Rebecca West West, Rebecca (Vol. 7) - Essay

West, Rebecca (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

West, Rebecca 1892–

Dame Rebecca, born Cecily Fairfield (her husband's surname is Andrews), took her pseudonym from Ibsen's heroine in Rosmersholm. She is an English novelist, critic, and journalist whose prolific literary criticism allows the reader an insight into her standards for fiction. She believes that romanticism is heretical, that the artist should seek and portray truth through analysis and accurate description of complex human experiences. The critics of Dame Rebecca's fiction do not agree upon her success in meeting these requirements. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Rebecca West is romantic in the way that James and Conrad were romantic. She chooses her characters from the exceptional, not the ordinary, with minds at once large and clear-thinking and ambitions that are lofty; and these characters are heightened by her prose, which is richer in texture, more coloured and sustained in imagery than contemporary prose normally is. Already in [the] early novels she [had] a passionate apprehension of the necessity and beauty of order, the fruit of self-discipline and knowledge, and an equally vivid apprehension that order is in constant danger from the forces of violence and disintegration. In her later fiction, she seems to equate order with the female principle, the forces of destruction with the male. (p. 63)

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel in Britain and the United States (copyright © 1964 by Walter Allen; reprinted by permission of the publishers, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.), Dutton, 1964.

Time magazine, with its penchant for half-truths, has described Miss West as "indisputably the world's No. 1 woman writer." This caused me to speculate on who her contenders among the opposite sex might be. Her literary style is unmatched, her activities impressively inclusive: criticism—she was one of the first and, in some instances, the very first person to write encouragingly of Joyce, Lawrence, Wilson; her first book, Henry James (1916), discoursed on his work as no one has since; she has commented appreciatively on the plastic arts and on music with perception unusual for an artist in another medium; she has written several novels, one, The Judge (1922), a Sister Carrie of English fiction and the last, The Fountain Overflows, one of the permanent additions to our literature; a volume of short stories; a biography of St. Augustine; and an incomparable travel journal, the two volume Black Lamb and Grey Falcon … and in all these her style makes any other writer cheer with admiration and furious with futile envy. One can't learn genius.

I love Dame Rebecca and her work to the far side of idolatry; consequently, I am unhappy to admit that I consider two of her books, The Powder Train and [The New Meaning of Treason], among her least significant contributions. With so much of her superior work unavailable, it is not the most exhilarating event that her publishers choose this book … to reissue. (p. 525)

And yet, because these people [the principals in the Profumo Affair and others in The New Meaning of Treason] live only as they do in works of art, not life, I cannot avoid recommending this book—to be read with the pleasure with which one reads a work of fiction, and a masterpiece at that. Art affirms the greatness in man and anything Miss West writes is incapable of being less than art. (p. 526)

Dachine Rainer, in Commonweal (copyright © 1965 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), January 15, 1965.

Rebecca West is not Conrad. The Birds Fall Down is a Conradian novel in the sense that Conrad is the only writer who could have written it…. [This] is, to begin with, a spy story, enormously amplified by the addition of motives, ideas, theories, and historical setting. (p. 23)

Perhaps Gide could make something of this, developing his novel on the principle of moral experiment, so that every admonition, "Don't," would be immediately translated as, "Yes, but suppose I did." And the supposal would be worked out for its own experimental sake. But Rebecca West is not thus lightfingered. Kamensky is allowed to play dialectical games with Laura, and these are interesting as far as they go, but they are not seriously intended. The only idea that is taken with persistent gravity in the book is the notion … that we are forced to do evil because evil has been done to us…. So a certain impression of determinism hangs over the book and qualifies its atmosphere….

