Rebecca West: opinionated, impertinent, impossible (2000)

SELECTED LETTERS OF REBECCA WEST Selected and edited by Bonnie Kime Scott Yale College Press, 497 pages, $54.50

‘Y ou could well additionally be pleased your husband very famous, » Rebecca West wrote Ingrid Bergman, whom she had met with Bergman’s husband, Roberto Rossellini, in 1952, « however you’ll beget to face the actual fact that he has no talent. You’ve got got trusty talent and a trusty personality, and it is absurd that for the sake of your non-public emotions you’ll beget to allow these items to be wasted. . . .

« You is not going to concentrate on this if you read it, and also you’ll concentrate on me an odious lady. But when your husband has made two more movies for you, you take into accout this letter, and idea inserting yourself in the fingers of a legitimate director. »

Whether or not Bergman thought West odious, I cannot exclaim, though the Rossellinis divorced a few years later, so in all likelihood Bergman took the advice. However the snippet does to find West at her injurious most productive, and hints at the plump-bodied character — portion Maggie Thatcher, portion dowager aunt — who emerges from the pages of Bonnie Kime Scott’s Selected Letters of Rebecca West. She was opinionated, impertinent, doubtlessly impossible; she was moderately a bully, with the bully’s thin skin, and she seen Commie conspirators under every rock. But she is by no technique a bore to read.

She was born Cicely Fairfield in 1892 — « Rebecca West » was a nom de plume primarily based on a character in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm — the youngest of three sisters. Towards her siblings, particularly the eldest, Letitia, she bore emotions of a passionate and unsettling nature, for she classed them (as she would her lover, H. G. Wells) among the myriad « neurotics » who, she claimed, « bled me nearly about white. »

Her writing profession began early and ended late, and despite the strange disclaimer (« I hate hate HATE journalism »), she pursued it regularly for seven a long time, long after her marriage to banker Henry Andrews obviated the need from any monetary point of observe. She was prolific; her novels (10 of them), instant stories, essay collections, valuable works and the necessary, unclassifiable Shaded Lamb and Grey Falcon, her 1941 classic on Yugoslavia, were churned out alongside a real circulate of articles for newspapers and magazines at dwelling and in but one more country.

« I write consequently of all my family attain, » she defined to an editor at the Saturday Overview, « it is in the blood. » In actuality her beget prolixity amazed and dismayed her. Overwriting was her curse.  » The Outlandish Necessity (god dammit) has long gone from 6,000 to 30,000 phrases, » she wailed; her 1929 contemporary Harriet Hume (West called it her « drag incubus ») began « as a brief memoir 5,000 phrases long — it has grew to become out to be exact searching 70,000 phrases. » Shaded Lamb took five years to entire; her final trilogy of novels seen her into the grave.

« Alas, I with out a doubt beget constantly had too many family ties to bag on with my writing or my letter-writing as I would beget wished, » she told an American correspondent in 1953, and there could be absolute self belief she supposed it. But it is very laborious to credit rating. Now not even Anthony, her son by Wells, would severely curtail her writing activities — a truth, alongside side six dozen others, that he nursed with unabated resentment throughout the course of his grownup life. (« From 1942, » West wrote in 1973, « Anthony has been a perpetual source of trouble and humiliation to me, and there has by no technique been any formulation of placating him. »)

He was born, with becoming symbolism, as battle was being declared in 1914. West, a single mom at a time when the phenomenon was not acknowledged to exist, and compelled for safety reasons into out-of-the-formulation lodgings in the country, was anxious, plucky, annoyed and bored.  » I hate domesticity, » she wrote a chum when Anthony was 2. « Anthony looks very high-quality in his blue lambs-wool coat, and I with out a doubt feel sure that in him I with out a doubt beget laid up a fancy for the hereafter (i.e. dinners at the Carlton in 1936) however what I desire now is ROMANCE. One thing with a white face and a puny natural wave at the hours of darkness hair and a clean grey touring-automobile is what I with out a doubt need. »

What she purchased was Wells. He was 46 to her 19 when they met in 1912 (« I need to exclaim I be pleased Wells . . . it is fun observing his mercurial thoughts splashing about in the endless ») and their relationship — « intense and subtle and tragic, » West called it — lasted 10 years; West maintained she spent seven of them searching out for to leave him. However, they corresponded unless his death in 1946, and in her letters West reveals an perception into him thoroughly lacking into herself. « It with out a doubt was a source of trouble to him that he needed to capture a hammer and fracture up life whenever it fashioned the pattern that he most cherished, » she wrote Anthony in 1949. « While you happen to seen him as a pleased man it was consequently of he was seeing you and was posthaste pleased. He was a witty and humorous man, which is extremely numerous from a pleased man. »

Happiness was no more her specialty, not much less than in issues of the heart. She at last broke free from Wells in 1923 when she went to the US, where she looks to beget had a ripe long-established time. (Even though American girls americans appalled her: « Their declare and entire lack of sex enchantment is solely terrifying. ») But satisfaction in the romantic realm eluded her. Extra males than looks decent to quantity grew to become on her, some violently, for having in her strength it sounds as if rendered them impotent. Newspaper magnate Max 1st Francis Bacon handled her caddishly, and when she found a fellow she hoped would resolution, a lanky banker from California named Steven Martin, he up and died. « Haven’t I had moderately laborious trusty fortune with the males I am with? » she queried a chum in 1924, with some justification.

