One of Rebecca West’s first essays as a young columnist for the suffragist weekly the Freewoman was a spirited attack on Mrs. Humphry Ward, then a bulwark of the literary establishment. While Mary Ward might seem to modern readers an easy target, in 1912 such an attack required considerable daring. The essay was one of the first to be written under her pseudonym—an impulsive borrowing from Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. In many respects both the irreverence toward an established icon and the nom de plume she selected typify the essay writing stance she adopted at the outset of her career. While West never lost what her last literary editor described as her “unmistakable pounce,” the objects of her scorn shifted as she herself became transformed into an establishment figure who by the end of her career occupied a cultural position not unlike that enjoyed by Mrs. Humphry Ward before World War I.
In her early essays in the Freewoman, and later in the socialist newspaper the Clarion, she developed a style which was to be the hallmark of her essays throughout her career.
She plainly took enormous pleasure in using her pithy and epigrammatic style to skewer her political opponents with devastating dismissals. Sir William Anson, for example, was, “an anti-feminist too uninteresting to be really dangerous,” while Mrs. Humphry Ward’s assertion that a laborer could easily feed a family of five on 18 shillings a week represented that novelist’s “one real flash of imagination.” Recognizing the demands of newspaper journalism, she made sure that an arresting opening sentence began each essay. She was somewhat frustrated by the narrow topicality required by partisan political journalism, but despite this, several essays from this period stand out as being of lasting significance and value. Her 1913 essay on the suffragist Emily Davidson, who had endured numerous imprisonments and forcible feeding and been killed when she threw herself in front of the king’s horse at the Derby, remains one of the most eloquent essays of moral outrage produced in English. While the essays in the Freewoman and the Clarion provide an outstanding record of the struggle for women’s suffrage, West’s finest essay on the period is “A Reed of Steel,” her 1933 essay on Emmeline Pankhurst.
During the 1920s, after publishing two novels and a critical study of Henry James, West turned her attention to literary criticism with a book of more ambitious literary essays, The Strange Necessity (1928). In her essay on Joyce’s Ulysses, West clearly sees herself as an admirer and defender of Joyce, paying what is intended as a tribute to the structure of that novel by organizing her essay around a day spent in Paris, paralleling the single day in Dublin which bounds Joyce’s novel. But West’s reading of the novel seems superficial. The essay strives for profundity, but merely stumbles through mazes of inverted sentences and subordinate clauses. The essay on Lawrence is stronger because she returns to her strong suit of biographical rather than textual criticism.
West’s awkwardness with Ulysses, despite her avowed admiration, marks an unease with the avant-garde which was increasingly to shape her aesthetic judgments. In “Kafka and the Mystery of Bureaucracy” (1957) she dismissed Metamorphosis as “another absurd avant-garde story,” yet in the essay as a whole she develops a sophisticated and complex investigation of Kafka’s relationship with bureaucracy. In a 1964 BBC interview West said, “What I chiefly want to do when I write is to contemplate character… This is an inborn tendency in me.” While the comment might seem to bear more directly on her work as a novelist, it underlines her strength as an essayist. Whether in her literary or political essays she writes with a surer hand in delineating character than in dealing with abstractions.
West’s skill as a novelist merges with her growing preoccupation with the nature of evil in her essays reporting on trials. Her essay, “Greenhouse with Cyclamens I” (1955), on the closing sessions of the Nuremberg trials, attempts not only to convey some impression of the Nazi leaders facing sentencing but also to make a broader statement about life in postwar Germany and even the German character. Despite its rhetorical flourishes, the essay falters in fulfilling its ambitious intent partly because of the inadequacy of the overarching “greenhouse” metaphor and partly because, in trying to convey the sense of evil exuded by the Nazis, West falls back on facile suggestions of sexual perversity, so that Goering is “like a madam in a brothel,” Streicher, “a dirty old man of the sort that gives trouble in parks,” and so on. During the postwar years West was intensely preoccupied with the theme of political betrayal and wrote about nearly every major trial concerning the Official Secrets Act. Her essays on the treason trial of William Joyce (“Lord Haw-Haw”), whose wartime broadcasts from Germany had been intended to undermine British morale, were first published in the New Yorker and later appeared in her best-known book The Meaning of Treason (1947).
