A biografia de Rebecca West, de Lorna Gibb
NOTA DE LEITURA
Gostei muito desta biografia de Rebecca West, o nome literário de Cecily Isabel Fairfield. Não concordo com os que criticam a Autora por não discutir a obra da biografada porque, afinal, isso iria além da biografia. Também não tinha a obrigação de dar a sua opinião sobre a faceta que mais caracterizou Rebecca West: a de romancista ou a de jornalista? a de militante política ou a de feminista? e assim por diante. Seria pedir demais.
É verdade que Lorna Gibb está sempre do lado de Rebecca em todas as disputas que esta teve: com o amante n.º 1, H.G. Wells, com os que se seguiram, com o filho Anthony West e com as irmãs dela e é possível que, de vez em quando, perca alguma objectividade. Na relação de Rebecca com o filho, para ela é sempre este que fica mal. Ora ela obrigou o rapaz a tratá-la até aos 10 anos por Auntie Panther e ao pai por Wellsie, deixando o menino perplexo e complexado por não saber quem eram os seus pais.
O livro, porém, está muito bem documentado e conta a vida dela toda de fio a pavio.
Permanece algum mistério nas relações de Rebecca West com os seus amantes. É provável, porém, que ainda haja correspondência que não se possa ainda consultar.
É muito estranha a rejeição que Rebecca encontrava em alguns amantes, por quem até estava apaixonada. O próprio marido cessou todo o relacionamento sexual ao fim de dois anos de casamento. Porquê, não se sabe. Por volta de 1935, apaixonou-se por um cirurgião plástico que a operou, Thomas Pomfret Kilner, que ela chamava "Tommy". Dormiu com ele uma noite, estava apaixonada loucamente, mas, a partir daí, ele passou a fugir dela como o diabo da Cruz. Também a relação com Max Beaverbrook se fanou rapidamente, apesar de ela o perseguir durante muito tempo.
Lorna Gibb foi também muito criticada pela deficiente revisão do livro. Quanto ao conteúdo, vou procurar a biografia de Victoria Glendinning em 1987, para fazer comparações.
The Washington Post
Book review: ‘The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West’ by Lorna Gibb
THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF REBECCA WEST
By Lorna Gibb
Counterpoint. 320 pp.
Lorna Gibb tells us, in this sensible and readable biography of the great Rebecca West, that once at lunch with various luminaries including the Aga Khan, Odette Keun, H.G. Wells’s mistress of the moment, “turned to the Aga Khan, asking him to back up her opinion that the English were prudish in public but ‘lubricious in private.’ ” The remark seems to have embarrassed most (if not all) at the table, but surely truer words have rarely been spoken. If friendships and rivalries are dominant themes of British literary life, sex in all its various manifestations runs them a close second, and rarely more so than in the life of Cicely Isabel Fairfield, born in 1892, who changed her name to Rebecca West in 1911 and proceeded to cut an exceedingly strange swath through the bedrooms of the literati.
The novelist Andrea Barrett, in her otherwise thoughtful introduction to the New York Review of Books edition of West’s best novel, “The Fountain Overflows,” writes that “West seems to have possessed the full complement of human weaknesses — vanity, vengefulness, selfishness, insecurity, deceitfulness among them.” But after a careful reading of “The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West” and a return visit to Victoria Glendinning’s “Rebecca West” (1987), I am convinced that, although this is a widely held view of West, it is oversimplified and essentially inaccurate. Gibb describes the young Cicely Fairfield in far more sympathetic terms, which strikes me as closer to the truth and goes far to explain the compulsive and at times inexplicable sexual behavior in which she engaged. “So much of what Rebecca presented to the world was a protective mask,” Gibb writes, a mask intended not merely to present her as fierce and indomitable (both of which she indeed was), but also to hide her deeply conflicted feelings about her sexuality and how men responded to it, as well as about her place in society.
