Rebecca West


by Jessica Svendsen

Novelist, journalist, critic, and feminist, Rebecca West (1892-1983) is considered one of the finest prose writers in twentieth-century England. Born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, she wrote under the penname Rebecca West. She has since become legendary, not only as an outspoken feminist and mistress of H.G. Wells, but also as the prolific author of novels like The Return of the Soldier, which helped to define an era. By mid-career in 1947, West was featured on the cover of Time and the story hailed her as “indisputably the world’s No. 1 woman writer.”[1]

Early Life

West was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield on December 21, 1892 in London, to Charles and Isabella Fairfield. The family moved to 21 Streatham Place in South London before Cecily was two years old, and she later reimagined the house in her novel The Fountain Overflows. Her father was a journalist of decent reputation, but he was also financially inept, leaving the Fairfield family unable to make ends meet. West would later remember her childhood as a deplorable and deprived existence. In 1898, for economic reasons, the family moved to a cheaper house in Richmond. Only three years later, Charles Fairfield deserted his family for the opportunity to launch a pharmaceuticals factory in Sierra Leone. He would never return to his family, and he died alone in Liverpool in failing health and fortune. West was almost fourteen when her father died, and she said later in life, “I had a glorious father, I had no father at all” (23).

The memory of her father would influence West throughout her life. She recalled how her father was chronically unfaithful to his wife—even at five years old, West noticed how his ‘physical maleness’ impressed the women around him. Biographer Victoria Glendinning explains that West associated her father with the outside world, not the Fairfield home. He was the one who would bring newspapers home with him, talking to Cicely and her sisters as if they were equals and demanding that they be literate and articulate (24). Yet the impossibility of knowing what had happened between her parents left West feeling ambivalent towards men—contradictions that would emerge later in her life as a feminist, mistress, and supportive wife. “She longed for men to be strong and supportive, while believing that they were generally inadequate and destructive. She was to guard her independence ferociously, while expressing resentment towards the men who encouraged her to do so. Because her father had left the family penniless and déclassé, money, clothes, and food became her emotional currency” (24).

After her father’s death, West moved with her family to Edinburgh, where she became a pupil at George Watson’s Ladies’ College. However, she had to leave the college in 1907 after contracting tuberculosis. Due to a lack of financial resources, West was never able to return to school and after age 16, she never received any additional formal education.

Her father’s death also marked a release in West’s political energies. Feminism became a self-evident fact of life (30). At 15, West wrote a letter to The Scotsman, signed with her own name. The letter, published on October 16, 1907 under the heading “Women’s Electoral Claims,” defended the split of the National Women’s Social and Political Union from the Liberal Party. West emphasized that the Liberal Party had failed to acknowledge “the profound national effects of the subjection of women on the nation” and called attention to the “sex degradation implied in manhood suffrage.” West composed her article shortly after attending a women’s suffrage demonstration in Edinburgh, which attracted over 4,000 marchers. Her sister Winnie, abroad at the time, wrote to their mother: “Cissie seems to have become a feministe enragée; much as I approve of the cause, I shouldn’t like a relative of mine to become a martyr to it” (30). Despite her sister’s concerns, West became well known as a suffragist. She joined the Votes for Women Club in Edinburgh, sold the Votes for Women journal on the street, and wore a ‘Votes for Women’ pin to school.

In addition to her suffragist endeavors, West was thrilled by theatre and found time both to watch and act in plays. She saw nearly every production that came to Edinburgh, including the risqué play by J.M. Barrie, What Every Woman Knows. West was part of an amateur dramatic company, and though she resented the “little-girl parts she was inevitably asked to play,” she was committed enough to professional theater to audition for the Academy of Dramatic Art in London (32). She attended the Academy for three terms, but according to her own account, she did not flourish there.

West was still at the Academy when her first journalism pieces were published—a review of Maxim Gorky’s play Lower Depths, published in the London Evening Standard. According to West, she became a writer “without choosing to do so—at home we all wrote and thought nothing of it” (35).

