By Jasmine Mansbridge
I first came across Dame Rebecca West (who here on after I will refer to as Rebecca), when I was reading the biography of the famous English writer H.G Wells, (think War of the Worlds and The Time Machine). I immediately found her intriguing and wanted to find out more about her.
Rebecca was a woman ahead of her time. She was of the generation of women who had to fight for very basic rights, which we now accept today as the norm. Rebecca is remembered for her brilliant journalistic skills and as a writer of fine prose. She was a constant source of literary output for an impressive seven decades.
The Early Years
Rebecca West was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield in London in 1892. Her mother Isabella was a Scotswoman and an accomplished pianist. Her father, Charles Fairfield had spent his early years in the Army then went on to make and then lose a fortune in various business ventures. He was a great writer and one for political debate and Rebecca’s childhood home is said to have been a lively one, full of music, books and stimulating conversation. Rebecca was the youngest of the couple’s three daughters.
When Rebecca was eight years old, her father left the family permanently. He travelled to Africa and upon his return died in a boarding house in Liverpool. Rebecca was twelve at the time and it was her mother who supported the family by training as a typist. Rebecca recalls this being humbling for her mother who had chosen marriage over the promise of successful musical career as a young woman. Essentially, Rebecca was raised by a single mother, an independent woman fighting against poverty and hardship. No doubt this upbringing laid a foundation for her future as an ardent champion of women’s issues.
Rebecca’s family financial situation meant that she did not receive formal schooling until the age of sixteen, when she began attending the George Watson Ladies College in Scotland. Despite her difficult upbringing, she was intelligent and her lack of formal education did not affect her long-term opportunities. It was later on while Rebecca was training as an actress in London that she decided to take the name Rebecca West after she played the rebellious young heroine in the play Rosmersholm by Henrik Ibsen. Friends said Rebecca felt the name suited her more than the name given to her at birth. Rebecca’s attraction to the dramatic spilled out into her writing and her own life, and it has been said she could have done well as an actress if she had stuck with that career path.
On her career
Rebecca and her older sisters were vocally involved in the Women’s Suffragette Movement, participating in meetings and street protests. No doubt Rebecca’s own experiences were at the forefront of her mind when she got involved with the suffragette movement. In 1911, when she was nineteen, Rebecca began working as a journalist for the feminist publication Freewoman. It was in this position that she began developing her sharp writing style. Her pieces were evocative and well written as she sought to drum up support for the suffragette cause.
Rebecca’s reputation as an ardent feminist and vocal spokesperson for feminist and socialist causes grew. She was known for speaking the truth as she saw it. She had a quick temper and a quick tongue. She was an opinionated critic, turning out essays and reviews for many different publications including, The New Republic, New York Herald Tribune, New York American, New Statesman, The Daily Telegraph, and many more newspapers and magazines.
Through out her lifetime Rebecca was deeply interested in politics and how it affected ordinary people. She was determined to see through the agendas of the powers at be and to discuss these matters openly in her writing. This approach cost her many friendships over the years, but Rebecca was not one to be bought. She was fearless when it came to speaking the truth and did not hold back her opinions on the leaders and policy makers of her time.
One person Rebecca did admire was Margaret Thatcher, not for Thatcher’s policies, but for Thatcher’s achievement in rising to the top of a male-dominated sphere. Rebecca’s first book was published in 1916. It was critical biography of the author Henry James. This was to be the first of many books.
During the 1920s, Rebecca began a lifelong habit of visits to America to give lectures, meet artists, and get involved in the political scene. There, she befriended many significant figures of the day, including CIA founder Allen Dulles, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Ross of The New Yorker, just to name just a few. Her lifelong relationship with the United States was rewarded in 1948, when President Truman presented her with the Women’s Press Club Award for Journalism, calling her “the world’s best reporter”.
Rebecca’s writing brought her financial success and with her considerable wealth, she purchased a Rolls Royce and a grand country estate, Ibstone House, in southern England. Some of Rebecca’s most notable career achievements were the coverage of the Nuremberg Military Trials between 1945 and 1946; her election as a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1950; and travelling to South Africa in 1960 to report on the Apartheid in a series of articles for the Sunday Times.