West was a feminist before the word had gained wide usage, but as a daughter of late Victorian and Edwardian England, she was a feminist with an asterisk. She “wrote angrily about the necessity of better working conditions for women,” yet “more than once she remarked to friends that there was nothing as sad and lonely as the lot of a woman who did not have a man.” Her own men included, most notoriously, the celebrated H.G. Wells, a serial philanderer, with whom she cohabited irregularly and often tempestuously for about a decade beginning in 1912 and with whom she had a son, Anthony West; Max Beaverbrook, the impossibly egotistical proprietor of the Daily Express; John Gunther, who later became noted for his “Inside” books about various places around the world; a “dashing Romanian prince called Antoine Bibesco . . . well known for his promiscuity”; Francis Biddle, American judge at the Nuremberg trials; and sundry others.
I emphasize all this not out of prurient interest (though of course that may lurk sub rosa), but because West was one of those rare writers whose personal lives are of as much interest as their literary ones and because Gibb has chosen to emphasize this aspect of West’s long (she died in 1983, at age 90) and uncommonly active life. She “was fatally drawn to men who were difficult,” and even in her marriage of more than three decades to Henry Andrews she found that she had repeatedly and flagrantly been cheated on by a man whom she treasured for his “kindness and sweetness and sympathy” yet who forsook their marital bed not long after entering it, leaving her even more insecure about herself as a sexual being.
Not only did she have mostly dastardly lovers, but her son was, as she said more than once, a monster. Anthony West had been brought up in circumstances unlikely to ensure emotional stability — for years his famous father, whom he worshipped, declined to recognize him as his son, and the boy was expected to call his mother “Auntie” — and he made the worst of his opportunities. He turned into an arrogant, greedy, self-pitying, deceitful rat who made his mother’s life as miserable as he possibly could, vilifying her by innuendo in his books (like his parents, he was a gifted writer) and frequently reducing her to tears. He told her that she was “worthless and repellent and frightful,” and he was abetted in his attack by the jackals of the press on both sides of the Atlantic, who thought that he made good copy.
It is genuinely remarkable, considering the strains that her personal life placed on her, that West had one of the great writing careers of the 20th century. How widely she is now read seems to me unclear — both Gibb and Glendinning end their biographies with questionable assertions that she lives on through the readership of her books — but she certainly should be. Her account of Yugoslavia before World War II, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” a classic of several genres, among them history, travelogue and self-portrait, remains in print, as do a few of her other books, but a comprehensive collection of her journalism does not exist, and instead one must fish around for smaller volumes such as “The New Age of Treason” and “A Train of Powder.”
As one who has spent his entire working life in journalism, I am always reluctant to ascribe greater importance to the work of those in the trade than it deserves, but West’s journalism, like George Orwell’s and H.L. Mencken’s, rises far above the quotidian. Early in her career, when she was still Cissie Fairchild, she wrote that “there are two kinds of imperialists — imperialists and bloody imperialists,” and this fixation on the uses and abuses of power remained with her to the end. She despised totalitarianism and communism, in which regard she was almost always in the right but did make an unfortunate slip when, in 1953, she took a surprisingly sanguine view of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joe McCarthy. Like many British writers of various political persuasions, she knew less about the United States than she thought she did.
Say it for her, though, that right or wrong — and usually she was right — she was never reluctant to have her say or to offend the comfortable. She was born an outsider, into a family of great intellectual and artistic gifts but little money or familial cohesion, and she spent her life on the outside looking in, which may explain why she felt an affinity for Scott Fitzgerald even though he absent-mindedly offended her with a piece of ill behavior; he invited her to a party, said he would have her picked up, then neglected to do so. She liked the idea of being on the inside, and as she became famous and prosperous (though never rich), she indulged herself in elegant residences and good restaurants, but the vantage point of the outsider was always essential to her views.
