Rebecca West - a brief Biography
Rebecca West (1892-1983)
full title: Dame Rebecca West,

pseudonym (penname of)
(True name:) Cicely Isabel Andrews,
original last name: Fairfield


English journalist, novelist and critic. Her companion for ten years was H.G.Wells. Their son Anthony also established himself as a noted author and critic. West is perhaps best-known for her reports on the Nüremberg trials (1945-46). She started her career as a columnist for the suffragist weekly the Freewoman in the 1910s. Kenneth Tynan described her in 1954 as "the best journalist alive."

"Good God enlighten us! Which of these two belongs to the sterner sex - the man who sits in Whitehall all his life on a comfortable salary, or the woman who has to keep her teeth bared lest she has her meatless bone of 17s. 4d. a week snatched away from her and who has to produce the next generation on her off-days?" (from 'The Sterner Sex', 1913)

Rebecca West was made CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 1949, and DBE (Dame Commander of the British Empire) in 1959, in recognition of her outstanding contributions to British letters. Thus, she was later called Dame Rebecca West.


Rebecca West (21 December 1892—15 March 1983), born Cicely Isabel Fairfield but known by her pen name Rebecca West, or Dame Rebecca West, was born in London of Scottish-Irish parentage. She was educated in Edinburgh and later trained as an actress at the Academy of Dramatic Art, from which she emerged to pursue a brief and unsuccessful acting career. From Henrik Ibsen's play Rosmersholm West adopted the name of the passionate, self-willed heroine.

It is important to know that Rebecca grew up in a home full of intellectual stimulation, political debate, lively company, books, and music. Her mother, Isabella, a Scotswoman, was an accomplished pianist but did not pursue a musical career after her marriage to Charles Fairfield. Charles, an Anglo-Irish journalist of considerable reputation but financial incompetence, deserted his family when Cicely was 8 years old. He never rejoined them and died impoverished and alone in a boarding house in Liverpool in 1906, when Cicely was 14. The rest of the family moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, where Cicely was educated at George Watson's Ladies College. She had to leave school in 1907 due to a bout of tuberculosis. Cicely did not have any formal schooling after the age of 16, due to lack of funds. West trained as an actress in London, and it was then that she took the name 'Rebecca West' from the rebellious young heroine in Rosmersholm, by Henrik Ibsen.

Rebecca_West The Freewoman

In 1911 Rebecca West started contributing to left-wing press, and joined the staff of the feminist paper Freewoman. She resigned after four months and became the leading writer on the socialist magazine Clarion, also writing for The Star, Daily News and New Statesman. West's subjects ran from from social issues to book reviews. In 1913 she wrote about the suffragist Emily Davidson, who threw herself in front of the king's horse at the Derby. West's essay about Emmeline Pankhurst, 'A Reed of Steel' (1933) is among her best works on the period. Her first book was about the writer Henry James.

Rebecca West sustained a turbulent love affair with H.G. Wells, independent and very famous novelist and writer at the time. She met H. G. Wells in 1913, when she was just 19, after her provocatively damning review of his novel Marriage prompted him to invite her to lunch. The defining event of her romantic life occurred then when she encountered the much-older H.G. Wells, who was devoutly committed both to his wife and to his pursuit of extra-marital pleasures. Their off-and-on affair quickly commenced, and lasted for a decade; yet, the two would remain entwined, if unhappily, for life. The only constant was the radical inequality of the relationship.

Rebecca_West Dame of the British Empire

After an early breakup, West pleaded in a letter that "You’ve literally ruined me. I’m burned down to my foundations. ...I would give my whole life to feel your arms round me again." To which Wells replied: "You are a tortured, untidy ... little disaster of a girl who can’t even manage the most elementary trick of her sex." In 1914, when Rebecca West was twenty-one, she bore their son, Anthony—this, at a time when out-of-wedlock children were considered literally illegitimate and unwed mothers cruelly ostracized. (It was a great advance when, in 1928, single mothers were allowed to adopt their own children.) From 1930 to 1968 Rebecca West lived in Buckinghamshire, and then in London.