It seems that during her lifetime, if there was a major event happening Rebecca saw it first hand if she could, and then wrote about it. In 1959 she was honoured for her services to Britain and made a Dame. Those who knew Rebecca described her as dynamic, tenacious, intelligent, intimidating and loyal, with a brilliant wit and way with words. She was known for embellishing the truth and for never letting the truth get in the way of a good story.
Relationships and family
It was a scathing review that Rebecca wrote for Freewoman in 1912 about the aforementioned H.G Wells’ book Marriage that first caught Well’s attention. Wells was at the height of his fame as an author and extended an invitation to Rebecca to lunch at his home. The two writers eventually became lovers and their ten-year tumultuous affair produced a son, Anthony West, who was born on 4 August 1914.
Wells was himself married, although his was an ‘open’ marriage, as he was testing out his own theories of a ‘Utopia’ where relationships did not need to be monogamous. This added a challenge to his and Rebecca’s relationship as she had their son to look after and that made it hard for her to maintain her independence and keep writing. Wells cared for her financially, and at one point he deposited her in a cottage in the countryside to be visited at his convenience.
This time in Rebecca’s life was an enormous challenge for her, having a child as an unmarried mother typically carried a huge burden of shame and prejudice. Their relationship eventually ended as a result. They still remained friends, consulting each other about their various writing and other projects. Wells was an important figure though out Rebecca’s lifetime and their friendship lasted until his death in 1946.
After her relationship ended with Wells, Rebecca was linked romantically with several other men of influence. She eventually married in 1930, at the age of 37, to a banker, Henry Maxwell Andrews. There are various accounts of their relationship, many suggesting that theirs was a marriage largely based on formality. Rebecca was free to travel and write throughout the marriage and was tolerant of her husband’s extramarital relationships until his death in 1968. Although there are also suggestions that Rebecca herself also enjoyed liaisons whilst being married to Andrews.
Anthony was to be Rebecca’s only child and there are various reports on what was ultimately a strained adult relationship. Some well publicised grievances by Anthony include his mother’s insistence that he call her Aunty during his early childhood years, (this was due to her sensitivity at times to being an unmarried mother) and her ‘abandonment’ of him for her career and travels at different stages of his life. Anthony followed in both his parent’s footsteps and went on to be a talented author. It was in writing his father’s biography, H.G Wells: Aspects of a Life, in 1984, that he ultimately wounded Rebecca, drawing attention to the flaws he saw in her, but at the same time idolising his father and overlooking Wells’ obvious mistakes as a parent.
I think it interesting to note that in some ways, little has progressed for women as parents since Rebecca’s time. Rebecca was subject to extra criticism for her parenting, purely because she was a woman and the expectations of what she should give up were different than the expectations on Wells. Wells was free to keep his career as his number one priority, without question or criticism by his son. Women of today are still often made to feel guilty over decisions about their work/home life balance, decisions that men rarely have to consider.
When researching Rebecca, there is much made of her relationship choices. The fact is that she was one of the first women to go ahead and acknowledge that woman also had a need for sex. That it wasn’t just all about the man. It was the early 1900s and she was experimenting with the unchartered territory of the life of a liberated woman. Her and Wells were both wanting to see how far they could push the old boundaries of traditional relationships.
I do feel like some writers have focussed far too much on this part of Rebecca’s life, rather than on her lifetime of extraordinary achievements as a writer.
Like Rebecca, her two older sisters also went on to achieve notable things. The oldest and best educated of the three, Leticia, studied on a scholarship and became one of the first fully qualified female doctors in Britain, later also training as a barrister. Winifred, the middle sister, married Norman Macleod, Principal Assistant Secretary in the Admiralty, who eventually became director general of Greenwich Hospital. The three sisters were united in their work for the suffragette cause during their lifetime.
Rebecca was known to be a loyal friend, with the capacity to make those at the centre of her attention feel they were the most important people in a room. She sung the praises of those she admired, while equally being caustic about those whom she disapproved of.
Her capacity to love and feel generously and fiercely came through in every aspect of her life and her work, and her writing shows her deep understanding of the human psyche and her curiosity about the world around her.
