Dame Cissie

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • Rebecca West: A Life by Victoria Glendinning
    Weidenfeld, 288 pp, £14.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 297 79084 6
  • Family Memories by Rebecca West and Faith Evans
    Virago, 255 pp, £14.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 86068 741 4

There were giant-killers in those days. Storm Jameson, rallying English writers in defence of peace and collective security, had to toss up to decide between Rebecca West and Rose Macaulay for the place of honour. Between these three women enough power should have been generated even for an impossible cause. They were tireless collectors of facts – Rose used to take her newspaper-cuttings everywhere – and what courage they showed, what endurance, what determination to call the world sharply to order, what unanswerable wit, what impatience for justice. They were all prepared to outface the mighty, but they also judged themselves, on occasion, more strictly than anyone else would have dared. ‘When I come to stand,’ wrote Storm Jameson, ‘as they say – used to say – before my Maker, the judgment on me will run: she did not love enough ... For such a fault, no forgiveness.’ ‘As we grow older,’ said Rebecca West, ‘and like ourselves less and less, we apply our critical experience as a basis for criticising our own consciences.’ It isn’t surprising that her son grew up with the ‘idea that a woman was the thing to be, and that I had somehow done wrong by being a male.’

But Rebecca also wrote in her old age: ‘I was never able to lead the life of a writer because of these two overriding factors, my sexual life, or rather death, and my politics.’ Here she is both attacking and defending herself, for she felt that the world, on the whole, had treated her basely. From the age of 18 she made her own life, but she was not altogether satisfied with the results. She would have liked to subsume, perhaps, the lives of both her sisters, Lettie, the correct benevolent professional woman, Winnie, the contented housewife, ‘living decently in a house with children’. She would have liked to live in Rosmersholm without drowning herself, and in the doll’s house without letting it defeat her. Her voice, which she found so early, is that of an elder sister, not the youngest. Samuel Hynes has even called it ‘episcopal’ – ‘praising the righteous, condemning heretics, explaining doctrine’. She found it easy to attract, almost as easy to dominate, and ‘if people do not have the face of the age set clear before them, they begin to imagine it.’ Authority, then, became a duty, and yet ‘I could have done it,’ she believed at times, ‘if anybody had let me, simply by being a human being.’

Some of her first pieces, for the Free-woman, the socialist Clarion and the New Statesman, were reprinted by Virago in 1982. They were written in her teens, or just out of them, when she first arrived in London, a phenomenon, a marvellous girl, reckless, restless, brilliant and indignant. All her life she remained pre-eminently a journalist. To the very end, in illness, in fury, in distress, and when almost spent, she continued to react, as a plant does to the light, to new information or even to gossip. She was always on the alert, as Our Correspondent from the moral strongholds of the 20th century. Her first novel, however, the beautiful Return of the Soldier (1918), seemed to class her as what was then called a ‘psychopathological writer’ – with her older friend May Sinclair, who had organised London’s first medico-psychological clinic. The Return is the case-history of an officer invalided home from the trenches. He is an amnesiac who cannot react either to his wife or to the memory of his dead child. His only surviving emotion is for a girl he once loved, who by now is a dreary little straw-hatted woman, ‘repulsively’ faded and poor. This woman courageously shows him the dead son’s clothes and toys, which have been locked away. He is cured, but this, of course, means that he will have to return to the Front.

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