Though its title sounds rather like a poster for an act in the circus, “The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West” is a fair, sympathetic but forthright portrait of its subject and should — so at least may be hoped — help her find new readers. It would not have hurt had Gibb devoted a few more pages to West’s work — her offhand dismissal of the magnificent “The Fountain Overflows” is a puzzling dereliction of biographical duty — and in that regard Glendinning is better, but all in all this is a lucid and accessible biography of this endlessly fascinating woman. As Gibb says, West was a woman of “surprising contradictions,” and this biography captures them all without losing sight of the very real person in whom they resided.
May 23, 2014
From an outsider’s perspective, British novelist and journalist Rebecca West seemed to have it all. She was a writer surrounded by the literary elite of her time, a cosmopolitan woman whose lovers and admirers included writer H.G. Wells and actor Charlie Chaplin. But as Lorna Gibb reveals in “The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West,” behind the scenes West struggled fiercely with “the endless troubles of everyday life” as she simultaneously wrote about them for her readers.
Born Cicely (“Cissie”) Isabel Fairfield in 1892, the young woman who aspired to become an actress quickly discovered that her talent lay with the written, not the spoken, word. She published her first piece for the Freewoman, a suffragist publication, when she was 19 and soon after adopted a pen name to spare her mother embarrassment: Thus, the writer Rebecca West was born.
West may have gotten a rousing start to her career, but her poor choices in love haunted her for the rest of her life. Barely two years after she began her career, West embarked on a passionate affair with the notorious womanizer H.G. Wells. In short order she found herself unmarried and pregnant; while she defended the rights of unmarried mothers in print, she did not necessarily want to join their ranks.
West’s son, Anthony, was born within hours of the beginning of World War I, a fitting start to one of West’s most painful relationships. Not surprisingly, she found motherhood incompatible with her work and struggled with Wells’ constant pressure to keep her housebound with Anthony, moving regularly to evade gossip.
Gibb maintains that West’s own philandering father would “shadow every serious romantic relationship that Cissie ever had,” and proves this point over and over. From West’s destructive long-term relationship with Wells to her painful 38-year marriage to Henry Maxwell Andrews, she repeatedly involved herself with men who would emotionally and physically disappoint her. Her mother-son relationship was no exception.
This biography’s focus is on West’s dramatic and demanding private life, although Gibb does address her multiple works and awards, and her dogged pursuit of new projects in spite of her critics. As West herself remarked to a friend, “If one is a woman writer there are certain things one must do — first, not be too good; second, die young … third, commit suicide like Virginia Woolf. To go on writing and writing well just can’t be forgiven.”
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
7 April 2013
Rebecca West deserves better than this sloppy retelling of her fascinating life
"Just how difficult it is to write a biography," observed Rebecca West in Vogue in 1952, "can be reckoned by anybody who sets down just how many people know the truth of his or her love affairs." In West's case, this instinctive association of biography with romantic secrets is apt.
Next to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her brilliant account of a journey through Yugoslavia in 1937, and perhaps The Meaning of Treason, her study of the Nuremberg trials, West is now remembered chiefly for her long affair with HG Wells, her many lovers and a noble life, spanning much of the 20th century, that struggled to reconcile being a passionate and ambitious woman in a harsh male world.
West was born a Victorian, Cicely Isabel Fairfield in 1892, but came of age in Edwardian London as a suffragette, a Fabian socialist and a fiery freelance who took her nom de plume from an Ibsen play. She said she "wanted to be taken seriously as a writer", but her pseudonym was both provocative and prophetic. InRosmersholm, "Rebecca West" is the mistress of a married man.
Fairfield/West had a lot to escape from, and plenty to hide. Young Cissie was enthralled by her sexually wayward father, a gambler, disgraced soldier, sometime journalist and down-at-heel seducer. His daughter idolised him as a "shabby Prospero". Actually, he disappeared to Australia, leaving a family of not-so-genteel women to fend for themselves. Here, however, Cissie lucked out.