As Rebecca grew older, she turned her sights increasingly to broader political and social issues. She was taken by human nature and it’s propensity to inflict violence and injustice upon itself. She had always found people themselves an endless source of fascination, and her writing reveals this.
Proving herself to be a compassionate person, during World War II Rebecca housed Yugoslav refugees in the spare rooms of her blacked-out manor. She turned the grounds into a small dairy farm and vegetable plot, agricultural pursuits that continued there long after the war had ended.
She also continued to travel widely during World War II, collecting material for her books. These trips added to her reputation for being fearless. In 1936–38, she made three trips to Yugoslavia, a country she came to love, Her non-fiction masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is the sum of her impressions from these trips. I read this book myself while researching Rebecca. Her descriptive writing style is beautifully engaging and in the honest, non-politically-correct tone necessary for authors of our own time. The reader is drawn in from the start and it is easy to understand why she was such a popular author. Rebecca was one of the first female writers to write in the travel book genre.
Rebecca loved to travel and did so extensively, well into her later years. In 1966 and 1969, she undertook two long journeys to Mexico, becoming fascinated by the indigenous culture of the country and its population. She stayed with friends in Mexico City and elsewhere if she could. Even into her late 70s she continued travelling, she visited Lebanon, Venice, Monte Carlo, and always went back to the United States. She gathered together a large number of travel impressions and wrote tens of thousands of words for a volume similar to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, tentatively titled Survivors in Mexico. The work, however, was never finished, and only saw publication posthumously in 2003.
Rebecca eventually moved into London, to an apartment next door to the Iranian Embassy and across from Hyde Park. She kept up a very active social life, making friends with many of the influential people of her time. Actors, directors, writers, artists and scholars all enjoyed her company.
She wrote at steady pace, and as she got on in years, did not let poor health or difficult personal circumstances affect her output. She continued to pen masterful reviews for the Sunday Telegraph, publishing the The Birds Fall Down in 1966 and then overseeing the film version of the story by the BBC in 1978.
The last work published in her lifetime was 1900 in 1982. 1900 explored the last year of Queen Victoria’s long reign, which was a watershed in many cultural and political respects.
Rebecca spent a lot of time trying to write an autobiography, without coming to closure on it. I personally think this is a great shame as the biographies written about Rebecca, (by Victoria Glendinning in 1987, Carl Rollyson in 1996, and Lorna Gibb 2013), all come with varied reviews. It seems that an autobiography by Rebecca herself would have been a truly insightful read.
In her final years Rebecca started many stories without finishing them and much of her work from the late phase of her life was published posthumously. Family Memories, This Real Night, Cousin Rosamund, The Only Poet, and the travel book Survivors in Mexico in 2003. Unfinished works from her early writing period, notably Sunflower (1986) and The Sentinel (2001) were also published after her death, so that about one-third of all her work was actually published by posthumously.
West suffered from failing eyesight and high blood pressure and by the late 1970s she had become increasingly frail. Her last months were mostly spent in bed, sometimes delirious, sometimes lucid, and she complained that she was dying too slowly. She died on 15 March 1983 at the age of 89.
Takeaways from Rebecca’s story
- You can take the challenges in your life and turned them into opportunities. The difficulties of Rebecca’s upbringing gave her the cause and passion to be a champion for the rights of women.
- The harsh reality that the balancing act of being a working parent and a pursuing a career might not always be achievable, and that there is a risk that relationships and family may suffer if work is number one.
- Women still have a way to go when it comes to equality, most women and men still have different expectations when it comes to work/home life commitments.
- You can live a full, productive life right until the end of one’s life. Rebecca published a book the year before she died.
- You should never stop doing the things you are passionate about, Rebecca continued to travel and write well into her later years.
- Being popular isn’t as important as fearlessly telling the truth. The world needs more truth tellers.
For more about Dame Rebecca West, see this review, this biography or this interview .
Jasmine Mansbridge is a painter and mum to five kids. She regularly blogs about the intersection of creative work and family life at www.jasminemansbridge.com, and you can also find her on Instagram @jasminemansbridge.
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