The Extraordinary Life of Dame Rebecca West
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013
Hardcover. 320 p. ISBN 978-0230714625. £25.00
Reviewed by Christine Reynier
Université Montpellier 3
With West’s World, Lorna Gibb offers her readers an insightful biography of Rebecca West, as successful as her previous Lady Hester, Queen of the East (2005). Lady Hester Stanhope features in the DNB and this entry was selected by Virginia Woolf as the very model of anti-biography: “The writers in the Dictionary of National Biography have a pleasant habit of summing up a life, before they write it, in one word, thus. ‘Stanhope, Lady Hester Lucy (1776-1839)’ ”. Far from summing up West’s life in one word, Lorna Gibb makes us discover the rich life of a writer who was born in 1892, in late Victorian times, and died in 1983, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. As we read, we witness World War One and Two, the Yugoslavian conflict and the McCarthy years. We also follow the struggle of a woman who wanted to be free in Edwardian times but had a child without being married and we see how this plagued her whole life. We also occasionally get a glimpse of her work as a writer of fiction and journalism.
Although Lorna Gibb regrets in her epilogue that “sadly, her work was not the only reason that Dame Rebecca West would be remembered after her death”, her whole biography dwells more on West’s troubled love affairs and difficult relationship with her son than on her work. Gibb’s desire for an objective account devoid of the moralising judgment West faced in her lifetime often ends up in lengthy and somewhat tedious accounts of West’s love affairs that tend to take more room than those of the reception of her work or her work itself. Even the account of the writing of Black Lamb, regarded as West’s masterpiece, is granted fewer pages than Vinaver, the man who accompanied West in her tour of Yugoslavia. As a consequence, the reader often feels she is prying into West’s love life and complicated motherhood without learning much about West the writer. Titles of chapters, often catchy and misleading, encourage such sensational reading. However, the book is well-documented and tries to make the most of a very full and intricate life, the details of which indirectly shed a new light on such novels as The Return of the Soldier or The Judge that one may have read and liked without being fully aware of the autobiographical resonances.
Although she was born in a family struggling after gentility where the mother constantly had to make up for the father’s irresponsible behaviour and gambling, Rebecca West, then Cicely Fairfield, was very early, through her family’s connections and stories, in touch with the realities of Empire, its so-called “civilising” mission, and politics. Having moved from London to Edinburgh after the father’s death, the family went on facing financial problems but most of all, difficulties in fitting in the Edwardian class-bound society (since they neither belonged to the lower nor the middle class). Cicely and her sisters were however given a good education and very early developed radical views, braving conventions and joining groups defending women’s suffrage. The enthusiasm of the suffragettes and the horror of the violent repression they suffered found their way in The Sentinel, West’s first incomplete attempt at a novel, and in The Judge. Cicely became for a brief spell a student at the Academy of Dramatic Art in London and was introduced to the socialist Fabian Society where G.B. Shaw and H.G. Wells were prominent members.
Cicely also started writing for The Freewoman, created by suffragette Dora Marsden in 1911 (and that was to be banned from W.H. Smith’s outlets because of Mrs Humprey Ward’s letter to The Times). Out of respect for her mother’s feelings, she adopted a pen name, Rebecca West, the name of a character in Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm, the mistress of a married man, a prophetic name. West was then asked to write for The Clarion, whose founder was also the founder of the Manchester Fabian society in 1890 and liked her acerbic attacks on society, her new kind of feminism that differed from the austerity of the first Suffragettes, her defence of syndicalism as giving power to both men and women (and not as middle-class idealism, as Webb thought). West’s journalism met with the approval of Vera Brittain and the disapproval of Mrs Humphrey Ward; it gave her access to Violet Hunt and Ford Madox Ford’s literary circle that included Somerset Maugham, May Sinclair and H.G. Wells.
In 1912, West wrote a devastating review of H.G. Wells’s novel, Marriage. As a result, she was invited to tea by Wells and his wife. This was the start of a long troubled love affair between West and Wells that led to the birth of their illegitimate son Anthony, a particularly trying experience for her in conventional Edwardian England and at the very time war was declared on Germany. Leading a secluded life in various places out of London for the sake of her own reputation but mainly for the sake of Wells’, West raised her son and started working again on a book of criticism, Henry James (1916), and her first novel, The Return of the Soldier (1918), meanwhile facing endless domestic problems and the air raids of the coast. When Anthony was sent to boarding-school, she resumed her London life during the week and went on writing. She met Compton Mackenzie, D.H. Lawrence as well as Charlie Chaplin. She started leading a somewhat itinerant life, moving from London to the coast and from England to Italy, Capri especially, and her liaison with H.G. Wells went through various ups and downs. While The Return of the Soldier had been a success, The Judge (1922) was met by mixed reviews, Maugham and Woolf being among the most severe critics.