West went on to many lovers, including the journalist John Gunther, the industrialist Max Beaverbrook (the model for Lord Copper in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop), and Charlie Chaplin: "men who were powerful, rich, and inaccessible." Perhaps this reflected and recreated the primal scene of her father’s betrayal and at the same time an inner vengeance. In 1930 she married a banker, Henry Maxwell Andrews, "the most stable and generous man she had ever known." Their marriage lasted thirty-eight years and was relatively happy although plagued by a series of illnesses. In the end, it brought her much grief, for while on his deathbed, Henry Maxwell Andrews cried out the name of his latest mistress. He eventually died in 1968.

Rebecca West's first novel, THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER, was published in 1918. Several of her novels were marked with a feminist point of view. The Return of the Soldier was a story about three women who labor to cure a soldier of shell-shock induced amnesia. The soldier cannot remember the last 15 years of his life, including his marriage. THE JUDGE (1922) was a chronicle of illegitimacies and feminine suffering, HARRIET HUME (1929) was a fantasy, THE THINKING REED (1936) explored the manners of the very rich, and THE BIRDS FALL DOWN (1966) viewed political and marital intrigue through the eyes of a young girl. THE FOUNTAIN OVERFLOWS (1956) focused on an Edwardian family and was partly autobiographical. The protagonist is Rose Aubrey who tells the story of her childhood in South London. Rose worships her father, who gambles and creates an atmosphere of insecurity in the family run by her artistic, serious mother.

In 1937 she traveled to Yugoslavia with her husband and published BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON (1942, 2 vols.), a polemic pro-Serbian travel diary. West was convinced of the inevitability of the Second World War and the book was colored by her dark anticipations. During the war she was a talks supervisor at BBC in London. Her writings on the Nüremberg trials were collected in A TRAIN OF POWDER (1955). She described the Nazi leaders in a dubious sexual context: Goering was "like a madam in a brothel," and Streicher was "a dirty old man of the sort that gives trouble in parks." [Yet, perhaps, she was not far off from a certain amount of truth.] She also went to South Africa in 1960 to report on Apartheid in a series of articles for the Sunday Times. [A system of racial segregation enforced by the "white supremacist" National Party government of South Africa from 1948, after WWII, to 1994.]

Rebecca West's essays of Britons who worked for Germany during World War II and the treason of William Joyce, "Lord Haw-Haw", appeared in THE MEANING OF TREASON (1949). Although West had written for socialist newspapers in the beginning of her career, in the 1950s she defended McCarthyism and the crusade against Communists in the U.S.A. Rebecca West's other non-fiction include THE STRANGE NECESSITY (1928), in which she explored theories of creativity and cognition, and ST. AUGUSTINE (1933), a study about the impact of the medieval philosopher on the Western thinking.

"Yes, I've been destroyed. Yes, I'm maimed for life. But for other people, for the whole world, it isn't so. For them life's getting better and better all the time. Look at Russia. It's coming out into the light, every year the sun shines on it more brightly." (from The Birds Fall Down, 1966)

She traveled extensively well into old age. In 1966 and 1969, she undertook two long journeys to Mexico, becoming fascinated by the indigenous culture of the country and its mestizo population. She stayed with actor Romney Brent in Mexico City and with Katherine (Kit) Wright, a long-time friend, in Cuernavaca.[8] She collected a large number of travel impressions and wrote tens of thousands of words for a "follow-up" volume to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, tentatively titled "Survivors in Mexico." The work, however, was never finished, and only saw publication posthumously in 2003.

Rebecca_West Dame of the British Empire

Much of her work from the late phase of her life was published posthumously, including Family Memories (1987), This Real Night (1984), Cousin Rosamund (1985), The Only Poet (1992), and Survivors in Mexico (2003). Unfinished works from her early period, notably Sunflower (1986) and The Sentinel (2001) were also published after her death, so that her oeuvre was augmented by about one third by posthumous publications.

