Sympathetic biographer focuses on personal life, not work, of Rebecca West

Lorna Gibb tells us, in this sensible and readable biography of the great Rebecca West, that once at lunch with various luminaries including the Aga Khan, Odette Keun, H.G. Wells’ mistress of the moment, “turned to the Aga Khan, asking him to back up her opinion that the English were prudish in public but ‘lubricious in private.’ ” The remark seems to have embarrassed most at the table, but surely truer words have rarely been spoken. If friendships and rivalries are dominant themes of British literary life, sex runs them a close second, and rarely more so than in the life of Cicely Isabel Fairfield, born in 1892, who changed her name to Rebecca West in 1911 and proceeded to cut an exceedingly strange swath through the bedrooms of the literati.

The novelist Andrea Barrett, in her otherwise thoughtful introduction to the New York Review of Books edition of West’s best novel, The Fountain Overflows, writes that “West seems to have possessed the full complement of human weaknesses — vanity, vengefulness, selfishness, insecurity, deceitfulness among them.” But after a careful reading of The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West and a return visit to Victoria Glendinning’s Rebecca West, I am convinced that this is widely held view of West is oversimplified and essentially inaccurate. Gibb describes the young Cicely Fairfield in far more sympathetic terms, which strikes me as closer to the truth and goes far to explain the compulsive and at times inexplicable sexual behavior in which she engaged. “So much of what Rebecca presented to the world was a protective mask,” Gibb writes, a mask intended not merely to present her as fierce and indomitable but also to hide her deeply conflicted feelings about her sexuality and how men responded to it, as well as about her place in society.

West was a feminist before the word had gained wide usage, but as a daughter of late Victorian and Edwardian England, she was a feminist with an asterisk. She “wrote angrily about the necessity of better working conditions for women,” yet “more than once she remarked to friends that there was nothing as sad and lonely as the lot of a woman who did not have a man.” Her own men included the celebrated H.G. Wells, a serial philanderer, with whom she cohabited irregularly and often tempestuously for about a decade beginning in 1912 and with whom she had a son, Anthony West; Max Beaverbrook, the impossibly egotistical proprietor of the Daily Express; John Gunther, who later became noted for his “Inside” books about various places around the world; a “dashing Romanian prince called Antoine Bibesco … well known for his promiscuity”; and Francis Biddle, American judge at the Nuremberg trials.

West was one of those rare writers whose personal lives are of as much interest as their literary ones, and Gibb has chosen to emphasize this aspect of West’s long (she died in 1983, at age 90) and uncommonly active life. She “was fatally drawn to men who were difficult,” and even in her marriage of more than three decades to Henry Andrews she found that she had repeatedly and flagrantly been cheated on, leaving her even more insecure about herself as a sexual being.

Not only did she have mostly dastardly lovers, but her son was, as she said more than once, a monster. Anthony West had been brought up in circumstances unlikely to ensure emotional stability — for years his famous father declined to recognize him as his son, and the boy was expected to call his mother “Auntie” — and he turned into an arrogant, greedy, self-pitying, deceitful rat who made his mother’s life as miserable as he possibly could, vilifying her by innuendo in his books (like his parents, he was a gifted writer).

Remarkably, considering the strains of her personal life, West had one of the great writing careers of the 20th century. Her account of Yugoslavia before World War II, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a classic of several genres, among them history, travelogue and self-portrait, remains in print, as do a few of her other books.

West’s journalism, like George Orwell’s and H.L. Mencken’s, rises far above the quotidian. Early in her career, she wrote that “there are two kinds of imperialists — imperialists and bloody imperialists,” and this fixation on the uses and abuses of power remained with her to the end. She despised totalitarianism and communism, in which regard she was almost always in the right but did make an unfortunate slip when, in 1953, she took a surprisingly sanguine view of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joe McCarthy. Like many British writers of various political persuasions, she knew less about the United States than she thought she did.

Yet she was never reluctant to offend the comfortable. She was born an outsider, into a family of great intellectual and artistic gifts but little money or familial cohesion, and she spent her life on the outside looking in, which may explain why she felt an affinity for Scott Fitzgerald even though he absentmindedly offended her with a piece of ill behavior; he invited her to a party, said he would pick up, then neglected to do so. She liked the idea of being on the inside, and as she became famous and prosperous (though never rich), she indulged herself in elegant residences and good restaurants, but the vantage point of the outsider was always essential to her views.

The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West is a fair, sympathetic but forthright portrait of its subject and should — so at least may be hoped — help her find new readers. Gibb could have devoted a few more pages to West’s work — her offhand dismissal of the magnificent The Fountain Overflows is a puzzling dereliction of biographical duty — and in that regard Glendinning is better, but all in all this is a lucid and accessible biography of this endlessly fascinating woman. As Gibb says, West was a woman of “surprising contradictions,” and this biography captures them all without losing sight of the very real person in whom they resided.

Jonathan Yardley reviewed this for the Washington Post.