William Shaw – long-time editor of The New Yorker – once prophesised that Rebecca West would have a “lasting place in English literature”. Sadly, today, she is largely forgotten except among those with an avid interest in either feminism or books or a combination of both. In her time, however, West was a ubiquitous literary figure, revered and feared in equal measure due to her formidable intelligence and forthright opinions. Speaking during a routine interview, for example, West once described T.S Eliot as a “poseur,” proclaimed she held no admiration for E.M Forster due to his nonsensical novel about India, deemed that George Bernard Shaw had a “poor mind,” said W.B Yeats “boomed like a foghorn” and quipped that Somerset Maugham “couldn’t write for toffee”. This, of course, made for some very titillating copy but there was much more to West than acerbic apothegms. Rebecca West – born Cicely Isabel Fairfield – was a force of nature; wilful, obstinate, exacting, highly influential and successful, she was also a woman of vertiginous contradictions. “A uniquely talented personality, West was showered with rewards and tributes for her novels and journalism during her lifetime,” writes Lorna Gibb in her new biography of the early feminist icon, “Sadly her eclecticism was her undoing; her writing could not be categorised into those pigeon holes so beloved by the literati.” Gibb is an acutely conscientious biographer who goes to painstaking lengths to document the precariously momentous rise of her subject, whose seditious temperament and intrepid nature was evident from early childhood.
While at George Watson’s Ladies College, West was described by the headmistress as having “difficult and radical views” which stemmed from a longing for equal rights for women, and a proactive approach to attain them. Gibb notes, however, that while deeply sympathetic to the Suffragette Movement West also enjoyed the drama surrounding it, which eventually led her to the stage. It was then, after several very average forays into acting, that she became involved with the Fabian Society and began mixing in the same social circles as H. G Wells. The infamous intertwining of their lives and their subsequent tidings is something that Gibb explores throughout the book, focusing considerately on the affair which West dismissed in later life as being wholly uninteresting. This statement, however, smacks of defensive flippancy and Gibb does well to contradict her subject’s proclamation by unravelling their torturous, passionate, dizzyingly intense, mutually stimulating and destructive love affair that changed both their lives. West bore Wells an illegitimate son – Anthony – whose childhood, Gibb explains, was one of “isolation and rejection…bewilderment and great loneliness”. The couple’s domestic life was highly unstable and conducted entirely as an open secret, their son sent away to boarding school at the tender age of three, to guard against gossip and proliferating murmurs of impropriety. Gibb writes assiduously of the difficulties posed to the couple by Wells’ marriage, by the outbreak of war, by West’s tempestuous nature and her lover’s infidelities, by her mounting aversion to domesticity and his growing dependence.
It is through her examination of West’s personal life that Gibb chronicles her subject’s development as a novelist, journalist and a zealous political activist. West’s immersion in various causes, her prolific output and her thriving social life was a direct result of domestic problems with her son, her possessive older lover and her fruitless love affairs, including one with Max Beaverbrook, John Gunther, Tommy Kilner and Steven Martin. Despite her manifest admiration for West, Gibb remains objective throughout the book, portraying its heroine both at her worst and her best, as a neglectful mother and a brilliant writer, as a whimpering paramour and vivacious companion, as a generous friend and a woman of guts and conviction. We get to see various sides to West, which Gibb uncovers page by page, in a bid to give us a clear picture of this now obscure writer, who once yielded tremendous power. West’s World is an intriguing book, carefully researched and written, it reads like a comprehensive account of both West’s personal and professional achievements. But it is also a work whose writer boldly includes the more ridiculous and amusing aspects of human nature, pertaining to her subject’s life and all those who entered it. Gibb documents, for example, an incident when in a bout of rage Wells accused his long-time friend [George Bernard] Shaw of being an “ass”. And another instance when Ford Madox Ford’s wife, Violet Hunt, prompted by impending madness, flung her lace-trimmed knickers out of the balcony. She also comprises less notable but no less humorous bon mots such as when Virginia Woolf likened West’s first novel, The Return of the Soldier, to an “over-stuffed sausage” or when Zelda Fitzgerald threw the biggest party of her entire life in West’s honour, which the latter failed to attend due to logistical glitches. These diversions, however, do not detract from the gravitas of the work but rather add to it a very humane quality which makes West’s World both an insightful and exciting book.
One of the most germane and considered aspects of the biography is West’s familial relationships, among them that with her sisters, her son and her husband, Henry Maxwell Andrews, with whom she felt an affinity due to a mutual sense of social inferiority. Not only that Gibb suggests that West initially saw Henry as a refuge from her troubled past and married him as a sign of “gratitude”. Unlike her relationship with Wells, West’s marriage was more or less solid. Speaking of it once during an interview, she said it had been the most important thing in her life. But the union was by no means an entirely happy one, due to incessant difficulties with Anthony, Wells’ interference and Henry’s chronic philandering, the strain of which rendered the couple’s sex life non-existent. While West’s personal life was always troubled her career prospered, bringing her together with other literary notables such as Anaïs Nin, with whom she formed a friendship bordering on a love affair, Woolf whom West admired but found condescending as she did the whole Bloomsbury set and D.H Lawrence whom she deemed an “angel”. And yet despite her growing reputation, her accolades and tireless work ethic, West faced continuous sexism, which prompted her to famously retort that people thought her militant and a feminist simply because she expressed sentiments that differentiated her from “a doormat or a prostitute”. Gibb touches on this in the book, noting the various unsolicited sexual advances toward West, but never really explores the adversities they presented. She does, however, point out that the only two male contemporaries to offer congratulations to West after she was made a Dame were Eliot and Noel Coward.
But for West sexism was an on-going battle, which often manifested in covert criticism of her work as it did after her coverage of King George VI’s funeral. “If one is a woman writer,” she wrote in reply, “there are certain things one must do – first; not be too good, second, die young, what an edge Katherine Mansfield has on all of us; third, commit suicide like Virginia Woolf. To go on writing and writing well just cannot be forgiven.” Sadly this sentiment still rings true today, particularly in regard to West’s own work, which is now largely overlooked and ignored. But in her time, West was considered among the best political and social commentators, her book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon deemed a definitive account of political travel writing. Her reputation, however, as Gibb explains at the start of West’s World, has suffered greatly due to her “eclecticism” and the fact that she had once been Wells’ mistress. It is difficult to gauge the merits of these two very different writers or try to ascertain the superior of the two, but rather better to concentrate on the facts which Gibb does here. West’s World gives us a well-rounded if somewhat rudimentary picture of Rebecca West as she was – taking into account both the positive and the negative – but it doesn’t consider what her having been might mean today, or how it influenced women’s history. Rebecca West was a writer of great strength, wit and intelligence who rose through the ranks from fairly humble beginnings at a time when social status, money and class determined everything. It would be wrong to deify her for she was a woman of many failings but it would also be wrong to speak of her as a *woman first and a writer after at least in terms of her work and her legacy, which is something West’s World aims to highlight.
*”I’m a writer first and a woman after.” Katherine Mansfield
The Paris Review | Rebecca West
Publication Date: March 2013
Hardback: 304 pages