The book is interesting as certain essays are interesting, by saying interesting things. But it badly needs Conrad to make it a novel. Idea is related to action, but the relation is sluggish, a matter of insistence. Miss West has a strong mind, she is a vivid essayist, but her dramatic sense is weak. To think of Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent is to see that what Miss West lacks is the power of invention, the narrative and dramatic gift. Her happiest occasion, as a writer, is when there is no need to invent, when the matter is given into her hand, as in A Train of Powder (1955). When she writes of Mr. Setty and Mr. Hume, in that book, she writes brilliantly because Fate has already blocked out the novel and she has only to fill in the gaps, reasons, speculations. Indeed, the chapter on William Marshall and Pavel Kuznetsov is a spy-story far more vivid than anything she has invented in The Birds Fall Down. The impression given in the novel is that, for Miss West, the invention of incident is a frightful strain: She much prefers talk, especially if it is high talk.

Perhaps this explains the peculiarities of the dialogue. For the most part, her conversations are put together on the assumption that Russian gentlemen seventy years ago spoke in lectures. (p. 24)

Denis Donoghue, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1966 NYREV, Inc.), November 17, 1966.

The first pleasure of reading Rebecca West is the illusion of security which she creates. Each of her books renews confidence in the possibility of understanding human behavior. Murky effects of caprice and malice, of contradiction and even madness are welcome, not only because they are the perennial gratifications of interest but because they are moral complications. But these effects always move gracefully toward clarity. No one, in the course of this genuine entertainment, has to be afraid that he will witness living motions as a dog watches television, without reaching conclusions. What is seen appears to yield to evaluation, and therefore does not alarm. The certainty of comprehension is felt as a benefit not only to the reader but to the subject itself, which can only have been distressed before by its limitless ambiguity. (p. 68)

Miss West, confronting wildness, always succeeds in taming it. When one says, "There is no use denying the horrible nature of our human destiny," the destiny seems commensurate, possible to bear if it is calmly acknowledged. So, in The Birds Fall Down, a cultivated intelligence reassures us: we feel very soon on terms with the new violence—those of, at any rate, an equable distaste. Miss West's interest in crime, which issued in The New Meaning of Treason, is now crossed with fiction for the first time, but the two have always brushed against each other. The essays on crime, so admirable in their arrangement of fact and subtlety of analysis, were an application, in a defensible sense, of imagination to actual event. At the same time, Miss West's fiction has always appreciated a little hold on historicity. Its chief risk has been a polished and yet static loquacity, which she has often skillfully propelled by reference to actual times. (pp. 68-9)

Mary Ellmann, "The Russians of Rebecca West," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1966 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), December, 1966, pp. 68-71.

Rebecca West might be called a literary Paganini. She has written and published many words, most of them words of wisdom and wit, in almost every prose medium—journalism, history, literary criticism, short stories, novels. She is probably most famous as an interpreter of contemporary history, and A Train of Powder and A New Meaning of Treason justify this fame. Yet many consider her genius to lie essentially in literary criticism, and The Strange Necessity, The Court and the Castle, bear this out. But … six serious novels, published over a period of almost fifty years from The Return of the Soldier in 1918 to The Birds Fall Down in 1966,… display an incredible eclecticism in style, structure, content, subject matter and technique.

What unifies her work is its brilliance of style and the wholeness and coherence of her world view. Whatever Miss West writes is distinguished by the tough elegance of her prose, by sentences as soundly conceived and executed as those of any living stylist…. The business of the artist, Miss West says in both The Strange Necessity and The Court and the Castle, is to analyze his experience and construct from his examination a synthesis for his readers which will clarify and focus, often correcting, their view of the universe. Miss West observes experience with an innocent and unclouded eye, accurate and farseeing. She constructs her syntheses out of a full understanding of what the eye has seen, coupled with a deep understanding of the culture and the literary tradition within which she works. And she contrives to perfect the form of the synthesis with grace and concentration. (pp. 30-1)

Turner S. Kobler, "The Eclecticism of Rebecca West," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1971), Vol. XIII, No. 2, 1971, pp. 30-49.

