Throughout her career, Rebecca West dug into psyches, real and fictional, to try to understand the meaning of betrayal. In the aftermath of World War II, West was incensed when several wartime turncoats were tried with seeming indifference—and worse, sympathy—from the British public. In exploring these traitors’ origins, crimes, and motivations, West exposes how class division, greed, and discrimination can taint loyalties and redraw the relationships between individuals and their fatherland. A fascinating book, The Meaning of Treason combines the intrigue of a spy novel with West’s classic, careful dissection of man’s moral struggles.
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About the Author
Dame Rebecca West (1892–1983) is one of the most critically acclaimed English novelists, journalists, and literary critics of the twentieth century. Uniquely wide-ranging in subject matter and breathtakingly intelligent in her ability to take on the oldest and knottiest problems of human relations, West was a thoroughly entertaining public intellectual. In her eleven novels, beginning with The Return of the Soldier, she explored topics including feminism, socialism, love, betrayal, and identity. West’s prolific journalistic works include her coverage of the Nuremberg trials for the New Yorker, published as A Train of Powder, and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her epic study of Yugoslavia. She had a son with H.G. Wells, and later married banker Henry Maxwell Andrews, continuing to write, and publish, until she died in London at age ninety.
Dame Rebecca West (1892–1983) is one of the most critically acclaimed and bestselling English novelists, journalists, and literary critics of the twentieth century. In her eleven novels, beginning with The Return of the Soldier, she delved into the psychological landscape of her characters and explored topics including feminism, socialism, love, betrayal, and identity. She was lauded for her wit and intellectual acuity, evident in her prolific journalistic works such as her coverage of the Nuremberg trials for the New Yorker, published as A Train of Powder, and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her epic study of Yugoslavia and its people. She had a child with H.G. Wells, but married banker Henry Maxwell Andrews later in life and continued writing until she died in London at age ninety.
Read an Excerpt
The Meaning of Treason
By Rebecca West
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1947 Rebecca West
All rights reserved.
EVERYBODY IN LONDON wanted to see William Joyce when he was brought to trial as a radio traitor, for he was something new in the history of the world. Never before have people known the voice of one they had never seen as well as if he had been a husband or a brother or a close friend; and if they had foreseen such a miracle they would not have imagined that the familiar unknown would speak to them only to prophesy their death and ruin. All of us in England had experienced that hideous novelty. It was difficult not to chance on Joyce's wave length when one was tuning in to the English stations, and there was an arresting quality about his voice which made it a sacrifice not to go on listening. It was a rasping yet rich voice, like Father Coughlin's, and it was convincing in its confidence. It seemed as if one had better hearken and take warning when he suggested that the destiny of the people he had left in England was death, and the destiny of his new masters in Germany life and conquest, and that, therefore, his listeners had better change sides and submit. This was often terrible to hear, for the news in the papers confirmed it. He was not only alarming, he was ugly; he opened a vista into a mean life; he always spoke as if he were better fed and better clothed than we were, and so, we now know, he was. He went further than that smug mockery of our plight. He sinned that sin which is the dark travesty of legitimate hatred because it is felt for kindred, just as incest is the dark travesty of legitimate love. When the U-boats were sinking so many of our ships that to open the newspapers was to draw into the nostrils a smell of drowned sailor, he rolled the figures of our lost tonnage on his tongue. When we were facing the hazard of D-day he rejoiced in the thought of the English dead that would soon lie under the Westwall.
So those who were at once robust and curious went off to the Central Criminal Court on September 17, 1945, when he came up for trial. It is an odd place to visit these days, for it stands in a district once congested with unlovely commercial buildings, which the blitz has converted into a beautiful desert. Churches stand blackened but apparently intact; birds, however, fly through the empty sockets of the windows and long grass grows around their altars. A red-brick Georgian mansion, hidden for a century by sordid warehouses, now looks at the great Renaissance dome of St. Paul's across acres where willow herb, its last purple flowers passing into silver clouds of seed dust, grows with the yellow ragwort from the ground plan of a lost city drawn in rubble. The courts themselves startle the eye that knew them as they were, housed in a solid building built of grey stone in the neoclassical style. Its solidarity has been sliced as if it were a cake, and the walls of the slice are raw new red brick. At the time of Joyce's trial, because of the sealing off of the bombed parts, and the heavy blackout, which could not yet be removed owing to the lack of labour, all the halls and passages and stairs were in perpetual dusk. The courtroom—the Court No. 1 where all the most famous criminal trials of modern times have taken place—was lit by electric light. Daylight used to stream in through a glass dome cold as justice itself, but that had long been shattered. Bare boards filled it in, giving an odd-come-short look to what used to be an austerely fine room.