The Freewoman

The first issue of the feminist weekly The Freewoman appeared on November 23, 1911, edited by Dora Marsden, whom Cicely thought of as “one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen” (36). The next issue featured West’s first contribution, a review of a book on the position of Indian women.

In the following spring, Cicely started using a pseudonym, chiefly to assuage her mother’s concerns over her forthright writing. Cicely derived “Rebecca West” from Henrik Ibsen‘s play Rosmersholm. In the play, Rebecca West is the mistress of a married man and persuades him to join her in a melodramatic double suicide by drowning. (36). Later in her life, West regretted the Ibsen allusion, claiming that she hurriedly chose the name when the magazine was off to the press and that, in fact, she liked neither the play nor the character. Ibsen originally influenced West, because he taught her the significance of ideas, but she quickly realized that “Ibsen cried out for ideas for the same reason that men called out for water, because he had not got any” (36). Though she was transformed into Rebecca West in both her personal and professional life, to her mother and sisters she would always remain Cissie.

Rebecca West. Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.


Rebecca was an energetic presence at the The Freewoman’s discussion group. At these meetings, and as West began review prominent authors, she was introduced to new people. Over the years, West encountered Ford Maddox Ford, Violet Hunt, and Emma Goldman, among others. By 1914, West was nominated the assistant editor of The Freewoman. During the ensuing years, West published passionate feminist pieces, but she gradually became distant from the publication, complaining to Marsden that the magazine lacked literary content. West wanted The Freewoman to publish short stories and literary essays. It was at this time that West solicited Ezra Pound to become a literary editor and with his help, the publication was reborn as The Egoist, with Harriet Shaw Weaver now on board as the business manager. Pound would use The Egoist to ultimately publish James Joyce, to whom both he and Weaver were devoted.

Rebecca resigned from her editorship of The New Freewoman after only four months, chiefly because she disagreed with Marsden and Pound on the paper’s aims. Besides, West already had other outlets to publish her work. She was writing regularly for the Daily News and the socialist newspaper, the Clarion, in which West chastised and rebuked politicians, both Labour and Liberal, for their timidity over women’s suffrage. Wyndham Lewis was the first to publish West’s fiction. The first issue of Lewis’s Blast in 1914 featured West’s “Indissoluble Matrimony.” Much later, Lewis would sketch a drawing of Rebecca West, which she kept until she died.

H.G. Wells

In 1911, West published two notable reviews: one critiqued Ford Maddox’s Ford‘s The New Humpty-Dumpty; the other reviewed H.G. Wells’s novel Marriage. Both reviews were scathing, but they also had a caliber that earned West lunch invitations to both author’s homes. West’s meeting with Ford initiated a lifelong friendship. Her meeting with H.G. Wells started a relationship that was decidedly more intimate.

Letter from H.G. Wells to Rebecca West. Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

In her review, she described how “Mr. Wells’s mannerisms are more infuriating than ever in Marriage. One knows at once that Marjorie is speaking in a crisis of wedded chastity when she says at regular intervals, ‘Oh my dear!…Oh, my dear!” or at moments of ecstasy, ‘Oh, my dear! My dear!’ For Mr. Wells’s heroines who are loving under legal difficulties say ‘My man!’ or ‘Master!’ Of course he is the old maid among novelists; even the sex obsession that lay clotted on Ann Veronica and The New Machiavelli like cold white sauce was merely old maid’s mania, the reaction towards the flesh of a mind too long absorbed in airships and colloids.”[2]

The forty-six-year-old novelist and social thinker had never received a critique like this, especially as he had become notorious as a supporter and practitioner of free love. While he was married to his second wife Jane, he had affairs with young girls half his age, including a three-year affair with Dorothy Richardson, who had miscarried his child. He had also had affairs with novelists Violet Hunt and Elizabeth von Arnim before he met Rebecca (Rollyson 39). His second wife loved Wells and until her death, he would never separate from her. But his sexual needs were not fulfilled by his marriage and his wife tolerated his infidelities.