For Dame Rebecca, the ideal creative condition for a woman is to be beyond roles—to be a mirror of reality itself. Virginia Woolf was saying much the same thing, at the same time, in A Room of One's Own, when she described the "androgynous mind", and offered as a definition that "it is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided".

Whether one takes Dame Rebecca's definition or Virginia Woolf's one must conclude that the greatest living example of a woman who has achieved that state, who has been both a thinker and an artist, and who has managed over some sixty years to express a spacious sense of reality, is Rebecca West. Indeed, one might propose that her achievement is not to be located in this book or in that one, but in the whole—that her books combine to make one created work of art, the mind of Rebecca West. There is support for this view in the fact that the name by which she is known is itself a persona taken from a work of art. When a writer chooses another name for his writing self, he is doing more than inventing a pseudonym: he is naming, and in a sense creating, his imaginative identity…. To choose that name was to claim the ideas and the radical posture of Ibsen, and particularly his ideas about women, as one's own public identity. The choice suggests an exceptional woman, willing her life to be an example of woman's situation.

One must feel some discomfort in the fact that an appreciation of so considerable a talent as Dame Rebecca's should start, inevitably, with the problems arising from her sex. In the case of some other woman writers this might be avoidable; but Dame Rebecca has made the subject a continuing theme of her work and of her life. There is scarcely a book of hers that does not have in it a feminist character (often thrust in anyhow, simply to make a speech against corsets), or a feminist idea. And her own career as a successful professional writer has demonstrated both the problem of being a woman artist, and the solution to it….

[Return of the Soldier] emerges the antithesis that continues throughout Dame Rebecca's work, between the will-to-die, which is male and creates poverty, war, and the ruin of civilizations, and the will-to-live, which is female, and bears and nourishes. The Return of the Soldier is a small masterpiece; but it is more nearly a "woman's novel", in the sense that Pointed Roofs and Mrs Dalloway are woman's novels, than anything else Dame Rebecca wrote, and one can understand why she chose not to continue in this manner, after such a bright beginning. For it comes too close to being merely a woman's novel, and so confirming the notions about women that exist in a man-governed modern world. Perhaps one might say that, though it was feminist, it was not androgynous enough. (p. 1553)

Her conviction of the moral necessity of art … underlies Dame Rebecca's elegiac essay on D. H. Lawrence in Ending in Earnest. It is not surprising that she should admire Lawrence, for he was a writer much like herself—a moralist, a preacher against death, an artist who could not confine his imagination within conventional literary forms. "One will rejoice", she wrote, "that our age produced one artist who had the earnestness of the patristic writers, who like them could know no peace till he had discovered what made men lust after death." She might have been writing about herself.

By 1930, Dame Rebecca's version of reality was virtually complete in its broad outlines. Her world was a dualistic world, in which good and evil, life and death battle eternally, an uncertain world, where man wanders unsupported and unknowing. His enemy is within him: the will-to-die that hates life, the need to be cruel and to suffer. His hope is in his capacity for knowledge, for communion with reality, and for the imperishable order of art. Out of art, reason, and tradition man might construct the Just City; but that goal is obstructed by the spirit that denies.

That understanding of the world is clear, but it had not yet found imaginative expression. The literary forms Dame Rebecca worked in were still those of the woman novelist—the novel and the literary essay; and in the novel she was still hunting for a personal voice…. One might well have concluded in 1936 that Dame Rebecca was not a novelist and would never be one.

But three years earlier she had taken a step that was to free her from restraining literary convention: she had agreed to write a short life of Saint Augustine. The assignment was an odd one for a literary journalist to take on, but it was a wise one: it led Dame Rebecca to history, religion and psychology and it engaged her mind with a great mind and a body of thought that touched her own deeply, and shaped her thinking for the rest of her career.

