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.