Rebecca West West, Rebecca (Vol. 31) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rebecca West 1892–1983

(Pseudonym of Cicily Isabel Fairfield) English journalist, novelist, and critic.

West wrote of equality for women in the workplace, the voting booth, and in the pursuit of pleasure. Hers were radical ideas in 1911, the year she began her career writing for The Freewoman, a feminist publication. Although she expanded her talents into literary criticism and, eventually, into fiction, her best-known and most respected work was in journalism. West once said that were she to begin again, she would write only novels, but ironically, her novels are thought to be the least effective of her works. Critics attribute this to her journalistic style which allows for little warmth, spontaneity, or imagination.

Prominent among West's early books are the biographies Henry James (1916) and St. Augustine (1933). The latter, one of the first psychohistories, is written with a heavily Freudian emphasis. Although the books were praised for their historical accuracy, many critics felt that the psychoanalytical language presented an unnecessary distraction.

West's early fiction, including her novels Harriet Hume (1929) and The Thinking Reed (1936) and her collection of four short novels, The Harsh Voice (1935), were not well received. Critics generally find her fiction undistinguished because of its heavy emphasis on didacticism and the unbelievability of her plots and characters. Perhaps as a result of the demands placed upon her by her journalistic work, West published only two novels after The Thinking Reed. However, one of these, The Fountain Overflows (1956), was praised for its depiction of a young girl growing up in a failing London family and is seen as West's most sensitive piece of fiction.

West's journalism and criticism are considered by critics to be her most important and enduring work. In these fields she forcefully conveys her strong opinions and liberal political views. The Strange Necessity (1928) is a collection of critical essays which focuses on the historical and contemporary role of art and the artist; this is a major theme in much of West's criticism. Her interest in the nature of patriotism and the motivations underlying the decision to betray are discussed in The Meaning of Treason (1947). A related idea explored in The Court and the Castle (1957) is how corruption affects the individual who is ruled by the pursuit and acquisition of power. The book which has been called her masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), recounts West's travels through Yugoslavia; essentially, however, it is a commentary on the politics, history, social attitudes, and living conditions among the people of that country. Although her writing is consistently praised for being technically accomplished, this book has been criticized for historical misinterpretations.

Among the most frequent complaints about West's work are its digressive wordiness and the author's reliance upon personal observation rather than research. However, critics consistently appreciate her "felicity of phrase," and many enjoy her passionate, often eccentric, opinions. In her work and in her life, West was true to those issues she wrote about. Even in the early Freewoman pieces, she decries injustice, berates stupidity, scorns laziness, and despises cowardice. Her wry wit and sardonic humor were applied unsparingly to whatever aroused her dissatisfaction.

(See also CLC, Vols. 7, 9; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vol. 109 [obituary]; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983.)

Philip Littell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What kind of book about Henry James would you expect from a vivid and eager young radical, whose own interest in politics and history is prodigious, who has a keen appetite for almost every kind of life except the life lived in English country houses, and who detests, with all her many gifts of detestation, the predominance of sex in the relations of men and women? You would do well not to expect a delineative book, which defines Henry James with a portrait-painter's hand, or a luminously expository book, which makes him plainer to readers who could not understand for themselves.

[In "Henry James"] Miss West has given us neither of these things. One would have been astonished if she had, and yet not more astonished, I think, than one is by the book she has actually written, which with all its brilliant arrogance and cockiness, with all its impatience at the difference between yesterday's mode and to-day's, with all its failures in sympathy and in understanding—there is an amazingly unperceiving passage about "The Awkward Age"—does glow with such a beauty of admiration for Henry James that one gets the strongest incentive to read him all over again….

Miss West's book has wit and beauty and intelligence and stupidity. It has hardly more than a scrap of anything you could call insight. You would never learn from it that Henry James's life was among other things a long discarding of naïveté. You would never learn from it that his books were a series of attempts to put his newer ideas of distinction and its opposite into the place once occupied by his earliest ideas of right and wrong. Some day Miss West will find her real subject. But, being only twenty-four, she need not hurry. (p. 3)

Philip Littell, "Rebecca West on Henry James," in The New Republic, Vol. IX. No. 107, November 18, 1916, pp. 2-3.

Henry B. Fuller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What first interests me in [The Return of the Soldier] is its length, or rather its brevity: all is done within one hundred and eighty-five pages…. Miss West's "novella" is an episode, a situation involving but a few days—or would be, were it not for a chronological backthrow which provides perspective, complications, and the road to a highly effective climax.

We think, at the start, that we have to deal with Rebecca West as still the brisk and brusque young radical of "The Freewoman" and "The New Republic," walking through life in a trim tailor-made, with her feet setting themselves down firmly and her elbows in vigorous action. Well, she is all of that—in certain phases of her social criticism; but she is much more.