Rebecca West was dubbed Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1959. Her literary career spanned more than seventy years. Rebecca West's writing showed brilliance of intellect and lucidity of style. At the end of her life she was England's foremost woman of letters.

Rebecca West died in London on March 15, 1983.


A Final Note

As a final note of importance to those who more seriously wish to penetrate further into rebecca West's nature and driving forces, it is essential to end and include here Rebecca West's spiritual and religious driving beliefs and fundamentals. It is essential to discuss briefly her religious creeds and practices or applications in her life, perceptions of life, and in her works.

The fact is that although she viewed God as a flawed and "defeated" deity, she nonetheless held strong and firm conviction that Christ was the perfection of "humanity". "West considered herself a Christian but she was an unconventional believer. At times, she found God to be wicked; at other times she considered Him merely ineffectual and defeated. However, she revered Christ as the quintessentially good man,..." In reference to an imperfect God, in her Memoirs she wrote: "I had almost no possibility of holding faith of any religious kind except a belief in a wholly and finally defeated God, ..."

West's fluctuating attitude towards Christianity was offset by a more constant form of belief. She was informally a Manichaean all her life. Rebecca West believed, since young, in Manichaeism and prevailingly applied it throughout her entire life and created literary works. Although she was critical of Manichaeanism's puritanical excesses, she did believe in dualism as the most fundamental working principle of the universe. Although she conceded, optimistically, that "it is not possible to kill goodness," she also indulged in pessimistic statements like "natural man is mean," which is as much as saying that she adhered to the Manichaean belief that the essence of goodness was diffused inside gross matter like particles of light trapped in darkness.

Manichaeism originated through the teachings and the original writings of the founding prophet Mani (in Latin: Manichaeus) (c. 216-276 CE). Most of these original writings have been forever lost, but numerous translations and fragmentary texts have survived.

Manichaeism taught an elaborate cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. Through an ongoing process which takes place in human history, light is gradually removed from the world of matter and returned to the world of light from which it came. This would explain what has been happening throughout man's history on Earth and why and how it is things have worsened and deteriorated, or degenerated, to the humanly world conditions we have today, with all the corruption of mankind and societies, and all the death there is around us, even in our own homelands, run by corrupted voraciously greedy business and consumerism, devouring in their way the goodness, faith, democratic constitutions and justice systems, innocence, decency, family union, and even our children, going down now to even our infants and babies, the basis of life and survival of any living organism or group. Could Rebecca West have been rightfully inclined in her views and perceptions, too? Very strongly, perhaps. [John Zuniga Roberts]

Rebecca_West Dame of the British Empire

Rebecca West's aversion to homosexuality and her warning not to confuse the drive for feminist emancipation with the woman's desire to become like a man are strong truths, indeed. Her insistence on the fundamental difference between men and women reveals her essentialism, but it also bespeaks her innate Manichaean sensibility. She wanted respect and equal rights for women, but at the same time she required that women retain their specifically feminine qualities, notably an affinity with the life force: "Men have a disposition to violence; women have not. If one says that men are on the side of death, women on the side of life, one seems to be making an accusation against men. One is not doing that." One reason why she does not want to make an accusation against men is that they are simply playing their assigned role in a flawed universe, which is, of course, the result of an imperfect deity. Only love can alleviate destructive aspects of the sex-antagonism:


"I loathe the way the two cancers of sadism [the dominant controller] and masochism [the submissive weaker partner] eat into the sexual life of humanity, so that the one lifts the lash and the other offers blood to the blow, and both are drunken with the beastly pleasure of misery and do not proceed with love's business of building a shelter from the cruelty of the universe."



For further reading: The Novels of Rebecca West by M. Orlich (1967); Rebecca West by P. Wolfe (1971); H.G. Wells and Rebecca West by G.N. Ray (1974); Rebecca West by Motley F. Deakinn (1980); Rebecca West by V. Glendinning (1987);Rebecca West: A Life by Carl E. Rollyson (1996); The Literary Legacy of Rebecca West by Carl Rollyson (1997); Paradoxical Feminism: The Novels of Rebecca West by Ann V. Norton (1999)



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