West, Rebecca (1892–1983)
West, Rebecca (1892–1983)
English feminist, novelist, and critic, considered by many to be the leading woman journalist of her generation . Name variations: Cicely Isabel Fairfield; "Cissie"; Mrs. Henry Maxwell Andrews; Rachel East. Born Cicely Isabel Fairfield on December 21 (December 25 incorrectly claimed by some sources), 1892, in London, England; died at Kingston House, London, on March 15, 1983; daughter of Charles Fairfield and Isabella (Mackensie) Fairfield; attended day school; at age 11, given scholarship to George Watson Ladies' College, Edinburgh, Scotland; attended Academy of Dramatic Art, London; married Henry Maxwell Andrews, on November 1, 1930; children: (with H.G. Wells) Anthony Panther West (b. August 4, 1914).
Companion of the British Empire (1949); French Legion d'Honneur (1957); Dame of the British Empire (1959); Benson Medal of the Royal Society of Literature (1966); Hon. D.Litt. from New York University (1966); and others.
Was teen-aged participant in suffragist demonstrations; attended Academy of Dramatic Art in London for three terms; made an unsuccessful attempt at an acting career; joined staff of the feminist paper The Freewoman, later The New Freewoman; adopted pseudonym Rebecca West (1912); joined staff of socialist paper The Clarion; wrote for The New Republic, The New Yorker, and numerous other publications; published her first book of nonfiction, Henry James (1916); published first novel, The Return of the Soldier (1918); published major work of nonfiction Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941); published The Meaning of Treason (1941); published major novel The Fountain Overflows (1956); went on British Council lecture tours in Finland and Yugoslavia (1935 and 1936); was a member of the first executive committee of PEN, the worldwide writers' organization; reported on Nuremberg trials (1946); was an eyewitness reporter at the siege of the Iranian Embassy in London (1980), at age 87.
In 1912, a beautiful young would-be actress, fresh from three terms at the Academy of Dramatic Art in London, re-christened herself. Rebecca West, the name she chose, was that of the strong-willed heroine of Henrik Ibsen's Rosmersholm, a role which she herself had briefly played. The production in which she appeared failed to make theatrical history, but the resolute young woman, not yet 20 years old, was to make her chosen pseudonym famous.
In 1892, Rebecca West had been born Cicely, or to her family "Cissie," the youngest of three talented daughters of a gifted but impecunious couple, Charles and Isabella Fairfield . The parents were passionately devoted to music, art, literature and, in the case of Charles, the world of politics. Isabella was Scottish, daughter of Alexander Mackensie, a man of modest means but leader of the orchestra at the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh. Isabella was a fine pianist who might have had a career on the concert stage, so her daughters believed, if she had not been burdened with heavy family responsibilities. Charles Fairfield was of an Anglo-Saxon family, a learned but impractical anti-socialist thinker and journalist, whose shifting plans for supporting his wife and children regularly met with failure. When West was 13, he died alone and penniless in Liverpool after an improbable attempt to make his fortune in Sierra Leone in West Africa. "If he had been found dead in a hedgerow he could not have been more picked bare of possessions," his daughter would later write.
Isabella Fairfield took her young family home to her native Edinburgh. Their fortunes did not mend, nor were her daughters happy. Returning to London, the eldest, Letitia Fairfield , who had attended Edinburgh Medical College for Women on a Carnegie scholarship, took a position as a medical officer; the second, Winifred Fairfield , found a post as a teacher, while Cicely enrolled in the Academy of Dramatic Arts. Despite her good looks and abounding energy, West did not please her teachers. Losing a false mustache when she played Antonio in The Merchant of Venice seemed symbolic of her ill fortune. Acting jobs outside the Academy proved to be few.
It was at that point that West turned to journalism, the field in which her father had been most productive. Writing was natural to her, she said; she had always written. A sympathetic observer of her mother's long and largely unassisted struggle to survive, West was an ardent feminist, a suffragist, a socialist, an anti-imperialist, a New Woman. She had no abnormal "bump of reverence," and she gloried in her ability to enflame.
In November 1911, a feminist newspaper called The Freewoman began publication. For the second issue, West contributed a review of a book on women in India, a review which began with the then shockingly worded declaration, "There are two kinds of imperialists—Imperialists and Bloody Imperialists." She was paid two guineas and featured on billboards. The fledgling journalist was on her way.
West was offered and accepted a staff position on The Freewoman, an appointment which soon introduced her to some of the liveliest minds in the London literary world—Ezra Pound, George Bernard Shaw, and Dora Marsden , her editor, among others. West had already, with her sisters, attended meetings of the Fabian Society, which, under the leadership of Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb , was devoted to "reconstructing society in accordance with the highest moral responsibilities." Socialist but not Marxist, the Fabians sought to achieve their goal through education and political democracy.
