Women in art: Dame Rebecca West

Rebecca west 700 x 700 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 IbsenFriends 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.

Later life

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 MemoriesThis Real NightCousin RosamundThe 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.

 

Women in art: Patti Smith

Women-in-art-patti-smith-creative-womens-circle-jasmine-mansbridge

By Jasmine Mansbridge

Patti Smith is a writer, performer and visual artist, often affectionately referred to as the “grandmother of punk”. She was born in Chicago on December 30, 1946 and is still touring and creating today. She grew up in rural New Jersey, moving to New York in the 1970’s. It was during these years, living with fellow artist and friend Robert Mapplethorpe, that she soaked up the atmosphere of the 1970’s experimenting with various art forms, including writing poetry and creating artwork.

My quest for information about Patti went as it usually does, “watching” YouTube clips while I painted, listening to interviews and reading whatever information might be available. I also read Patti’s memoir Just Kids, which she wrote in 2010. The book documents not only her own journey as a young emerging artist, but also her complex relationship with fellow creative Robert Mapplethorpe. Patti Smith’s written work is a pleasure to read. She has a natural way with words. She draws you in to her inner world and connects with readers on many levels.

On being in a relationship

Patti speaks openly about the key relationships in her life. Reading books Patti says, shaped her ideals about being female, romance, relationships and freedom.  She was given “The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera” for her sixteenth birthday and in Just Kids she says, “I imagined myself as Frida to Diego, both muse and maker. I dreamed of meeting an artist to love and support and work with side by side.” These words indicated to me Patti’s romanticised ideal of a relationship.

Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe’s story is an intriguing one. They met not long after she arrived in New York and their relationship became one that was pretty much based on Patti’s muse/maker ideal. Their common bond as artists meant that they were able to maintain a bond and a deep friendship throughout their lives, even after their physical relationship changed.

In the early days, Patti worked various day jobs to support Robert while he worked on his art full time. She saw this as her contribution to his career, it wasn’t until later on that she was able to work of her own material full time.

The passing of time saw Patti and Robert’s relationship change, as Robert came to terms with his homosexuality. They continued to live together and support each other, however, agreeing to do so until such point at which they had both become independent of each other.

A high point in Patti and Robert’s relationship was the exhibition they had together at the Robert Miller Gallery in 1978. This was to be Patti’s first exhibition in the Gallery and the only time the two exhibited together. After this exhibition, they both went their separate ways, having kept their promise to see each other safely to success. Patti went on the road with her band and Robert’s focus became more and more on his photography, which was bringing him high acclaim.

Patti’s next significant relationship was with Fred Sonic Smith. Fred and her were both musicians and they met when she was touring. They bonded over a common love of poetry and Patti says it was Fred who she decided to marry in 1980, (the joke was apparently that she married Fred because she wouldn’t have to change her surname).

Patti talks warmly of her relationship with Fred and their move to the suburbs of Detroit. She said this time had been similar in feeling, to her early days with Robert Mapplethorpe. Starting with nothing but a few favourite things for possessions, and then waiting to see what the future would bring. Patti and Fred went on to have two children, Jackson and Jessie, and settled into a routine dictated by their domestic needs.

The next space in time was one of deep sadness for Patti. These two important men in her life both passed away. Robert died first of HIV AIDS in 1989 and then her husband Fred of heart failure in 1994. In this same period, Patti’s brother and her pianist also died. At this point Patti decided to take a break from her creative career to focus on bringing up her two children, moving from Detroit back to New York.

It is truly moving to hear Patti’s first hand accounts of these significant relationships as she shares them in her memoir. It is Patti’s openness and vulnerability that further endears her to her fans. One gathers that in her life Patti loves deeply, loyally and unreservedly. My observations are that Patti has always been an equal partner in her relationships. She talks about relationships in ways that take responsibility for her own actions in them, right or wrong.

I took away from this the importance of honesty and complete acceptance of another person. To allow each other freedom and space, for both difference and growth. Of course this is always easier said than done. But, as in Patti’s case, the rewards are reaped in having that understanding and room to move, granted to one’s self as well.

On being creative

Patti says that as a child she was not gifted, but she was imaginative and that she was rewarded at school for being so. She says of being an artist that, “I had no proof that I had the stuff to be an artist, though I hungered to be one.”  From childhood Patti had devoured books and poetry and she talks about having the sense that there was something for her to say as an artist, and that somehow she would find her voice.

Patti has ended up a household name for being one of the first “poet” musicians. She was basically a published poet who went on to add rock/punk musical layers to her words. She landed a record deal and released the debut album “Horses” in 1975. Her work subsequently had a major impact on both the punk movement and the associated musical scene, especially in America and England. Patti became an icon to subsequent generations of punk rockers. Patti is also a visual artist and has been represented by the Robert Miller Gallery since 1978.

What struck me ,the more I researched Patti, is the calm she seems to have maintained about being an “artist”. Even when she felt like she had nothing to show for the fact. She never seems to have appeared anxious or desperate about having her work seen or heard. It seems like her sense of self was always there, unwavering. She credits her association with Robert Mapplethorpe for this attitude.

In her dress and her manner she never appears to be overly concerned with material things. It is her books and her tools such as pencils and notebooks that she treasures most. These things all speak to me of a deep inner self confidence.

