West, Rebecca (Vol. 31)
Rebecca West 1892–1983
(Pseudonym of Cicily Isabel Fairfield) English journalist, novelist, and critic.
West wrote of equality for women in the workplace, the voting booth, and in the pursuit of pleasure. Hers were radical ideas in 1911, the year she began her career writing for The Freewoman, a feminist publication. Although she expanded her talents into literary criticism and, eventually, into fiction, her best-known and most respected work was in journalism. West once said that were she to begin again, she would write only novels, but ironically, her novels are thought to be the least effective of her works. Critics attribute this to her journalistic style which allows for little warmth, spontaneity, or imagination.
Prominent among West's early books are the biographies Henry James (1916) and St. Augustine (1933). The latter, one of the first psychohistories, is written with a heavily Freudian emphasis. Although the books were praised for their historical accuracy, many critics felt that the psychoanalytical language presented an unnecessary distraction.
West's early fiction, including her novels Harriet Hume (1929) and The Thinking Reed (1936) and her collection of four short novels, The Harsh Voice (1935), were not well received. Critics generally find her fiction undistinguished because of its heavy emphasis on didacticism and the unbelievability of her plots and characters. Perhaps as a result of the demands placed upon her by her journalistic work, West published only two novels after The Thinking Reed. However, one of these, The Fountain Overflows (1956), was praised for its depiction of a young girl growing up in a failing London family and is seen as West's most sensitive piece of fiction.
West's journalism and criticism are considered by critics to be her most important and enduring work. In these fields she forcefully conveys her strong opinions and liberal political views. The Strange Necessity (1928) is a collection of critical essays which focuses on the historical and contemporary role of art and the artist; this is a major theme in much of West's criticism. Her interest in the nature of patriotism and the motivations underlying the decision to betray are discussed in The Meaning of Treason (1947). A related idea explored in The Court and the Castle (1957) is how corruption affects the individual who is ruled by the pursuit and acquisition of power. The book which has been called her masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), recounts West's travels through Yugoslavia; essentially, however, it is a commentary on the politics, history, social attitudes, and living conditions among the people of that country. Although her writing is consistently praised for being technically accomplished, this book has been criticized for historical misinterpretations.
Among the most frequent complaints about West's work are its digressive wordiness and the author's reliance upon personal observation rather than research. However, critics consistently appreciate her "felicity of phrase," and many enjoy her passionate, often eccentric, opinions. In her work and in her life, West was true to those issues she wrote about. Even in the early Freewoman pieces, she decries injustice, berates stupidity, scorns laziness, and despises cowardice. Her wry wit and sardonic humor were applied unsparingly to whatever aroused her dissatisfaction.
(See also CLC, Vols. 7, 9; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vol. 109 [obituary]; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983.)
What kind of book about Henry James would you expect from a vivid and eager young radical, whose own interest in politics and history is prodigious, who has a keen appetite for almost every kind of life except the life lived in English country houses, and who detests, with all her many gifts of detestation, the predominance of sex in the relations of men and women? You would do well not to expect a delineative book, which defines Henry James with a portrait-painter's hand, or a luminously expository book, which makes him plainer to readers who could not understand for themselves.
[In "Henry James"] Miss West has given us neither of these things. One would have been astonished if she had, and yet not more astonished, I think, than one is by the book she has actually written, which with all its brilliant arrogance and cockiness, with all its impatience at the difference between yesterday's mode and to-day's, with all its failures in sympathy and in understanding—there is an amazingly unperceiving passage about "The Awkward Age"—does glow with such a beauty of admiration for Henry James that one gets the strongest incentive to read him all over again….
Miss West's book has wit and beauty and intelligence and stupidity. It has hardly more than a scrap of anything you could call insight. You would never learn from it that Henry James's life was among other things a long discarding of naïveté. You would never learn...
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Henry B. Fuller
What first interests me in [The Return of the Soldier] is its length, or rather its brevity: all is done within one hundred and eighty-five pages…. Miss West's "novella" is an episode, a situation involving but a few days—or would be, were it not for a chronological backthrow which provides perspective, complications, and the road to a highly effective climax.