London was rife with reformers whose varied causes were intoxicating to a young and idealistic journalist. In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst had founded the Women's Social and Political Union, dedicated to winning the vote for English women, a goal which was to be achieved fully in 1928, a month after Pankhurst's death. West, always independent minded, saw suffrage as only one of many reforms needed to improve the lives of women. She acknowledged that someone had to fight the suffragists' battle, and the WSPU with the Pankhursts in the lead had taken on that task. West championed them eagerly. Her greatest indignation was aroused by the death of Emily Davison , the suffragist who had been imprisoned 8 times and force-fed 49 times until at last she threw her crippled body under a horse's hooves at the Epsom Derby in final protest at injustices committed against women by men. "Oh, men are miserably poor stuff!" cried West. They had proven themselves notoriously inefficient at governing an England which she saw "black with industrialism, foul with poverty, iridescent with the scum of luxury."
The arguments of her adversaries fell like corpses before the fury of her intelligence.
The chance to use her scathing tongue was wonderful to Rebecca, whose idol as a writer was Mark Twain in his satiric mode. Such an attitude was a matter of deep concern to her longsuffering but conservative mother. Isabella Fairfield banned The Freewoman from her house and forbade its being read. To preserve family unity and to save her mother pain, Cicely Fairfield overnight became Rebecca West. The pseudonym was immediately successful. From 1912 on, with the exception of brief essays signed Rachel East, she wrote under the name of Ibsen's heroine.
From The Freewoman and, briefly, the succeeding The New Freewoman, West moved to the socialist paper The Clarion. Soon she was contributing reviews to the Daily News. In 1914, she began to write for a newly founded American periodical, The New Republic. Her first New Republic contribution was an essay entitled "The Duty of Harsh Criticism." "A little grave reflection," she wrote, "shows us that our first duty is to establish a new and abusive school of criticism." In the meantime her own application of this "duty" had wrought important changes in her personal life. In 1911, she had reviewed H.G. Wells' latest novel Marriage, for The Freewoman. The review was acerbic, taunting the author with displaying the literary prudishness of an old maid. Wells, a noted womanizer and too famous to be intimidated, was nevertheless intrigued. He invited the youthful reviewer to lunch at his home. Soon they became lovers. Not long afterwards West found herself pregnant. On August 14, 1914, the day on which England entered World War I, Anthony, West's only child, was born. Despite West's high hopes, there was no question of marriage, since Wells was already married to Catherine Wells , an infinitely patient wife whom he had no intention of divorcing.
Edwardian society still considered an unmarried mother a "fallen woman," and West herself proved not quite the New Woman she had fancied herself to be. For a number of years, she lived a lonely life, moving about from place to place in England and on the Continent. She kept her baby with her but taught him to call her "Auntie" and his father, who took considerable interest in the boy, "Mr. Wells." In time, West legally adopted the child, giving him her pseudonymous surname. Young Anthony adored his father, but, mixed with affection, held a keen and lifelong resentment toward his mother. It was at the time of the publication of Anthony West's own first novel that, against his mother's wishes, he publicly announced his true parentage.
Rebecca West's stormy relationship with H.G. Wells ended after ten years. In 1930, at age 38, she married Henry Maxwell Andrews, who was then an investment banker. A scholarly man, he seems to have given her a measure of happiness and peace. Together, they purchased Ibstone House in Buckinghamshire where the famous Rebecca West could be simply Mrs. Andrews. She enjoyed the countrywoman's life, and both she and Henry took an active part in the affairs of their village. They were generous hosts and patrons, helping many in the troubled Europe of that time. The marriage endured until Henry's death in 1968.
Neither joy nor grief, nor her own always somewhat fragile health, interrupted West's voracious reading or the flow of her own writing. It is estimated that during the course of her professional life she wrote nearly a thousand reviews, many of them still uncollected. "I doubt whether any such brilliant reviews of novels were ever seen before," wrote Frank Swinnerton. "[T]he difficulty of writing any form of criticism which is sensitive to the aims of authors and at the same time inexorable in appraisal of their performance is extreme. This difficulty … Rebecca West mastered." George Bernard Shaw judged that she could "handle a pen as brilliantly as ever I could, and much more savagely." (Of Shaw himself, West was to write, "I passionately resent the fact that God gave him a beautiful style and that he used it to preach tedious and reactionary ideas.") West's basic sympathy in her reviews was always with the poor and underprivileged. Although her socialist ardor abated with the years, she continued to believe that literature should have social significance and a moral purpose.
