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.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Birds Fall Down marks a major contribution to women’s literature and issues that can perhaps best be described by explaining the novel’s title. In a scene that portrays Kamensky’s great fondness and tenderness for Laura, he tells her about hunting birds and about two “special shoots.” They illustrate his belief that “all nature runs the pattern of ritual, of ceremony.” He describes a courting ceremony in which the hens settle on bushes and arrange their feathers with their beaks while the cocks strut below fighting over the prospective mates. As the cocks war and wound one another with their long bills, the entranced females watch them. The watching and fighting continue, Kamensky remarks, until the shooting begins. As the birds shriek in panic and try to fly away, the guns bring them down. “We bring them down by hundreds,” Kamensky concludes in a tone of unmistakable satisfaction. “It sounds horrible,” Laura replies. Kamensky understands but points out that both the birds’ ceremony and the shooting are beautiful because “a system, perfect in itself, and exquisitely ingenious, is destroyed at the very moment when it is implementing its perfection, by another system, just as perfect and ingenious.” He is describing, in parable form, how it is that he is a double agent, working for one system that will replace another. He is also trying to convey to Laura, the woman he loves, the erotic nature of power, what it means to court and to be courted by power, and why men and women are attracted to it.

The Birds Fall Down is a most unsentimental novel about the relationship between men and women. It is about the rituals and ceremonies of courtship and loyalty that mean so much to human beings but which they nevertheless betray. Women have been the victims of these ceremonies, but they also have been willing participants and are as implicated in good and evil as are the men. This troubling truth is what Laura herself learns when she has to deal with the implications not merely of Kamensky’s fable but of his actions as well.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Deakin, Motley. Rebecca West. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A useful introduction to the range of West’s work. Includes a chronology of West’s life and career and chapters on her as feminist, critic, journalist, historian, and novelist. A selected bibliography and an index are included.

Glendinning, Victoria. Rebecca West: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. The first full-length biography, it concentrates on West’s life, although there are brief and insightful discussions of her work. Written in cooperation with West’s family and friends.

Hutchinson, George Evelyn. The Itinerant Ivory Tower. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1953. In a chapter entitled “The Dome,” Hutchinson explores the philosophical implications of West’s work.

Olrich, Mary Margarita. The Novels of Rebecca West: A Complex Unity, 1966.

Orel, Harold. The Literary Achievement of Rebecca West. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Similar in scope to Motley Deakin’s study (above), it includes chapters on her life, her literary criticism, her political and philosophical works, her novels, and her masterpiece, the historical work Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941). Helpful notes, a bibliography, and an index are provided.

Rubin, Donald Stuart. The Recusant Myth of Modern Fiction, 1968.

Tindall, William York. Forces in Modern British Literature, 1885-1956. New York: Vintage Books, 1956. A standard study of the period, Tindall’s work helps to place West’s work in a literary context, although he does not deal with her fiction in any direct fashion.

West Rebecca. Rebecca West: A Celebration. New York: Viking Press, 1977. The introduction by Samuel Hynes has been one of the most influential pieces of West criticism. This volume contains generous selections from West’s major work.

Wolfe, Peter. Rebecca West. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971. A thematic study, less well written and organized than the books by Motley Deakin and Harold Orel (above). Wolfe discounts the value of West’s fiction. Contains notes and a bibliography.

Wolfe, Verena E. Rebecca West: Kunsttheorie und Romanschaffen, 1972.