‘West’s World’ by Lorna Gibb ****

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.


The Book Trail: Albert Nobbs to The Pastor’s Wife

Another Book Trail is upon us.  This begins with an underrated novella which I read back in August and very much enjoyed, and takes us through a wealth of fascinating Virago-esque books.

1. Albert Nobbs by George Moore
‘Long out of print, George Moore’s classic novella returns just in time for the major motion picture starring Glenn Close as a woman disguised as a man in nineteenth-century Ireland.Set in a posh hotel in nineteenth-century Dublin, Albert Nobbs is the story of an unassuming waiter hiding a shocking secret. Forced one night to share his bed with an out-of-town laborer, Albert Nobbs’ carefully constructed facade nearly implodes when the stranger disovers his true identity-that he’s actually a woman. Forced by this revelation to look himself in the mirror, Albert sets off in a desperate pursuit of companionship and love, a search he’s unwilling to abandon so long as he’s able to preserve his fragile persona at the same time. A tale of longing and romance, Albert Nobbs is a moving and startlingly frank gender-bending tale about the risks of being true to oneself.’

2. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault 9781844089529
‘Set in 1937, The Friendly Young Ladies is a romantic comedy of off-Bloomsbury bohemia. Sheltered, naïve, and just eighteen, Elsie leaves the stifling environment of her parents’ home in Cornwall to seek out her sister, Leo, who had run away nine years earlier. She finds Leo sharing a houseboat, and a bed, with the beautiful, fair-haired Helen. While Elsie’s arrival seems innocent enough, it is the first of a series of events that will turn Helen and Leo’s contented life inside out. Soon a randy young doctor is chasing after all three women at once, a neighborly friendship begins to show an erotic tinge, and long-quiet ghosts from Leo’s past begin to surface. Before long, no one is sure just who feels what for whom.’

3. Olivia by Dorothy Strachey
‘Considered one of the most subtle and beautifully written lesbian novels of the century, this 1949 classic returns to print in a Cleis Press edition. Dorothy Strachey’s classic Olivia captures the awakening passions of an English adolescent sent away for a year to a small finishing school outside Paris. The innocent but watchful Olivia develops an infatuation for her headmistress, Mlle. Julie, and through this screen of love observes the tense romance between Mlle. Julie and the other head of the school, Mlle. Cara, in its final months.’

97808606834074. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay
‘Banished by her mother to England, Barbara is thrown into the ordered formality of English life. Confused and unhappy, she discovers the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s, where she finds an echo of the wilderness of Provence and is forced to confront the wilderness within herself.’

5. The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘In memory of the wife who had once dishonored and always despised him, Brian de Retteville founded a 12th-century convent in Norfolk. Two centuries later, the Benedictine community is well established there and, as befits a convent whose origin had such ironic beginnings, the inhabitants are prey to the ambitions, squabbles, jealousies, and pleasures of less spiritual environments. An outbreak of the Black Death, the collapse of the convent spire, the Bishop’s visitation, and a nun’s disappearance are interwoven with the everyday life of the nuns, novices, and prioresses in this marvelous imagined history of a 14th-century nunnery.’

6. The Lost Traveller by Antonia White 9781844083695
‘When Clara returns home from the convent of her childhood to begin life at a local girls’ school, she is at a loss: although she has comparative freedom, she misses the discipline the nuns imposed and worries about keeping her faith in a secular world. Against the background of the First World War, Clara experiences the confusions of adolescence – its promise, its threat of change. She longs for love, yet fears it, and wonders what the future will hold. Then tragedy strikes and her childhood haltingly comes to an end as she realises that neither parents nor her faith can help her.’

7. Cousin Rosamund by Rebecca West
‘Rich in period detail, lyrical in its evocation of the Thames, a novel that reveals both the problems of marriage and the ecstasies of sexual love’

97818440828038. The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim
‘Ingeborg Bullivant decides spontaneously to join a tour to Lucerne-and returns engaged. Yet her new life as a rural Prussian pastor’s wife restricts her as much as her old; and when the dashing artist Ingram appears, musing about wondrous Italy, wanderlust tempts her a second time. Von Arnim’s accomplished and comic novel is based on her own first marriage and life in provincial Germany at the turn of the century.’

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20 Books of Summer: ‘Sunflower’ by Rebecca West ****

I very much enjoy Rebecca West’s work (The Return of the Soldier ranks amongst my absolute favourites), and was so looking forward to beginning Sunflower.  It is the 362nd book upon the marvellous Virago Modern Classics list, and the novel itself is also part of both my Classics Club and 20 Books of Summer lists.  Rebecca West forms an entry upon mine and Yamini’s Fifty Women Project too, so Sunflower was a marvellous investment, which made me feel temporarily ahead in the seas of lists which I am essentially drowning in.

The ‘Sunflower’ of the novel’s title is a rich and famous actress, originally known by the name of Sybil Fassendyll, who is ‘mistress to the ageing Lord Essington.  She has the world at her feet, except that Society shuns her as it shuns all women who transgress its codes.  Though the tyrannical Essington is destroying her self-esteem, she fears the loss of his protection – until she meets the millionaire politician Francis Pitt, vulgar, ugly and utterly captivating.  Oblivious to all his faults, Sunflower pins her hopes on this new relationship.  Essington’s love is dead; Pitt’s has yet to be conquered’.

