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Rebecca West (1892-1983) - in full Dame Rebecca West, pseudonym of Cicily Isabel Andrews, original surname Fairfield

 

English journalist, novelist, and critic, perhaps best-known for her reports on the Nuremberg trials (1945-46). Rebecca West started her career as a columnist for the suffragist weekly the Freewoman in the 1910s. Kenneth Tynan described her in 1954 as "the best journalist alive." West's companion for ten years was H.G.Wells. Their son Anthony also established himself as a noted author and critic.

"Good God enlighten us! Which of these two belongs to the sterner sex - the man who sits in Whitehall all his life on a comfortable salary, or the woman who has to keep her teeth bared lest she has her meatless bone of 17s. 4d. a week snatched away from her and who has to produce the next generation on her off-days?" (from 'The Sterner Sex', 1913)

Rebecca West was born Cicily (in some sources Cecily) Isabel Fairfield in London of Scottish-Irish parentage. Her father, Charles Fairfield, was a journalist. He left the family 1901 and West mother, Isabella Campbell Mackenzie moved with the childred to Edinburgh. West was educated at George Watson's Ladies College, where she wrote with her friend some innocent poems, and caused a scandal. Later she said that "I have always felt the lack of a University education as a real handicap." In 1910 West returned to London. She was then trained as an actress at the Academy of Dramatic Art, from which she emerged to pursue a brief and unsuccessful acting career. From Henrik Ibsen's play Rosmersholm West adopted the name of the passionate, self-willed heroine.

In 1911 West started to contribute to the left-wing press, and joined the staff of the feminist paper Freewoman. From the second article in the magazine, she started to use the name Rebecca West, because she thought that nobody would take seriously a person called Cicily Fairfield. She resigned after four months and became the leading writer on the socialist magazine Clarion, also writing for The Star, Daily News and New Statesman.

West's subjects spanned social issues to book reviews, her writing showed brilliance of intellect and lucidity of style. Virginia Woolf said that, "Rebecca is a cross between a charwoman and gypsy, but as tenacious as a terrier." In 1913 West wrote about the suffragist Emily Davidson, who threw herself in front of the king's horse at the Derby. The essay 'The Sterner Sex' (1913) records her thoughts at the wedding of her cousin, her sympathy for the women working for the Army Clothing Employees' Union, and her anger: "I saw a world of women struggling as the American capitalist men of today struggle, to maintain a parasitic sex that is at once its tyrant and its delight..." West's essay about Emmeline Pankhurst, 'A Reed of Steel' (1933) is among her best works on the period. Her first book was about the writer Henry James.

In the autumn of 1913, at the age of 19, West began her turbulent love affair with H.G. Wells, although she had called him in an article from 1912 "the old maid among novelists." Wells called her "Panther," and her pet name for him was "Jaguar." Their son, Anthony West, was born in 1914; his middle name was "Panther". He died in 1987. Anthony's biography of his father, H. G. Wells: Aspects of a Life, was published in 1984. West's friends included Violet Hunt, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, George Bernard Shaw, and a number of other intellectuals, but T. S. Eliot she called a fake. Charlie Chaplin and newspaper magnate Max Beaverbrook were among her many lovers.

The American writer Anais Nin visited West in 1934 at her mansion in London, carrying with her Miller's Tropic of Cancer. "You are much better writer than he is," said West. While in New York, they danced in a Harlem nightclub, together with the actor Raymond Massey. Both West and Nin preferred strong, physically active men, and they also shared similar experiences in sexual-literary relationships. In spite of their friendship, West wanted Nin to withdraw her portrait completely from her famous Diary. "Although I wrote about her with great love, she just didn't like to be written in any way," Nin later revealed.

