). Elizabeth's apparent inability to grasp the significance of "the Slav problem", which West identifies as "the key to Eastern Europe" (8), is represented in the text as a betrayal of the ethics of care by which she chose to live. West attempts to undo the ill effects of that betrayal when she sets out to dismantle the negative stereotypes attached to Balkan Slavs. Writing in the midst of a terrible crisis she suggests that a "cure" for some of Western civilization's discontents is to be sought - and found - in the world of the Slavs, "a people, quarrelsome, courageous, artistic, intellectual, and profoundly perplexing to all other peoples" (4). Her political-allegorical narrative demonstrates, among other things, how detrimental prejudice is to the process of regeneration which should be brought about by contact with "Slavdom".

As West's narrative progresses we encounter other significant representations of womanhood. Thus, in the lengthy chapter devoted to Herzegovina (269 - 293), she recounts the story of Jeanne Merkus, a passionate religious mystic and a participant in the 1875 Bosnian revolt against Ottoman rule. For West Merkus's story "provides sad proof of what happens to Jeanne d'Arc if she is unlucky enough not to be burned" (271). She was not given any recognition for her financial help to the Bosnian insurgents or the personal courage she demonstrated in fighting against Ottoman troops. West stresses the sad irony of Merkus's fate:

She therefore, by a series of actions which would have brought her the most supreme honour had she acted in an important Western state as a member of the Roman Catholic Church in the right century, earned a rather ridiculous notoriety that puts her in the class of pioneer bicyclists or Mrs. Bloomer. (273)

She likewise notes the fact that Merkus's own family disowned her because of her unconventional life style and dwells at some length on her Dutch relatives' shocked reaction to her "outlandish adventures, [] strange comitadji-cum-deaconess clothes, [] big black cigars," and ecstatic Christianity (273). Merkus emerges as a transgressive figure reproducing aspects of Islam's definition of the nomadic traveller, who, it must be remembered, "experience[es] the intensities of encounter, never returning the same and becoming-other" (209). West sympathizes with her cross-cultural experiments and resents the conduct of her "sedentary" relatives.

Interestingly, West provides evidence of an attempt she herself made to cross cultural and social boundaries when she decided to take lessons in belly dancing from a Jewish performer (307 - 309). As it turns out, she takes only one lesson and that is not a success: she picks up the movement but is incapable of producing "the right effect" (309). Her experiment with the outward trappings of cultural nomadism thus fails but she manages to establish a friendly relationship with the dancer and get a glimpse of her private life. As a result the dancer is completely de-exoticized: far from being a femme fatale she emerges as a professional for whom exotic dancing is merely a way of earning a living for herself and her ten-year-old son. West was initially motivated by a desire to experience a form of Oriental exoticism. In the end, however, she acknowledges the homely virtues of the dancer: "she was all decency and good sense" (309).

Not all of West's encounters with the other end on such a common-sensical note, though. Thus her vaunted identification with the "South Slavs" is among her book's most controversial characteristics insofar as it involves an uncritical reproduction of the essentialism of nineteenth-century views of "race".(4) We are repeatedly told that every "race" has its inalienable and fundamentally unknowable essence. It is amply hinted throughout the text that cultural difference cannot be understood through the mundane strategies of observation and comparison. It can only be grasped intuitively or not at all. As a result West's conception of "Slavdom" verges on the sacramental. This tends to blunt the critical edge of some of her comments and occasionally even makes her sweep uncomfortable truths under the carpet: she identifies with the Serbs to the point of uncritically accepting some of their propagandist myths. Moreover, West represents what she perceives as the "essence" of their "race" as characteristic of all South Slavs and, sometimes, of the whole of "Slavdom". The erasure of differences within such a very wide "racial" domain clashes with the loving care with which West usually describes individual figures. Larry Wolff, for instance, is greatly impressed by her portrayal of a peasant in a sheepskin jacket ("the emblem of Eastern European backwardness"), which, in his opinion, is totally free from "romantic condescension'"(369).