The strong electrical light was merciless to William Joyce, whose appearance was a surprise to all of us who had not seen him before. His voice had suggested a large and flashy handsomeness. But he was a tiny little creature and, though not very ugly, was exhaustively so. His hair was mouse-coloured and grew thinly, particularly above his ears. His nose was joined to his face at an odd angle, and its bridge and its point and its nostrils were all separately misshapen. Above his small dark-blue eyes, which were hard and shiny, like pebbles, his eyebrows were thick and pale and irregular. His neck was long and his shoulders were narrow and sloping. His arms were very short and very thick, so that his sleeves were like little bolsters. His body looked flimsy yet coarse. There was nothing individual about him except a deep scar running across his right cheek from his ear to the corner of his mouth. But this did not create the savage and marred distinction that it might suggest, for it gave a mincing immobility to his mouth, which was extremely small. His smile was pinched and governessy. He was dressed with an intent and ambitious spruceness which did not succeed in giving any impression of well-being, but rather recalled some Eastern European peasant, newly driven off the land by poverty into a factory town and wearing his first suit of Western clothes. He moved with a jerky formality which would have been thought strange in any society. When he bowed to the Judge, his bow seemed sincerely respectful but entirely inappropriate to the occasion, and it was difficult to think of any occasion to which it would have been appropriate.
At right angles to the dock, against the wall of the court, sat the jury, none of its members greatly blessed by nature, though there was one woman, slender and high-nosed, of the colonel's-daughter kind, who had an irresistible charm. Day by day the journalists who watched the case became more and more convinced, for no reason at all, that she was a very good sort. But the members of the jury were all middle-aged, since the armies had not come home, and though they were drawn from different ranks of life, there is no rank in which English people are other than puffy or haggard. But at that they were all more pleasant to look at and more obviously trustworthy than the homely and eccentric little man in the dock; and, compared with the judicial bench which he faced, he was of course at an immense disadvantage, as we all should be, for its dignity is authentic. Against oak panels columns run up to a pediment framing the carved royal standard and the sword of justice, which is affixed to the wall in its jewelled scabbard. At the foot of the wall, in a high-backed chair, sat the Judge, dressed in his scarlet robe, with its neckband of fine white linen and its deep cuffs and sash of purplish-black taffeta. Beside him, their chairs set farther back as a sign of their inferiority to him, sat the Lord Mayor of London and two aldermen, wearing their antique robes of black silk with flowing white cravats and gold chains hung with chased badges of office worked in precious metals and enamel. These two sorts of pompous trapping are always given some real meaning by the faces of the men who support them. Judges are chosen for a combination of intellect and character; city honours are usually earned by competence and character and the patience to carry out a routine of tedious public duty over decades. These qualities have to be possessed in both classes to a degree which is bound to leave an imprint on the features.
Looking from the bench to the dock, it could be seen that not in any sane state would William Joyce have had the ghost of a chance of holding such offices as these. But when he was asked to plead he said, "Not guilty," and those two words were the most impressive uttered during the trial. The famous voice was let loose. For a fraction of a second we heard its familiar quality. It was as we had heard it for six years, it reverberated with the desire for power. Never was there a more perfect voice for a demagogue, for its reverberations were so strong that they were certain to awaken echoes in every heart that was tumid with the same appetite. What could the little man do—since he so passionately desired to exercise authority, and neither this nor any other state would give it to him—but use his trick of gathering together other luckless fellows, that they might overturn the sane state and substitute a mad one? That was the most profound cause which had brought him to the dock; but there was another which quickly became apparent.
This trial, like the great treason trial of the last war, when Sir Roger Casement was sent to the gallows, was an Irish drama. From the first, rumours had been current that Joyce was Irish, but they had never been officially confirmed, and his accent was difficult to identify. But there was little doubt about it when one saw him in the dock. He had the real Donnybrook air. He was a not very fortunate example of the small, nippy, jig-dancing type of Irish peasant, and the appearance of his brother, who attended the court every day in a state of great suffering, was proof of the family's origin. Quentin Joyce, who was then twenty-eight, was eleven years William's junior. He was much better-looking, with a sturdy body, a fresh colour, thick and lustrous brown hair, and the soft eyes of a cow. Nobody in his senses could mistake him for anything but an Irishman from the provinces. There were also strong traces of Irish origin in the followers of Joyce who watched the trial. These included some singular figures. There were some women who especially attracted attention by an almost unearthly physical repulsiveness, notably an ageing and floozy blonde in a tight Air Force uniform, who sucked sweets and wept, as she swung an ankle creased with fat from crossed knees that pressed up against her drooping bosom. But she and her like, it seemed probable, had been merely on the fringe of the British Fascist movement and were sympathizers with Joyce rather than his associates.
