Rebecca West

On this date in 1892, literary giant Dame Rebecca West (née Cecily Isabel Fairfield) was born in London. She moved with her family to Edinburgh at 10. Her father was a journalist who deserted the family when she was 8. She was educated in Edinburgh at George Watson’s Ladies College, where some innocently penned verses caused a scandal. In 1911 she briefly joined the staff of the feminist publication Freewoman. She renamed herself after an Ibsen heroine in Rosmersholm.

West became a lead writer for the socialist paper The Clarion. At age 19 she embarked on a 10-year love affair with H.G. Wells, who was 46 and whom she had previously called “the Old Maid among novelists” in a review. Their son Anthony West, her only child, was born in 1914. West left Wells in 1923. After other affairs with Lord Beaverbrook, Charlie Chaplin and journalist John Gunther, she married banker Henry Andrews in 1930 and they remained nominally together until his death in 1968.

Her first novel was The Return of the Soldier (1918), followed by The Judge (1922), Harriet Hume (1929), The Thinking Reed (1936), Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1942), The Birds Fall Down (1966) and The Fountain Overflows (1956). She covered the Nuremberg trials and wrote A Train of Power about them in 1955. She was made a “dame” of the British Empire in 1956 and continued writing until her death at age 90 in 1983.

She was known for her pithy quotes, such as those cited in her New York Times obituary: “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.” In 1928, she observed in a speech to the Fabian Society: “There is one common condition for the lot of women in Western civilization and all other civilizations that we know about for certain, and that is, woman as a sex is disliked and persecuted, while as an individual she is liked, loved, and even, with reasonable luck, sometimes worshipped.” In the 1970s she called President Richard Nixon “an example of bad form combined with Original Sin.”

Her religious views were complicated and fluctuated throughout her life, especially toward Christianity as she rejected most of its traditional doctrines. It’s said that she was informally a Manichaean all her life and believed in dualism as the most fundamental working principle of the universe. (D. 1983)

PHOTO: West c. 1912. © National Portrait Gallery, London. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Freedom From Religion Foundation