Rebecca West had a savage pen and a stormy life. Frank Kermode, who judged the first Booker prize with her, finds her letters full of candour, sadness and snobberyby Frank Kermode / May 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Cicily fairfield was born in 1892 and died in 1983. At 19 she began a successful career as a journalist and adopted the name Rebecca West, the heroine of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. If ever a writer so young demonstrated what Shakespeare called “the flash and outbreak of a fiery mind,” it was she. Hardly anybody now writes such devastating reviews, and few later feminists have written about politics with such accurate fury.
In the course of a life spanning most of the century, she lost none of her force. As traveller, novelist and political essayist, West won fame on both sides of the Atlantic and grew rich in the process. She made an enormous number of interesting friends in the US and Europe as well as in England, and she wrote them many long, fluent letters, which she expected them to keep. In her twenties she was welcomed in the most adventurous artistic circles, frequented the Vorticist club, was a friend of Ford Madox Ford, and contributed to his English Review and to Wyndham Lewis’s avant-garde magazine Blast. At Virginia Woolf’s instigation, Ottoline Morrell invited her to the Bloomsbury outpost at Garsington, an honour that West did not greatly enjoy; she had more respect than affection for Bloomsbury.
West’s first book, a brief study of Henry James, was published in 1916, and her first novel, The Return of the Soldier, in 1918. Other novels followed at irregular intervals, none achieving the success of her book about Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1942), and her studies in treachery, The Meaning of Treason (1949), later revised as The New Meaning of Treason (1964). The novels, 11 in all, are somewhat disappointing. They fell into neglect until, to her great satisfaction, they were revived by the feminist Virago Press in the 1980s. She earned her celebrity by her writing, but her private life also received, over the years, a measure of public attention which was far less welcome.
Many people still alive and not yet falling apart knew Dame Rebecca in her later years, and could therefore claim a tenuous connection with the style and manners of the literary world of almost a century ago. I met her in 1969, when we were both serving as judges for the first Booker prize. Whether in modest London restaurants or in the grand country house that we had been lent for our deliberations, she…