We think, at the start, that we have to deal with Rebecca West as still the brisk and brusque young radical of "The Freewoman" and "The New Republic," walking through life in a trim tailor-made, with her feet setting themselves down firmly and her elbows in vigorous action. Well, she is all of that—in certain phases of her social criticism; but she is much more.
Later on we incline to image Miss West as a spirited young filly, speeding it over her race track. For two-thirds of her course she trots, true to form, on the old well-known course, though she covers it with a quickened stride; then comes a moment of tangled hoofs and a threat to bolt the regular track and to finish up before the judges' stand anyhow. It is this that makes the fifth of her six chapters, which is crowded with unskilled transitions, both the worst and the best; surely it is the most novel and moving.
"The Return of the Soldier" is of course a war-story—a story of shell-shock, amnesia, and the suppressed wish. The author is of the new day, and the new...
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The New York Times Book Review
Rebecca West's new novel ["The Judge"] is a brilliant piece of work, forceful, impressive, haunting with a sense of instance…. Her one previous novel, her critical work, and her essays have shown her to possess a keenly probing intellect, a rich mental background and a notable gift for the art of writing. All this, in fuller, richer development and in finer quality, is evident in "The Judge," but through its pages there shines, too, the clear, unmistakable light of genius. In its insight into the deeps of human nature, and especially of feminine human nature, in its treatment of the drama of human life, in the richness of its fabric and in the force and power and skill with which it uses, for the purposes of the story, the element of personality in its characters, the novel is comparable with the work of George Eliot at her best, although falling short, in some respects, of the measure of her artistic excellence. But it is as different from her fiction as this age is different from George Eliot's period. For it is franker, truer, comes to closer grips with the forces of life, seeks more ruthlessly to find the roots of motive, the sources of character, the causes of action.
It is a long novel containing close upon two hundred thousand words, and its story could be boiled down into the compass of half a dozen sentences. Nevertheless, with such skill has Miss West painted her characters, marshaled her temperaments, used her emotional...
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The Strange Necessity is almost as tedious as Das Kapital, and with much less justification. It is so intrinsically unreadable that the printer's reader will surely be the last and only man who will ever be able to claim that he has read all through the sixty or seventy thousand words of it. In the first place, in so far as it contains any fresh or useful idea on the problem of aesthetics—and we are not sure that it does—the adequate expression of that idea need certainly not have occupied more than a quarter of the space it does. A very great deal of the essay seems to be just incoherent rambling, and the amount of sheer self-repetition in it is, to say the least, irritating. Page after page upon which Miss West seeks to trace the connection and sequence of her own thoughts and feelings, reads more like an exercise in elementary Pelmanism than anything else we know of, and since the whole is clothed in the jargon of psychoanalysis imperfectly comprehended, the result is inevitably most depressing….
The title of the essay refers to the "strange necessity" of art in life. Art, in Miss West's view, is the force which enables the "will to live" to triumph over the "will to die"; but it is difficult to disentangle from her torrent of long words what her ideas of art really are, and therefore it is difficult to discuss them. If they seem to us a little naive, that may be because we have not grasped her intended meaning....
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Ernest Sutherland Bates
["St. Augustine"] stands out above its predecessors both in beauty of style and significance of thought. A popular biography only in being easy and delightful to read, Miss West's flexible and trenchant style here wholly at her command, mingling wit and eloquence without disharmony, her book is also a keen analysis of the character and meaning of one of the world's greatest men. Here with a subject worthy of her steel, Miss West has risen above her lesser self, somewhat too generous of casual impressions, and has given us a volume rich in reflection as well as daringly alive in treatment. Augustine stands before us almost a contemporary, a tortured spirit, fellow with Tolstoy, Lawrence, Proust, and Joyce, yet at the same time a citizen of the dying Roman Empire when under the strokes of Goth and Vandal and the weight of its own decrepitude an age-old civilization was breaking up much as Western civilization seems to many to be breaking up today.
Miss West's volume begins appropriately with a letter from Bishop Cyprian of Carthage to a Roman official in which the Christian attributes the manifest decline of civilization to the weakening of the forces of nature…. It is against this background of a failing world that the portrait of Augustine is limned, its exponent and interpreter…. The sack of Rome by the Goths which broke the aged heart of Saint Jerome aroused in Augustine a fiery exultation and inspired "The City of God," a work...