Henry, whom she married in 1930, was speculated to be her sanctuary — « He says he goes to witness after me and let me write, so it needs to be extensive » — however it did not quite tumble out that formulation. Unbeknownst to someone at the time, he suffered a stroke about two years after they married and the following mind injure accomplished havoc alongside with his judgment, sending him off on every kind of wierd stunts. « He’s getting wilder and wilder in strange varieties of methods. One in all them has resulted in my having in my backyard now ample cabbage crops to carpet the entire of Buckinghamshire. It’s far an awfully prosaic form of wealth. »

She was inflamed; she was bewildered; she accredited it. Self-examination was not West’s sturdy point; self-consciousness even much less so. « I attain not capture myself very severely, » she wrote Joyce scholar Richard Ellmann, « and I with out a doubt attain not thoughts emotionally very famous what is asserted about me. » It’s far, other than the Bergman profession tip, the most injurious assertion in the book. She waged battle with someone who she thought had misinterpreted her (and who had the temerity to submit their views); when letters lacked the important immediacy, telegrams were fired off. « UNABLE TO UNDERSTAND MOTIVE BEHIND GROSSLY OFFENSIVE LETTER YOU HAVE HAD THE IMPERTINENCE TO SEND ME STOP » — this in 1953 to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who criticized her defence of Joseph McCarthy (« a half-baked gorilla from the Center West, » she sniffed to J. B. Priestley).

Her self-idea simply did not brook contradiction, and she seen herself because the sole real repository of information relating herself. As she long-established, and turned into the field of biographies and anxious reviews, she felt called upon to diagram the story straight. « I with out a doubt beget rewritten the passage about my early life, » she instantaneous Wells biographer Lovat Dickson. « The hassle is that most of what you would beget written about me is — forgive me for my candour — the wildest nonsense. »

Within the same letter she tries to point to herself. « I don’t search data from which which that you just must well perhaps additionally realize the phenomenal revulsion I with out a doubt feel to accounts of my life which could well perhaps be not trusty. It’s far be pleased being dissolved in mist. »

Now not a likelihood of it. The Letters are verbal snapshots of an phenomenal profession, and West booms forth, increased than life.

Rebecca West was identified for her blunt tongue, and her feedback on writers on my own would build a chapbook. She particularly loathed T. S. Eliot and Tolstoy — « . . . I cannot agree with you about Tolstoy. Twice beget I read Battle and Peace and positioned nothing however stuffed Tolstoys . . . And evidently Anna Karenina was written simply to convince Tolstoy there was nothing on this pricey and difficult alternate of adultery and oh Gawd oh Gawd, Kitty! » But lesser culprits additionally felt the spear of her nib:

George Bernard Shaw « was a eunuch with out destroy inflamed by flirtation »; James Joyce « I concentrate on a pretentious nitwit however who has guts . . . »; Evelyn Waugh, who once threatened to sue her, was « that filthy microscopic creature, » whereas E. M. Forster was dismissed as « a self-indulgent long-established liberal with not regularly a mind in his head. »

U.S. poet Laura Riding was one among the few, alongside side Anäis Nin — « I concentrate on the handiest actual genius I with out a doubt beget ever identified in my life » — who came in for (measured) reward: « I concentrate on she writes quite atrociously, nearly as badly as someone I with out a doubt beget ever to find. . . . But I concentrate on she could well additionally beget something to articulate. » Now not even Virginia Woolf was accorded sympathy, despite the retrospective of bigger than 40 years: « I could not beget admired Virginia Woolf more as a author and I was very fascinated with [art critic] Clive Bell, » West wrote in 1980. « But I cannot exclaim I discovered the company of this neighborhood very exciting. . . . I could well perhaps maybe be prejudiced on this subject by the actual fact that any demented lady, although a genius, is a anxious neighbour in the country; and that she was for a summer season [in 1939] when she was with out a doubt unpardonable. »

Henry Miller — whose impression on Nin she decried — was defined to George Orwell thus: « The commonplaces of his opinions and the emptiness of his language . . . are, I concentrate on, on account of the actual fact that he’s, past all that which which that you just must well perhaps additionally consider doubt, a humbug. But I attain not gain him personally an atrocious humbug, and I with out a doubt feel . . . that if he stopped being a humbug he could well perhaps, with the aid of the fluency he has purchased whereas writing as a humbug, become quite a functional author. »

It was the 1962 Writers’ Conference in Edinburgh, alternatively, that with out a doubt purchased West going. « I with out a doubt beget by no technique in my life considered such degraded cantrips. . . . There was that long-established fraud Henry Miller . . . an unutterably disgusting creature called William Burroughs, the author of a grimy book called The Bare Lunch . . . and that dull lout Norman Mailer. Added to which was Omit Mary McCarthy . . . who talked about she was intellectual? She has long greasy hair which she cannot organize, and a in the aid of constructed on the traces of a canal barge. » Kathleen Byrne, an editor at The Globe and Mail, assuredly stories for the Books portion.

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