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Rebecca West

Rebecca West Essay - West, Rebecca (Pseudonym of Cecily Fairfield Andrews)

West, Rebecca (Pseudonym of Cecily Fairfield Andrews)

West, Rebecca (Pseudonym of Cecily Fairfield Andrews) 1892–

Dame Rebecca is an English novelist, journalist, critic, and travel writer. A diversified artist with contributions in many fields, West has maintained throughout her work a distinctive style marked by a witty, unique turn of phrase. An early devotee of James and Proust, West explores in her fiction the psychological motivations of her characters. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

"There have as yet been very few women thinkers and artists", Rebecca West wrote in 1931; "that is to say, women who have not adopted masculine values as the basis of their work."… The point that Dame Rebecca was making was not that woman artists should be explicitly and exclusively feminine, but rather that they should be free to realize their gifts without considering the roles that social definitions of gender impose…. For Dame Rebecca, the ideal creative condition for a woman is to be beyond roles—to be a mirror of reality itself. Virginia Woolf was saying much the same thing, at the same time, in A Room of One's Own, when she described the "androgynous mind", and offered as a definition that "it is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided".

Whether one takes Dame Rebecca's definition or Virginia Woolf's one must conclude that the greatest living example of a woman who has achieved that state, who has been both a thinker and an artist, and who has managed over some sixty years to express a spacious sense of reality, is Rebecca West. Indeed, one might propose that her achievement is not to be located in this book or in that one, but in the whole—that her books combine to make one created work of art, the mind of Rebecca West. There is support for this view in the fact that the name by which she is known is itself a persona taken from a work of art. When a writer chooses another name for his writing self, he is doing more than inventing a pseudonym: he is naming, and in a sense creating, his imaginative identity. Hence George Orwell—a commonplace Christian name and an English river—together name the plain-speaking Englishman that Eric Blair chose to be in his work. And Rebecca West is another such: the brilliant and rebellious Ibsen heroine is chosen to replace Cicily Fairfield (a name that in itself seems almost too good an example of English gentility). To choose that name was to claim the ideas and the radical posture of Ibsen, and particularly his ideas about women, as one's own public identity. The choice suggests an exceptional woman, willing her life to be an example of woman's situation.

One must feel some discomfort in the fact that an appreciation of so considerable a talent as Dame Rebecca's should start, inevitably, with the problems arising from her sex. In the case of some other woman writers this might be avoidable; but Dame Rebecca has made the subject a continuing theme of her work and of her life. There is scarcely a book of hers that does not have in it a feminist character (often thrust in anyhow, simply to make a speech against corsets), or a feminist idea. And her own career as a successful professional writer has demonstrated both the problem of being a woman artist, and the solution to it….

[Dame Rebecca's first two books, Henry James and Return of the Soldier,] anticipate the later work in other ways than by their feminism: the critical book is witty, stylish, and full of self-assurance and high spirits; the novel holds implicit in it Dame Rebecca's mature sense of the world and human values. The world of the novel is a difficult one for sensitive persons to survive in: it is full of pain and suffering, frustration and betrayal, it will not adapt itself to human needs. In that world the greatest human value is realism—to know things as they are…. Communion with reality is a large ambition, and one that must lead a woman away from her private world, to politics and art and history, to law and religion and crime. It is the course that Dame Rebecca has followed, extending and deepening her account of reality until few modern writers can match her range, or her steady moral seriousness. (p. 1553)

By 1930, Dame Rebecca's version of reality was virtually complete in its broad outlines. Her world was a dualistic world, in which good and evil, life and death battle eternally, an uncertain world, where man wanders unsupported and unknowing. His enemy is within him: the will-to-die that hates life, the need to be cruel and to suffer. His hope is in his capacity for knowledge, for communion with reality, and for the imperishable order of art. Out of art, reason, and tradition man might construct the Just City; but that goal is obstructed by the spirit that denies.

That understanding of the world is clear, but it had not yet found imaginative expression. The literary forms Dame Rebecca worked in were still those of the woman novelist—the novel and the literary essay; and in the novel she was still hunting for a personal voice. One has no sense of increasing skill and assurance in the fiction she wrote during the 1930s, neither in the stories of The Harsh Voice (1935) nor in the novel, The Thinking Reed (1936). The two books are different in manner from each other, and from the earlier fiction, and the differences suggest uncertainty, and nervous experiment. One might well have concluded in 1936 that Dame Rebecca was not a novelist and would never be one.