West’s writing had become widely known in the United States during World War II principally through her essays in Harper’s on everyday life under wartime conditions.
American journals such as the New Yorker gave her the opportunity to develop a subject without severe length restrictions. Her political views were also increasingly in step with the anticommunist fervor that gripped postwar America. In 1947 Time magazine put her on the cover and described her as “one of the greatest of living journalists.” She even defended the McCarthy hearings in a series of four essays called “The Facts Behind the Witch Trials” for the Sunday Times in Spring 1954 in which she claimed, “It would be a strange Government indeed that felt no curiosity when faced with such intimations of disorder.”
Although West was aptly described by Kenneth Tynan in 1954 as “the best journalist alive,” and although she had a voracious appetite for documentary evidence, the hand that shapes West’s reportage is always that of a novelist whose sense of character, of drama, of moral tensions takes precedence over mere fact.
Born Cicily Isabel Fairfield, 21 December 1892 in London. Grew up in London and Edinburgh. Studied at George Watson’s Ladies’ College, Edinburgh; Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London, 1909–10. Briefly an actress, 1911, with a role in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, from which she adopted the name Rebecca West. Liaison with the writer H.G.Wells, 1913–23: one son. Contributor to various journals and newspapers, from 1912, including the Freewoman, New Freewoman (later the Egoist), Clarion, New Statesman and Nation, New Republic, New York Herald-Tribune, Time and Tide, New Yorker, and Harper’s. Married Henry Maxwell Andrews, 1930 (died, 1968). Lived in Buckinghamshire, 1930–68, and London, 1968–83. Talks supervisor, BBC, London, during World War II; Terry Foundation Lecturer, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1956.
Awards: Royal Society of Literature Benson Medal, 1966; honorary degrees from two universities; Member, Order of St. Sava (Yugoslavia), 1937; Fellow, 1947, and Companion of Literature, 1968, Royal Society of Literature; Chevalier, Legion of Honor (France), 1957; Honorary Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1972; Commander, Order of the British Empire (CBE), 1949; Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire (DBE), 1959. Died in London, 15 March 1983.
Essays and Related Prose
The Strange Necessity: Essays and Reviews, 1928
Ending in Earnest: A Literary Log, 1931
The Meaning of Treason, 1947; revised edition, 1952; second revised edition, as The New Meaning of Treason, 1964
A Train of Powder, 1955
The Court and the Castle (Yale Terry lectures), 1957
The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West, 1911–1917, edited by Jane Marcus, 1982
Other writings: eight novels (The Return of the Soldier, 1918; The Judge, 1922;
Harriet Hume, 1929; The Thinking Reed, 1936; The Fountain Overflows, 1956; The Birds
Fall Down, 1966; This Real Night, 1984; Sunflower, 1986), novellas, short stories, biographies of St. Augustine and Henry James, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), a book about Yugoslavia and Europe in the 1930s, and 1900 (1982), a social history of that year.
Hutchinson, George, A Preliminary List of the Writings of Rebecca West, 1912–1951,
Folcroft, Pennsylvania: Folcroft, 1973 (original edition, 1957)
Packer, Joan, Rebecca West: An Annotated Bibliography, New York: Garland, 1991
Deakin, Motley F., Rebecca West, Boston: Twayne, 1980
Glendinning, Victoria, Rebecca West: A Life, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York: Knopf, 1987
Marcus, Jane, “A Speaking Sphinx,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 2, no. 2 (1983):151–54
Seeley, Tracy, “Woolf and Rebecca West’s Fiction Essays,” Virginia Woolf Miscellany 39 (1992):6–7
Wolfe, Peter, Rebecca West, Artist and Thinker, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971
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