December 15, 2017

West -- Wells to Watergate

On this day in 1983 Rebecca West died at the age of ninety. Cicily Fairfield took her pseudonym from the passionate, outspoken heroine of Ibsen's Rosmersholm; from her early days writing about suffragettes to her last days writing about Watergate and Marshall McLuhan -- a seventy-year career of novels, essays, journalism, literary criticism, and non-fiction books on a range of topics – she lived up to it. This extended even to scoffing at the pseudonym: it was chosen in a hurry, she said, chiefly to pacify her mother, who knew what the family name was in for once her daughter got rolling. Ibsen first taught her that ideas made the world go round, but "I began to realize that Ibsen cried out for ideas for the same reason that men call out for water, because he had not got any." At West's memorial service in 1983, Bernard Levin chose words from Ibsen's heroine to sum up the outlook by which his friend had lived: "Live, work, act. Don't sit here and brood and grope among insoluble enigmas."

West's autobiographical novel, The Fountain Overflows (a 1957 best-seller), portrays the shabby-genteel, eccentric and intellectual world in which she grew up in turn-of-the-century London. She joined the Fabian Women's Group as a teenager, meeting Shaw and admiring his "greyhound" appearance: "The effect he created was more stupendous since in those days every well-to-do man wore stuffy clothes, ate too much, took too little exercise, and consequently looked like a bolster." Later she would skewer him as a "eunuch perpetually inflamed by flirtation," and as a writer: "I passionately resent the fact that God gave him a beautiful style and that he used it to preach tedious and reactionary ideas." Ford Madox Ford (Hueffer) was a friend too -- one whose embrace, reports biographer Victoria Glendinning, West compared to the feeling of "being the toast under a poached egg."

In 1912, West published a review of H. G. Wells's new novel, Marriage, in the feminist magazine, Freewoman. Though just 19 years old, her acerbic reviews -- "Writers on the subject of August Strindberg have hitherto omitted to mention that he could not write" -- had already caused, as one contemporary put it, "not so much a splash, as a hole in the world." In her Marriage review, West derided Wells's depiction of passion, calling him "the Old Maid of novelists," his mind, "too long absorbed in airships and colloids" to react properly to a woman. The forty-five year-old Wells was the most celebrated novelist of the day and a noted philanderer; he invited West to tea, so beginning their volatile, ten-year affair. By the end, Wells was complaining of how West "splashed her colours about" and "exalted James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, as if in defiance of me." Realizing that Wells would never divorce his wife for her, West settled for a substantial support payment for their son, and the last word: "The greatest use of marriage is for riveting the fact of paternity in the male mind."

In her last decades West was England's foremost woman of letters, a Dame of the British Empire, and as engaging as ever. She knew that "we all start as grazing land and end up as plowed fields," but she did not go quietly: "I do not myself find it agreeable to be ninety, and I cannot imagine why it should seem so to other people. It is not that you have any fears about your own death, it is that your upholstery is already dead around you."

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