Edwardian England is often described as an imperial swan song of big dinners and hot summers brought to an abrupt close by the great war. But it was also a decisive decade in which a new generation of emancipated young men and women separated themselves from their Victorian parents through the twin rebellions of work and sex.
Dedicated to both these drives, Rebecca West was completely at home in a confident new society. She launched a career as a journalist, writing in the Freewoman and the Clarion, suffragette publications, and began a lifelong quest for a "boof", a beautiful boy. By 1916, she had pulled off a remarkable double: the succès fou of her Henry James biography and her rollercoaster affair (plus an illegitimate son) with HG Wells, a literary giant of the age.
West was always a divided and divisive figure, cheerfully embodying many contradictions. Virginia Woolf described her as "a cross between a charwoman and a Gypsy", with dirty fingernails. Others saw her as "a hardened old reprobate", but also a siren whose voice was "compounded of milk and honey". Being both a class outsider as well as a sexual predator seems to have drawn her to Wells, who fell in love with her "dark, expressive troubled eyes" and "big, soft mouth".
The rest of her career was conducted in the shadow, and according to the conventions, of her Edwardian beginnings. The relationship with Wells cooled. The rage of their son consumed and tormented her without mercy. Anthony West's versions of his mother's character pursued her to the grave (she died in 1983) and beyond.
Who was Rebecca West? A feminist pioneer who also believed in marriage? A brilliant journalist who wrote a 20th-century classic? A jill of all trades whose life and loves mirror their century? Despite her publisher's claim of a "definitive biography", Lorna Gibb fails to illuminate these questions.
West's World is really what Auden called "a shilling life", the retelling of a career we love to read about, lazily written and sloppily edited. Anthony West did not write HG Wells in Love. The editor of the TLS in 1970 was Arthur Crook, not Cook.
For a fuller understanding of this fascinating woman, we're better off returning to another biography, published as recently as 1987, by Victoria Glendinning. Strangely, Lorna Gibb hardly refers to this. I wonder why.
Lara Feigel is frustrated by a biography of the tempestuous life of a pioneering writer, thinker and proponent of female sexuality
Rebecca West is a major figure in 20th-century literature. Her prose is instantly recognisable, with its long, coolly balanced sentences and its precise, startling imagery. And there are places and people that will now always be seen through her eyes: Yugoslavia, on the brink of war; the Nazi high command in the Nuremberg dock. West was a key player in three generations of literary life, and she was loved and hated by many of the most powerful men of her day. According to HG Wells, who took her virginity and fathered her child: "I had never met anything like her before, and I doubt if there was anything like her before."
Born Cicely Fairfield in 1892, West borrowed her name, aged 20, from a character in Ibsen's Rosmerholm. "Live, work, act," says Ibsen's heroine, "don't sit here and brood." By the time of her 21st birthday, West was famous for her savage reviews and her dark, troubled eyes. She was also pregnant. Anxious to avoid scandal, Wells hid West away in Southend. "Jaguar" now visited his "Panther" whenever he could, although once the baby arrived Wells was irritated that West had less time to mother him.
The West-Wells relationship progressed in stops and starts for 10 years in which West flourished as a writer, but felt thwarted as a woman. Afterwards, there was a series of abortive liaisons which, bizarrely, often seem to have left the men impotent (Charlie Chaplinand Max Beaverbrook among them). West's position as an unmarried mother was difficult, so, in 1930, she was pleased to marry Henry Andrews, a banker desperate to look after her.
"My husband can do everything that I can, better than I can," West once said, somewhat wishfully. The marriage gave West confidence as a public figure.
She produced the novelistic journalism and travel writing she is best remembered for today and fought fascism and then communism. But Andrews turned out to be neither as strong nor as adoring as West had hoped. After seven years he stopped wanting marital sex and West saw this as one of the central tragedies of her life.
