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Books feature

West’s World: The Extraordinary Life of Dame Rececca West, by Lorna Gibb — review

Philip Hensher explains how Rebecca West’s remarkably liberated attitude to life cost her dear

30 March 2013

9:00 AM

30 March 2013

9:00 AM

West’s World: The Extraordinary Life of Dame Rececca West Lorna Gibb

Macmillan, pp.320, £25

Lorna Gibb ends her book on Rebecca West by saying: ‘That she would be remembered because her work would go on being read was her greatest legacy.’ A more measured suggestion might be found in a sentence 20 pages earlier, from a 1973 TLS survey of her writing: ‘Dame Rebecca’s work has not fused in the minds of critics, and she has no secure literary status.’

It is always dangerous to declare what posterity will think, but West does seem to be on the slide. Some of her books are in print. They now seem quite mixed in quality. Of her novels, The Fountain Overflows is probably the best: a late-ish autobiographical novel, with some charming whimsy and some very unexpected turns in direction. (I like the impoverished cousin, plagued with poltergeists in the middle of afternoon tea, and doing her best.)

West was born Cicely Fairfield, a name she quite rightly dismissed as impossible for a serious woman writer, a Mary Pickford name avant la lettre; The Fountain Overflows is her most Cicely-ish novel, and all the better for it. Apart from that, however, the novels have dated. Her first, The Return of the Soldier, is atrociously snobbish and contrived, and sets a tone of psychological falsity that, for me, never quite goes away. You often feel, even in such late novels as the Russian Revolution extravaganza The Birds Fall Down, that psychological plausibility has been abandoned to make the characters serve a complex fictional design. It doesn’t help that West was never very good at dialogue, and in episodes like the famous 100-page conversation on the train in The Birds Fall Down openly regarded the skill of animating speech as quite dispensable.

Her masterpiece, alas, is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon — I say ‘alas’ for three reasons. First, it is about the specialised subject of Balkan history, though it has much larger implications. Secondly, its idea of history as vast-reaching causes is very much out of fashion, and it now has a strong period flavour. Thirdly, you have to be pretty keen on the subject or its author to embark on it, since it’s half a million words long. It is, however, a tremendous book which got the Balkans pretty well right. I suspect that West invested in the Balkans after 1936 because the previous war had kicked off with an incident there; she may have been tempted to go in case the next one started in the same place. Still, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is an immense, panoramic and rich book about all sorts of incidental things.

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West’s career was largely built on doing and thinking the unfashionable thing. ‘From the age of 18,’ Penelope Fitz-gerald once wrote of her, ‘she made her own life, but she was not altogether satisfied with the results.’ Sometimes she was completely wrong, as in her insistence that the McCarthy witch-hunt was necessary in the fight against communism, and American liberals should stop belly-aching about it. Sometimes, as in her insistence that traitors who fed atomic secrets to the Soviets were just as bad as Nazi collaborators, she now seems completely correct.

Nothing in her life, however, was as counter-cultural as her insistence, from a very young age, on inventing how a woman might live her life. She had a child with H.G.Wells at 22, with no chance of marrying its father. Before finally marrying the financier Henry Andrews in 1930, she conducted several affairs openly: the number and frequency of the relationships, long or very short indeed, would probably cause comment even today. She was evidently trying to see what women’s lives could be like, once liberated from the old criteria of good husband, good conduct and few ideas in the virtuous head. She paid a terrible price in that the son, Anthony West, brought up any old how, grew to hate her, to treat women appallingly, and to publish a number of very personal denunciations of her. On her deathbed, she refused to see him.

These factors have acted as catnip to biographers — it is a compelling story, whatever you think of Rebecca’s books. The best life is by Victoria Glendinning, who conveys the atmosphere of the time, and the heroic quality of West’s endeavour. Gibb begins by quoting West’s comment on ‘our curious national habit of writing monographs on one subject without looking into its context’. She might have thought, too, about West’s idea, in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, that most women were ‘idiots’, meaning concerned only with themselves and not with the world around them — West fought against this all her life.

You won’t, however, find much command of context here. No mention of her contemporaries and sometimes friends May Sinclair, Storm Jameson or Rose Macaulay, and little explanation of West’s world. If you know who West’s lover Max Beaverbrook was, and what he meant, fine; if not, he is just a man who lives in Fulham, and it might come as rather a surprise to discover, later on, that he owned some newspapers.

This casual treatment of the context runs on throughout. ‘Most painful of all was a photograph she found in one of Henry’s drawers … it was of a woman called Irene Ravensdale, whom Rebecca had thought of as a friend.’ It’s astonishing to pass over Lord Curzon’s eldest daughter like this, and to neglect the high degree of celebrity she possessed in her day and the fame she still maintains. Readers like me who know perfectly well who Baroness Ravensdale was shouldn’t be confused by ‘a woman called’; readers who don’t should benefit from a single-sentence explanation. Similarly, Rebecca’s blunt assertion after an encounter with Roberto Rossellini that he was ‘a show-off, very gabby, ignorant and pretentious’, a talentless mountebank whose idea for a script that Rebecca might write was ‘not enough to make a good film’ is left as it is. Some readers might like to be reminded that the film, in the end made without West’s help, was Viaggio in Italia, one of the great masterpieces of the century. It’s not just a case of getting things wrong, like calling the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden ‘von Arnhim’. It’s a case of not really knowing what, and who, was significant to the time. The worst instance of this comes when thinking about Rebecca’s marriage to Henry. Why did so outwardly respectable a figure not care that he was marrying a sexually promiscuous woman with an illegitimate teenage son? Henry was a notorious bottom-pincher: was he excited by West’s past? The puzzle hardly seems to be recognised.

The problem may be the limits of Gibb’s research. She has gone thoroughly through the published material, and may have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of West’s writings — certainly we rarely hear about her from other observers. Much of the biography is taken up with summaries of West’s letters, diaries or journalism that go like this:

The coal miners’ strike of 1972 disturbed Rebecca, chiefly because she thought that the government had handled it all so badly. She was convinced that the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, should resign.

There is very little about West’s business dealings, and almost nothing about her relations with publishers. There is, however, a lot about cats, including one called Zadok the Priest who is said to meet ‘a precipitous death…hit by a car’. Rebecca was a gregarious woman all her life, but Gibb’s interviews with those who knew her personally are limited to a couple of late secretaries and members of her family. Is there really nobody still around in literary London who remembers a writer who died in 1983? The result is a surprisingly short and superficial life, which unearths very little, if any, new information and has not much to say of any interest about the writing.

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