During the early years of her career Patti seems to have met the right people at the right time. People who encouraged her and gave her opportunities. Patti says in her memoir that at times her success had seemed to come a bit too easily, and that she hadn't wanted that. Patti actually turned down the first opportunity to publish her poems because she felt she had not earned the right and “the spoils of battle were not yet to be hers”.

Of all the knowledge I gleaned from Just Kids, there is one quote that will remain for me: “That we are mortal, our work is not, do your best work, let your work stand alone”. This is wonderful advice for any artist at any stage in one’s career.

Patti has gone on to have a lifetime of achievement. In 2005, Patti Smith was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture and in 2007 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, both fitting honours for this artist who has lived true to her ideals of creating original work throughout her lifetime.

On being a woman

It is hard to not make a comment about Patti’s appearance. It is one of the things about her that has impressed me. With her strong nose and thin frame, Patti has an androgynous, raw beauty which adds to the uniqueness of her character. Throughout her life she appears to not give a damn about what others think. The original “messy hair, don’t care” girl. I see much of a current “it” girl, Alexa Chung mirrored in her look. Rail thin with bangs and over sized t-shirts (I wonder what Patti thinks of that?).

Patti often describes herself as having been an outsider and a wallflower in her youth. As a young girl she found the changes in her body as she grew, awkward and unwanted.  She says she wished she could have stayed a child forever, just like Peter Pan.

In her role as artist Patti has never made an issue of her gender. She talks about this as being a deliberate act on her behalf, so she could be a kind of “third” gender. She sought to call attention to herself as an artist, not as a woman. Patti simply dressed and performed in the spirit of her male rock and role models, as if no alternative had ever occurred to her. In the process, she obliterated the expectations of what was possible for women in rock, and stretched the boundaries of how artists of any gender could express themselves. Patti saw her music as a way to be genderless and many of the lyrics of her songs are ambiguous with regards to meaning and sexual references.

Another fact about Patti that I found interesting is that she was not a drug user.  And I am not alone in presuming that with her waif like appearance and with the culture of drug use in her time, that she would of been “on” something. Her peers back in the day also presumed she was a drug user. Patti didn’t even smoke, although she modelled for photos with a cigarette to perfect a “look”. Patti had the occasional high, but had always felt that drug use wasn’t for her. Patti is the perfect example of why stereotyping people is unfair (and perhaps her choice to not use drugs is a contributing factor in her success even today). Patti was a women who blazed a trail for many other artists to follow.

On being a mother

Patti says that she had felt it a cruel betrayal of nature when after a brief experience with another boy as inexperienced as herself, she found herself pregnant at age nineteen. She speaks beautifully and poignantly of this time in her memoir. She went on to have the baby, adopting it to a couple who could not have a child of their own.

When she became a parent again later in life, Patti took the role seriously, leaving the professional music scene to take care of her children. I admire her decision to do this and once again it speaks of her confidence in herself and in her abilities as an artist.

Patti says that it had been perfect timing for her and Fred to marry and for them to become parents. She had started to feel like she had accomplished her mission with her music and that there was no more room for growth just being on the road.

Later on, after her husband Fred’s death, Patti was left a sole parent to her children. Patti says that her years spent mostly at home being domestic were not wasted and had made her a better human being. Upon reflection she states that being a mother had made her more empathetic and more knowledgeable about the world. That the discipline of caring, cooking, cleaning and washing etc had been good for her. It was also in this period that she began to focus on her writing. Piecing together the story that was to become her memoir.

There is a beautiful quote from “Just Kids”, when Patti talks about being pregnant with her daughter Jessie and visiting Robert for the last time before he passed away. He was gravely ill and she had travelled from Detroit with Fred to New York to spend time with him. Patti recalls, “Within that moment was trust, compassion, and our mutual sense of irony. He was carrying death within him and I was carrying life. We were both aware of that, I know.” 

Patti remains close to her children, they are both musicians and she performs with them on stage when she has the opportunity. She says that through them she feels the presence of their father Fred and that they have been a wonderful gift to her life.

Things to learn from Patti Smith...

When you see Patti performing her music in all her rock and roll glory, you only see one side of her. Dig deeper and her writing and speaking reveals a very different side. Patti talks about this contradiction and says it is true, she is as comfortable screaming down a microphone as she is cooking dinner for her children, or curled up reading a book. She is the same person doing all these things. I found this interesting as it is something I wrestle with sometimes myself, the contradictions within ones self. These contradictions Patti says give her the platform to create meaningful work.

I could go on, but in short, here are the most useful things from I gleaned from Patti’s story:

  • Remember to keep focused on doing your best work as an artist (not always the most popular work).
  • Try not to get caught up in being competitive with other creatives and be creative in whatever way comes to you.
  • Avoid wanting the “celebrity” of art, without the work and the sacrifice.
  • Remember that it may take a lifetime to work out what it is you want to say, and that what you want to say might change.
  • Be prepared for hard times as well as good times.
  • Be independent as a women, but also being able to love and be loved.
  • Don't let being a women affect your work or how you allow yourself to be perceived.
  • It is okay to put your family first when needed.
  • You can step back from your creative career and still be successful long term.
  • Be your own wise counsel.
  • You are mortal, your work is not, so make your work your best.

For more about Patti Smith, check out this video, and this one, and this one; this article at The Guardian; some info about Fred Sonic Smith; and of course, her memoir, Just Kids

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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.