West's story has been told twice already by two masterful biographers.Victoria Glendinning's brief life from 1987 is a portrait of a friend. It makes no claims to be comprehensive, but is consistently insightful, alive to West's emotional contradictions. Carl Rollyson's 1996 life is authoritatively comprehensive. Rollyson is a punchy storyteller and is very good on the autobiographical content of West's novels, though he has a tendency to read her emotional life a little schematically (admittedly, a tendency West herself shared).
If there remains a need for a third life, then it is not for a cradle-to-grave biography. What's fascinating about West is her blending of private and public – of the personal with the political – in her life and writing. The themes of the life and of the books are intertwined, so a new biography could disentangle and examine any particular set of strands. For example, there is a book to be written that uses West's life and writing to ask what sex is, for the sensual woman, and how this can relate to politics. West once praised DH Lawrence for doing justice to the seriousness of life; for laying "sex and those base words for it on the salver of his art". This is how she lived and how she wrote. By shamelessly mothering an illegitimate child, West inadvertently became one of the first women to broadcast the female need for sex. Later, in the face of frequent rejection, she insisted that women could love and desire as fiercely as men, scorning the men who quaked before her strength. A biographer could explore female sexuality during the period when it was shaped; when it first became possible for sex to be the prime force in the life of an eminent, thinking woman.
Unfortunately, Gibb does not seem to have considered which aspects of West's life remain uncharted before writing West's World. Reading Gibb's book, it appears that it falls to her to document West's 90 years month by month. The fact that she attempts to do this in such a slim book means that any discussion of either West's work or her inner life is necessarily more cursory than it is in Rollyson's book, belying West's World's claim to be "the definitive biography".
Even within these constraints, Gibb makes odd choices about what to include. We learn more about West's son's school reports than we do about the results of her own psychoanalysis, even though she recorded the analysis (and the "Father Violation Memory" it revealed) at length. West once said that she wrote her novels to find out what she felt, not to display what she knew. This is a gift for the biographer, but there is almost no analysis here of the truths revealed in West's many autobiographical novels. Gibb is good on the portrayal of Yugoslavia in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, but, although she acknowledges it as partly a depiction of West's marriage, she does not analyse the kind of marriage depicted.
This is disappointing enough, but Gibb's account is also marred by an obtrusive style, with most sentences bursting with cliched adjectives. Wells is "charming", with "piercing blue eyes", and West is too often "young" and "passionate"; voices are "mellifluous" and rain is "torrential". The laziness of the prose is shown up by the originality of West's own writing. According to West, men utter platitudes to please "the bats at the back of his soul"; on first appearances Henry Andrews is a "dull giraffe".
In the preface to her book, Gibb describes watching a short film about West in the British Library. West disappears, leaving behind an empty garden "and more importantly, her words, millions upon millions of them, the only things that might help me conjure her again". If only Gibb had made more use of West's words in attempting to conjure her world.
Lara Feigel's The Love-charm of Bombs is published by Bloomsbury.
In the foreword to her 1987 biography of Rebecca West – novelist, journalist, critic and grande dame of letters, but equally famed as one of the mistresses of H G Wells and mother of his son, Anthony – Victoria Glendinning acknowledged that there was room for further accounts of this multifaceted character. (Hers was published only four years after her subject’s death.) In 1995, Carl Rollyson produced Rebecca West: a Saga of the Century and now it is the turn of Lorna Gibb, whose previous work was a biography of Lady Hester Stanhope.
Gibb cannot be faulted for the scope of her research and the amount of material she has unearthed; what she has done with that material is slightly more problematic. Rebecca West was born Cicely (Cissie for short) Fairfield in 1892 in a rented house near Paddington station, the youngest of three sisters, to an Anglo-Irish father, Charles, and Isabella.
