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,
            Old Panther
[Reproduced by Peters, Fraser & Dunlop on behalf of the estate of Rebecca West]

But the figure most mythologized by West–though in this case fiercely and relentlessly idealized by her–was her Anglo-Irish father, Charles Fairfield. Dame Rebecca simply could not accept the fact that he had abandoned her, along with her Scottish mother, Isabella (née Mackenzie), and her two elder sisters, Letitia and Winifred. In his youngest daughter’s hands, this unreliable ne’er-do-well comes off as an adventurous and enterprising gentleman. Yet Charles Fairfield was a philanderer, and he did not provide for his family. He also becomes, for reasons that remain mysterious and are undoubtedly highly personal, the figure with whom she associated the Bosnian Serbs she encountered during her tours through Yugoslavia in 1936, 1937 and 1938. (Her original tour was sponsored by the British Council, for lectures on British culture at universities and English clubs.) As she recalled in a short memoir titled “My Father,” published in the Sunday Telegraph shortly after her 70th birthday, on December 30, 1962:

He was not at all like the inhabitants of these [British] isles, and the only place where I have ever seen large numbers of people cast in his mould was in the Bosnian part of Yugoslavia. The men who came down to the markets from the upland villages all looked at me out of my father’s face.
      They had the same magnificent eyes under level brows, the same strong, dark hair and moustache, the high cheekbones, the straight nose, the tan skin. They were tall, and he was of middle height, but there was a like gauntness, and he carried himself with the same air which these Bosnians had acquired through centuries spent in guerrilla warfare against the Turkish conqueror. He looked exotic, romantic, and a zealot.

Stanislav Vinaver, the model for Constantine inBlack Lamb and Grey Falcon and the Belgrade Press Bureau chief who guided West through Yugoslavia–and did indeed influence her view of its politics, contrary to her later denials–correctly perceived her personal stake in Yugoslavia, as indicated in his letter to her of May 4, 1938:

I have just found a rosette of the Commandeur of St. Sava and am enclosing it for you to wear. I sincerely hope that this ornament will be a good reminder of a country that is awaiting to be understood thoroughly. We all, and especially myself, expect much from your book which will undoubtedly reveal not only the truth about our country but also the truth about yourself. [Beinecke library]

It was the instability of the Balkans on the brink of World War II and the long and complicated political history that preceded that instability–a history of imperial aggression from without, including that of Russia, Turkey and Austria-Hungary, made manifest in the national instabilities within–that engaged West’s protectionism and caused her to enter public life on a scale unprecedented in her life before. Saving Yugoslavia became her obsession. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was a passionate plea to the British and American public to intervene in Yugoslavia in order to save it from National Socialist Germany and Fascist Italy. Sizable portions of her work of travel/history were published serially in The Atlantic in January, February, March, April and May of 1941, before Pearl Harbor and the US declaration of war on Japan the following December. As she wrote to Henry Andrews on April 22, 1936, during her first journey through Yugoslavia: “I am much more interested in life here than I am in England; and I feel so ashamed of our national policy. If only we were solid with the French we could have filled this part of the world with light. How frightened they [the Yugoslavs] are, poor dears!”

The outcome of West’s attempts at intervention was not what she had hoped for; from England she observed the volatile events of March and April 1941. On March 27, there was a popular uprising in Yugoslavia in defiance of the Axis Tripartite Agreement, an uprising that provoked the ouster of the compromising Regent Prince Paul and the ascension of young King Peter II (Peter Karageorgevitch). Winston Churchill hailed the demonstrations of resistance as the recovery of Yugoslavia’s soul. Nevertheless, on April 6, 1941, Yugoslavia was invaded by Germany. Hitler ordered brutal reprisals–Luftwaffe bombing of Belgrade alone claimed 5,000 victims. Within a week, Yugoslavia had been subdued and subjugated, the lion’s share placed under German domination with portions going to Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria and Albania; in Croatia a quisling government was established under Ante Pavelic. In June 1941 Peter Karageorgevitch and the rest of the Yugoslav royal family sought refuge in England.

This is one area in which Bonnie Scott’s annotations could have been more substantial. There is no annotation at the head of West’s “April 1941” letter to Alexander Woollcott, which opens:

Dear Alec,
      I am grateful for the bouquets. The Yugoslavian book now seems to me a preternatural event in my life. Why should I be moved in 1936 to devote the following 5 years of my life, at great financial sacrifice and to the utter exhaustion of my mind and body, to take an inventory of a country down to its last vest-button, in a form insane from any ordinary artistic or commercial point of view–a country which ceases to exist? I find the hair rising on my scalp at the extraordinary usefulness of this apparently utterly futile act.

While there is an annotation to a passage much later in the letter that indicates, “The Germans invaded Greece through Bulgaria and Yugoslavia (April 1941),” there is nothing that explains the German invasion of Yugoslavia and its subsequent division, or the heady events and moments of hope that must have preceded it. Without this background, it would be difficult to understand fully the weariness and dejection expressed by West in the opening of her letter to Woollcott.

