Rollyson (The Lives of Norman Mailer, 1991, etc.) piles on the details but never gets to the novelist, critic, and essayist...



Rollyson (The Lives of Norman Mailer, 1991, etc.) piles on the details but never gets to the novelist, critic, and essayist known as Dame Rebecca West, born Cecily Fairfield (she borrowed her pen name from an Ibsen character). Her career stretched from 1911 when, still a teenager, she began writing for the British feminist journal Freewoman, to the publication of 1900, which appeared when she was 90 years old. West was once notorious for her affairs: Her lovers included Charlie Chaplin, writer John Gunther, and Lord Beaverbrook, the newspaper magnate. Most important though, was her long association with H.G. Wells, with whom she had an illegitimate child, the writer Anthony West. Anthony's lifelong anguish and anger are evident in his letters to his famous father: "". . . listen, little sadist sweetheart . . . you've made me realize what a little wart you are."" Rollyson does a solid job of showing--mostly through letters from the hitherto restricted Yale collection--how West bridled against convention and the mores of the times but was also guilt-ridden and ambivalent about her roles as mother and as Wells's ""kept"" woman. Her marriage to banker Henry Maxwell Andrews, while more conventional, was plagued by a series of illnesses and infidelities, his and hers. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), considered West's masterpiece, a massive profile and history of Yugoslavia at the outset of WW II, ""interweaves . . . description, reportage, autobiography, literary criticism, philosophy, theology, and feminism,"" and has been been praised as everything from a travel guide to ""an account of civilization and its discontents."" Rollyson generally does an adequate job of summing up West's works, particularly her novels. But his lifeless writing often settles for a mere catalog of illnesses, lovers, and political battles; even his use of the letters fails to bring West to life. All of the juice has been squeezed out of the details of a long, rich, unique life.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1996


Page Count: 544

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1996