Cicely Isabel Fairfield (December 21, 1892-March 15, 1983), known by her pen name Rebecca West, or Dame Rebecca West, DBE was a British-born author of Scottish-Irish ancestry, well known for her novels, journalism, literary criticism, and travel literature. A prolific, protean author who wrote in many genres, West was committed to feminist and liberal principles and was one of the foremost public intellectuals of the twentieth century. She reviewed books for The Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Sunday Telegraph, and the New Republic, and she was a correspondent for The Bookman. Her major works include Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), on the history and culture of Yugoslavia; A Train of Powder (1955), her coverage of the Nuremberg trials, published originally in The New Yorker; The Meaning of Treason, later The New Meaning of Treason, a study of World War II and Communist traitors; The Return of the Soldier, a modernist World War I novel; and the "Aubrey trilogy" of autobiographical novels, The Fountain Overflows, This Real Night, and Cousin Rosamund. Time called her "indisputably the world's number one woman writer" in 1947. She was made CBE in 1949, and DBE in 1959, in recognition of her outstanding contributions to British letters.
She had two older sisters. Letitia ("Lettie"), who was the better educated of the three, became one of the first fully-qualified female doctors in Britain, as well as a barrister at the Inns of Court. Winifred ("Winnie"), the middle sister, married Norman Macleod, Principal Assistant Secretary in the Admiralty, and eventually director general of Greenwich Hospital. Winnie's two children, Alison and Norman, became closely involved in Rebecca's life as she got older. West trained as an actress in London, taking the name 'Rebecca West' from the heroine in Rosmersholm by Henrik Ibsen. She and Lettie became involved in the women's suffrage movement, participating in street protests. Meanwhile, West worked as a journalist on Freewoman and the Clarion, drumming up support for the suffragette cause. She met H. G. Wells in 1913, after her provocatively damning review of his novel Marriage prompted him to invite her to lunch. They fell in love, though Wells was still in his second marriage at the time, and their affair lasted ten years, producing a son, Anthony West. West is also said to have had affairs with Charlie Chaplin and newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook.
West established her reputation as a savage and eloquent spokesperson for feminist and socialist causes and as a sharp-witted critic, turning out a staggering number of essays and reviews for The New Republic, The New York Herald Tribune, The New York American, The New Statesman, The Daily Telegraph, and many more newspapers and magazines. George Bernard Shaw said in 1916 that "Rebecca West could handle a pen as brilliantly as ever I could and much more savagely. During the 1920s, West began a lifelong habit of visits to the U.S. to give lectures, meet artists, and get involved in the political scene. There, she befriended CIA founder Allen Dulles, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Ross of The New Yorker , and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., among many other significant figures of the day. Her lifelong fascination with the United States culminated in 1948 when President Truman presented her with the Women's Press Club Award for Journalism, calling her "the world's best reporter.
In 1930, at the age of 37, she married a banker, Henry Maxwell Andrews, and they remained together until his death in 1968. West's writing brought her considerable wealth, and by 1940 she owned a Rolls Royce and a grand country estate, Ibstone House, in the Chiltern Hills of southern England. It is testament to her financial savvy that both the Rolls and the country estate were acquired for a fraction of their worth from insolvent owners. During World War II, West housed Yugoslav refugees in the spare rooms of her blacked-out manor, and she used the grounds as a small dairy farm and vegetable plot, agricultural pursuits that continued long after the war had ended.
She traveled extensively well into old age. In 1966 and 1969, she undertook two long journeys to Mexico, becoming fascinated by the indigenous culture of the country and its mestizo population. She stayed with actor Romney Brent in Mexico City and with Katherine (Kit) Wright, a long-time friend, in Cuernavaca. She collected a large amount of travel impressions and wrote tens of thousands of words for a "follow-up" volume to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, tentatively titled "Survivors in Mexico." The work, however, was never finished, and only saw publication posthumously in 2003. Even into her late 70s, she visited Lebanon, Venice, Monte Carlo, and always went back to the United States.
At the same time, West worked on sequels to her autobiographically inspired novel The Fountain Overflows (1957); although she had written the equivalent of two more novels for the planned trilogy, she was never satisfied with the sequels and did not publish them. She also tinkered at great length with an autobiography, without coming to closure, and she started scores of stories without finishing them. Much of her work from the late phase of her life was published posthumously, including Family Memories (1987), This Real Night (1984), Cousin Rosamund (1985), The Only Poet (1992), and Survivors in Mexico (2003). Unfinished works from her early period, notably Sunflower (1986) and The Sentinel (2001) were also published after her death, so that her oeuvre was augmented by about one third by posthumous publications.