Charles Fairfield was a romantic figure to his daughters, full of tales of past family glories and of his Irish childhood. But in 1901 he left home and died five years later, alone and completely penniless, in Liverpool. What his wife and daughters never knew, and what Gibb makes clear, is that Charles was a convicted criminal, who, before he ever met Isabella, had served a five-year jail term for theft.
The pseudonym “Rebecca West” first made its appearance in 1912, when its owner was beginning to become known as a journalist and critic; she chose the name, apparently at random, from a play by Ibsen. The following year she met Wells, the man who was to become central to her life. This was, and has remained, a mysterious relationship, and Gibb makes little effort to solve the puzzle. One day Rebecca hardly knew Wells, the next she was suffering from “the grandest kind of passion” and was desperate to have him make love to her. Maybe that was how it felt – as inexplicable to the protagonists as to the readers, but one could do with a little more exploration from a biographer. Was this really a grand passion? Or the overreaction of an innocent 20 year-old to a flirtatious kiss? The author might at least ask the question, even if she has no definitive answer to give. As it is, her treatment of this pivotal moment in West’s life is so cursory as to be almost useless. All we get are flat phrases, such as “Rebecca was infatuated” and “Rebecca was distraught”. Whatever her feelings or motivation, after only the second time they slept together, West was pregnant.
Wells had no wish to jeopardise his comfortable domestic existence with his wife and legitimate children. What he needed from West was an amusing young companion and a lover. And so this apparently independent and feisty young woman, so intellectually gifted and ambitious, took on the role of the semi-hidden mistress, expected to be constantly available but never demanding. It is the central paradox of her life.
The deeply tortured relationship between West and her son Anthony does not receive any in-depth treatment here. It is clear that West was a self-dramatist, a narrator of her own life, who frequently had difficulty distinguishing between reality and imagination, and that these traits were inherited by her son. Yet Gibb presents all their disagreements and rows entirely from West’s point of view, making Anthony seem a complete monster. Glendinning’s take on this relationship was far more nuanced and consequently, one suspects, more accurate. According to her account, mother and son “fulfilled one another’s awful expectations in a way that would be ludicrous if it were not so sad”.
West had far sounder judgment in political affairs than in her personal life. Her book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, for instance, is still valued for its insights into the former Yugoslavia, and, at a time when many of her contemporaries took one side or the other, she was seduced neither by fascism nor communism.
That she was herself aware of the contradictions in her life is evident from her decision to submit herself to Freudian analysis, well before this became a usual thing to do. This episode is completely glossed over by Gibb, who merely tells us that West “travelled to Florence, where she underwent psychotherapy”. It would have been good to have learnt a little more about this, and maybe less about some gratuitous details, such as the “tragic” death of West’s cat.
The offspring of literary parents rarely fare well, or so it seems in biography. Lorna Gibb's fair and balanced account of the life of Rebecca West (1892-1983) finds itself almost as preoccupied with West's relationship with her son as with the writer herself. Is this a bad thing? Not when such a relationship reveals so much about both the woman and the writer: then, it becomes essential.
“Rebecca West” was a pseudonym for Cicely Isabel Fairfield, “a 'Mary Pickford' of a name for someone blonde and pretty” that “wouldn't have suited a professional writer through her life at all”. The pseudonym was taken from Ibsen's play Rosmersholm, about a woman who becomes the mistress of a married man. I'm not sure how much West reflected on that choice later when she became the mistress of the married HG Wells, but there's a suggestion that for all the psychological acuity she showed in her novels, she displayed less of it in real life, especially in her relations with men.
Her early encounter with Wells, who had asked to meet the young female journalist who had crucified his latest novel Marriage, resulted in pregnancy for the then 20-year-old West. Tellingly, she gave her son names that showed no indication of his paternal lineage – Anthony “Panther” West. As Gibb points out, it was West who gave herself and Wells the nicknames “Panther” and “Jaguar” respectively, as she loved cats. Her son had two fictional names then, both reflections of his mother.