Later on we incline to image Miss West as a spirited young filly, speeding it over her race track. For two-thirds of her course she trots, true to form, on the old well-known course, though she covers it with a quickened stride; then comes a moment of tangled hoofs and a threat to bolt the regular track and to finish up before the judges' stand anyhow. It is this that makes the fifth of her six chapters, which is crowded with unskilled transitions, both the worst and the best; surely it is the most novel and moving.

"The Return of the Soldier" is of course a war-story—a story of shell-shock, amnesia, and the suppressed wish. The author is of the new day, and the new...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

The New York Times Book Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rebecca West's new novel ["The Judge"] is a brilliant piece of work, forceful, impressive, haunting with a sense of instance…. Her one previous novel, her critical work, and her essays have shown her to possess a keenly probing intellect, a rich mental background and a notable gift for the art of writing. All this, in fuller, richer development and in finer quality, is evident in "The Judge," but through its pages there shines, too, the clear, unmistakable light of genius. In its insight into the deeps of human nature, and especially of feminine human nature, in its treatment of the drama of human life, in the richness of its fabric and in the force and power and skill with which it uses, for the purposes of the story, the element of personality in its characters, the novel is comparable with the work of George Eliot at her best, although falling short, in some respects, of the measure of her artistic excellence. But it is as different from her fiction as this age is different from George Eliot's period. For it is franker, truer, comes to closer grips with the forces of life, seeks more ruthlessly to find the roots of motive, the sources of character, the causes of action.

It is a long novel containing close upon two hundred thousand words, and its story could be boiled down into the compass of half a dozen sentences. Nevertheless, with such skill has Miss West painted her characters, marshaled her temperaments, used her emotional elements, that the attention is at once enlisted and the interest grows constantly deeper and more absorbing until the end. Stripped down to its last essentials, it is a story of the love of a man for the girl he intends to marry cutting across his love for his mother. But it would be as inadequate to describe it thus as to say of a tempestuous, thrilling, dramatic conflagration merely that "a fire burned down such and such a block yesterday," for this situation of a man greatly loving his promised wife and yet being deeply absorbed in his lifelong love of his mother not only flowers out into drama in the present, but opens the doors into the past and shows the fateful story being enacted, step by step, that lives on from one generation to the next. It is out of this sense of...

(The entire section is 913 words.)

New Statesman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Strange Necessity is almost as tedious as Das Kapital, and with much less justification. It is so intrinsically unreadable that the printer's reader will surely be the last and only man who will ever be able to claim that he has read all through the sixty or seventy thousand words of it. In the first place, in so far as it contains any fresh or useful idea on the problem of aesthetics—and we are not sure that it does—the adequate expression of that idea need certainly not have occupied more than a quarter of the space it does. A very great deal of the essay seems to be just incoherent rambling, and the amount of sheer self-repetition in it is, to say the least, irritating. Page after page upon...

(The entire section is 1163 words.)

Ernest Sutherland Bates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["St. Augustine"] stands out above its predecessors both in beauty of style and significance of thought. A popular biography only in being easy and delightful to read, Miss West's flexible and trenchant style here wholly at her command, mingling wit and eloquence without disharmony, her book is also a keen analysis of the character and meaning of one of the world's greatest men. Here with a subject worthy of her steel, Miss West has risen above her lesser self, somewhat too generous of casual impressions, and has given us a volume rich in reflection as well as daringly alive in treatment. Augustine stands before us almost a contemporary, a tortured spirit, fellow with Tolstoy, Lawrence, Proust, and Joyce, yet at the...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

William Plomer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] four "short novels" which Miss Rebecca West has collected under the title of The Harsh Voice are a significant expression of current truths, though she may not be the first to make their significance real. Some of the current truths upon which she has most firmly seized are these: that in love and marriage today the intermingling of love and hate has taken on a new complexity, partly on account of changes in manners and the variable economic conditions, particularly in America; [and] that America in particular has evolved a new kind of woman, extremely capable, "hard-boiled," influential, but certainly not devoid of feminine feelings…. All four stories are about rich people; three are about Americans;...

(The entire section is 529 words.)

Edith H. Walton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Turning her agile talent to a rather difficult medium Rebecca West has produced four miniature novels, or long short stories, which are chiefly remarkable for their technical brilliance. They have a smooth high glaze, a competence of construction, reminiscent of Somerset Maugham at his slickest and most suave. Only a very good craftsman could have written "The Harsh Voice," but its brittleness and its occasional meretriciousness seem to prove that something besides craftsmanship is required.

