Rebecca West, a Dame of Literature

rebecca WestOver a century ago, one of the great (now little-recognized) English writers of the 20th century was born: Rebecca West. As is so often the case with female writers, her name seems to get shuffled to the bottom of the deck when 20th century “greats” are listed, for at such times the atmosphere clouds with cigar smoke and aftershave scent. Virago Press, dedicated to female authors, is one of the publishers to remember Rebecca West and through them I was introduced to Rebecca West in The Only Poet & Short Stories, two decades ago. That book was significant for offering unfinished or politically sensitive stories that had never been published in the U.K.
Rebecca West was born Isabel Fairfield. She was of Irish and Scottish descent, and at the age of 19 decided to change her name to that of a character in a play by Ibsen. About a year later, she published a provocative review of H.G. Well’s novel Marriage and subsequently met the author. Their affair lasted ten years and from it they had a son, Anthony.
West was a prolific and versatile writer, producing fiction in novel and short story form, critical essays, biography, history and political reports. She was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1959 for her literary achievements and died in 1983.
I admire West’s writing, for she knows how to maintain the interest of the reader, even in her earliest works. Her needling away at her oeuvre makes me feel better about my own literary approach, perhaps because I can sympathize with her obsessing. For instance, West worked on “The Only Poet” from her late 50s until a few years before her death at around 90. It probes the deepest recesses of physical and emotional love. It is an uncompleted novella, and a comparison may be drawn between it and the work of D.H. Lawrence. For me, West went beyond Lawrence by proving there is no body without soul.
A far more spiritual love takes place in “Parthenope,” which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1959. It is the story of the narrator’s Uncle Arthur, who, when hearing the name “Parthenope” one day in the garden of an inn, is stunned by his memory of a woman. Before he dies, he tells the story to his niece, the narrator. It is a profound and platonic love story:
As a boy, Arthur fell in love with the eldest of a group of fairy-like sisters whom he used to watch from his balcony. Years later, when they meet again, one small detail of the way they drink refreshments together evokes the boundless ardor that might have been.
Rebecca West had a gift of many styles. A completely different manner of writing, keen and biting, shows up in “Madame Sara’s Magic Crystal,” a sardonic assessment of events in Yugoslavia and the rise to power of Marshall Tito. It was astonishing to me, at the time I first discovered West, that the story had such relevance to events taking place in the early 90s in the same region. It may well be that was one reason Virago Press felt impelled to release West’s collection at that moment.