These could be seen every day gathered round Joyce's brother, and his solicitor (as the English call the lawyer who prepares the case for the lawyer who actually conducts it in court) and his clerk, who were the oddest pair of figures I have ever seen in the law courts. The solicitor was a hunchback dwarf with blond hair and a pale sensitive face. He was a well-known solicitor who was acting for Joyce not because he wished to have him as a client or had any sympathy with British fascism, but because Joyce, being without means on his return from Germany to England, had had to apply for the services of a lawyer under the Poor Prisoners' Defence Act when he first came up before the minor judge we call a magistrate for the preliminary stages of his trial. This meant that the magistrate had had to select at random the names of certain lawyers from a rota, and call on them to perform the duty of defending Joyce, a summons which they were not in practice able to refuse. The task must have been extremely repugnant to this lawyer, who was a practitioner of high standing and had no need for notoriety. But he could not have behaved with more exquisite loyalty to his client, nor soothed more kindly the grief of the many persons associated with the case which he must heartily have wished he never had seen. Each day he bore himself amiably towards them, aided by his clerk, who was a strange figure, not from eccentricity but from modesty. She obviously thought of herself as invisible. She was a girl in her twenties, with long and elaborately curled hair, bareheaded and dressed as if for the beach walk of a summer resort, with flowered frock, fleecy coat, and light shoes, and there could not have been a figure more discordant with the peculiar dry decorum of the English courts. But she too was conscientiously gracious to Joyce's friends, the chief of whom was a thin man with fierce black eyes blazing behind thick glasses, a tiny fuzz of black hair fancifully arranged on his prematurely bald head, and wrists and ankles as straight as lead piping in their emaciation.
He was a Scotsman named Angus MacNab, the editor of a Fascist paper and Joyce's best friend. He was plainly a foredoomed eccentric, and a variation in circumstances might have found him just as happily a spiritualist medium or a believer in the lost ten tribes of Israel. As for the rest of the followers, men of violent and unhappy appearance, with a look of animal shyness and ferocity, and, in some cases, a measure of animal beauty, they were for the most part darker in complexion than one would expect in subscribers to the Aryan theory. One, especially, looked like a true gipsy. Most of them had an Irish cast of feature and some bore Irish names. It must be remembered that these men were not followers of Sir Oswald Mosley, who picked a more varied and more cheerfully brutal type. Joyce had seceded from Mosley's movement some years before the war and started his own. This was his private army, part of his individual hell.
The story developed during the first day and the morning of the second, and it was certainly an Irish story. At first our attention wandered from Joyce's personality because the lawyer for the Crown was Sir Hartley Shawcross, the Attorney-General appointed by the new Labour Government. He is young for the post, charming in manner and voice, and he set out a beautifully lucid argument, and we were pleased, and pleased to be pleased. For the English were pathetically eager to approve of whatever the new government did; we were tired out by such excitements as had produced this trial, and what we wanted was to hear the machine ticking over. But the interest of the trial presently shifted from personalities to a fantastic and ironical story of a family who, for obscure reasons springing from one convulsion of history, engaged in disingenuous conduct which, long after, brought their dearest member a peculiarly nonsensical doom in another convulsion of history.
That the proceedings were to be odd was indicated by the three indictments which were brought against him. He was charged with three offences against the Treason Act of 1351, by adhering to the King's enemies elsewhere than in the King's realm, to wit, in the German realm. On the first count he was charged with having on divers days between the eighteenth day of September, 1939, and the twenty-ninth day of May, 1945, whilst "an open and public war was being prosecuted and carried on by the German realm and its subjects against our lord the King and his subjects, then, and on the said several days, traitorously contriving and intending to aid and assist the said enemies of our lord the King against our lord the King and his subjects, did traitorously adhere and aid and give comfort to the said enemies in parts beyond the seas without the realm of England, to wit in the realm of Germany, by broadcasting to the subjects of our lord the King propaganda on behalf of the said enemies of our lord the King." On the second count he was charged with having purported "to become naturalized as a subject of the realm of Germany" on the twenty-sixth day of September, 1940. On the third count he was charged with broadcasting between certain dates during the period named in the first count, beginning when it did and ending on the second of July, 1940. In each indictment it was stated that these were offences, if William Joyce had committed them, because he was "a person owing allegiance to our lord the King." Later the first two indictments were amended, and he was described in them, but not in the third, as a "British subject."
It seemed, in the early stages of the trial, as if William Joyce must be convicted on these two first indictments. He himself had again and again described himself as a British subject, and his father had done the same. The first evidence to this effect came from a lady in early and spruce middle age with marcelled grey hair and a spirited red straw hat, the kind of lady who is photographed in women's magazines as having taken a prize for preserves at a country fair, who, oddly enough, turned out to be the assistant secretary of the Committee for Military Education in the University of London. When one thought of the blond and boar-like young man or the Brunhilde-like young woman who would have held such a post in a German university, it became a better joke than ever that we had won the war. She was present because someone with a prodigious memory had recalled that in August 1922 William Joyce, then a boy of sixteen, had sent a letter of application for entrance to the London University Officers' Training Corps, in which he had described himself as a British subject, a description which was supported by his father, Michael Joyce.
The boy's letter threw a light on the inner ferment that had brought him to the dock. In this letter he had said that he wanted to study with a view of being nominated by the University for a commission in the Regular Army; but it was obvious that he would find difficulty in following that road. His letter was a little too highfalutin, even for a boy of sixteen. Doubt would have crossed the mind of anybody who read it. And the letter from his father, the loving letter of a father eager to do his best for his son, was too illiterate. But they made themselves plain enough on the subject matter of the correspondence.
Excerpted from The Meaning of Treason by Rebecca West. Copyright © 1947 Rebecca West. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
ContentsI: The Revolutionary,
II: The Insane Root,
III: The Children,
A Biography of Rebecca West,