Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Rebecca West’s longest and greatest work of fiction, The Birds Fall Down, is set in Paris in the period immediately preceding World War I and the Russian Revolution. Its heroine, Laura Rowen, becomes involved in the political intrigues that precede these great events and holds the fate of a double agent in her hands. The novel reveals West’s strong sense of feminist issues, not only because she focuses on a young woman’s consciousness but also because Laura’s family life—the fact that she is aware of her father’s betrayal of her mother in an extramarital affair—has an impact on Laura’s personal and political thinking. In this respect, West is a strikingly prophetic writer, showing how private and public, personal and political lives interact. Her views of sexuality and of politics inform one another, which makes The Birds Fall Down an especially relevant text in contemporary discussions of feminism. Her novel bears comparison with the great political novels in English, those by Joseph Conrad and Henry James. Her point of view is distinctly feminist, however, in that she shows how women have been shunted aside in men’s political plotting and how women are capable of taking action when they become conscious of the plots that have excluded them.

Laura is the daughter of Tania and Edward Rowen, a Russian mother and an English father, who, on a visit to her grandfather, Count Nikolai Diakonov, finds herself suddenly mired in the schemes of Russian revolutionaries. He is a Russian minister living in Paris in disgrace, banished there by the czar, who mistakenly believes that he has been disloyal. The young woman finds her unfaithful father useless in foiling the machinations of her grandfather’s aide, Monsieur Kamensky, a double agent. Thus history turns on a complex of conflicting emotions involving both familial and political disloyalty....

(The entire section is 770 words.)