Big Thinks

Rosemary Dinnage

  • Selected Letters of Rebecca West edited by Bonnie Kime Scott
    Yale, 497 pp, £22.50, May 2000, ISBN 0 300 07904 4

Rebecca West died 17 years ago at 90, in a comfortable flat overlooking Hyde Park. She was a Dame Commander of the British Empire, to her amusement and gratification. Will she be remembered more as a character, thoroughly damely and commanding, or for her writings? Eleven novels, of no outstanding literary merit; nine other books on general subjects, of which the most admired (and especially relevant today) is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, on Yugoslavia; a mass of articles on the public affairs of her time. She was an oracle, a pontificator, and unclassifiable; had she written only fiction or only political analysis, she might have left a more settled reputation. She was chagrined to know quite well that she would be remembered for her private life: her affair with H.G. Wells – girl, 21, meets bounder, 47 – and the birth of their son. The story is not gossip fodder, but tragic and central to her life. When Wells is properly reassessed as a writer, it will be known which of the two leaves the greater literary reputation.

She knew – came to know – everybody who was anybody, so this first selection of her letters, as well as sparkling with wit and malice, is full of the great and famous (the really great and famous such as the Queen, wearing ‘something one could buy in a dress-shop in the high street in High Wycombe’). The selected two hundred letters are culled from around ten thousand. I imagine that in those left unculled there is more about her endless minor illnesses and much, much more of the paranoia that grew worse with age. Enough is present here to show how it went. The background to the great chip on her shoulder must have come partly from having an illegitimate child, excruciatingly humiliating in her day. Virginia Woolf, another sharp-eyed lady, wrote that all West’s difficulty came from ‘the weals and scars left by the hoofmarks of Wells’. (She also had comments about dirty nails and so on; Rebecca, for her part, would not ‘have fed a dog’ from one of Vanessa Bell’s plates, and characterised Lytton Strachey’s beard as ‘an extension of his personality in the direction of doubt’.) In these letters she often ascribes her troubles to the demon Wells; but her temperament was formed earlier, as Victoria Glendinning’s biography (1987) shows.

She was not born Rebecca West but Cicely Fairfield. (The adoption as pen-name of one of Ibsen’s characters – mistress of a married man who urges him to joint suicide – is extraordinary.) She had a painfully déclassé childhood which, like unmarried motherhood, was cruel in those days. Spendthrift father left wife and three daughters when Cicely was nine. The girls were clever, money was short, relatives embarrassing, but they got an education. All four women were socialists and suffragists. The young Rebecca, as is so well known, got Wells’s attention by cheekily calling him ‘the Old Maid among novelists’ in a book review. (Subtext: ‘Come and disprove it.’) He approached but then retreated. (Subtext: ‘Come and get me.’) She threatened to shoot herself; he dropped his current mistress and returned, and at their second sexual meeting made her pregnant – he had only just got over the scandal of doing the same to another lovely young girl. She had captured a truly naughty Daddy; he, she was to say in a letter to her son, ‘wanted the panache of having a child by the infant prodigy of the day’. Both, we can now see, were fighting the pain of their social origins; but there was love, though he did not leave his marriage, and they stayed (in a sense) together for ten years. The difficulty of bringing up her son Anthony alone caused distress and, later, bitter resentment on Anthony’s side.

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