Miss West's attitude … is curiously literary. One is perpetually aware that these tales are contrived, and contrived for a maximum dramatic effect. They do not proceed simply and naturally with the rhythm of...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Mary Ross

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed," wrote Pascal in the passage from which the title of Rebecca West's new novel ["The Thinking Reed"] is taken. The phrase is curiously suggestive of Miss West's own work. "Thinking," none could deny who watched the flashing wit in her essays of feminism many years ago; nor in the subsequent volumes of her literary essays, at all too widely spaced intervals. But a reed also is something through which music may be made, and even in Miss West's critical writing (sometimes, I have suspected, in spite of herself) there often has been a lyrical note with both depth and distinction. Her lyricism had a chance for fuller expression in the...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

Clifton Fadiman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When someone as responsible as Rebecca West sets herself to write, and succeeds in writing, over half a million words about Yugoslavia, one can be pretty sure that she has more than Yugoslavia on her mind. Penetrate the fastnesses of her two cyclopean volumes called "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" and you encounter far more than an impassioned survey of the history, topography, and peoples of Yugoslavia. Here's what you will meet: glittering bits and pieces of a philosophy of history; an assemblage of characters shaped in the round by the hand of a skilled novelist; a profound meditation on the central core of Fascism; a witty running commentary on the fixed differences between men and women; soliloquies, ranging from...

(The entire section is 755 words.)

Donald A. Stauffer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Style is the man. The adage need not be changed in gender to include Miss West, for she writes with such force as to make most male writers appear effeminate. A rich style therefore demands a well-furnished mind, and this Rebecca West possesses. It would be easy to turn this review [of "The Meaning of Treason"] into grouped quotations to display the vigor of her thought, the shape of her sentences, her knowledge of psychology, her sense of terror and of exile, her humor, the profundity of her ethical judgments, her vignettes of people and her panoramas of places.

Surprisingly, considering the subject, this book contains intimate descriptions of buildings in London, interiors and exteriors, that make...

(The entire section is 567 words.)

Elizabeth Janeway

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Fifteen] years after "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon," Miss West publishes a new novel ["The Fountain Overflows"], a real Dickensian Christmas pudding of a book. In fact, it is very like Dickens. It is as full of characters—odd and even, but mostly odd—as a pudding of plums; full of incident, full of family delights, full of parties and partings, strange bits of London, the Iobby of the House of Commons, a classic murder with portraits of the murderer, the murderee and a couple of innocent bystanders, bill collectors, kitchen fires, good food, and a considerable quota of ghosts…. In short, this is a very novelish sort of novel—old-fashioned, busy and extremely readable. (p. 1)

[The] most...

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William Esty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a novelist, Rebecca West resembles Cordelia, one of the characters in her own book, The Fountain Overflows, a hopelessly unmusical girl in a musical family, whose unflagging industry at violin practice produces not one note that satisfies her talented sisters and mother. Miss West inflicts on the reader the same painful sensation that the Aubrey family felt when poor Cordelia sawed away so indefatigably: why can't she realize she has no gift for this sort of thing?

The intention is clear enough. Miss West wished to write a big, heartwarming novel of Edwardian family life, to invite the reader into the Aubrey's chaotic but wonderful household, where he would be caught up in their love for...

(The entire section is 344 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Fountain Overflows is Miss Rebecca West's first novel for twenty-one years and is indeed only her sixth work of fiction. That this should be so is no doubt the price she has had to pay for her versatility as a writer. Are we to think of her primarily as a brilliant reporter, a great journalist? That she certainly is. But during her career as a writer she has played many parts: she has been, among other things, an admirable literary critic and a wonderfully astringent reviewer. Yet the publication of The Fountain Overflows proves that what she is above all, and what she ought to be, is a novelist; and in the light of this new novel, it is impossible not to regret her long years of absence from...

(The entire section is 1482 words.)

Jacob Korg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Court and the Castle is a series of critical observations about various literary works held loosely together by a concern with how great writers from Shakespeare to Kafka have treated the problem of salvation. Miss West begins with the interesting theory that the king in Shakespeare's plays is fated to misuse the power he possesses, yet the usurper who stands ready to unseat him is invariably evil. Noting that this paradox of power does not seem relevant to actual political life, Miss West confesses that she would not be at all surprised if Shakespeare thought of his kings as symbols of the will, of their courts as symbols of personality, and of the usurpers as symbols of the will's futile attempts to...

(The entire section is 393 words.)

Nicholas King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss West, or Dame Rebecca as she is now styled, may still have an Ibsen conscience, but her world has flowered well beyond introspection, and [Rebecca West: A Celebration] has collected much of it. Some will say too much, for it is made up of many subjects and cannot easily be read through. It celebrates the milestones of her long career, journalistic, novelistic, and biographical, and includes large chunks of her most famous work, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon….

The publishers, looking back now from a different age, tend to present her work as centered on two themes, feminism and the modern fatality of war. Certainly, the fact of Dame Rebecca's womanhood informs her point of view...

(The entire section is 750 words.)

Rosemary Dinnage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The current interest in Rebecca West's work, even if it is partly due to the pursuit of every and any feminist writer and partly homage to her age, is well deserved. But she is a critic's nightmare. How can anyone have written so well and so badly? Have worked in so many different genres? Be so resistant to fitting any particular pigeonhole? If [The Return of the Soldier, Harriet Hume, The Young Rebecca, and 1900] were representative of her life's work, she need not be taken too seriously; but in fact they are oddments from the very beginning and very end of her long writing career. One could say that they are interesting mainly because of their relation to the other books—except that it is so hard to...

(The entire section is 1761 words.)