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West, Rebecca, 1892-1983

Summary Article: West, [Dame] Rebecca (pseud. of Cicily Isabel Fairfield) from Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature

West was sometimes described as the “Bernard Shaw in Petticoats,” and in 1916 Bernard SHAW himself wrote that the young Rebecca could “handle a pen as brilliantly as ever I could and much more savagely.” West—who took the name Rebecca West after the strong-minded heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm in which she had acted in 1912—established her reputation as a journalist, critic, and reviewer at a very early age. She wrote with verve, passion, and outspoken honesty in left-wing and feminist papers, first in the shortlived pioneering feminist periodical, the Freewoman, then in Robert Blatchford’s socialist weekly, the Clarion, and later in the American journal, the New Republic, and also in the New Statesman where she was a columnist writing her regular “Notes on Novels” in the 1920s. Converted to the cause of votes for women while still at school, her early writings reflected the strong feminist conviction that led George E. G. Catlin to dedicate his edition of The Rights of Woman and The Subjection of Woman (1929) “To Rebecca West who stands, in this generation, for that tradition which Mary WOLLSTONECRAFT and Mill have handed down.” Virginia WOOLF used West as an example of the spirited feminist writer in A Room of One’s Own.

Although West’s politics moved to the right as she grew older, and she became preoccupied with the meaning of treason and virulently anticommunist in later life, she remained an inspirational figure for many women. This was not only due to her brilliance as a social commentator and feminist polemicist but also because of her sustained interest in the friction, tension, and misunderstandings between the two sexes and in the question of marital incompatibility. The problem of illmatched partners had interested her since her review of H. G. WELLS’s novel Marriage that had first brought her into contact with Wells, the father of her illegitimate child, Anthony, born in 1914. Marital unhappiness is a leitmotif in much of her fiction, as for example in The Return of the Soldier (1918), a terse and economical antiwar novella depicting a triangle of love in which a plain, motherly, lower-class woman is able to provide the redemptive love for a shell-shocked soldier that his own unhappy marriage lacks, or in The Thinking Reed (1936), a biting SATIRE on the lives of the monied classes in which West depicts a woman’s marriage placed in jeopardy by a combination of her husband’s inveterate gambling and the corrosive effect of her miscarriage on their already fragile relationship.

Critics continually comment on the weakness of West’s male characters. It is the women characters who dominate and they often do so through their sexuality. West creates women who are sexually exciting but also exceedingly plucky and resourceful when things go wrong. Her women learn very early in life that life can be hard, especially for their sex. In The Judge (1922), West’s feminist and Freudian influenced revisioning of the Oedipal triangle, a young, unmarried, pregnant woman is cruelly stoned in the streets. The genteel, impoverished matriarch in The Fountain Overflows (1956) determinedly nurtures the musical talents of two of her daughters although her own career as a professional pianist ends when her feckless husband deserts his family. This was deservedly West’s most popular novel as well as being a critical success doing much to revive her reputation that had declined in the twenty years since the publication of The Thinking Reed. Interest in West waned again but was rekindled in the 1980s by the reissuing of some of her novels by the feminist publishing house Virago and the republication of her essays and journalism from the period 1911–17 as The Young Rebecca (1982).

West’s fiction reflects the influence of MODERNISM, experimentation, and psychoanalysis, particularly in her London fantasy, Harriet Hume (1929). However, she made use of diverse fictive techniques and her novels are also marked by the solid characterization and careful scene setting in The Judge of the traditional 19th-c. realist novel. Her writing spans a number of literary and nonliterary modes and genres including fiction, travel writing, journalism, literary criticism, BIOGRAPHY, and trial reporting, which make her a difficult writer to categorize. In his critical introduction to The Essential Rebecca, Samuel Hynes identifies the “wide interstices between her work” as a problem for West’s reputation and notes that “Dame Rebecca’s work has not fused in the minds of the critics.” West has had a significant readership and critical recognition in the U.S. in which she traveled extensively. The Strange Necessity (1928) is an early collection of critical essays expressing her conviction of the moral necessity of art, most of which were originally written for the New York Herald Tribune, and bring together her ideas on literature after many years as a book reviewer. Another collection, The Harsh Voice (1935), comprises four short novels, three of which had been published in Saturday Evening Post and Woman’s Home Companion in the U.S.

West’s widely admired travelogue, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia (2 vols., 1941), excavates the past and the present in Yugoslavia to understand the ethnic tensions in the region and how and why Europe had arrived at the verge of the Second World War. The Meaning of Treason (1947; rev. ed., 1952; repub. as The New Meaning of Treason, 1964) arose from West’s reporting of the trial of William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw). Later editions were expanded to deal with the traitors Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. Her interest in intrigue, duplicity, and personal betrayal is apparent in her densely plotted political novel The Birds Fall Down (1966) set among expatriate Russians before the Russian Revolution. Family Memories (1987) imaginatively depicts West’s maternal genealogy. This Real Night (1984) and Cousin Rosamond (1985), both published posthumously, complete the trilogy that began with The Fountain Overflows.

The posthumous works did little to help West’s reputation, which has fluctuated since her death. Most critics have followed her biographer Victoria Glendinning in attaching greater importance to the work of West’s early years. There is also general agreement that West’s artistic vision in which the forces of good and evil, life and death, relentlessly clash is greater than the achievement of individual novels in which she sometimes fails to do herself justice. The magisterial Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has stood the test of time well. Now regarded as a classic, it is frequently cited in debates about the break-up of the old Yugoslovia. Much of the curiosity about West in literary circles has centered on the nature of her relationship with Wells and with her son, the author Anthony West, often at the expense of critical engagement with her writing. Anthony, with whom she had a very troubled relationship, wrote many autobiographical pieces about his unhappy childhood highly critical of his mother’s role in his upbringing. More recently, W has benefited from the revival of academic interest in women’s writing of the interwar period and has been bracketed with Elizabeth BOWEN, Rosamond LEHMANN, Storm JAMESON, Sylvia Townsend WARNER, Naomi MITCHISON, and Woolf as one of the most significant British woman writers of the 1920s and 1930s.


Bibliography Deakin, M. F., R. W. (1980); Glendinning, V., R. W. (1987); Hammond, J. R., H. G. Wells and R. W. (1991); Hynes, S., The Essential R. W. (1977); Marcus, J., ed., The Young Rebecca: Writings of R. W., 1911–1917 (1982); Rollyson, C., R. W. (1995)

Mary Joannou

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