Rebecca West was one of the major literary figures of the 20th century, known for her lifelong commitment to feminist issues. West was an internationally acclaimed journalist, novelist, literary critic and travel writer. Renowned for her stylish prose and wit, George Bernard Shaw said that “[she] can handle a pen as brilliantly as ever I could and much more savagely.”
The youngest of three daughters, West was born Cicely Fairfield in 1892 in Ireland. Following West’s father’s death the family moved to Edinburgh, where she attended George Watson’s Ladies College. After leaving school in 1907 due to contracting tuberculosis, West moved to London looking to begin a career as an actress and adopted the professional name Rebecca West – borrowing the name from Ibsen’s strong-minded heroine in Rosmersholm.
However, in 1911, West began her literary career when she began writing for The Freewoman, a radical feminist journal. West quickly won a reputation for witty and cutting journalism, and became aligned with socialist and feminist movements. She went on to write for The New Republic, New Statesman and Daily Telegraph and would be affiliated with feminist and socialist causes throughout her life.
After writing a piece in which West referred to H.G. Wells as an ‘old maid among novelists’, Wells invited West to dinner and the two began an affair, which would last for ten years and produce one son, Anthony Panther West. (The unusual choice of middle name, Panther, was the pet name Wells had for West.) Their romantic relationship ended after a decade, but Wells and West remained friends until his death in 1946. Following her relationship with Wells, in 1930 West married Henry Maxwell Andrews and they remained married until his death in 1968.
West and her son Anthony did not have a good relationship. In 1955, Anthony West wrote Heritage, a novel about a son torn between two hugely famous parents. West threatened legal action against any publishing house that bought the novel and subsequently it wasn’t published until after West’s death.
In 1918, West published The Return of the Soldier, her first novel – and the first novel about World War One to be written by a woman – which revolved around Captain Chris Baldry, a shell-shocked soldier returning from war. Grappling with the psychological effects of warfare on men and women, the novel also examines gender roles, class, identity and memory.
West would go on to publish many novels throughout her career, including: The Judge in 1922; Harriet Hume in 1929; The Thinking Reed in 1936; and The Birds Fall Down in 1966.
In 1941 and 1942, West’s acclaimed non-fiction work Black Lamb and Grey Falcons was published in two volumes. Heralded as West’s masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcons is, on the surface, a travel book, exploring the Balkans and its history, politics and geography. However, given the time that she was writing in, the heart of West’s work is a critique of empire and a passionate defence of the nationhood of small states. Interest in the book was renewed in the 1990s after the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.
Following the publication of Black Lamb and Grey Falcons, West was assigned to cover the trial of William Joyce and John Amery, who were accused of broadcasting fascist propaganda from Germany to the UK, in 1946. The report went on to become The Meaning of Treason, which was published in 1947. In addition it being an example of erudite journalism, The Meaning of Treason is deeply concerned with what it means to be disloyal on a national scale. These questions only gained potency throughout the 20th century with the advent of the Cold War, and West published a revised version, The New Meaning of Treason, in 1964. The New Yorker also assigned West to the Nuremberg trials, where she wrote a collections of essays which were published in A Train of Powder in 1955.
In 1956, West returned to fiction after 20 years and published The Fountain Overflows, which many believe to be her greatest novel. Written with West’s trademark intelligence and stylish prose, the novel revolves around Rose, her sister Mary and their artistic family on the brink of financial ruin in the early 20th century.
West was decorated with honours throughout her life. In 1959, she was awarded a damehood – the first one to be awarded to a female journalist – and in 1948 she was awarded the French Legion of Honour. In her final years, West continued to lead an active social life and was friends with fellow writers Martha Gellhorn and Doris Lessing. She continued reviewing books for The Sunday Telegraph, published essay collections and works of fiction and commented on politics.
Rebecca West died at the age of 90 in March 1983. A voracious writer until her death, West left many unfinished works. Four of her novels, Cousin Rosamund, The Real Night, Sunflower and The Sentinel, and two of her non-fiction works, Family Memories and Survivors in Mexico, were published after her death.