West does exhibit the greatest respect for the diverse others she represents. However, her emphasis on each individual's "race" and on its "essence" turns them all into mere vehicles for the preservation and transmission of "racial" traits. She frankly idealizes Balkan peasants. For her their chief charm resides in their profound ignorance of the historical functions of preservation and transmission they are fulfilling. With a Lawrentian hyper-romanticism West proclaims that peasants simply are and that although they have suffered, and suffer, all kinds of personal loss and unhappiness, they are not affected by the torments of self-consciousness that non-peasants have to endure. The following passage illustrates her approach to the Balkan peasant:

I was standing opposite a peasant woman sitting on a window ledge who was the very essence of Macedonia, who was exactly what I had come back to see. She was the age that all Macedonian women seem to become as soon as they cease to be girls: a weather-beaten fifty. There was a dark cloth about her hair and shoulders, and in its folds, and in her noble bones and pain-grooved flesh, she was like many Byzantine madonnas to be seen in frescoes and mosaics. In her rough hand she mothered her taper, looking down on its flame as if it were a young living thing; and on the sleeve of her russet sheepskin jacket there showed an embroidery of stylized red and black trees which derived recognizably from a pattern designed for elegant Persian women two thousand years before. There was the miracle of Macedonia, made visible before our eyes. (637)

Some of West's representational strategies may be traced back to the texts of earlier writers. Thus, the Macedonian peasant presents an ideal type of femininity. As an emblematic figure embodying "the very essence of Macedonia" she is not fundamentally different from the Turkish women portrayed by Mary Wortley Montagu and other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers intent upon idealizing a particular ethnic group and/or social class. Our awareness of the Macedonian woman as a "construct"is enhanced by the Byzantine madonna simile. Moreover, the embroidery on her sleeve is identified as Persian by the narrator. Like the modern Greeks represented by Byron, among others, the peasant woman is ignorant of its origins. The Westerner is (yet again!) the interpreter. However, the narrator of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is not proud of her superior knowledge and interpretive skills. She envies the condition of the peasant.

It is not difficult to discern the old and familiar figure of "the noble savage" behind the Macedonian madonna. She is an exoticized other to whom the narrator turns in her quest for spiritual integrity. There can be no doubt that the Macedonian madonna is being "used" by West, but this is a condition she shares with practically every other character in the book. As was already remarked, everyone the narrator has dealings with is presented as a type embodying an almost mythological set of recognizably "racial" features. Thus, Gerda embodies Germanic arrogance, her husband Constantine, the artistic originality of "the Slav", and West's own banker husband Henry Maxwell Andrews, British rationality and open-mindedness. Everyone participates in an allegory of "racial"contacts as well as conflicts.

West's representations of all those desirable and undesirable others alert us to the existence of a rather untidy ideological divide within the allegorical-historical space of her text. On one side of the divide she situates individuals and groups of people that she considers admirable either because they embraced an ethics of care or some form of "nomadism" whereas the other side is reserved for a motley crowd of close-minded, unimaginative, undiscriminating, and morally insensitive characters that she finds objectionable. Elizabeth of Austria, Jeanne Merkus, the exotic dancer, and the Slavs in their totality belong to the former category while the latter includes the "idiotic" nurse, the Archduchess Sophie, Merkus's family, Gerda, the German tourists with whom West shared a compartment on her way to Yugoslavia, and Elizabeth's assassin Luccheni, whose crime, according to West, prefigured the violence unleashed by Mussolini in the twentieth century. The lowest common denominator they all share is a fundamental lack of fellow feeling for others. Thus the nurse, who appears absolutely innocuous at first glance, suffers from a selfish indifference, which makes it impossible for her to relate to anything outside the narrow sphere of her own personal experience. Gerda chronically fails to grasp the value of tradition and its role in communal life. The German tourists resort to petty violence in order to ensure their bodily comfort throughout the journey. Luccheni seems the deadliest of them all insofar as he is a representative of "the dispossessed class [i. e. the urban poor] that claims its rights and cannot conceive them save in terms of empty violence" (14). West focuses attention on the impersonal character of his crime: he was out to make a political statement by assassinating a royal personage and for him Elizabeth was only "a symbol of power" (17). As was already pointed out, for West Luccheni prefigured Mussolini who "struck down power itself by assuming it and degrading its essence" (17).