West broke with Wells in 1923. She started seeing a psychoanalyst in 1927, later summarizing: "It was a terribly intricate and complex business, based on an inconceivably disguised . . . father fixation." Her relationships with men had been full of misery and infidelity. After suffering an ectopic pregnancy and undergoing a therapeutic abortion, she had her ovaries removedat the age of forty-two. In 1930 she married a banker, Henry Maxwell Andrews - their marriage was happy although plagued by a series of illnesses. Henry Maxwell died in 1968. From 1930 to 1968 West lived in Buckinghamshire, and then in London. In 1959, West was created Dame of the British Empire. Her literary career spanned more than seventy years. At the end of her life she was England's foremost woman of letters. West died in London on March 15, 1983.

West's first novel was The Return of the Soldier (1918). It was a story about three women who labor to cure a soldier, Chris Baldry, of shell-shock-induced amnesia. Chris cannot remember the last 15 years of his life, including his marriage. West had never experienced the war, but bombs had fallen near enough the house where she lived to kill the family cat. Several of West's novels were markedly from the feminist viewpoint. The Judge (1922) is a chronicle of illegitimacies and feminine suffering, Harriet Hume  (1929) is a humorous fantasy, in which the telepathically sensitive heroine cannot tolerate her lover's faults while they are both alive, but in posthumous life he becomes an ideal companion. The Thinking Reed (1936) explored the manners of the very rich.

The Fountain Overflows (1956), which is generally considered West's finest work of fiction, is partly autobiographical. The protagonist is Rose Aubrey, who tells the story of her childhood in South London. The family is run by her artistic, serious mother, concert pianist, but Rose worships her father, a misunderstood writer. West also began two sequels, which she never completed, This Real Night (1984) and Cousin Rosamund  (1985).

The Birds Fall Down  (1966), West's final novel, was about the Russian Revolution. World politics was not for West a battle between good and evil; her characters could also express great optimistic hopes: "Yes, I've been destroyed. Yes, I'm maimed for life. But for other people, for the whole world, it isn't so. For them life's getting better and better all the time. Look at Russia. It's coming out into the light, every year the sun shines on it more brightly." (from The Birds Fall Down, 1966)

While recovering from surgery in a hospital ward in 1934, West heard a radio announcement of the assassination of King Alexander and realized that a grand crisis is developing in the Balkans. In 1937 West traveled to Yugoslavia with her husband and published Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), a polemic pro-Serbian travel diary. Due to the lenght of the book (1181 p. Penguin Books, 2007), West though that hardly anyone will read it. On the train to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, she met an elderly German business man and his wife, whose misery with the Nazis according to West, "seemed to have abolished every possible future for them. I reflected that if a train were filled with the citizens of the Western Roman Empire in the fourth century they would have made much the same complaints. The reforms of Diocletian and Constantine created a condition of exorbitant and unforeseeable taxes, of privileged officials, of a complicated civil administration that made endless demands on its subjects and gave them very little security in return." West was convinced of the inevitability of the Second World War and the book was colored by her dark anticipations. However, West was never as eager to journey to the crisis centers around the world as Martha Gellhorn, one of the most celebrated female war reporters.

During the war West was a talks supervisor at the BBC in London. Her writings on the Nuremberg trials, commissioned by the New Yorker, were collected in A Train of Powder (1955). Noteworthy, she described the Nazi leaders in a dubious sexual context: Goering was "like a madam in a brothel," and Streicher was "a dirty old man of the sort that gives trouble in parks." West's essays on Britons who worked for Germany during World War II and the treason of William Joyce, "Lord Haw-Haw," appeared in The Meaning of Treason (1949). "The strong light was merciless to William Joyce, whose appearance was a shock to all of us who knew him only over the air. His voice had suggested a large and flashy handsomeness, but he was a tiny little creature and not handsome at all." Although West had written for socialist newspapers in the beginning of her career, she defended in the 1950s McCarthyism and the crusade against Communists in the U.S.A. In Warren Beatty's film Reds (1981) West appeared as herself.