On hearing of her death, William Shawn, then editor in chief of The New Yorker, said:
Rebecca West was one of the giants and will have a lasting place in English literature. No one in this century wrote more dazzling prose, or had more wit, or looked at the intricacies of human character and the ways of the world more intelligently."'''
It would seem that her father's ironic, sceptical temper so penetrated her sensibility that she could not regard any body of ideas as other than a starting point for argument. Although she was a militant feminist and active suffragette, and published a perceptive and admiring profile of Emmeline Pankhurst, West also criticized the tactics of Pankhurst's daughter, Christabel, and the sometimes doctrinaire aspects of the Pankhursts' Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU).
The first major test of West's political outlook was the Bolshevik Revolution. Many on the left saw it as the beginning of a new, better world, and the end of the crimes of capitalism. West regarded herself as a member of the left, having attending Fabian socialist summer schools as a girl. But to West, both the Revolution and the revolutionaries were suspect. Even before the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917, West expressed her doubts that events in Russia could serve as a model for socialists in Britain or anywhere else.
West paid a heavy price for her cool reaction to the Russian Revolution; her positions increasingly isolated her. When Emma Goldman visited Britain in 1924 after seeing Bolshevik violence firsthand, West was exasperated that British intellectuals ignored Goldman's testimony and her warning against Bolshevik tyranny.
For all her censures of Communism, however, West was hardly an uncritical supporter of the Western democracies. Thus in 1919-1920, she excoriated the U.S. government for deporting Goldman and for the infamous Palmer raids. She was also appalled at the failure of Western democracies to come to the aid of Republican Spain, and she gave money to the Republican cause.
A staunch anti-fascist, West attacked both the Conservative governments of her own country for appeasing Adolf Hitler and her colleagues on the left for their pacifism. Neither side, in her view, understood the evil Nazism posed. Unlike many on the left, she also distrusted Joseph Stalin. To West, Stalin had a criminal mentality that Communism facilitated. She was outraged when the Allies decided to back the Communist-led Partisans led by Tito in Yugoslavia, instead of the Chetniks of Draža Mihailović, whom she considered the legitimate Yugoslav resistance. After the war, West's anti-Communism hardened as she saw Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other Eastern and Central European states succumb to Soviet domination.
It is not surprising in the context that West reacted to U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy differently from her colleagues. They saw a demagogue terrorizing liberals and leftists with baseless accusations of Communist conspiracy. West saw an oaf blundering into the minefield of Communist subversion. For her, McCarthy was right to pursue Communists with fervor, even if his methods were roughshod, though her mild reaction to McCarthy provoked powerful revulsion among those on the left and dismay even among anti-Communist liberals. And there is no doubt that she discounted the injury McCarthy did to some of those he accused unjustly of abetting Communists. She refused, however, to amend her views.
Although West's anti-Communism earned the high regard of conservatives, she never considered herself one of them. In postwar Britain, West voted Labour and welcomed the Labour landslide of 1945. But she spoke out against domination of the Labour Party by British trade unions, and thought leftwing politicians such as Michael Foot unimpressive. She had mixed feelings about the Callaghan government. West admired Margaret Thatcher, not for Thatcher's policies, but for Thatcher's achievement in rising to the top of a male-dominated sphere. She admired Thatcher's willingness to stand up to trade-union bullying.
In the end, West's anti-Communism remained the centerpiece of her politics because she so consistently challenged the Communists as legitimate foes of the status quo in capitalist countries. In West's view, Communism, like fascism, was merely a form of authoritarianism. Communists were under party discipline and therefore could never speak for themselves. And West was a supreme example of an intellectual who spoke for herself, no matter how her comments might injure her. Indeed, few writers explicitly acknowledged how much West's embrace of unpopular positions hurt her on the left. A whole generation of writers abandoned West and refused to read her, as Doris Lessing suggested.
World War II shocked her into a more conventional belief: "I believe if people are looking for the truth, the truth of the Christian religion will come out and meet them. And in the early 1950s, she thought she had a mystical revelation in France and actively tried to convert to Catholicism. There was a precedent in her family for this action, as her sister, Letitia, had earlier converted to Catholicism, thereby causing quite a stir. But West's attempt was short-lived, and she confessed to a friend: "I could not go on with being a Catholic... I don't want, I can't bear to, become a Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, and I cannot believe that I am required to pay such a price for salvation. Her writings of the 1960s and early 70s again betray a profound mistrust towards God: "The case against religion is the responsibility of God for the sufferings of mankind, which makes it impossible to believe the good things said about Him in the Bible, and consequently to believe anything it says about Him.
