West’s World: The Extraordinary Life of Dame Rebecca West, by Lorna Gibb
A writer of supreme talent and versatility, Rebecca West was astute in everything except how to live
West's World: The Extraordinary Life of Dame Rebecca West
Rebecca West (1892-1983) was an Anglo-Irish writer of supreme talent, versatility and international achievement, but handicapped by a tragic flaw. Her private affairs were a mess.
According to Lorna Gibb in this eloquent, exhaustively revealing and sympathetic biography, West was “the chronicler of her time, revelling in momentous global events, yet somehow, like so many of us, never quite getting the hang of how to live. Happiness eluded her.” She was an ardent suffragette, a pioneer feminist, yet she believed that “nothing can be worse than the lot of a woman without a man”. During an active life spanning the major social and sexual developments of the 20th century, she tried lots of men and invariably picked the wrong ones.
Rebecca, born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, adored her father, but, to put it mildly, he was not an ideal parent. Charles Fairfield was born in Co Kerry, the son of an army officer and minor landowner. At the age of 17, he enlisted in a British regiment, the Rifle Brigade, and became a lieutenant. In London, he joined a club and the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), whose library and museum contained a valuable collection of books, coins and regimental badges. Gambling on horses forced him to resign from the army. Still short of funds after an unsuccessful trip to the US, he got a job as secretary at the Soldiers’ Daughters’ Home in Whitehall and visited the RUSI. Its collection “proved too much of a temptation”, Gibb writes. Fairfield was caught selling more than 400 exhibits, tried and sentenced to five years’ hard labour.
Ten years after he left prison, he migrated to Australia, where he met Isabella Campbell Mackenzie, a Scot whose brother was the principal of London’s Royal Academy of Music. Fairfield, in Gibb’s words, was “a skilled horseman and a gifted orator” and charming. He and Isabella were married and moved to London. However, by the time they settled in Streatham, “Charles’s womanising and squandering had led to a breakdown in the relationship. It was no longer a happy marriage.”
“Cissie” – as they called Cicely, the youngest of three daughters – was “the result of an attempt at reconciliation between her parents, and after her birth they slept in separate rooms. For Cissie, her parents’ relationship would always be ‘the marriage of loneliness to loneliness’.” This heritage seemed to set the pattern for all that followed in her own life.
She failed at the Royal College of Dramatic Art, and switched to journalism. To avoid embarrassing her family as she campaigned for suffragettes for a commercially fragile publication, The Freewoman, she changed her name to Rebecca West, after a character in a play by Ibsen. She was handsome rather than pretty, and intelligently astute in every activity except her personal affairs. As a book reviewer, she “attacked one of the most successful and famous writers of the day”, Gibb recounts. “It was a short and damning piece about HG Wells’ book Marriage.” In the more than 800 pages of Experiment in Autobiography Wells mentions her only twice. The novel she “slated furiously”, according to his account, was the more prophetically titled The Passionate Friends.
The article led to their fateful first meeting, when she was only 20 and he was 46. She praised him as “one of the most interesting men I have ever met”, but later said: “It wasn’t an immediate meeting of body. He wasn’t really an Adonis by any means and he had a little high voice.” However, he was intellectually exciting, and she always tended to be most attracted to men with plenty of money, even though she was capable of earning it herself.
In the opinion of Gordon Ray, a previous respected biographer, Wells neglected birth control with West so that his illegitimate son would enable him to bind her to him. They lived together on and off for the next decade, in spite of his “dreary whingeing egotism”, which sometimes made her long to get away. Wells’s wife, Jane, knew about his prolific promiscuity and may have tolerated it because she sadistically enjoyed his ill-treatment of his mistresses.
Wells nicknamed Rebecca Panther and himself Jaguar. They called their son Anthony Panther West and for a long time told him that she was his Auntie Panther. He was frequently shifted furtively from house to house and hidden in boarding schools and in the care of other people. Naturally enough, he resented his shameful status in childhood and repudiated her when he grew up, even in an angry autobiographical novel.
Vera Brittain, a literary admirer of West’s, introduced her to an Oxford friend, Henry Maxwell Andrews, whom Gibb describes as “tall and distinguished and impeccably dressed”, and West said was “rather like a dull giraffe, sweet, kind and loving”. They were married in 1920 and stayed married for 38 years, though they slept together for only the first two years, she was “damned bored”, and they were both repeatedly unfaithful. But he was an occasional good platonic companion, especially in Yugoslavia while she researched her great masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, probably the most intimately insightful analysis ever written of the history, character and loyalties of the Serbo-Croats. It was first published in 1942 and still helps explain the Balkans. The experience made West appreciate patriotism, while Wells advocated a world government.
William Shawn, the most fastidious editor of the New Yorker, said after her death in 1983: “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 character and the ways of the world more intelligently.” Commissioned by Shawn, she covered, among other important events, the trial of William Joyce, the Irish-American naturalised German wartime broadcaster known as Lord Haw-Haw, and approved of his execution.
She also covered the trial of the traitor John Amery, which inspired her second book worthy of longevity, The Meaning of Treason. She knew a great deal about treachery and infidelity. Having studied communism close up in Yugoslavia, she moved politically to the right in old age. To the distress of liberal former admirers, her passionate anti-communism caused her to express sympathy with Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. When she was awarded a British damehood in 1959, J Edgar Hoover sent her a letter of congratulation. She demonstrated that journalism can be an emotionally hazardous occupation.
Patrick Skene Catling is a novelist and a writer for children.