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[The] four "short novels" which Miss Rebecca West has collected under the title of The Harsh Voice are a significant expression of current truths, though she may not be the first to make their significance real. Some of the current truths upon which she has most firmly seized are these: that in love and marriage today the intermingling of love and hate has taken on a new complexity, partly on account of changes in manners and the variable economic conditions, particularly in America; [and] that America in particular has evolved a new kind of woman, extremely capable, "hard-boiled," influential, but certainly not devoid of feminine feelings…. All four stories are about rich people; three are about Americans; three are principally about problems of the married; and in all may be heard that "harsh voice we hear when money talks, or hate." It is noticeable that with one exception Miss West accords her women justice, mercy and admiration, and that she seems to find them definitely more important and worthy of respect and affection than the men, who leave an impression that they are little more than foils to the women, than commercial and domestic functionaries—with one exception, who is dominated by vanity. This exception appears in the most brilliant and characteristic of the four stories, the one called "There is no Conversation." It shows to the best advantage Miss West's sophistication, her respect for wealth and power, and her ingenuity and...
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Edith H. Walton
Turning her agile talent to a rather difficult medium Rebecca West has produced four miniature novels, or long short stories, which are chiefly remarkable for their technical brilliance. They have a smooth high glaze, a competence of construction, reminiscent of Somerset Maugham at his slickest and most suave. Only a very good craftsman could have written "The Harsh Voice," but its brittleness and its occasional meretriciousness seem to prove that something besides craftsmanship is required.
Miss West's attitude … is curiously literary. One is perpetually aware that these tales are contrived, and contrived for a maximum dramatic effect. They do not proceed simply and naturally with the rhythm of life, but respond to expert guidance from the author, who is always stationed watchfully in the wings. Nothing is left to chance. The reader is led firmly and with precision to the desired point, is forced to react in just the fashion Miss West has so carefully planned.
Such cleverness can overreach itself, as in "There Is No Conversation."…
Miss West tacks on a twist ending which is utterly unforeseen. Surprising and effective as it is, it quite destroys the integrity of the story—leaving one saying "how clever" instead of "how tragic."
There is the same sense of artificiality in "The Abiding Vision," a far better piece of work…. The story has a certain amount of warmth and vigor,...
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"Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed," wrote Pascal in the passage from which the title of Rebecca West's new novel ["The Thinking Reed"] is taken. The phrase is curiously suggestive of Miss West's own work. "Thinking," none could deny who watched the flashing wit in her essays of feminism many years ago; nor in the subsequent volumes of her literary essays, at all too widely spaced intervals. But a reed also is something through which music may be made, and even in Miss West's critical writing (sometimes, I have suspected, in spite of herself) there often has been a lyrical note with both depth and distinction. Her lyricism had a chance for fuller expression in the novels—in "The Return of the Soldier" in 1925 and "Harriet Hume" four years later. And in the four short novels published together in 1935 as "The Harsh Voice," there seemed to be a surer unity of wit and feeling than I had been aware of previously in her work.
Both strains reappear in this far more ambitious book…. [The] essence of the story is not in the mood of one outside, looking on. It has the directness of the novelist, not the detachment of the critic. Its substance is the conflict within a woman between her idea of herself and her pride in herself and her need and capacity to love….
[The two principal characters, Isabelle and Marc,] are real, especially Marc. Real, because one not only sees but feels...
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When someone as responsible as Rebecca West sets herself to write, and succeeds in writing, over half a million words about Yugoslavia, one can be pretty sure that she has more than Yugoslavia on her mind. Penetrate the fastnesses of her two cyclopean volumes called "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" and you encounter far more than an impassioned survey of the history, topography, and peoples of Yugoslavia. Here's what you will meet: glittering bits and pieces of a philosophy of history; an assemblage of characters shaped in the round by the hand of a skilled novelist; a profound meditation on the central core of Fascism; a witty running commentary on the fixed differences between men and women; soliloquies, ranging from the tragic to the humorous, on the wayward nature of the human animal; literary conversations as searching and brilliant as anything of their kind since the famous Shakespeare colloquy in James Joyce's "Ulysses;" prophecies dire and thrilling utterances of exaltation; in brief, the mind of a rich, various, and fallible being revealed in a prose of fascinating complexity and beauty….
