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.)