Wells was a subscriber and occasional contributor to The Freewoman, yet considered it “even at its worst a wholesome weekly irritant” (45). Wells identified as a feminist, but continually mocked militant feminists for their weak arguments, political ignorance, and physical unattractiveness (48). Wells considered the idea of “independent women” pathetic—women would only be known in relation to men. The freedom for women that Wells advocated was sexual freedom and availability. His ardent opinions would ultimately contribute to his splintered relationship with Rebecca.

After West’s review of Marriage, she was invited to lunch with Wells. She found him “one of the most interesting men I have ever met. He talked straight from 1.15 to 6.30 with immense vitality and a kind of hunger for ideas” (45). By the autumn of 1913, they were lovers. In the early months of their affair, they were blissfully happy. He called her Panther and she called him Jaguar. These names quickly developed into “a private mythology in which Panther and Jaguar played in a secret erotic world” (50). However, by the new year, Rebecca was unintentionally pregnant. Wells admitted it was his fault and assumed responsibility for Rebecca’s health. He made plans for how she would live after the baby was born. She was to be Mrs. West and he would visit her as Mr. West (51). Wells found her lodgings in remote Norfolk, where she was isolated for the remainder of her pregnancy, until their son Anthony was born.

Letter from H.G. Wells to Rebecca West. Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

West was far from unaware of the possibility of pregnancy. Two of her most impassioned articles for the Clarion, published months before she was Wells’s mistress, concerned the inequitable and discriminatory treatment of unmarried mothers by society and the law. According to Glendinning, she had “no romantic illusions about the difficulties that faced both mother and child. An unmarried mother, [West] wrote, ‘is the most outcast thing on earth’ and an illegitimate child ‘has a bad time before it'” (51). West would later regret being an unmarried mother. She felt that she was a disappointment to her mother, and she wished “that I could have made her happy by marrying early and never meeting H.G.” (51).

West and Wells’s affair lasted for a turbulent ten years. Throughout the decade, Rebecca’s family urged her to persuade Wells to either marry her or separate from her—an ultimatum that she repeatedly attempted to make. Wells would respond that he wanted them to continue their relationship as they were. It is unlikely that Wells would have ever married Rebecca and he continually rejected the suggestion that he should divorce Jane. Rebecca’s relationship with H.G. slowly collapsed in 1923, with angry recriminations and reproaches, interrupted by occasional moments of tenderness and nostalgia for their ten-year love affair. However, in October 1923, Rebecca finally issued an ultimatum and then departed for the United States to give a lecture tour. As Wells conceded in his autobiography: “the effective break came from her” (86).

West commented extensively on drafts of a book about her relationship with Wells by Gordon N. Ray, H.G. Wells and Rebecca West (1974), and she prohibited Ray from interviewing Anthony. Throughout her life, she maintained a strong grip over any press that concerned her affair with Wells or their son Anthony, particularly because she regretted the liaison. She wanted her work to stand on its own, and not relative to Wells.

Literary Career

When West was isolated at the end of her pregnancy, she stopped her journalistic endeavors in order to succeed as an author on her own merits. She started to write her first book—a critical study of Henry James. When Henry James was published in 1916, literary critics were offended that a 23-year-old woman would feel entitled to criticize one of the literary masters, particularly because he had only passed away a few months prior. She mocked James’s idea of women and the Jamesian sentence. According to Glendinning, her criticism was more reasonable than that of her mentor Ford Maddox Ford, whose Henry James appeared four years before. Her book remains a fair introduction to James and his work.

A year later, West published her first novel The Return of the Soldier, which follows a shell-shocked officer who suffers from partial amnesia. West described her novel as a “Conradresque story and I suppose I ought not to say it is good but it is” (63). The book established West’s reputation as a novelist; its fine prose was admired and the novel is still considered a masterpiece. Rollyson describes how The Return of the Soldier was a “daring departure” for the era, “unabashedly employing the Freudian ideas that had begun to emerge in Rebecca’s literary criticism” (Rollyson 71). It was quickly put on the Annual Register’s short list of distinguished work in all artistic fields. The novel was well reviewed both in Britain and America, went into a second printing and was later adapted for the stage.

