Rebecca West: A Life (Biography) Summary

Victoria Glendinning

Rebecca West

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

After meeting Rebecca West, then barely age twenty, H.G. Wells said, “I had never met anything like her before, and I doubt if there ever was anything like her before.” Wells’s extramarital affair with her two years later, in 1914, produced the novelist Anthony West; her decision to rear the child alone helped to establish her reputation for flouting convention.

In the life of Rebecca West is concentrated every issue faced by modern feminists. Her story, says Glendinning, is “the story of twentieth-century women.” Born Cicely Fairfield in 1892, she was, according to her biographer, “an agent of change and the victim of change.” She took her nom de plume from a Henrik Ibsen character whose motto is “Live, work, act.” Yet, paradoxically, this acclaimed novelist, critic, journalist, and independent woman felt that she needed a strong man to shield her from the world; she scoffed at convention but chided others for breaking social rules; she had equally great capacities for melancholy and for enjoying life. She suffered from society’s misconceptions about her own sex even as she defied these limitations.

While deftly revealing these conflicts, Glendinning also shows West displaying the vigor and originality that brought her literary fame, producing such landmark books as BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON, THE MEANING OF TREASON, and THE FOUNTAIN OVERFLOWS. Troubles that might have destroyed a lesser person barely slowed her down: assorted physical complaints, strange hallucinatory episodes, and irrevocable estrangement from her son. Glendinning makes it clear that West was a writer before all else.

This biography also provides a sampling of West’s wit, as when she called author Michael Arlen “every other inch a gentleman.” After Glendinning’s excellent preliminary treatment, one looks forward to Olson’s “long, full” biography.

Rebecca West: A Life Rebecca West

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

This biography of Rebecca West begins with an insight that might well have shaped the entire text: “The story of Rebecca West, who lived from 1892 to 1983, is the story of twentieth-century women.” West both initiated and reflected major changes in the modern history of ideas, politics, and literature. She wrote about World War I, World War II, and the Cold War; about the suffrage movement, workers’ rights, and the complex power relationships between men and women; about contemporary history as shaped by the forces for good and evil; and about the style, themes, and significance of Henry James, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and other major twentieth century literary figures. She was an independent thinker, she created a literary reputation for herself with her prolific writing, and she defied society’s expectations for women. She is a formidable subject for a biography, because of the interdisciplinary range of her writings, the intellectual acuity of her analysis, the strongly expressed judgments in her nonfiction prose, the diverse forms of her novels, and the span of years over which she wrote. Victoria Glendinning, who met West toward the end of her life and who has written three other biographies—Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville-West (1983), Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions (1981), and Elizabeth Bowen (1978)—has organized the materials of West’s long, complicated life with professional skill.

Glendinning had an extraordinary advantage over other potential writers seeking to interpret West’s life: She was designated, by West, to be one of her two biographers. Before West’s death, Glendinning was given access to her privately held papers. Glendinning’s biography is the first to make use of these materials, which have, since West’s death in 1983, been made available at the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa. Glendinning also consulted materials at other research centers, including many of the letters and papers relevant to West’s life in the Beinecke Library at Yale, though she was not permitted to see some of those papers, which will be available to scholars only after the death of West’s son, Anthony West. To overcome this restriction, partially, the biographer makes good use of previously published materials in Gordon N. Ray’s H. G. Wells and Rebecca West (1974). It is important to note that Glendinning worked closely with Anthony West. Her view of Anthony West’s mother is affected by the son’s resentful, furious feelings, and Glendinning’s biography echoes phrases and interpretations from Anthony West’s H. G. Wells: Aspects of a Life (1984), especially in the description of the love affair between Rebecca West and H. G. Wells, before their son’s birth and during his childhood. Glendinning does, however, question some of Anthony West’s interpretations of his mother’s life and character.

During her life, the evaluation of West’s work was often colored by reviewers’ responses to her as a woman who was defying or breaking the gender roles imposed by the culture. West resented this bias. Glendinning’s study is partial and flawed by her willingness to accept, albeit critically, the judgment she quotes from Carl Jung:A woman who takes up a masculine profession, wrote Jung, ’develops a kind of rigid intellectuality based on so-called principles, and backs them up with a whole host of arguments which always just miss the mark in the most irritating way, and always inject a little something into the argument that is not there.’ Such a woman, according to him, is injuring ’the meaning of her femininity,’ which leads to neurosis and to sexual difficulties.

Although Glendinning labels this profile “harsh,” she uses it to structure her biography.

In Glendinning’s vision of the life, West appears as a neurotic, sexually unfulfilled, petty woman. Reading this biography, one finds it difficult to recall that West earned a substantial income and widespread acclaim from her writing. Glendinning organizes West’s life story not around her intellectual life or her productive literary and journalistic career, but rather around her love life. West’s ten-year affair with H. G. Wells looms large in the ninety-year life here narrated. The biographer refers to the subject by her first name, or by nicknames, giving the first three sections of the book the titles: “Cissie,” “Panther,” and “Sunflower.” “Cissie” was her older sisters’ nickname for Cicely Isabel Fairfield. “Panther” was Wells’s nickname for his lover; “Sunflower” was a lover’s nickname given to a fictional heroine in West’s posthumously published novel, Sunflower (1986). Glendinning, in her biographical chapter entitled “Sunflower,” echoes closely her own afterword published with that novel, in which she offers a narrowly autobiographical reading that identifies the male lover as Lord Beaverbrook (William Maxwell Aitken) and the heroine as Rebecca West.

The last three sections of Glendinning’s book are entitled...

(The entire section is 2062 words.)