We must understand, first of all, that this book, like others in its class, such as T. E. Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" and C. M. Doughty's "Arabia Deserta," is not a mere record, however fine, of travel or adventure. It is superbly disguised personal confession. "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" is as much autobiography as anything else. It...
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Donald A. Stauffer
Style is the man. The adage need not be changed in gender to include Miss West, for she writes with such force as to make most male writers appear effeminate. A rich style therefore demands a well-furnished mind, and this Rebecca West possesses. It would be easy to turn this review [of "The Meaning of Treason"] into grouped quotations to display the vigor of her thought, the shape of her sentences, her knowledge of psychology, her sense of terror and of exile, her humor, the profundity of her ethical judgments, her vignettes of people and her panoramas of places.
Surprisingly, considering the subject, this book contains intimate descriptions of buildings in London, interiors and exteriors, that make it, in my judgment, the best writing on architecture and the looks of cities since Ruskin. This sense of solid reality is a part of the maturity of Miss West's style, which tacitly assumes literary culture, and builds on the creative inventions of Shakespeare and Dickens and Dostoevsky and Henry James and D. H. Lawrence….
Only in structure is the book open to cavil…. [The first two-thirds, the story of William Joyce, are] full and well proportioned. But the last two sections, which tell of John Amery and some less-known figures, fall off in interest as the pattern of horror repeats itself less dramatically; and the epilogue, generalized and in a different key, does not equal in power the moral meditations casually...
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[Fifteen] years after "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon," Miss West publishes a new novel ["The Fountain Overflows"], a real Dickensian Christmas pudding of a book. In fact, it is very like Dickens. It is as full of characters—odd and even, but mostly odd—as a pudding of plums; full of incident, full of family delights, full of parties and partings, strange bits of London, the Iobby of the House of Commons, a classic murder with portraits of the murderer, the murderee and a couple of innocent bystanders, bill collectors, kitchen fires, good food, and a considerable quota of ghosts…. In short, this is a very novelish sort of novel—old-fashioned, busy and extremely readable. (p. 1)
[The] most remarkable thing about "The Fountain Overflows" is how good, how enjoyable a book Miss West's talent makes it. It is extravagant and melodramatic and full of coincidences in quite the nineteenth-century way. So, of course, are many avant-garde novels—but in these, symbolism is offered as an explanation of the artifices: indeed, most avant-garde authors are so intent upon their symbols that the fact that they have produced melodrama quite escapes their attention. Miss West, however, is not working with symbols. Her people are people, their desperate situations are desperate situations, not allegories. Can she, then, be forgiven for extravagance and melodrama?
I think she can. If she is not working with symbols, she is working...
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As a novelist, Rebecca West resembles Cordelia, one of the characters in her own book, The Fountain Overflows, a hopelessly unmusical girl in a musical family, whose unflagging industry at violin practice produces not one note that satisfies her talented sisters and mother. Miss West inflicts on the reader the same painful sensation that the Aubrey family felt when poor Cordelia sawed away so indefatigably: why can't she realize she has no gift for this sort of thing?
The intention is clear enough. Miss West wished to write a big, heartwarming novel of Edwardian family life, to invite the reader into the Aubrey's chaotic but wonderful household, where he would be caught up in their love for each other, the display of their talents, the frequent near-disasters.
But the novel of nostalgic sentimentality depends upon the keeping of the reader's sympathy. He must never cease to accept the characters at the author's valuation. If the thread of sympathy snaps, the failure is total.
Why does one not love the Aubreys?… [Why] are they such insufferable bores?…
We don't love them because their lovableness is crammed down our throats. It is not only the narrator who tells us unceasingly about the goodness of the "good" characters; their goodness, as in Elizabethan drama, is always recognized and acclaimed by all the other characters. Not one sour note is heard in the chorus of...