Rebecca’s extended essay The Strange Necessity was published in 1928. The text begins by considering James Joyce and Ulysses. Though West did not approve of everything Joyce wrote, she defended Ulysses when it was prosecuted for obscenity in New York in 1933 and it was West who persuaded Wells to review it in the Nation. Her essay is structured around a single day in Paris, paying homage to Leopold Bloom’s day in Dublin. For West, her analysis of Joyce is “probably the first estimate to be done neither praying nor vomiting. In it I come to the conclusion that though it is ugly and incompetent it is a work of art. That is to say it is necessary” (Rollyson 123). The Strange Necessity was ill-received by Joyce, who was irritated that criticism of his writing would be juxtaposed with a narrative of West traveling through Paris.

The Strange Necessity, however, did not critique Joyce alone. West reprinted in the book her review of Arnold Bennett’s Lord Raingo, which begins with the claim: “All our youth they hung about the houses of our minds like Uncles, the Big Four: H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, and Arnold Bennett” (117). She then assessed the strengths and weaknesses of each Uncle in turn. Shaw was not affronted by her criticism and sent West a postcard signed “your too affectionate uncle.” The others, H.G. Wells in particular, took acute offense. Bennett wrote the official response to West in the Evening Standard, entitled “My Brilliant but Bewildering ‘Niece.'” The tone of the article is condescending and Bennett concludes that West’s essay was “mere irresponsible silliness.”

Rebecca West and Henry Maxwell Andrews. Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University:

West’s response to her Uncle’s criticism was extended over the next decade, during which she published numerous works on feminism. All through the 1920s, she wanted to write a nonfiction book about feminism. Though she gave a lecture on the position of women to the Fabian Society in 1928, she never finished a nonfiction book. Her feelings were expressed in her fiction, instead. Her novel Harriet Hume was published in 1929, and its main theme is, as Arnold Bennett termed it, the “secondariness” of women. Later, her novel The Thinking Reed (1936) would focus on an incompatible marriage. West revealed that the two themes of The Thinking Reed were “the effects of riches on the people, and the effect of men on women, both forms of slavery.”

In November 1930, Rebecca sent the following telegram to several close friends: “Sorry darling but am becoming Mrs. Henry Maxwell Andrews Saturday love Rebecca” (128). On November 1, she married influential banker Henry Maxwell Andrews, a decision precipitated by his need for her and her need for marriage. She first met Andrews in 1928 and he already fervently admired her work. He had been to see the play of The Return of the Soldier six times. Though some critiqued her for forgoing her status as an independent woman, West asserted that she needed the security of marriage, particularly after several turbulent and miserable years. While on her Italian honeymoon, she received news of the English headlines, announcing: “Rebecca West Married: Word ‘OBEY’ Omitted From Her Alter Vow.”

Political Writings

In West’s later life, she increasingly turned to covering political and social issues. She contributed regularly to The New Republic, The New York Herald Tribune, The New York American, The New Statesman, and The Daily Telegraph. She had similar commissions for magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair.

During 1936-1938, she traveled extensively through Yugoslavia. Her impressions and memories of these trips were later memorialized in her nonfiction masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. She was also assigned to cover the Nuremberg Trials for The New Yorker, and her account was later published as A Train in Powder. In 1960, she traveled to South Africa for the Sunday Times to report on Apartheid. She wrote journalistic articles, novels, and memoirs at an unabated rate up until her death in 1983. Over one-third of her work was published posthumously.

  1. ↑ Glendinning, Victoria. Rebecca West: A Life. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987. 187.
  2. ↑ Rollyson, Carl. Rebecca West: A Life. New York: Scribner, 1996.