Scottish chronicler Gibb (Lady Hester: Queen of the East, 2005) presents Rebecca West (1892–1983) in all her contradictory melodrama, unflinching political vision and trailblazing feminism.
However, there is a frustrating lack of depth regarding the context of West's writing and a great deal about her personal shenanigans and relations with her son and her lovers. A British journalist of the finest caliber, who gave us prescient, shimmering dispatches from Yugoslavia (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, 1941), the Nuremberg trials and others, West was also so virulently anti-communist that she wrote sympathetic articles about Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s investigations and was roundly excoriated for it. Born Cicely Isabel Fairfield to an Irish father who more or less abandoned the family of three daughters, leaving his capable, educated and musical wife to settle in her native Edinburgh, the young protagonist fell in early with the cause of the suffragettes and failed in her first career as an actress. As a firebrand journalist—she quickly grasped the necessity of changing her pen name when her mother complained about her feminist causes, and she thereby used as nom de plume a character from Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm—West caught the eye of the philandering novelist H.G. Wells, who was older and married. Their scandalous love affair produced a son, Anthony, and it is difficult to tell from Gibb’s account who exactly was to blame for the lifelong animosity between mother and son. In any case, extraordinarily versatile in her work, West wrote both a critical biography of Henry James and numerous novels, beginning with her debut, The Return of the Soldier (1918). During her long life, West was acquainted or worked with many of the most notable figures from her age, from Emma Goldman to Roberto Rossellini to Warren Beatty.
A generous, mostly gratifying life, but a question remains: What drove this deeply committed author?