It is easy to write off all of West's meditations as so much paranoia. It cannot be denied, however, that there is a genuine moral idealism underlying the stringing together of seemingly random events and individuals. It has been said of Rebecca West that she "wrote her way into the major cultural dilemmas of the twentieth century" (Scott 169). This statement may be modified to include the century's moral and political dilemmas as well. To my mind, what is particularly noteworthy is her critical attitude to statesmen's tendency to separate politics from morality. Thus she repeatedly alerts readers to the cynicism and hypocrisy of the Great Powers in their dealings with the Balkan populations. To the depersonalizing lack of concern of power politics West opposes the workings of an individualized - and individualizing - ethics of care and the "nomadic" freedom of making personal choices. The effectiveness of such antidotes may appear dubious - just as West's interpretive strategies may seem irredeemably romanticist and her unqualified faith in certain species of nationalist mythology, a prime instance of Western naivete - but her portrayal of pre-Second World War Yugoslavia is impressive nevertheless, and the humanist passion underlying it is worthy of respect.

© Ludmilla Kostova (University of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria)


(1) See, for instance, the special issue of the European Journal of English Studies, vol. 7, No 2 (2003), which focuses on the ethical turn that literary studies have taken.

(2) All references in the text will be to the 1995 Canongate Classics edition of West's book.

(3) See, inter alia, the anonymous Sketches on Germany and the Germans, with a Glance at Poland, Hungary and Switzerland, in 1834, 1835, and 1836, by an Englishman Resident in Germany (1836), Muir Mackenzie and Adeline Paulina Irby's Travels in the Slavonic Provinces of Turkey-in-Europe (1866), Charles Boner's Transylvania: Its Products and Its People (1867), and A Residence in Bulgaria; or, Notes on the Resources and Administration of Turkey: The Condition and Character, Manners, Customs, and Language of the Christian and Mussulman Populations, With Reference to the Eastern Question (1869) by Stanislas G. B. St. Clair and Charles A. Brophy.

(4) For a reading of the significance of "race" in writing by nineteenth-century British travellers to the Balkans, see my book Tales of the Periphery: the Balkans in Nineteenth-Century British Writing (V. Turnovo: St. Cyril and St. Methodius University Press, 1997), esp. pp. 17 - 18.


Fortunati, V., R. Monticelli and M. Ascari, 'Foreword', Travel Writing and the Female Imaginary, Bologna: Patron Editore, 2001.

Gilligan, Carol, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1982.

Islam, Syed Manzurul, The Ethics of Travel from Marco Polo to Kafka, Manchester: Manchester UP, 1996.

Kostova, Ludmilla, Tales of the Periphery: the Balkans in Nineteenth-Century British Writing, V. Turnovo: St. Cyril and St. Methodius University Press, 1997.

Rosslyn, Felicity, "Rebecca West, Gerda and the Sense of Process", Black Lambs & Grey Falcons. Women Travellers in the Balkans, John B. Allcock and Antonia Young (eds.). Bradford: Bradford UP, 1991.

Scott, B.K., " Refiguring the Binary, Breaking the Cycle: Rebecca West as Feminist Modernist", Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 37, Issue 2 (Summer 1991).

Simmons, Cynthia, "Baedeker Barbarism: Rebecca West's Black Lamb

and Grey Falcon and Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts", Human Rights Review, October-December 2000.

West, Rebecca, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. A Journey Through Yugoslavia, Edinburgh: Canongate Classics, 1995.

Wolff, Larry, Inventing Eastern Europe. The Map of Civilisation on the Mind of the Enlightenment, Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994.

4.6. Re-telling the Past, Mapping the Future: Feminist Interventions across Times and Cultures

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