Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In her seventy-year career as a writer of fiction, criticism, history, biography, and journalism, Rebecca West wrote a half dozen novels, each radically different from the others. The most critically acclaimed and the most popular, however, is The Fountain Overflows, published in 1956, twenty years after her previous novel. Among its strengths are the strong voice of the narrator; the sharply detailed London setting; the richly described minor characters, prompting one reviewer to call it “a real Dickensian Christmas pudding of a book”; and the discussions of feminism and art, long-standing concerns of West. She wrote on the role of art in society in earlier works, in The Strange Necessity and in her novel Harriet Hume: A London Fantasy (1929). Her interest in feminist issues extended for an even longer period. Her first publications appeared in 1911 in the feminist journal The Freewoman. In order to save her family the embarrassment of having a daughter who wrote for a journal that advocated free love, she changed her given name, Cicily Isabel Fairfield, to Rebecca West after a character in Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm (1886).

The Fountain Overflows was intended as the first book of a trilogy. The second volume, This Real Night (1984), was published a year and a half after West’s death and received mixed reviews. West did not finish the third and concluding volume, which was published in 1985 as Cousin Rosamund. While West’s reputation will rest securely on her journalism and her nonfiction works, in particular Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: The Record of a Journey Through Yugoslavia in 1937 (1941)—a commentary not only on Yugoslavia but also on the political situation in Europe in the period preceding World War II—her novels, especially The Fountain Overflows, should not be slighted.