(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Rebecca West’s career covered the twentieth century. From her first articles in London suffragist papers before World War I to her last reviews in the SUNDAY TELEGRAPH in the late 1970’s, West was an Anglo-American writer of remarkable range and vitality. Biographer (HENRY JAMES, 1916), literary critic (THE STRANGE NECESSITY, 1928), and novelist (THE THINKING REED, 1936, she produced dozens of books in multiple genres and was a popular and critical success on both sides of the Atlantic for decades. A 1948 TIME magazine cover story proclaimed her the “No. 1 Woman Writer.” The paradox, as Carl Rollyson reminds readers, is that she is so little recognized in the late twentieth century.

Probably her best-known work is the 1941 BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON, an account of her travels through Yugoslavia which is still one of the best descriptions of the tensions among Croats, Serbs, and Muslims, and a book which has continued to be influential in Western policy toward that troubled area into the 1990’s. Much of her best work, in fact, appeared in investigative journalism and travel writing (including articles on the Nuremberg war trials and South Africa), but these were the very jobs which interrupted her career as a novelist.

Rollyson’s biography not only answers this paradox of West’s career but also elaborates on the personal tragedies of her life. Her stormy relationships with British novelist H. G. Wells and their son Anthony would plague her for her lifetime. Rollyson is the first biographer to utilize archival materials released after the death of Anthony West in 1987, and he draws on letters, diaries, and conversations to reconstruct West’s troubled life. The West who emerges is not only a prolific writer and brilliant raconteur but also a woman who found far too few satisfying relationships in her long life.

Sources for Further Study

American Studies International. XXXIV, October, 1996, p. 113.

Boston Globe. November 17, 1996, p. N15.

Library Journal. CXXI, September 1, 1996, p. 188.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 17, 1996, p. 6.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, October 27, 1996, p. 28.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, July 29, 1996, p. 75.

San Francisco Chronicle. November 3, 1996, p. REV5.

The Spectator. CCLXXV, December 2, 1995, p. 51.

The Wall Street Journal. November 21, 1996, p. A20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, October 13, 1996, p. 6.