Upon her wishes, portraying as it does her tumultuous relationship with H.G. Wells, Sunflower was not published during West’s lifetime, and first reached the public eye in 1986.  Throughout, West – sometimes heartbreakingly – writes of some of the aspects of their intense liaison, which would have been, one imagines, incredibly difficult to recount in such detail: ‘It was all right.  There was really no reason at all why she should not go.  It was simply that she was so unused to liberty, so seldom free of the leash that jerked her back to heel whenever she was doing anything she enjoyed, that she felt at a loss when she was on her own’.  West demonstrates the complex cruelties of Essington from the very beginning, ensuring in consequence that he is fully-developed as a protagonist in just the first few pages of the story alone: ‘Though he behaved to her much of the time as if she were his most alienated enemy, he could simultaneously behave to her as if he were an ardent lover in the first and most sensitive days of courtship, so far as the ready harbouring of tender grievances was concerned on the ground that she did not love him as much as he loved her, that she had missed some fine shade of his devotion, he would hate her malevolently for a week’.

Throughout, West is incredibly assertive, and aware of the depths of human feeling and emotion: ‘Indeed, she [Sunflower] contained within herself two of the great legendary figures that man has invented everywhere and in all times: Venus and Cinderella.  And they were not – he bade her remember – invented idly.  They fed desires that must be fed if man is not to lose heart and die.  For Venus promises him that there shall be absolute beauty in this world, that the universe shall bring forth perfection which shall make its imperfection a little thing, lightly to be borne; and Cinderella promises him that this harsh order of things which is life may be only temporary and subject to reversal at any time, so that the mighty may be put down from their seats and those of low degree exalted’.  Another such instance of this is as follows: ‘But if a man says you are beautiful and you are not, then it is a proof that he loves you.  The alchemy of loyalty is working on him, he is not separate from you…  Decidedly there are other fair seasons than the spring, other conditions than beauty for making people live kindly’.

As ever, I also very much admired how original West’s character descriptions are: ‘He paused and looked at her out of queer grey eyes which were the colour of bad weather, with extreme appreciation and utter lack of interest’.  Sunflower is a rich and vivid novel, packed with equal measures of introspection and heartache.  It is one which I would heartily recommend.

Purchase from The Book Depository


Flash Reviews (8th August 2013)

Henry VIII by William Shakespeare
This year, I have been reading my way through The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. My second scheduled play for July was Henry VIII. I was rather skeptical about beginning it, as I had to read Richard III for my studies at school and very much disliked the experience. However, I was pleasantly surprised here. Whilst it isn’t my favourite Shakespearean work by any means, Henry VIII is very well written, as Shakespeare’s plays invariably are. I must admit that I was expecting more to happen, but it was entertaining enough to fill a couple of hours.

The Return of The Soldier by Rebecca West
I very much enjoyed The Fountain Overflows when I read it last year, and couldn’t wait to read more of West’s fiction. I loved the way in which The Return of The Soldier launched straight into the story, and the fact that questions were raised in my mind from the very first page. I adore West’s descriptions, particularly those of her surroundings. She really does use colour and light magnificently. The sense of place and time has been captured wonderfully, as has the passing of years for the characters. She portrays the horrors of war with such startling starkness, and these passages act as a wonderful if horrid contrast to her descriptions. Shell shock and memory loss were captured sensitively, and with such care. Jenny’s narrative voice in this lovely novella was wonderful, and it matched the unfolding story so well. The relationships between characters, and the way in which they shift and adapt with time, have been deftly and believably portrayed. A beautiful novella, and one of the loveliest I’ve ever read.

Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes by Walter de la Mare
April’s love for de la Mare’s poetry has made me consider him amongst my favourite poets, a high accolade indeed. Peacock Pie is an adorable collection, and I wish I had known about it when I was younger, as I imagine that it would have been a firm favourite of mine. De la Mare writes beautifully, and it is clear that he had such admiration for and love of the English language. I love his plays on words and rhyme schemes.

Beatrix Potter: A Holiday Diary, edited by Judy Taylor
My boyfriend and I visited a marvellous bookshop in Cambridge for the first time last Monday. We have been coveting a visit to it for ages, but each time we’ve woven down the little side alley to go there, it has been closed. Imagine my delight last week when we found that not only was it open, and crammed from floor to ceiling with all wonders of new, secondhand and antiquarian books, but that it had an entire shelf of beautiful books by and about Beatrix Potter. This was one of the Potterish purchases I made, the other being a gorgeous hardback of her collected letters. I could happily have bought them all, but I doubt I would have been able to carry them out of the shop, let alone to Jamie Oliver’s restaurant where we had lunch, and then back to the car after more shops had been visited. This volume is slight but extremely sweet, and I love the many pictures throughout. It is a real shame that nobody had thought to edit out the spelling mistakes though – Norman Warne’s name was, in one instance, ‘Normal’, for example. Regardless, I would certainly buy more books published by the Beatrix Potter Society. Even their lovely pastel colours just ooze charm.