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The Times Literary Supplement
The Fountain Overflows is Miss Rebecca West's first novel for twenty-one years and is indeed only her sixth work of fiction. That this should be so is no doubt the price she has had to pay for her versatility as a writer. Are we to think of her primarily as a brilliant reporter, a great journalist? That she certainly is. But during her career as a writer she has played many parts: she has been, among other things, an admirable literary critic and a wonderfully astringent reviewer. Yet the publication of The Fountain Overflows proves that what she is above all, and what she ought to be, is a novelist; and in the light of this new novel, it is impossible not to regret her long years of absence from fiction.
It is not news that Miss West possesses a most formidable intelligence. Intellectually, she is, one feels, armed at all points; and though a formidable intelligence is not the first requisite of a novelist, other things being equal he will be a better novelist for having it. In point of fact, Miss West's early novels were not quite satisfactory as novels. She was one of the first English authors to grasp the value of psycho-analysis as part of the novelist's necessary equipment towards the understanding of human nature. In her earlier fiction, however, the formal element of psycho-analysis is altogether too obtrusive, so much so that The Return of the Soldier, her first novel, now reads like a dramatization of a...
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The Court and the Castle is a series of critical observations about various literary works held loosely together by a concern with how great writers from Shakespeare to Kafka have treated the problem of salvation. Miss West begins with the interesting theory that the king in Shakespeare's plays is fated to misuse the power he possesses, yet the usurper who stands ready to unseat him is invariably evil. Noting that this paradox of power does not seem relevant to actual political life, Miss West confesses that she would not be at all surprised if Shakespeare thought of his kings as symbols of the will, of their courts as symbols of personality, and of the usurpers as symbols of the will's futile attempts to reform itself. She seems unaware that the pattern she has observed is a form of the institution of the dying god described in The Golden Bough. Instead she considers that Shakespeare's plays about royalty are protests against the Renaissance heresy that man is capable of achieving his own salvation. This interpretation may make Shakespeare a sound theologian, but it also makes him a very poor allegorist, because it involves the use of one symbol for the will itself and another for the will in a struggle to reform. The usurper is thus required to be an activity of the king and the symbolism obviously breaks down.
Miss West does not succeed, in her later chapters, in showing that such novelists as Jane Austen, Fielding,...
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Miss West, or Dame Rebecca as she is now styled, may still have an Ibsen conscience, but her world has flowered well beyond introspection, and [Rebecca West: A Celebration] has collected much of it. Some will say too much, for it is made up of many subjects and cannot easily be read through. It celebrates the milestones of her long career, journalistic, novelistic, and biographical, and includes large chunks of her most famous work, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon….
The publishers, looking back now from a different age, tend to present her work as centered on two themes, feminism and the modern fatality of war. Certainly, the fact of Dame Rebecca's womanhood informs her point of view constantly, but her feminism is of the old-fashioned, more practical kind—that of a woman who has succeeded in clearing the requisite space around her in society and has proved that she is as good as a man at her job; indeed, is every bit as energetic and well-educated, and has, in addition, that sensibility and tenderness which temper the steel to its finest edge and point.
Unlike the feminists of our day, she is a writer first, not a careerist. She does not want to play the role of a self-satisfied sacrificial victim. She wants to do right, not to be right, a distinction she applies with much effect to the inner drives of various balkan peoples who have dealt with history in the belief that the gate of heaven is open only...
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The current interest in Rebecca West's work, even if it is partly due to the pursuit of every and any feminist writer and partly homage to her age, is well deserved. But she is a critic's nightmare. How can anyone have written so well and so badly? Have worked in so many different genres? Be so resistant to fitting any particular pigeonhole? If [The Return of the Soldier, Harriet Hume, The Young Rebecca, and 1900] were representative of her life's work, she need not be taken too seriously; but in fact they are oddments from the very beginning and very end of her long writing career. One could say that they are interesting mainly because of their relation to the other books—except that it is so hard to relate the different parts of her work to each other.
She writes, she once said in a radio talk, to explore character: an unexceptionable explanation from a writer half of whose oeuvre has been fiction, except that it is only outside her novels that she really does so. When she has to invent, she generally flusters and fails; but once she has a theme, whether a journey or a political trial or a critical exposition, her gift for observing character and then fitting it into great sweeping generalizations and moral patterns comes into its own. She needs her characters to be somewhat at a distance: a fourth-century saint (Augustine), the peasants and monks and chambermaids and children of her Balkan journey, the human...
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