But three years earlier she had taken a step that was to free her from restraining literary convention: she had agreed to write a short life of Saint Augustine. The assignment was an odd one for a literary journalist to take on, but it was a wise one: it led Dame Rebecca to history, religion and psychology and it engaged her mind with a great mind and a body of thought that touched her own deeply, and shaped her thinking for the rest of her career. (pp. 1553-54)

And what an odd masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is! Superficially it is a travel book about a trip to the Balkans in 1937. But it includes so much more, is at once so comprehensive and so personal, that it has no genre, unless one invents one, calling it an epic testament, and placing it with the other great literary oddities of that odd genre—with Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is a narrative of a journey, and a long meditation on the patterns of Western history; it is a book of Balkan portraits, and a theory of the relations between East and West in Europe; and it is a book about its own time, a moving response to the contemporary political, moral and spiritual condition of Europe….

The book itself is … a major example of the art that gives us hope. In its pages are combined all the gifts that earlier Dame Rebecca had distributed among many books: the vivid characterizations and descriptions; the powerful analyses of history and politics; the wit; the passages of meditative and lyric beauty….

The historical importance of Black Lamb is, or should be, very great, for it is a supreme effort, by a mind at the height of its powers, to understand the catastrophe of the Second World War as it came on; it stands at the end of the 1930s like a massive baroque cenotaph. The importance for Dame Rebecca is also great and obvious; in this one book she cast aside entirely the restrictions of "woman writer" and revealed the true range of her mind….

Rebecca West's greatest period of creativity began with Black Lamb, and one can see now how the books that follow depend on it and derive from it. The two books of trials, The Meaning of Treason (1949) and A Train of Powder (1955) relate to Black Lamb in two ways: they extend Dame Rebecca's "world" into the realm of law, and they complete her meditation on the meaning of modern history. Law must obviously be a crucial concept to one who sees the world divided between civilization and barbarism, for law is the wall that men build against disorder. Treason is a wilful breaching of that wall, and fascism is a denial that a wall can exist….

To a religious mind, man's moral state is a constant, but political ideologies are transient; politics therefore ought to follow from religion, and to take pragmatic rather than ideological forms. In Dame Rebecca's case this certainly seems to be true. Her religion, as it appears in her books, is mainly a concern with the existence of evil; given the reality of evil, ideas about the uses of power and about the structures of society follow, but they do not coalesce in a political system. She has, one might say, political wisdom but not a political ideology….

It is difficult to define in a word the peculiar note of authority that Rebecca West's criticism has, but perhaps the best term is episcopal: she writes like a fourth-century African bishop, praising the righteous, condemning heretics, explaining doctrine, confident always of the rightness of her judgments and of their firm moral bases. She is easy with terms like Manichaean and Pelagian, and can use them as metaphors for literary situations; and the language is significant, for in her world heresies do exist, and they matter….

[The Birds Fall Down] is Dame Rebecca's most completely imagined novel, perhaps because it is the one that is farthest from the particulars of her own experience. It alone should assure her of a place in the history of English fiction. (p. 1554)

"In Communion with Reality," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 21, 1973, pp. 1153-55.

Paraphrasing an observation of Proust's, Rebecca West writes in the prologue to "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" about the tendency of a banal action to become "wonderful" if it is performed long enough: "a simple walk down a hundred yards of village street is 'wonderful' if it is made every Sunday by an old lady of eighty." So it is with many writers who go on performing after a fashion into old age. Too often, a "celebration" of the sort represented by ["Rebecca West: A Celebration"] is a patronizing tribute to longevity rather than to the sustained high quality of an author's work. Fortunately, it is impossible to condescend in this way to Rebecca West…. Whatever the weaknesses of her writing (and there are a number, along with great strengths), banality has never been among them. Nor is there the slightest sign of any diminution of her intellectual and artistic vitality. The hitherto unpublished excerpt included in "A Celebration" from her novel in progress, "This Real Night," seems to me more supple, more intimately at ease with its characters and situation than any of her previous fiction….

Similarly, it is impossible to categorize (much less condescend to) Rebecca West as a "Woman Writer," despite her early Suffragism and the fact that her work from its beginnings has many pungent and often devastating things to say about the situation of women—whether veiled Moslems in Macedonia or the heroines of Henry James. Even when she is writing from a specifically female point of view, as she most often does in her novels, she impresses me as being without sexual prejudice. She never stacks the deck against her male figures, whether fictional like the hapless father in "The Fountain Overflows," or real like Stephen Ward and John Profumo in "The New Meaning of Treason." And few writers since Jane Austen can have been more severe—even merciless—with the stupidity or snobbery of certain characters who happen to be female. The label of gender cannot be meaningfully applied to "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" or to any of her books of reportage or criticism; and if attached to her fiction, it amounts to hardly more than an obvious but nonrestrictive fact.