But the German invasion was not the final political game to be played. The Serb guerrilla fighters celebrated by West in the passage quoted above from “My Father” were also known as Chetniks. The Chetniks, who eventually singled out their Muslim compatriots for mass killings in their attempts to create a Greater Serbia, had an important underground existence in Yugoslavia during World War II. Their leader, Draza Mihailovic, was eventually appointed minister of war by the royal family, headed by King Peter II, in exile. During the period of German occupation a battle was waged from the Yugoslav hills between, on one side, the royalist Chetniks, led by Mihailovic, and, on the other, the Communist Partisans, led by Josip Broz Tito. Mihailovic is now little remembered. He was captured and executed as a traitor by Tito’s forces on July 17, 1946. But West continued to uphold him and attempted to clear his name, both in the popular press and in an apparently unfinished work comprising several folders of material now sitting in the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa.

I believe these are the events that provided the turn of the screw for Rebecca West’s anti-Communism, from which she would never be free. In turn, it explains her easy slide into the cold war mentality she did not have the intellectual courage to distinguish herself from, and it resulted in a slew of articles in the popular press on treason and traitors, and two books, The Meaning of Treason (1947) and A Train of Powder (1955), the former expanded, revised and republished as late as 1964 as The New Meaning of Treason.

Two of the most remarkable letters in Bonnie Scott’s selection present West combatively attempting to defend herself on the cold war score. The first, written on June 7, 1953, is addressed to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who had written to West in response to her Sunday Times articles on McCarthyism (which were reprinted in US News & World Report). West begins with the claim that she wrote the articles in order to counteract a virulent anti-American campaign in England caused by “propaganda based on the investigationcommittees which are described as ‘witch hunts.'” She continues in an astonishing paragraph straight out of the uncanny:

Stories are spread which lead countless British people to believe that there is a complete suspension of civil rights in the United States; that all over America people are dragged in front of investigation committees, and if they are found guilty of having a communist or liberal affiliations are sent to prison and deprived of the right to earn their living, which last punishment is inflicted on the [innocent] also. For according to these stories the mere fact of appearing before an investigation committee is sufficient to put the most innocent person under a social ban, inflicted by a cowed community.

Two years later, in June 1955, West writes an even more defensive letter to the English author J.B. Priestley. She has never, she claims, defended McCarthy, not with “a single word.” Furthermore, at the time her articles appeared, McCarthy (whom she later describes as “a half-baked gorilla from the Middle West,” as if name-calling could set her on a higher moral footing) had only just become chairman of the Senate committee, and therefore she can’t be blamed for failing to denounce him. What’s more, she’s spent a great deal of time attacking McCarthy–only not in the press, but in private letters. Finally, she writes:

I am afraid that I am the last liberal left [!], and I must confess that my obstinate liberalism cannot approve of Communist civil servants packing the civil service with Communist Party members and getting them employment and promotion over the heads of non-Communists, nor in Communist trade unions that extend their power by thuggery, or in Communist school teachers who employ the sort of tactics (such as sending telegrams announcing falsely the death of a relative and making all night successions of telephone calls) which the teachers and students at Brooklyn College employed.

It is at this point that one wishes there had been something in the Selected Letters on the irony of West’s appearance in Warren Beatty’s 1981 film Reds–because one needs, at this point, some comic relief. Not surprisingly, Dame Rebecca praised Beatty to her last secretary, Diana Stainforth, for having the same quality she’d adored in H.G. Wells: In his presence, she had had his undivided attention, and never once had the sense that he was glancing over his shoulder looking for someone better. (Stainforth told me this in a telephone interview last summer.) This, when West was pushing 90.

Another treasure of this Selected Letters, and one that provides a provocative piece of the puzzle that became Dame Rebecca West, is the earliest group of letters, which most of us have never seen before. They begin with a precocious letter to the editor of the Scotsman, written when Cicily Isabel Fairfield was 14, and continue in a topical vein with two letters written at age 16 to her eldest sister, Letitia (addressed here as “Dear Cow”). In the letter to the editor, Cicily defends the National Women’s Social and Political Union (NWSPU) and married women’s right to work (her mother, Isabella, a pianist, was married but a lone working mother at this time). In the third letter, we find a portrait of the campaigner for women’s rights in action:

On Thursday I stood outside the poll at Forsyth Rd and shouted “Keep the Liberal out!” [meaning, as Scott explains in a note, maintain the right of the NWSPU to independent existence] I turned three votes on the doorstep, anyway. But the Liberal women are ghastly! They stood on the other side of the gate and shouted insults at us the whole time. I had five large Liberal ladies bearing down on me calling me a hooligan and a silly fool and other pretty names. One Liberal man tried to shake me and hurt me, much to their delight; but the police man settled all that.

We had some very queer experiences…. I was selling p[ost].c[ard].s at one of our largest meetings when a wild eyes [sic] individual rushed up and thrust half a sovereign in florins into my hand and said “That is for your picture post card, madame!” I blushed and declined the compliment, and rushed away. Outside the poll one of the Liberal agents addressed me thusly–“Stop shouting my dear, and come and have some tea in town!” I didn’t!

Cicily Fairfield’s early political conviction, tied up in a letter signed “Your affectionate Baby,” is the conflicted prototype, I would say, for the woman from a straitened childhood who ultimately became Commander of the Order of the British Empire, the pseudonymous but not inauthentic Dame Rebecca West.