Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Family Memories is an edited version of a memoir Rebecca West worked on intermittently for the last twenty years of her long literary career. The memoir is incomplete and exists in several undated drafts now deposited in the Rebecca West Collection at the University of Tulsa. Faith Evans, the editor of Family Memories, has done a skillful job of selecting the most finished drafts. She scrupulously points out (in an introduction and in extensive notes) that in some cases there are multiple and contradictory versions of events. The title of the memoir captures the spirit of West’s work, but it is not her choice, and no evidence has yet come to light about her intentions for the title or exactly how far she would have taken the history of her family and of herself. The extant drafts end with the period of West’s childhood and early adolescence, with a separate chapter on her husband and his family, which is included as an appendix in the Evans edition, although West once contemplated using it as an introduction to her memoir.

The memoir aims to show how the unfortunate history of a remarkable family shaped West’s character. The first chapter details the career of Alexander Mackenzie, her uncle. A distinguished musician and composer, he became the head of the family after his father died. Yet he practically disowned his mother (Janet Campbell Mac-kenzie) and his brothers and sisters (Johnnie, Joey, and Isabella) when one of the brothers (it is not clear which one) insulted Mary Ironside, the woman Alexander wished...

(The entire section is 632 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Family Memories continues the strongly feminist point of view West expressed consistently throughout a literary career that stretched from 1912 to 1983. Because it was not published until 1987, four years after her death, Family Memories could not be considered in her lifetime in conjunction with her other fiction and nonfiction. If the reader is to understand fully the context of Family Memories, he or she should read it alongside The Fountain Overflows (1957), a fictionalization of West’s family history, and two posthumously published novels, This Real Night (1984) and Cousin Rosamund (1985). These three novels, and perhaps a fourth, were to detail the history of a family like her own from the first decade of the twentieth century to the period after World War II.

That West was not able to finish this series of novels or her family memoirs is significant. At the heart of her feminism there was a core of unresolved feelings. Although she excoriates men for usurping positions of power, and she is nearly as severe on women who allow themselves to be exploited, she is clearly attracted to powerful males and often presents them in her fiction and nonfiction as alluring figures. A good part of her finds the idea of kingship emotionally satisfying. This is apparent, for example, in her last published book, 1900 (1982), in which she dwells on the power of kings to act as fathers of a nation, and of political figures such as...

(The entire section is 611 words.)


(Critical Survey of Contemporary 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 and historian, and novelist. Selected bibliography and index.

Glendinning, Victoria. Rebecca West: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. This first full-length biography concentrates on West’s life, although it includes brief and insightful discussions of her work. It was written in cooperation with West’s family and friends, but Glendinning did not have access to the major West collection at Yale University.

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

West, Rebecca. Rebecca West: A Celebration. New York: Viking Press, 1977. This work’s 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 Deakin and Orel. Wolfe discounts the value of West’s fiction. Includes notes and a bibliography.