Dame Rebecca's Augustine is an archetype of modern man, both in his psychological nature and in his political situation. Psychologically he is introspective and life-denying, disgusted by physical existence, and especially by sex, guilty, and convinced of the need to expiate his guilt by suffering. Politically, he is civilized man, possessed of a tradition and a culture but uncertain of its present value and threatened by anti-culture, the barbarian at the gate. His importance is that he made himself an archetype by imposing his nature upon the doctrine of the Church, and thus creating Western man in his own image; he gave his authority to man's desire for guilt and punishment, for cruelty and suffering. For Dame Rebecca, we are all the heirs of Augustine's problems: "Every phrase I read of his", she later wrote, "sounds in my ears like the sentence of my doom and the doom of my age."

One aspect of that doom has to do with art. Augustine's true vocation, in Dame Rebecca's view, was for imaginative writing; he denied that vocation, and, though he made an art of his denial in the Confessions, he bequeathed to posterity a complex of life-denying and art-denying ideas that still determine the content of our literature and our attitudes toward it. Dame Rebecca seizes this opportunity for further speculations on the psychology of art, and on art's friends and enemies. The argument follows closely from "The Strange Necessity", and one can see Dame Rebecca extending her command of reality by taking her theory and fleshing it with details drawn from the history of religion. The process is like that of a landscape painter, who has his scene sketched, and is now filling the canvas, building and adding details, but not altering the form. By writing the life of Augustine, in the terms she had chosen, Dame Rebecca had clarified and particularized her vision. She was ready to write her masterpiece.

And what an odd masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is!… [It] has no genre, unless one invents one, calling it an epic testament, and placing it with the other great literary oddities of that odd genre—with Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is a narrative of a journey, and a long meditation on the patterns of Western history; it is a book of Balkan portraits, and a theory of the relations between East and West in Europe; and it is a book about its own time, a moving response to the contemporary political, moral and spiritual condition of Europe. (pp. 1553-54)

"If human beings were to continue to be what they are", Dame Rebecca sombrely concludes, "to act as they have acted in the phases of history covered by this book, then it would be good for all of us to die." But she is not without hope, and the principal source of hope, as in her earlier work, is in art: "Art gives us hope that history may change its spots and man become honourable."

The book itself is that—a major example of the art that gives us hope….

The historical importance of Black Lamb is, or should be, very great, for it is a supreme effort, by a mind at the height of its powers, to understand the catastrophe of the Second World War as it came on; it stands at the end of the 1930s like a massive baroque cenotaph. The importance for Dame Rebecca is also great and obvious; in this one book she cast aside entirely the restrictions of "woman writer" and revealed the true range of her mind. It is, in its majestic scale, an answer to the notion that the proper scale of a woman's imagination should be a "little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory".

Rebecca West's greatest period of creativity began with Black Lamb, and one can see now how the books that follow depend on it and derive from it….

The Fountain Overflows seems, in retrospect, a regression, back from the large authority of the previous studies to the restraints of the earlier fiction. The book that followed it, The Court and the Castle, recovers that authority. It is her most considerable work of criticism, a brilliant, expansive, stimulating, eccentric book….

Her religion, as it appears in her books, is mainly a concern with the existence of evil; given the reality of evil, ideas about the uses of power and about the structures of society follow, but they do not coalesce in a political system. She has, one might say, political wisdom but not a political ideology. Given the persistence of evil, it is appropriate that her study of the interactions of political and religious ideas should begin with Augustine and end with Kafka; for they share an eternal problem.

It is difficult to define in a word the peculiar note of authority that Rebecca West's criticism has, but perhaps the best term is episcopal: she writes like a fourth-century African bishop, praising the righteous, condemning heretics, explaining doctrine, confident always of the rightness of her judgments and of their firm moral bases. She is easy with terms like Manichaean and Pelagian, and can use them as metaphors for literary situations; and the language is significant, for in her world heresies do exist, and they matter. (p. 1554)

"Communing with Reality," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 21, 1973, pp. 1553-54.