Lorna Gibb tells us, in this sensible and readable biography of the great Rebecca West, that once at lunch with various luminaries including the Aga Khan, Odette Keun, H.G. Wells’s mistress of the moment, “turned to the Aga Khan, asking him to back up her opinion that the English were prudish in public but ‘lubricious in private.’ ” The remark seems to have embarrassed most (if not all) at the table, but surely truer words have rarely been spoken. If friendships and rivalries are dominant themes of British literary life, sex in all its various manifestations runs them a close second, and rarely more so than in the life of Cicely Isabel Fairfield, born in 1892, who changed her name to Rebecca West in 1911 and proceeded to cut an exceedingly strange swath through the bedrooms of the literati.
The novelist Andrea Barrett, in her otherwise thoughtful introduction to the New York Review of Books edition of West’s best novel, “The Fountain Overflows,” writes that “West seems to have possessed the full complement of human weaknesses — vanity, vengefulness, selfishness, insecurity, deceitfulness among them.” But after a careful reading of “The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West” and a return visit to Victoria Glendinning’s “Rebecca West” (1987), I am convinced that, although this is a widely held view of West, it is oversimplified and essentially inaccurate. Gibb describes the young Cicely Fairfield in far more sympathetic terms, which strikes me as closer to the truth and goes far to explain the compulsive and at times inexplicable sexual behavior in which she engaged. “So much of what Rebecca presented to the world was a protective mask,” Gibb writes, a mask intended not merely to present her as fierce and indomitable (both of which she indeed was), but also to hide her deeply conflicted feelings about her sexuality and how men responded to it, as well as about her place in society.
West was a feminist before the word had gained wide usage, but as a daughter of late Victorian and Edwardian England, she was a feminist with an asterisk. She “wrote angrily about the necessity of better working conditions for women,” yet “more than once she remarked to friends that there was nothing as sad and lonely as the lot of a woman who did not have a man.” Her own men included, most notoriously, the celebrated H.G. Wells, a serial philanderer, with whom she cohabited irregularly and often tempestuously for about a decade beginning in 1912 and with whom she had a son, Anthony West; Max Beaverbrook, the impossibly egotistical proprietor of the Daily Express; John Gunther, who later became noted for his “Inside” books about various places around the world; a “dashing Romanian prince called Antoine Bibesco . . . well known for his promiscuity”; Francis Biddle, American judge at the Nuremberg trials; and sundry others.
I emphasize all this not out of prurient interest (though of course that may lurk sub rosa), but because West was one of those rare writers whose personal lives are of as much interest as their literary ones and because Gibb has chosen to emphasize this aspect of West’s long (she died in 1983, at age 90) and uncommonly active life. She “was fatally drawn to men who were difficult,” and even in her marriage of more than three decades to Henry Andrews she found that she had repeatedly and flagrantly been cheated on by a man whom she treasured for his “kindness and sweetness and sympathy” yet who forsook their marital bed not long after entering it, leaving her even more insecure about herself as a sexual being.
Not only did she have mostly dastardly lovers, but her son was, as she said more than once, a monster. Anthony West had been brought up in circumstances unlikely to ensure emotional stability — for years his famous father, whom he worshipped, declined to recognize him as his son, and the boy was expected to call his mother “Auntie” — and he made the worst of his opportunities. He turned into an arrogant, greedy, self-pitying, deceitful rat who made his mother’s life as miserable as he possibly could, vilifying her by innuendo in his books (like his parents, he was a gifted writer) and frequently reducing her to tears. He told her that she was “worthless and repellent and frightful,” and he was abetted in his attack by the jackals of the press on both sides of the Atlantic, who thought that he made good copy.
It is genuinely remarkable, considering the strains that her personal life placed on her, that West had one of the great writing careers of the 20th century. How widely she is now read seems to me unclear — both Gibb and Glendinning end their biographies with questionable assertions that she lives on through the readership of her books — but she certainly should be. Her account of Yugoslavia before World War II, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” a classic of several genres, among them history, travelogue and self-portrait, remains in print, as do a few of her other books, but a comprehensive collection of her journalism does not exist, and instead one must fish around for smaller volumes such as “The New Age of Treason” and “A Train of Powder.”
As one who has spent his entire working life in journalism, I am always reluctant to ascribe greater importance to the work of those in the trade than it deserves, but West’s journalism, like George Orwell’s and H.L. Mencken’s, rises far above the quotidian. Early in her career, when she was still Cissie Fairchild, she wrote that “there are two kinds of imperialists — imperialists and bloody imperialists,” and this fixation on the uses and abuses of power remained with her to the end. She despised totalitarianism and communism, in which regard she was almost always in the right but did make an unfortunate slip when, in 1953, she took a surprisingly sanguine view of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joe McCarthy. Like many British writers of various political persuasions, she knew less about the United States than she thought she did.
Say it for her, though, that right or wrong — and usually she was right — she was never reluctant to have her say or to offend the comfortable. She was born an outsider, into a family of great intellectual and artistic gifts but little money or familial cohesion, and she spent her life on the outside looking in, which may explain why she felt an affinity for Scott Fitzgerald even though he absent-mindedly offended her with a piece of ill behavior; he invited her to a party, said he would have her picked up, then neglected to do so. She liked the idea of being on the inside, and as she became famous and prosperous (though never rich), she indulged herself in elegant residences and good restaurants, but the vantage point of the outsider was always essential to her views.
Though its title sounds rather like a poster for an act in the circus, “The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West” is a fair, sympathetic but forthright portrait of its subject and should — so at least may be hoped — help her find new readers. It would not have hurt had Gibb devoted a few more pages to West’s work — her offhand dismissal of the magnificent “The Fountain Overflows” is a puzzling dereliction of biographical duty — and in that regard Glendinning is better, but all in all this is a lucid and accessible biography of this endlessly fascinating woman. As Gibb says, West was a woman of “surprising contradictions,” and this biography captures them all without losing sight of the very real person in whom they resided.
THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE
OF REBECCA WEST
By Lorna Gibb
Counterpoint. 320 pp. $30