Edmund Wilson's Words of Ill-Omen: Womanizer

The American man of letters on linguistic complacency and corruption either side of the Atlantic.

Anyone who has been reading the more literate departments of the British and American press in the period since the last war must have been becoming aware, in the case of certain English words, of a recent change in usage which sometimes amounts to a change in meaning. I have been making a collection of such words and trying to discover the implications of the roles which they have lately been made to play, and I present here a list of conspicuous examples - some British, some America, some both - with the best that I can do in the way of explanation.

One: Womanizewomanizer (British).

This word, as one learns from the Oxford English Dictionary, meant originally to render effeminate or to become womanlike. Later, however, it came to mean to consort illicitly with women. The first illustration of this latter meaning is quoted from the slang dictionary of Farmer and Henley of 1893; the next is from Compton Mackenzie's Sinister Street (1914): "The bad men [among Oxford students] went up to London and womanized"; and under womanizer, of which similar definition is given, the only example is from Galsworthy's The White Monkey (1924): "Somehow ... I feel he's a womanizer".

But this word, in its twentieth-century sense, has lately become much more common. In Six Proust Reconstructions by Pamela Hansford Johnson, we find, for example, "... she'd never be safe with an old womanizer like you"; and in Victor Purcell's epic poem Cadmus (1944), an amusing use is made of it, which makes one suspect that the word is coming to mean something more than to consort illicitly with women: that it implies a disparagement of sex itself. Purcell makes Francois Villon confess that, "we womanized, we cheated, and we stole"; and we have only to imagine how Villon would actually have described his activities to see the absurdity of this and how far away Villon is from the England in which Cadmus was written.

Nor would the French lady in Miss Hansford Johnson's pastiche of Proust have used any word equivalent to womanizer: no such word exists in France. She would have said "vieux satyre" or "vieux coureur" or some other such more lively word. In English, the older words would have been whoring or wrenching or chambering or seducing, all of which have different nuances, social or aesthetic or moral, and a womanizer would have been particularised as a libertine, a rake, a Lothario, a Lovelace, a gallant or a ladies' man (in America a Casanova, a heartbreaker, a great lover, a skirt-chaser or a swordsman); but womanize seems to reduce all intimate intercourse with women to the same insipid-sounding level.

Since Cadmus, this tendency has been carried farther, till one feels that, from the point of view of the contemporary British intelligensia, not only would Byron have been a womanizer but also Tracy Tupman and Nathaniel Winkle in their flirtations with the ladies at Dingley Dell. The playing-down of the importance of women - in the role at least of charmers or idols - has been long, of course an English trait.

Uxorious is another English word which, I should think, does not have an equivalent, at least a common equivalent, at least a common equivalent, in any other modern language: it is used always in a derogatory sense to refer to a husband who cares too much for or who spends too much time with his wife. And womanizer seems sometimes in England to have come to be used simply as a derogatory epithet for a man who likes women.

The word has, in fact, become disgusting.

6 September 1958. Next up: Religionist (American).

Lord Byron: happy with all definitions of the word. Photo: Getty Images.

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was a noted American writer, critic and social commentator who contributed occasional reviews and essays to the New Statesman.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism