Imagine Susan Sontag plus Margaret Atwood plus Diana Trilling plus Katha Pollitt and you have, roughly, Rebecca West. (Alternatively, imagine Mary McCarthy squared.) West achieved greatness or near-greatness in so many categories-- novelist, critic, essayist, political journalist, historical portraitist, feminist agitator -- that it’s hard to know for what she’ll be remembered best. In the English-speaking world, at least, she has to be a strong contender for Woman of the Century.
“Rebecca West” was a nom de plume. She was born Cicily Fairfield in 1892, to a handsome, swashbuckling father and a romantic, cultivated mother. Her father’s favorite, she bloomed early; but he suddenly abandoned the family when she was eight. A determined Mrs. Fairfield managed to put her three daughters through school, where all did brilliantly. Cicily went on to a drama academy, where she did less than brilliantly. At eighteen she joined The Freewoman a new feminist journal outspoken about sexual politics and critical of the suffragist establishment. To avoid embarrassing her mother, she signed her articles “Rebecca West,” after a character in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm.
She was a sensation. Her slashing, passionate reviews and polemics are still fresh, still pungent. (In fact, they were collected and republished seventy years later in The Young Rebecca West, edited by Jane Marcus.) Not yet twenty-one, she dealt a box on the ear to cabinet ministers, judges, and to one after another of the literary eminences of her time: Strindberg, Shaw, Gissing, Bennett, Henry James and, fatefully, H.G. Wells.
Her long, largely appreciative review of Wells’s novel Marriage began naughtily: “Of course he is the old maid among novelists… [his]sex obsession merely old maids’ mania.” (At the time Wells was generally regarded as a scandalous libertine and his novels as shockingly “advanced.”) Wells was amused and invited her to lunch. They became mutual admirers, then lovers.
Early in the affair, she became pregnant. Single motherhood was a grim prospect in Edwardian England, even with Wells’s financial and emotional support. She had to leave London, where literary success seemed assured, for a long stay in a dreary, isolated provincial town. Her affair with Wells, a married man, was exhilarating but also turbulent and complicated. The episode clipped her wings professionally, and the awful strain undoubtedly contributed to her lifelong volatility and waspishness. But she came through.
During World War I she reviewed fiction regularly, wrote a book on Henry James, and published her first novel, The Return of the Soldier to wide acclaim. After the war: more fiction and criticism, a steadily growing literary reputation, travels in Europe, a triumphant tour of America, and a spate of love affairs with the rich, famous, and fascinating.
In the early 1930s she wrote a life of St. Augustine in order “to find out why every phrase I read of his sounds in my ears like the sentence of my doom and the doom of my age.” It was a short book but ambitious, learned, and richly, almost wildly, imaginative. In 1937 she visited Yugoslavia, perhaps the most important event in her life. Already “convinced of the inevitability of the second Anglo-German war,” she believed her encounter with the history and culture of southeastern Europe allowed her “to follow the dark waters of that event back to their source.” She did this in Black Lamb and Gray Falcon (1941), a thousand-page masterpiece -- part travel book, part history, and part prophecy -- that (like her St. Augustine) is colorful, dramatic, erudite, and sweeping in its interpretive scope.
More novels followed, plus a steady stream of essays and reviews, a book about a notorious London criminal trial, and The Meaning of Treason (1947), a report and meditation from the War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg. In 1959 she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire (the female equivalent of being knighted). The 1960s were full of travel, fiction, and journalism; thereafter her strength ebbed. She died in 1983, at ninety, one of the most famous women in the world.
But not, perhaps, one of the happiest. In addition to the loss of her father and the unlooked-for pregnancy, she had some other large crosses to bear. One was her legendary lifelong feud with Anthony West, her son by Wells. He never forgave her for his difficult childhood, and he grew closer to his father as Rebecca and HG. grew apart. Anthony was himself an accomplished novelist and critic, and his savage portraits of her in his fiction and memoirs poisoned her later life. She gave, moreover, as good as she got. It is one of the saddest relationships in literary history.
In 1930 she married Henry Andrews, a banker with a scholarly and poetic turn of mind. The marriage lasted until his death nearly forty years later and was outwardly happy. He was rich, kind-hearted, and utterly devoted to her. But after three years, he withdrew sexually, without explanation; they did not make love for the next thirty-five years. Rebecca was understandably baffled and tormented. A few brief romances with distinguished and admiring men did not go far to ease her emotional pain.
Above all, she was victimized by her own nature. She was arguably, given the obstacles life presented her with, too passionate and imaginative for her own good. As one of her closest friends remarked, she had “several skins fewer than any other human being; it’s a kind of psychological hemophilia, which is one reason why she writes so well, and also why she is so vulnerable.” It is a pity, and also a blessing that she did not complete her memoirs. They would have been scintillating and wise, but also venomous and paranoid.
A lot has been written about West. Carl Rollyson’s new biography is the completest account of her life, especially her later life. Rollyson is thorough and judicious; and though not particularly inspired, the book nicely complements Victoria Glendinning’s elegant short biography. Anyone interested in West should also look at Fay Weldon’s fervently partisan, extraordinarily affecting meditation on her life, as well as -- to give the devil his due -- Anthony West’s novel Heritage and his H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life. Wells’s chapter on her in his posthumously published H.G. Wells in Love is rueful and magnanimous.
I began by comparing West with other women, but the best comparison may be with D.H. Lawrence. Her ardent temperament, astonishing range, quicksilver imagination, and intellectual and emotional courage resembled his. Some of her best work-- The Return of the Soldier, St. Augustine, Black Lamb and Gray Falcon -- is Lawrentian in tone and contour, even theme. It’s fitting that she wrote one of the finest of all tributes to Lawrence, which ends with a sentence that applies to her as well: “We must ourselves be grievously defeated if we do not regard the life of D.H. Lawrence as a spiritual victory.”