Possessing an inquiring mind and independent taste, Rebecca West has always been a picker and chooser of subjects, apparently unwilling to attach herself permanently to a dominant mode or genre. This has led to a discontinuity between one work and another, to the "interstices" which, as Samuel Hynes points out in his introduction, have militated against any unified perception of her place as a writer. What does the rather sternly judgmental biography of St. Augustine have in common with that melodramatic novella about the mad daughters of a retired admiral, "Parthenope"? Both are included in their entirety in "A Celebration." There is often such a discontinuity between an author's fiction and nonfiction but seldom so radical as in the case of Rebecca West. Even in her fiction, her style veers from book to book, making it difficult to identify a distinctive voice as her own.

However successful "This Real Night" may turn out to be, I doubt that Rebecca West's reputation will ever rest substantially on her fiction. Her strongly controlling intelligence—a faculty that has added immeasurably to the power of her criticism and reportage—has tended, I think, to place too short a leash upon the movement of her novels. In them her characteristic approach—explanatory, analytical, essayistic—has been damaging to the illusion of spontaneity. Her analogies are primarily demonstrative, lacking in metaphorical or connotative richness…. (p. 14)

As a critic, Rebecca West is interesting, provocative and often eccentric. Her devotion to art is both passionate and informed; she regards it as the principal ally of the forces of love in their perpetual struggle with the forces of death. Armed with this Manichaean vision of the world, she insists upon the interpenetration of art and ideas, of politics, religion and culture; in this she is the natural colleague of H. G. Wells and D. H. Lawrence and the enemy of the esthetes.

Of all the writers of the 20th century it is Lawrence with whom she feels the strongest affinity. In her "Elegy," written shortly after Lawrence's death, she cuts through his excesses and absurdities to his vital strengths, presenting him as one of those who "have always recognized that the mind which is [man's] house is ablaze and that if the fire is not put out he will perish." Lawrence is the one writer of our age "who had the earnestness of the patristic writers, who like them could know no peace till he could discover what made men lust after death." Her relationship to Lawrence shines through much of her own writing. Like "Sea and Sardinia" and "Mornings in Mexico" but on a far grander scale, "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" transforms the genre of the travel book into a far-ranging exploration of all manner of things, including the inner life of the author.

The multi-faceted brilliance of her critical approach is nowhere better illustrated than in her essay on Kafka in "The Court and the Castle" (1957). In it she deals incisively with Kafka's inadequacies as a man and his fragmentariness as a writer, places him firmly within the cultural milieu of the late Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy, and proclaims his importance as one who "presents the real and insoluble problems of man's nature so truly and so cruelly that he is one of the few authors who can keep pace with the cruelty of history." Always assured (sometimes to the point of arrogance) in her critical dicta, she can on occasion be gloriously perverse….

Unquestionably, "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" (1941) is Rebecca West's masterpiece. It is also the book that opened the way for the subsequent works of reportage that have won her an international following. Enchanted by an earlier visit to Yugoslavia, she had to go back again in 1937…. The result of her return is a book that not only impressed Yugoslavia—in all its physical and human vividness—upon the consciousness of the West, but also moved outward into an impassioned meditation upon Balkan history from Roman times onward, upon the foundations of culture, and upon the problematic destiny of the human species.

In the squalid sacrifice of black lambs in a Macedonian fertility rite she found the symbol for the sickness of all civilizations, including pre-eminently our own, that enthrall themselves actively or masochistically to the forces of death….

The later pieces of reportage assembled in "The Meaning of Treason" (1947), in its revision of 1964, and in "A Train of Powder" (1955) still make engrossing reading but they are considerably more dated than "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon." They also make apparent an excess to be found in the earlier work as well: the compulsion to milk every incident, every detail, until they have yielded not only their full significance but some rather dubious secretions as well. On these occasions Rebecca West can sound rather like Norman Mailer (now the chief practitioner of the genre she perfected) at his most portentous. But mostly she writes about her traitors and lynch-mobs and lawyers like a severe but clear-eyed seraph.

This collection is a happy reminder of how good a writer she can be. (p. 34)

Robert Towers, "A Generous Sampling," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 2, 1977, pp. 14, 34.