West’s love life, described in intimate, almost melodramatic details, faced many difficulties, amongst which Wells’s egotism and philandering loomed large; her own attempts at becoming independent and going on working while taking care of her son required a lot of stamina but one would have liked to learn more about her work apart from the fact that she liked writing kneeling on her chair. In 1923, West sailed for New York on a lecture tour which was only half-successful and where her immoral life was pointed out. However this was the beginning of a life-long connection with the States. In those years, she seems to have led a frenetic social and love life. She began a love affair with John Gunther, an American journalist, then with Prince Bibesco. She also struck up a friendship with Vyvyan Holland, the son of Oscar Wilde, which led her much later to defend Wilde’s work and memory. As Gibb writes, “romantic liaisons and the social whirl were only a partial distraction from her continuing troubles with Anthony”, especially since Wells had broken with him on account of his conversion to Catholicism. It was only after the death of his wife, Jane, that Wells came closer to his son but this resulted in tense relations with West. In 1928, she published The Strange Necessity, a collection of criticism where she both praised and poked fun at Wells, Shaw, Galsworthy and Bennett, and which was not much acclaimed.
West continued reviewing for The Herald Tribune and worked on Harriet Hume, a fantasy set in postwar London which, when it was published, was reviewed favourably, except by Woolf who called it “tight and affected”. West still struggled with Wells about their son but found relief in summers spent regularly in Agay on the French Riviera. She met Vera Brittain and through her, Henry Andrews, whom she married in 1930, after changing the traditional wedding vows, omitting especially the word “obey” from them. However Henry proved to be as much of a womaniser as her former lovers.
West worked on a biography of St Augustine and reviewed Anaïs Nin’s book on D.H. Lawrence, which led to a friendship between these two admirers of D.H. Lawrence. While in New York, she wrote The Thinking Reed, “a comic portrayal of the Côte d’Azur”. In 1936, she was invited to make a lecture tour in Yugoslavia and fell in love with the country in spite of the difficulties and health problems she faced there. She went back several times amidst the escalating tensions of the late 1930s. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), part-history, part-travelogue, came out of it: a masterpiece with a clear insight into conflicts between Christian and Islamic traditions, a commentary on the political situation of Yugoslavia which was a “wild success”, in West’s own words, and is still interesting today.
West was committed in other ways in those years: she wrote an article against Franco while Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot remained neutral in theirs; she appraised the situation the Balkans would be caught in even before the Second World War broke out; she and her husband also helped Jews to leave to America in the late 1930s. She bought a house in Buckinghamshire where she spent the war years. After a quiet spell when her son took to farming, her troubles with him started again while Wells was terminally ill with cancer. She managed to work on her Russian novel and in her journalism, criticised Britain for taking too long to stand up to the Nazis as well as for supporting Tito.
After the war, she was asked to write articles about various trial cases and gathered them in a book, The Meaning of Treason. She also wrote an article on the Nuremberg trial (1949), collected in A Train of Powder, and broached other topics such as a black lynching in the States or the fascist riots in London. When The Meaning of Treason came out in 1949 in the States, West was lauded as “one of the greatest of living journalists”; she went on doing a lot of political journalism there, exposing communist infiltration, just as in her own family she was extremely critical of her grand-daughter’s allegiance to the Communist Party. She was also acknowledged as a great writer when she was awarded a CBE in 1949.
After the death of Wells, the squabbles with her son became very bitter about his inheritance and what to reveal of their lives to the public. In 1955, Anthony published Heritage, an autobiographical account of his upbringing as he saw it, “a screaming book of hate”, according to West. This necessarily hindered her work just as Henry’s philandering and then, illness did. The publication of The Fountain Overflows led to a lecture tour in the United States; these lectures were later published in The Court and the Castle, reviewed favourably by renowned critics like Frank Kermode; it helped to cement her literary reputation. West was later made a Dame, in 1959. She gave evidence in the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1962, went on reviewing for The Sunday Telegraph and the Times Literary Supplement and in 1965, published The Birds Fall Down. When Henry died, she went back to live in London. She also travelled a lot, thus getting some relief from the recurrent troubles with her son and other members of her family. She died in 1983, hoping that her work, rather than her life-story, would be “her greatest legacy”.
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