Readers of The New Criterion will not need an introduction to Rebecca West. Yet even those familiar with her life and work will find startling new material in this superbly edited collection of her correspondence. Although West was always outspoken, her letters reveal a behind-the-scenes candor that provides insight into her reporting on the suffragists, the New Deal, Yugoslavia, the Nuremberg Trials, the Cold War, Communism, and much more. Devotees of her great novels, The Fountain Overflows and The Birds Fall Down, will be granted a new awareness of their autobiographical and historical roots.
Born in 1892, West remembered the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria and the sight of soldiers returning from the Boer War. This collection begins with a letter to The Scotsman (October 16, 1907) in which a fourteen-year-old West (still using her family name, Cicily Isabel Fairfield, but already a feminist and a socialist) expresses her strong opinions on the subjection of women. At a very early age, in other words, West was already an accomplished writer and a figure bound to attract the public eye.
West was attracted to the stage. Indeed, her pen name is that of Ibsen’s heroine in Rosmersholm. Short, dark featured, opinionated, West did not seem to theater directors the kind of ingenue they could fit into their productions. Abandoning a theatrical career, West began writing for journals such as The New Freewoman and The Clarion, and was adopted by literary lights such as Ford Madox Ford, who admired her keen intelligence and astringent style. West came to Ford’s attention when she had reviewed one of his novels rather negatively. Similarly, H. G. Wells took her up after she ridiculed his view of women in Marriage, one of his “conversation” novels. In both cases, she challenged these men in the name of their better books. Naturally, they had to meet the precocious writer who exuded such an air of authority.
How West became entangled with Wells is an often told story, but Scott includes letters that provide the context for their ten-year affair and show how West eventually extricated herself by going to America in 1923. Scott also includes a long letter which West sent to one of her sisters describing New York in the 1920s. It is of extraordinary interest as an almost documentary re-creation of a moment in history. Biographers of West have not had the space to do this letter and others justice.
West crossed the Atlantic dozens of times in the 1920s and 1930s, writing stories, articles, and columns for The New York Herald Tribune, The New York American, The Bookman, The New Republic, and many other newspapers and journals. She warned of the rise of fascism and the likelihood of another Great War. She went to Washington and met many officials in the Roosevelt Administration, including Francis Biddle, who later became her lover during the Nuremberg trials. What makes West so indispensable is her acute literary and political sensibilities, her yoking of the psychological and the sociological, and her understanding of the individual psyche and of bureaucracy. Only in her letters do you learn that while she supported the New Deal from the start, she had misgivings about its shoddy administration, poorly conceived programs, and lax security procedures. West never minced words and never pretended not to have visceral reactions to people, which influenced her opinions of them: “Eleanor Roosevelt is the most hideous being imaginable and was dressed fantastically badly and radiated charm and vitality, partly the result of her lovely voice,” West wrote to The New Yorker editor Harold Ross, who commissioned many of her brilliant postwar reports on spy trials.
West’s comment on Roosevelt demonstrates her penchant for exaggeration (most hideous?). For the most part, the editor Bonnie Kime Scott lets West have her way with words, however extravagant, but occasionally in the notes the editor rightly feels compelled to point out errors, inaccurate gossip, or simply prejudices that other observers of the scene or members of her family did not share. Indeed, West sometimes wrote such fantastic letters that her reliability as a reporter—perhaps even her mental equilibrium—have to be questioned.
Such is the case with her account of Huey Long, which she sent to the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. I very much wanted to put this report in my biography of West, but I saw no way to verify her account or to integrate it into a narrative of her life. Now the letter is available and worth close study, both for what it says about Long and what it says about West. The letter weaves a most baroque tale that involves Long questioning her closely about an operation on her breasts. That she had such an operation I can verify, that Long knew about it without West telling him (as she asserts) seems very strange—or perhaps it sheds a whole new light on the senator and Washington politics. I cannot make up my mind which.
The Long letter should be read in tandem with West’s report of a UFO. She presents a detailed account of a mysterious object in the sky which she tracked for a considerable period. She was not persuaded by the matter-of-fact explanation she received from the government. As in her investigation of spies and traitors, she knew when something was afoot—even if, in this case, she could not solve the mystery.
Although some of West’s letters may strike one as the monologues of an egomaniac and mythomane (to use the term West applied to those she thought had mythologized their lives), most of her correspondence is very sociable and engaging. She wants to tell her correspondents about herself, but she is eager to hear about their lives in return. Letters constituted a conversation for her.
Undoubtedly, there are some good letters left out of this volume. But Scott has chosen a representative collection, featuring the best letters on the subjects to which West kept returning. No reader needs, for example, every letter she wrote about her fraught relationship with her son, Anthony West. On the topic of family West often repeats herself—as most of us do. Nevertheless, there will be a need one day for a new selection, or an updating of Scott’s volume, since many of West’s letters remain in private hands and others, thought to have been lost, may still turn up.
Because of her seventy-year literary career, West seemed to know or to observe everyone of importance in the century. She provided a smorgasbord of commentary on, variously, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Arnold Bennett (she called him one of her literary “uncles”), Lord Beaverbrook (one of her lovers), Janet Flanner (a New Yorker colleague), Emma Goldman, John Gunther (another lover), Violet Hunt, Fannie Hurst, D. H. Lawrence (one of her literary heroes), Sinclair Lewis, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Harold Macmillan (whose family published her), Somerset Maugham, Henry Miller, Sir Harold Nicolson, Anaïs Nin, Paul Robeson (they were friends in the 1920s), Harold Ross, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (she thought him soft on Communism but they later became friends), May Sinclair, Dorothy Thompson, Tito, H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, and Alexander Woollcott.
West’s range of friends was astonishing— from the British comic Frankie Howerd to the CIA director Allen Dulles. Her range of subjects was equally broad. She could elaborate the most byzantine theories of history, then turn immediately to delicious gossip and anecdotes. Her letters are serious, flirtatious, and extremely funny. As one of her friends once said to me, “she gave good value.” She had the gift of making anyone she spoke to—or wrote to—feel important.
It is sad to report that most of West’s novels are out of print and that much else of her work has never been collected. In the last stages of her career she wrote brilliant book reviews for the London Sunday Telegraph. Indeed, Hilton Kramer called them at the time the best of their kind, and his assessment holds true. A selection of her hundreds of essays and book reviews deserves to be printed in two or three volumes. Perhaps this edition of the letters will spark the renewed interest needed to make Rebecca West our contemporary once more.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 9, on page 78
Copyright © 2022 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com