As an author, I absolutely love Rebecca West. As an individual, I find her utterly fascinating. Thus, Lorna Gibb’s biography, West’s World The Extraordinary Life of Dame Rebecca West held great appeal for me. As Gibb writes, West was a ‘towering figure in the British literary landscape’, and I wanted to learn more about the woman behind books such as The Return of the Soldier and The Harsh Voice, which I adore.
Born Cicely Fairfield in 1892, the focus of this biography changed her name to Rebecca West after the heroine of a Henrik Ibsen play, Rosmersholm. She did so when she began to write for a suffrage newspaper, and did not want her mother to find out. West’s writing career began when she was ‘barely out of her teens, as did her notorious affair with H.G. Wells’, with whom she had a son, Anthony Panther. The relationship between both West and Wells, and between mother and son, was tumultuous, filled with drama and heartache. Gibb comments that her ‘troubles were universal and timeless. The conflicting demands of motherhood and career, the longing for love and companionship tempered by the need for independence, were spelled out in letters and diaries, articles and books, while the world changed, bringing new dilemmas and consequences. Her struggles are as pertinent now as they have always been.’
Perhaps the thing which West is most well-known for is her affair with Wells. She met him after she penned a ‘blistering’ review of his book, Marriage, in 1912. At this time, the married Wells – who was already involved in a menage á trois with author Elizabeth von Arnim – was ‘one of the most successful and famous writers of the day’. The pair soon became firm friends, and their relationship evolved, until West became pregnant at the age of twenty, in 1914. West was sent away, at Wells’ insistence, to a secluded seaside home, away from prying eyes, and was only allowed to inform her mother and sister of her pregnancy when Wells gave her ‘permission to do so’.
As one might expect from this, Wells treated her awfully, bossing her around, and leaving her alone for large parts of her pregnancy, and for Anthony’s childhood. Anthony was not allowed to refer to Wells as his father, and similar rules made by West – he was made to call her ‘Auntie Panther’ – confused him greatly. Gibb recognises that ‘For Rebecca, part of Wells was better than nothing at all. In spite of their deteriorating relationship, and his increasingly bad behaviour, she did not end their almost ten-year affair’ – this, despite her knowledge in 1923 that Wells was unfaithful to both herself and his wife.
West travelled extensively, and quickly formed intense relationships with others. She sent Anthony away to boarding school at the age of just five, and spent much of his childhood travelling around, never staying in one place for very long. She also moved in interesting, sometimes Bohemian circles, and boasted a host of famous names amongst her friends – Vera Brittain, Bertrand Russell, D.H. Lawrence, and Anaïs Nin, to name but four.
Gibbs has focused throughout on the way in which West ‘engaged passionately with the events of almost a century’. She wrote extensively about periods which affected her, and of her extensive interests. She dealt, says Gibb in her prologue, ‘with big topics, many of which still reverberate today, such as the integration of Eastern and Western religious faith, the contradictions of femininity and power, the causes and effects of war. Yet, in her consideration, she did not lose sight of the domestic concerns, those personal and intimate stories taking place against the backdrop of social change and unrest.’ West’s writing, she continues, ‘was the thread that bound together West’s public and personal worlds, her political judgements and her private tenderness.’ Her politics boomeranged from identifying as a ‘passionate suffragist, [and] an ardent socialist’ in her earlier years, to a supporter of Margaret Thatcher.
Although her output is incredibly valuable, particularly from an historical perspective, West’s real downfall, writes Gibb, was the way in which her work crossed so many different genres. It was this lack of categorisation – of the way in which West could not squeeze into ‘those pigeon holes so beloved of the literati’ – which ‘made her status as author less secure than many of her contemporaries.’
West’s World took Gibb eight years to research and write, and her incredible dedication to an author who is not well-known enough for her writing makes itself clear throughout. Gibb has been incredibly thorough here, using a wealth of different sources, but never does her biography feel overdone, or overloaded with information. Never does Gibb make West’s life feel melodramatic, as it could so easily have been rendered, given some of the occurrences throughout her life. The chronological ordering has been painstakingly handled, but Gibb does not linger for too long on a single period. There is a definite brevity to be found within West’s World.
Gibb’s prose is highly compelling, and I liked the way in which she wove West’s writing into her own. I also greatly admired Gibb’s covering of historical and societal contexts, which she does with a great deal of knowledge. West’s World is an excellent, and satisfying, biography, and I very much look forward to reading more of Gibb’s work in future.