She was not content with criticism alone, however. In 1918, her first brief novel, The Return of the Soldier, was published. It was to be followed by ten other novels, of which The Fountain Overflows, a Literary Guild selection, has been the most popular. The Fountain Overflows is an autobiographical work, an account enriched by the novelistic imagination of West's own childhood with three sisters and a young brother thrown in for good measure, a valiant and long-suffering mother, a beloved but unreliable father and, pressing down upon them all, the desolations of poverty. Two posthumously published novels, This Real Night and Cousin Rosamund, continue the story of the semi-fictional Aubrey family.
Even voluminous literary criticism and her own fiction failed, however, to express everything that Rebecca West had to say. Her biographer Victoria Glendinning lists ten books of nonfiction. These deal with a wide range of topics, beginning with Henry James published in 1916 and ending with the autobiographical 1900 published in 1982.
The climax of West's writing in this genre—perhaps the climax of all her writing—came with the publication in 1941 of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon which would be followed some years later with The Meaning of Treason and still later by The New Meaning of Treason. The monumental—500,000 word—Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was the result of three trips which West took to Yugoslavia, a troubled, bewildering, and beautiful country with which she fell in love. The book condensed the three journeys into one undertaken with her husband Henry in 1937 when the approach of World War II already shadowed Europe and, with special poignancy, the Balkans. West used the literary form of the travelogue, vividly detailing people met and places visited, but her intention was much broader—to understand this tempestuous world of which she had been ignorant but whose history, art and politics seemed to her to have influenced all European lives.
In the course of her traveling and writing, West came to empathize strongly with the Serbs whom she saw as "poets and philosophers" who had persevered in a centuries-long struggle for freedom, while the Croats were "lawyers," though brave and freedom-loving, too. She was an ardent supporter of the Serb partisan General Draza Mihailovic whom the Yugoslavian Communist
Throughout her adult life, West traveled and lectured widely in Europe and the United States, a country which she much enjoyed. A list of her friends, male and female, reads like a Who's Who of the influential writers and thinkers of her time. A partial tally would include Shaw, John Gunther, Lord Beaverbrook, Sinclair Lewis, Dorothy Thompson, Fannie Hurst, Anais Nin , Alexander Woollcott, Emma Goldman , Noel Coward and Bertrand Russell. She looked on Wells, Shaw, Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy as her literary "uncles." Among the modernists, she especially admired, although she was not personally close to, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf .
Prolific and immensely varied in her own work, West escapes literary classification. Perhaps as a result, she has not received wide critical attention. She herself was never an easy optimist. "All good biography, as all good fiction," she wrote, "comes down to the study of original sin, to our inherent disposition to choose death when we ought to choose life." Nor was she sanguine about the possibility of mutual understanding among people. "I wonder if we are all wrong about each other," she mused, "if we are just composing unwritten novels about the people we meet." And "there is something in the mind of humanity that turns again and again to anti-feminism…. Men are cruel to women … just as we are all cruel to our differences." She considered the 20th century "appalling."
West was never able to give herself completely to any organization. Even early in her career she had left the Women's Social and Political Union because she differed sharply with the Pankhursts, though she continued to support women's suffrage. In a challenging and often hostile world, she was determined to make the most of her own gifts. "She preferred to see herself," writes Motley Deakin, "as a free agent, a free thinker, and she championed the symbols of progress—individual freedom and social democracy." "The best artist, she said," writes Harold Orel, "starts an argument with his audience, and demonstrates through his art that the difficult problems of life can be endured (if not solved)."
Deakin, Motley F. Rebecca West. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1980.
Glendinning, Victoria. Rebecca West: A Life. London, England: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987.
Orel, Harold. The Literary Achievement of Rebecca West. London, England: Macmillan, 1986.
West, Rebecca. Family Memories. NY: Viking, 1988.
Rollyson, Carl. Rebecca West: A Life. NY: Scribner, 1996.
West, Rebecca. The Young Rebecca. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1982.
Wolfe, Peter. Rebecca West Artist and Thinker. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
Principal archives located in the Special Collections Department, McFarlin Library, the University of Tulsa, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University Library. Smaller collections located at the Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, the Berg Collection, New York Public Library, the George Arents Research Library, Syracuse University, and the Lilly Library, Indiana University.
Rebecca West appeared as herself, a "witness" to the past, in the film Reds, co-written and directed by Warren Beatty, 1981.
Margery Evernden , Professor Emerita, English Department, University of Pittsburgh, and freelance writer