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Dangerous Ambition - to the men who knew them

British author Rebecca West and American writer Dorothy Thompson were superbly brave and intelligent women and lifelong friends.

I first read Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon at university, when I was supposed to be studying something else. It's a huge tome, and I found every page gripping. Rebecca West's account of her travels through Serbia and Bosnia in the 1930s is mesmerising and timeless and utterly beautifully written.

A new book, Dangerous Ambition, describes their work, their friendship, and the parallels in their unhappy relationships with men.

Neither friend is always right in her extremely decided political opinions, but they are worth reading. The WSJ reviewer of the book commented on West's understanding of the spiritual malaise of our time in her book, The Meaning of Treason.

Published in 1947, that book unmasked the sources of a spiritual malaise that led people to abandon democratic values for the sake of murderous utopian creeds. A version of this malaise still haunts us today, as Susan Hertog notes in Dangerous Ambition, her engrossing, compelling account of two gifted women who watched the world they hoped to raise up become a living hell instead.

. . .A thoroughly modern evil had led some men to perform great crimes for the sake of abstract ideals, while others betrayed their country for the same motives. 'Treason,' West wrote, 'is the attempt to live without country, which humanity can't do.' Years later she supplemented her account with a discussion of the Cambridge spies, who betrayed England on behalf of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. She published the whole as The New Meaning of Treason (1964).

West compared the malaise spreading through the liberal democracies in the 1930s to a cancer. Though not religious herself, she sensed that the decline of Christianity had left men with no sense of limits, to the point of mass murder, and that guilt without hope of redemption turned inward as self-doubt, to the point of cultural suicide. . .

To know the disease is vital to curing it.

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