Rebecca West’s literary career spanned the twentieth century. From her first articles in London suffragist papers before World War I, to her last reviews in the Sunday Telegraph in the late 1970’s, West was an Anglo-American writer of remarkable range and vitality. Novelist, biographer, literary critic, travel writer, and investigative journalist, West produced dozens of books in multiple genres, and was a popular and critical success on both sides of the Atlantic for decades; a 1948 Time magazine cover story proclaimed her the “No. 1 Woman Writer.” A raconteur whom one acquaintance described as “the most fascinating woman in London,” she moved in select literary circles on both sides of the Atlantic, and she was a personality who seemed to know every literary figure who mattered—Anaïs Nin, Emma Goldman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot (an “awful man”)—and to be lovers of quite a few others (including writer John Gunther, film star Charlie Chaplin, and press baron Lord Beaverbrook).
The paradox, as Carl Rollyson reminds readers frequently in this biography of the person the Columbia Encyclopedia called “one of the finest writers of prose in twentieth-century Britain” is that she is so little known today, is taught so rarely, and has had so few critical studies written about her. The answer to this puzzle may lie in the very length and breadth of West’s career, and Rollyson’s detailed account of it may be the first step in righting the balance.
Rebecca West was born in London as Cicely Fairfield on December 21, 1892, into a family whose circumstances were strained at best. That situation worsened after Cicely’s father abandoned the family when she was eight. She would try to replace him all her life, and her relationships with men, including her own son, were consequently freighted with enormous psychological weight.
She took the name “Rebecca West” (from a character in a Henrik Ibsen play) as she gained fame before World War I, in order not to embarrass her family, and the pen name was well known within a year. The course of her career would be forever changed in 1912 when, at age twenty, she met the forty-six-year-old H. G. Wells, the famed British author ofThe War of the Worlds (1898), Tono-Bungay (1909), and other works. Their ten-year affair produced a son, Anthony West, and created many of the personal problems in West’s later life.
Her first book was a biography of Henry James in 1916, followed by her first novel (The Return of the Soldier) in 1918. For the next sixty years, she would turn out articles and books in a wide range of genres: not only novels (The Thinking Reed, 1936, and The Birds Fall Down, 1966), but collections of criticism (The Strange Necessity, 1928) and journalism (The Meaning of Treason, 1945).
Probably her best-known work is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), an account of her travels through Yugoslavia which remains one of the best descriptions of the tensions among Croats, Serbs, and Muslims, and a book which has continued to be influential in Western policy toward that troubled area into the 1990’s. In the way it is put together, Rollyson writes, this singular masterpiece is also a perfect example of her literary style at its best.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon interweaves characters, dramatic scenes, dialogue, reportage, autobiography, literary criticism, philosophy, theology, and feminism; her insights are grounded in the colloquial as much as they are in art history and figurative language.
Many of West’s books came out of the articles she did for journals on both sides of the Atlantic—she published some of her best work in The New Yorker in the decades after World War II—and after travels to one land or another: to Germany in 1946, for an account of the Nuremberg Trials; to South Carolina later in the 1940’s, for a study of racial tensions; to South Africa in the 1950’s, for observations on apartheid; to Mexico, to Ireland, to Lebanon. The answer to Rollyson’s central question lies in this very breadth of West’s career.
A paradox is at work here. A writer whose novels were not great had a great novelist’s vision, an imagination that soared beyond the imperfections of individual works. The vision overwhelmed her characters, her plots, her life—but it could be leashed to history, to great accounts of courtroom scenes and...
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