Her Own Lambs and Falcons
It really is about time we had the letters of Rebecca West. And this plump selection, sumptuously produced and plushly upholstered with Bonnie Scott's introduction and notes, is a first edition of which Dame Rebecca would, I think, have been proud. But one never knows.
Sixty years after her first pictorial incarnation in the Selected Letters, a theatrical photograph of the 16-year-old aspiring actress Cicily Fairfield (earlier Cicely Fairfield, her real name, replaced at 20 by that of the daring heroine of Ibsen's Rosmersholm, Rebecca West), one finds the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire still striving to coin her own image. To Lovat Dickson, the biographer of her lover H.G. Wells (Dickson's biography was subtitled His Turbulent Life and Times), West declared flatly: "I have rewritten the passage [in your manuscript] about my youth. The trouble is that most of what you have written about me is--forgive me for my candour--the wildest nonsense." To Anthony West, her illegitimate child by Wells, born August 4, 1914, the day Britain declared war on Germany for the first time in the twentieth century, Rebecca pleads at length: "But I am terribly worried by your letter, because of your sentence--'I was left out of my father's will altogether on the ground that I was "amply provided [for] elsewhere," that being a reference to his understanding that I was to inherit something substantial from Henry [Andrews, West's financier husband from 1930 until his death in 1968].' This throws me."
And approaching the ripe but hardly fly-bitten age of 83, West wrote to her first biographer, Victoria Glendinning: "The biography I have in mind for myself wouldn't fit into such a frame [a study of her as a woman writer]. For one thing, there would be quite a lot of space devoted to such things for example as my relations with Emma Goldman [during her 'anti-Bolsh' period of Disillusionment With Russia (1925), for which West wrote the introduction], and with the New Statesman, and with the rise of Titoism during the war [West was its increasingly embittered opponent]."
In other words, Cicely Fairfield, Cicily Fairfield, "loving Panther" as she was known to Wells and "Auntie Panther" as she was for a time known to their son, Anthony (a detail that does not appear in Scott's notes), Rebecca West, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, was a woman of many guises and disguises, a publicity seeker and a publicity shunner, and all too frequently, a spin doctor when it came to herself and her family--and not unrelatedly, when it came to the capacious span of history she lived through in her ninety years (1892-1983), a history she represented, influenced and became an integral part of. It is hard to come up with a woman writer of the past century who was more important in this regard. And the ante has been upped in the wake of the recent war in Kosovo. West's reputation rests primarily on her 1,200 page magnum opus, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (1941), a work many still consider to be the most important political and cultural history of Yugoslavia up to World War II. For this reason it is important that we study Rebecca West and learn about this history, and our relationship to it, from her.
One would hardly exaggerate in describing the Selected Letters of Rebecca West as a biography of West and her times in letters. Though there are two competent biographies of her to date, Glendinning's Rebecca West: A Life (1987) and Carl Rollyson's Rebecca West: A Life (1996), the album of self-portraits presented in the Selected Letters substantially reinvigorates our view of West. She is by turns admirable, for her generosity and her ability to forgive those she loves, and maddening, for her manipulations and the rigidity of her frequently illiberal politics: Her fanatic anti-Communism, for instance, hardly seems rational. And then sometimes she is heart-rending, as when she writes to Wells around March 1913, soon after the beginning of their affair, when he's cooled to her already (she was only 20 at the time, while he was a man of 46 married to his second wife, Jane):
I don't understand why you wanted me three months ago and don't want me now....
I always knew that you would hurt me to death some day, but I hoped to choose the time and place. You've always been unconsciously hostile to me and I have tried to conciliate you by hacking away at my love for you, cutting it down to the little thing that was the most you wanted....
You want a world of people falling over each other like puppies, people to quarrel and play with, people who rage and ache instead of people who burn....
You've literally ruined me. I'm burned down to my foundations.
Who could resist such a love letter? Wells, whose attention she'd attracted by calling him "the old maid among novelists" in her Freewoman review of his Marriage, could not. Their relationship had everything except marriage for the ten years it lasted, from 1913 to 1923 (her only marriage, to Henry Andrews, apparently had a few years of companionship before his physical decline, and not much else). There is no evidence I've seen to substantiate West's retrospective claims that she was terribly unhappy with Wells after the first few years and repeatedly tried to leave him. In fact, another letter to Wells, which does not appear in Scott's selection, also retrospectively misdated by West as "1920" but apparently written around the time of her mother's death, in August 1921, opens and concludes in the following manner:
My own Dear jaguar,
I have got your sweet letter this morning and it is such a comfort. Thank you for being such a good husband--I will try to be a good wife to you. I am aghast to think what I would feel like [going through her mother's decline and death] if I hadn't you....
Dearest I must catch the post--and thank you my darling for the letter also the money.
Yours--really for ever, and really yours,
[Reproduced by Peters, Fraser & Dunlop on behalf of the estate of Rebecca West]