West's non-fiction include The Strange Necessity (1928), in which she explores theories of creativity and cognition, and St. Augustine (1933), a study about the impact of the famous medieval philosopher on Western thinking. Survivors in Mexico  (2003) is West's unfinished collection of travel writings from Mexico in the mid-1960s. As a travel writer, she had a sharp eye for significant details. In Mexico City she notes that the November skies are pearl grey, "not luminous as might be expected at the height of seven thousand feet, not trembling brightly as they do over Johannesburg and Saint Moritz, for the reason that here they are thickened and sobered by industrial pollution contained within the walls of the wide basin in which the city spreads."

For further reading: The Novels of Rebecca West by M. Orlich (1967); Rebecca West by P. Wolfe (1971); H.G. Wells and Rebecca West by G.N. Ray (1974); Rebecca West by Motley F. Deakinn (1980); H. G. Wells: Aspects of a Life by Anthony West (1984); Rebecca West by V. Glendinning (1987); Rebecca West: A Life by Carl E. Rollyson (1996); The Literary Legacy of Rebecca West by Carl Rollyson (1997); Paradoxical Feminism: The Novels of Rebecca West by Ann V. Norton (1999); Rebecca West: Heroism, Rebellion, and the Female Epic by Bernard Schweizer (2002); Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson: New Women in Search of Love and Power by Susan Hertog (2011) 

Selected works:

  • Henry James, 1916
  • The Return of the Soldier, 1918
    - film: The Return of the Soldier, 1982, dir. by Alan Bridges, prod. Barry R. Cooper Productions, Brent Walker Pictures, Skreba Films, starring Alan Bates, Julie Christie, Glenda Jackson, Ann-Margret
  • The Judge, 1922
  • Selected Poems of Carl Sandburg, 1926 (editor)
  • The Strange Necessity: Essays and Reviews, 1928
  • Harriet Hume, 1929
  • [Elegy.] D.H. Lawrence, 1930
  • War Nurse. The True Story of a Woman who Lived, Loved and Suffered on the Western Front, 1930
  • Arnold Bennett Himself, 1931
  • St. Augustine, 1933
  • A Letter to a Grandfather, 1933
  • The Modern “Rake's Progress,” 1934 (paintings by David Low)
  • The Harsh Voice: Four Short Novels, 1935
  • Mind and Materialism, 1936
  • The Thinking Reed, 1936
    - Ajatteleva ruoko (suom. V. Hämeen-Anttilaä, 1938)
  • Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: The Record of a Journey through Yugoslavia in 1937, 1941
  • The Meaning of Treason, 1949/1965
  • A Train of Powder, 1955
  • The Fountain Overflows, 1956
    - Lähde tulvii (suom. Maija-Liisa Virtanen, 1957)
  • The Court and the Castle: A Study of the Interactions of Political and Religious Ideas in Imaginative Literature, 1958
  • The Vassal Affair, 1963
  • The Birds Fall Down, 1966
    - TV mini-series 1978, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), starring Felicity Dean, John Normington, Elizabeth Shepherd, George Couloris
  • Ending in Earnest; a Literary Log, 1967 (reprint of the 1931 ed.)
  • McLuhan and the Future of Literature, 1969
  • Rebecca West: A Celebration: Selected from her Writings, 1977 (critical introduction by Samuel Hynes)
  • The Essential Rebecca West: Selected from her Writings by Her Publishers with Her Help, 1978 (critical introduction by Samuel Hynes)
  • 1900, 1982
  • The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West 1911-17, 1982 (selected and introduced by Jane Marcus)
  • This Real Night, 1984
  • Cousin Rosamund, 1985 (with an afterword by Victoria Glendinning)
  • Sunflower, 1986 (with an afterword by Victoria Glendinning)
  • Family Memories, 1987 (edited and introduced by Faith Evans)
  • The Only Poet & Short Stories, 1992 (edited and introduced by Antonia Till)
  • The Selected Letters of Rebecca West, 1999 (edited, annotated, and introduced by Bonnie Kime Scott)
  • The Sentinel: An Incomplete Early Novel, 2002 (edited by Kathryn Laing)
  • Survivors in Mexico, 2003 (edited and introduced by Bernard Schweizer)
  • Woman as Artist and Thinker, 2005


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