Rebecca West is best known for her contribution to nonfiction writing, in which she showed a remarkable facility for blending the genres of history, travel, biography, and literary criticism. Ranking just below such masterpieces as Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and The Meaning of Treason are her works The Fountain Overflows and The Birds Fall Down. It does her a disservice to separate her fiction and nonfiction, for all of her mature writing is informed by a strongly novelistic sensibility.
West was born Cicily Isabel Fairfield. Her father, Charles Fairfield, was of Anglo-Irish descent and made something of a reputation for himself as a staunch defender of individualism in debates with George Bernard Shaw and Herbert Spencer, two of the most important and influential thinkers in Victorian England. When her father died in 1902, however, West found herself in straitened circumstances, one of four daughters whom her mother had somehow to support. She never forgot the feeling of shabbiness in her early years, and by the age of nineteen, determined to make her mark as an actress, she changed her name to Rebecca West after a character in Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm (pb. 1886; English translation, 1889). When West was advised that she had minimal talent as an actress, she took up her pen as a militant feminist journalist. She dared to attack even the most advanced thinkers of her time, including H. G. Wells, who eventually became her lover. She had a son with him, but they later parted in bitterness, with West feeling keenly the special burdens placed on women in male-dominated, double-standard societies.
In addition to her feminist journalism (collected in The Young Rebecca), West produced searing criticism of Augustine, a highly sexed man and yet a saint, cushioned in life by his devoted mother and also a worldly man capable of abandoning a mistress of long-standing once he dedicated himself to the Church. In her acclaimed Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a travel account and historical study of the Balkans on the eve of World War II, various woman characters are given dominant roles, and West herself speaks in her own voice about her youthful impressions of Eastern Europe. Her husband, Henry Maxwell Andrews, accompanied her on this trip, and through his incisive contributions to the dialogue and his quietly supportive presence, it is clear that West found a male companion entirely comfortable with her formidable intelligence and restless quest to understand her time in history.
Many critics, misled by the many different genres in which she wrote, have doubted that there is a major theme or thread in West’s work. In fact, in her fiction and nonfiction West’s concerns have been the same: war, treason, marriage–the institutions and events that bind society together or rend it apart. In her early novel The Return of the Soldier, two women (a wife and cousin) are perplexed by the return of their soldier, who in his shell-shocked state does not remember them but longs for a woman he loved many years earlier. The gap that suddenly opens up in his life and in theirs–between the loving husband and relative and his amnesiac alter ego, the young, impulsive lover of another woman from a lower social class–is evocative of West’s effort to capture both the personal and the historical dimensions of experience in the war-torn world of the twentieth century.
Whether writing about the Nuremberg Trials in The Meaning of Treason or about petty criminals in A Train of Powder, West conveys an extraordinary sense of the range of human society. She understands both the historical forces that inform individual actions and the peculiarities of individual behavior that her father so cherished. Some of her novels, it is thought, are overwhelmed by her intellectuality, but on balance she must be considered as one of the greatest imaginative minds of the twentieth century.