West's relationship with Wells, which overtook her flourishing career as a journalist but did spark her in a new direction as a novelist, lasted for 10 years. It's a hard relationship to track, as Wells destroyed most of the letters West sent him during that time. When West met her husband, Henry Andrews, though, she had recovered her passion for journalism. It wasn't long into the marriage before she embarked on her trips to Yugoslavia, which would result in what Gibb considers West's greatest work, Black Lamb, Grey Falcon (1941).
Gibb presents a West who is a believably busy, preoccupied, focused figure. She commendably does not spare her heroine when it comes to relations with Anthony, or with the other men in her life. Despite a great deal of the misery being involved with a married man caused her, West never seemed to learn from her mistake and continued to get involved with men who were mostly spoken-for. The sexual side of her marriage failed after only a couple of years, but she never seems to have wondered whether Henry might be getting satisfaction elsewhere, and seems genuinely devastated when she finds, after his death, details of a long love affair.
But it's Anthony who dominates – the “monster” son who writes a condemnatory novel of his early life with his parents, Heritage, and another autobiographical tale, David Rees, Among Others. The son is kept in denial of his own parentage, bullied at school, treats his first wife badly, and causes his mother constant anguish. Gibb doesn't deny Anthony's weak points but there is a latent sympathy for this son of two brilliant writers who would never match up to what they had achieved. West's relationship with him reveals her as a controlling, dominant and often short-sighted woman, but it also highlights her spectacular writing success, partly because it is set against writing failure. Her literary achievements were extraordinary; her personal life, perhaps inevitably, would always be found wanting. Anthony, one suspects, came off the worst for it.
Lesley McDowell's 'Between The Sheets' is published by Duckworth
explains how Rebecca West’s remarkably liberated attitude to life cost her dear
Lorna Gibb ends her book on Rebecca West by saying: ‘That she would be remembered because her work would go on being read was her greatest legacy.’ A more measured suggestion might be found in a sentence 20 pages earlier, from a 1973 survey of her writing: ‘Dame Rebecca’s work has not fused in the minds of critics, and she has no secure literary status.’
It is always dangerous to declare what posterity will think, but West does seem to be on the slide. Some of her books are in print. They now seem quite mixed in quality. Of her novels, is probably the best: a late-ish autobiographical novel, with some charming whimsy and some very unexpected turns in direction. (I like the impoverished cousin, plagued with poltergeists in the middle of afternoon tea, and doing her best.)
West was born Cicely Fairfield, a name she quite rightly dismissed as impossible for a serious woman writer, a Mary Pickford name ; is her most Cicely-ish novel, and all the better for it. Apart from that, however, the novels have dated. Her first, , is atrociously snobbish and contrived, and sets a tone of psychological falsity that, for me, never quite goes away. You often feel, even in such late novels as the Russian Revolution extravaganza , that psychological plausibility has been abandoned to make the characters serve a complex fictional design. It doesn’t help that West was never very good at dialogue, and in episodes like the famous 100-page conversation on the train in openly regarded the skill of animating speech as quite dispensable.
Her masterpiece, alas, is — I say ‘alas’ for three reasons. First, it is about the specialised subject of Balkan history, though it has much larger implications. Secondly, its idea of history as vast-reaching causes is very much out of fashion, and it now has a strong period flavour. Thirdly, you have to be pretty keen on the subject or its author to embark on it, since it’s half a million words long. It is, however, a tremendous book which got the Balkans pretty well right. I suspect that West invested in the Balkans after 1936 because the previous war had kicked off with an incident there; she may have been tempted to go in case the next one started in the same place. Still, is an immense, panoramic and rich book about all sorts of incidental things.
West’s career was largely built on doing and thinking the unfashionable thing. ‘From the age of 18,’ Penelope Fitz-gerald once wrote of her, ‘she made her own life, but she was not altogether satisfied with the results.’ Sometimes she was completely wrong, as in her insistence that the McCarthy witch-hunt was necessary in the fight against communism, and American liberals should stop belly-aching about it. Sometimes, as in her insistence that traitors who fed atomic secrets to the Soviets were just as bad as Nazi collaborators, she now seems completely correct.
