The best word to describe Rebecca West’s writing, Samuel Hynes suggested in a review for the TLS in 1973, was ‘episcopal’. She wrote, he said, ‘like a fourth-century African bishop, praising the righteous, condemning heretics, explaining doctrine, confident always of the rightness of her judgments and of their firm moral bases’.
Like Storm Jameson and Rose Macaulay, two other courageous and tireless contemporary collectors of facts, West believed it her duty to call the world to order, which she did with wit and impatience. The woman who comes across in Lorna Gibb’s new biography is admirable, but she is seldom sympathetic.
Born Cicely Isabel Fairfield in 1892 to a father who was a crook and a womaniser but who taught her about Dreyfus, she took the name Rebecca West from a play by Ibsen, not wanting her mother to see the family name on an article about suffrage. From the age of 18 she made her own way in life, but felt that it treated her badly. She wanted everything – lovers, a husband, children, work, friends – and found them easy to acquire but hard to keep.
Declaring that domestic slavery was to be ‘shunned like rat poison’, she embarked on a ten-year relationship with H G Wells, becoming pregnant the second time she slept with him. She had a penchant for small pudgy men and did not seem to mind his high squeaky voice or his abysmal selfishness. Their son, Anthony, became a lifelong saga of misery and malevolence, not surprising perhaps as she decided to send him to boarding school at the age of three and only admitted to being his mother when he was eleven. For his part, Wells told West that he had both loved and hated her to such an extent that he had needed to ‘stab you with this child’. For the next fifty years, Anthony paid her back in vituperative accounts of his wretched childhood, often in the form of lightly disguised fiction. West was never able to escape the shadow it cast over the whole of her life.
West turned her hand to every kind of writing – biography, memoir, essays, travel, history and fiction – but at heart she was a journalist. She called herself a ‘news hen’, writing history not in the manner of Gibbon but as an account of ‘the endless troubles of everyday life’. The facts, put together, she would say, ‘are the face of the age’. After a successful first novel, The Return of the Soldier, and many articles for different publications, she was sent to Yugoslavia by the British Council in 1936. There she fell in love with the country, and particularly with the Serbs, and spent the next five years writing a vast meditation, half a million words long, on eastern Europe, following the ‘dark waters’ of the Second World War back to their distant source. Published as Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, it was praised by the New Yorker as ‘one of the great books of our time’.
Fascinated by a world she believed divided between barbarity and civilisation, she turned next to the subject of treachery, describing Lord Haw-Haw as ‘a little whippy, jig-dancing sort of Irishman’ and producing the widely praised The Meaning of Treason. A ferocious anti-communist, she was blinded to the evils of McCarthyism, attracting many critics, to whom she replied with customary vituperation. She referred to Arthur Schlesinger, who had written to her politely expressing disagreement with her intemperance, as a ‘blood brother of Goebbels’.
Although feminist issues had taken much of her time in the early days, West believed marriage to be important, not least because it enabled women to understand men more realistically. ‘The spinster’, she wrote, ‘is ridiculous, because she is limited.’ Her fraught relationship with Wells over (having navigated her way through not only his series of mistresses but several lovers of her own), she wed a banker called Henry Andrews, to whom she remained married until his death 38 years later, despite his dalliances with younger women. ‘My work’, she once wrote, ‘expresses an infatuation with human beings. I don’t believe that to understand is necessarily to pardon, but I feel that to understand makes one forget that one cannot pardon.’
Old age brought many honours, among them a damehood, and good sales; she continued to review for the Daily Telegraph, imperious in her wig and still locked in feuds with Anthony, until she died in 1983 at the age of ninety. She kept travelling and working until the end, noting wryly that if you were a woman writer, it was important ‘not to be too good’, or to die young, or, like Virginia Woolf, to commit suicide. ‘To go on writing and writing well can’t be forgiven.’
West’s busy, messy and unhappy life has provided excellent material for many biographers, most notably Victoria Glendinning, and Lorna Gibb makes the most of the reams of papers that West and her many friends and acquaintances produced. She lived in a letter-writing age, when daily events, however trivial, along with reports of rows, love affairs and gossip, were the stuff of continuous correspondence, and neither she nor her friends felt qualms at passing on the most malicious and hurtful of comments. Inevitably, perhaps, something of West’s formidable, driven and talented nature is lost in Gibb’s vast cast of characters and record of daily mayhem, which can at times make the reader feel they are trapped in a noisy, aggressive cocktail party. Better to be reminded of the wit and elegance of West as a writer, and her constant search for clarity. ‘There is a draught’, she once wrote, ‘that we must drink if we are to be fully human … One must know the truth … and celebrate communion with reality, or else walk for ever queer and small like a dwarf.’