A new biography of Rebecca West details the private battles of one of the most renowned journalists of the 20th century.
From an outsider’s perspective, British novelist and journalist Rebecca West seemed to have it all. She was a writer surrounded by the literary elite of her time, a cosmopolitan woman whose lovers and admirers included writer H.G. Wells and actor Charlie Chaplin. But as Lorna Gibb reveals in “The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West,” behind the scenes West struggled fiercely with “the endless troubles of everyday life” as she simultaneously wrote about them for her readers.
Born Cicely (“Cissie”) Isabel Fairfield in 1892, the young woman who aspired to become an actress quickly discovered that her talent lay with the written, not the spoken, word. She published her first piece for the Freewoman, a suffragist publication, when she was 19 and soon after adopted a pen name to spare her mother embarrassment: Thus, the writer Rebecca West was born.
West may have gotten a rousing start to her career, but her poor choices in love haunted her for the rest of her life. Barely two years after she began her career, West embarked on a passionate affair with the notorious womanizer H.G. Wells. In short order she found herself unmarried and pregnant; while she defended the rights of unmarried mothers in print, she did not necessarily want to join their ranks.
West’s son, Anthony, was born within hours of the beginning of World War I, a fitting start to one of West’s most painful relationships. Not surprisingly, she found motherhood incompatible with her work and struggled with Wells’ constant pressure to keep her housebound with Anthony, moving regularly to evade gossip.
Gibb maintains that West’s own philandering father would “shadow every serious romantic relationship that Cissie ever had,” and proves this point over and over. From West’s destructive long-term relationship with Wells to her painful 38-year marriage to Henry Maxwell Andrews, she repeatedly involved herself with men who would emotionally and physically disappoint her. Her mother-son relationship was no exception.
This biography’s focus is on West’s dramatic and demanding private life, although Gibb does address her multiple works and awards, and her dogged pursuit of new projects in spite of her critics. As West herself remarked to a friend, “If one is a woman writer there are certain things one must do — first, not be too good; second, die young … third, commit suicide like Virginia Woolf. To go on writing and writing well just can’t be forgiven.”
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.