Nothing in her life, however, was as counter-cultural as her insistence, from a very young age, on inventing how a woman might live her life. She had a child with H.G.Wells at 22, with no chance of marrying its father. Before finally marrying the financier Henry Andrews in 1930, she conducted several affairs openly: the number and frequency of the relationships, long or very short indeed, would probably cause comment even today. She was evidently trying to see what women’s lives could be like, once liberated from the old criteria of good husband, good conduct and few ideas in the virtuous head. She paid a terrible price in that the son, Anthony West, brought up any old how, grew to hate her, to treat women appallingly, and to publish a number of very personal denunciations of her. On her deathbed, she refused to see him.
These factors have acted as catnip to biographers — it is a compelling story, whatever you think of Rebecca’s books. The best life is by Victoria Glendinning, who conveys the atmosphere of the time, and the heroic quality of West’s endeavour. Gibb begins by quoting West’s comment on ‘our curious national habit of writing monographs on one subject without looking into its context’. She might have thought, too, about West’s idea, in , that most women were ‘idiots’, meaning concerned only with themselves and not with the world around them — West fought against this all her life.
You won’t, however, find much command of context here. No mention of her contemporaries and sometimes friends May Sinclair, Storm Jameson or Rose Macaulay, and little explanation of West’s world. If you know who West’s lover Max Beaverbrook was, and what he meant, fine; if not, he is just a man who lives in Fulham, and it might come as rather a surprise to discover, later on, that he owned some newspapers.
This casual treatment of the context runs on throughout. ‘Most painful of all was a photograph she found in one of Henry’s drawers … it was of a woman called Irene Ravensdale, whom Rebecca had thought of as a friend.’ It’s astonishing to pass over Lord Curzon’s eldest daughter like this, and to neglect the high degree of celebrity she possessed in her day and the fame she still maintains. Readers like me who know perfectly well who Baroness Ravensdale was shouldn’t be confused by ‘a woman called’; readers who don’t should benefit from a single-sentence explanation. Similarly, Rebecca’s blunt assertion after an encounter with Roberto Rossellini that he was ‘a show-off, very gabby, ignorant and pretentious’, a talentless mountebank whose idea for a script that Rebecca might write was ‘not enough to make a good film’ is left as it is. Some readers might like to be reminded that the film, in the end made without West’s help, was , one of the great masterpieces of the century. It’s not just a case of getting things wrong, like calling the author of ‘von Arnhim’. It’s a case of not really knowing what, and who, was significant to the time. The worst instance of this comes when thinking about Rebecca’s marriage to Henry. Why did so outwardly respectable a figure not care that he was marrying a sexually promiscuous woman with an illegitimate teenage son? Henry was a notorious bottom-pincher: was he excited by West’s past? The puzzle hardly seems to be recognised.
The problem may be the limits of Gibb’s research. She has gone thoroughly through the published material, and may have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of West’s writings — certainly we rarely hear about her from other observers. Much of the biography is taken up with summaries of West’s letters, diaries or journalism that go like this:
The coal miners’ strike of 1972 disturbed Rebecca, chiefly because she thought that the government had handled it all so badly. She was convinced that the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, should resign.
There is very little about West’s business dealings, and almost nothing about her relations with publishers. There is, however, a lot about cats, including one called Zadok the Priest who is said to meet ‘a precipitous death…hit by a car’. Rebecca was a gregarious woman all her life, but Gibb’s interviews with those who knew her personally are limited to a couple of late secretaries and members of her family. Is there really nobody still around in literary London who remembers a writer who died in 1983? The result is a surprisingly short and superficial life, which unearths very little, if any, new information and has not much to say of any interest about the writing.