West's fluctuating attitude towards Christianity was offset by a more constant form of belief. She was informally a Manichaean all her life. Although she was critical of Manichaeanism's puritanical excesses, she did believe in dualism as the most fundamental working principle of the universe. Although she conceded, optimistically, that "it is not possible to kill goodness, she also indulged in pessimistic statements like "natural man is mean, which is as much as saying that she adhered to the Manichaean belief that the essence of goodness was diffused inside gross matter like particles of light trapped in darkness. In accordance with this Manichaean skepticism, West wrote in a draft of her own memoirs: "I had almost no possibility of holding faith of any religious kind except a belief in a wholly and finally defeated God, a hypothesis which I now accept but tried for a long time to reject, I could not face it.
Manichaean was also her life-long struggle with the very question of how to deal with dualisms. At times she appears to favor the merging of opposites, for which Byzantium served as a model: "church and state, love and violence, life and death, were to be fused again as in Byzantium. More dominant, however, was her tendency to view the tensions generated in the space between dualistic terms as life-sustaining and creative; hence, her aversion to homosexuality and her warning not to confuse the drive for feminist emancipation with the woman's desire to become like a man. Her insistence on the fundamental difference between men and women reveals her essentialism, but it also bespeaks her innate Manichaean sensibility. She wanted respect and equal rights for women, but at the same time she required that women retain their specifically feminine qualities, notably an affinity with the life force: "Men have a disposition to violence; women have not. If one says that men are on the side of death, women on the side of life, one seems to be making an accusation against men. One is not doing that. One reason why she does not want to make an accusation against men is that they are simply playing their assigned role in a flawed universe, which is, of course, the result of an imperfect deity. Only love can alleviate destructive aspects of the sex-antagonism: "I loathe the way the two cancers of sadism and masochism eat into the sexual life of humanity, so that the one lifts the lash and the other offers blood to the blow, and both are drunken with the beastly pleasure of misery and do not proceed with love's business of building a shelter from the cruelty of the universe. In addition to the operations of love, female emancipation is crucial to removing the moral, professional, and social stigma associated with the notion of the "weaker sex," without trying to do away altogether with the temperamental and metaphysical aspects of the gender dualism itself. Thus, the "sex war" so graphically rendered in West's early short story "Indissoluble Matrimony" (1914) elevates the female character, Evadne, in the end because she accepts the terms of the contest without superficially trying to "win" that war.
Manichaeanism also informs West's political propensities. As Bernard Schweizer has argued: "St. Augustine and Schopenhauer emphasized the fallenness of human life, implying a quietistic stance that could be confused with conservatism, while the Reclus brothers [famous French anarchists] urged her to revolt against such pessimistic determinism. West's characteristically heroic personal and historic vision is a result of these two contending forces. West's conviction that humanity will only fulfill its highest potentials if it adheres to the principle of process similarly arises from her Manichaean temperament: "Process is her most encompassing doctrine," states Peter Wolfe. "Reconciling her dualism, it captures the best aspects of the male and female principles. In this way, West's Manichaean disposition infuses her religious sensibility, as well as her thinking about gender, politics, and art.
Bill Moyers's interview "A Visit With Dame Rebecca West", recorded in her London home when she was 89, was aired by PBS in July 1981. In a review of the interview, John O'Connor wrote that "Dame Rebecca emerges as a formidable presence. When she finds something or somebody disagreeable, the adjective suddenly becomes withering.
West's first novel, The Return of the Soldier, was turned into a major motion picture in 1982, directed by Alan Bridges, starring Alan Bates, Glenda Jackson, and Julie Christie. More recently, an adaptation of The Return of the Soldier for the stage by Kelly Younger titled Once A Marine took West's theme of shell-shock-induced amnesia and applied it to a soldier returning from the war in Iraq with PTSD.
There have been two plays about Rebecca West produced since 2004. That Woman: Rebecca West Remembers, by Carl Rollyson, Helen Macleod, and Anne Bobby, is a one-woman monologue in which an actress playing Rebecca West recounts her life through some of her most famous articles, letters, and books. Tosca's Kiss, a 2006 play by Kenneth Jupp, retells West's experience covering the Nuremberg trials for The New Yorker.
Robert D. Kaplan's influential book Balkan Ghosts (1994) is an homage to West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), which he calls "this century's greatest travel book
A 1990s female Canadian rock group headed by Alison Outhit called itself 'Rebecca West'.
In February 2006, BBC broadcast a radio version of West's novel The Fountain Overflows, dramatized by Robin Brook, in six 55 minute installments.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon:
The Fountain Overflows:
The Harsh Voice:
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon:
"A Greenhouse with Cyclamens":
The Fountain Overflows:
The Birds Fall Down:
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon:
The Fountain Overflows:
The Return of the Soldier:
"The Salt of the Earth":
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon:
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: