Conservative Rebel


“Telling the truth is really a very difficult job indeed,” wrote Rebecca West. If, as she did, you live into your ninetieth year, your truth-telling is an enterprise likely to leave a trail of wounded in its wake. Born into the nineteenth century, she focused on the urgent concerns of the twentieth: murder and mass murder, treason and trahison des clercs. Her prodigious output included eleven witty novels, which offer a graceful and nuanced exploration of the emerging consciousness of twentieth-century women, and a short life of Saint Augustine, published in 1933.

She worked for five years on Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, subtitled “A Journey through Yugoslavia,” which was published in 1941; part polemic, part poem, both monumental and idiosyncratic, it displays her unique blend of hard research, personal insight, and descriptive felicity. Her reportage was both empathic and grandly opinionated; her illuminating, stern, deeply felt account of the Nuremberg hearings leaves in the mind pictures of the accused perhaps more vivid than anything in her fiction. The Meaning of Treason, first published in 1947, was an account of postwar trials, notably that of William Joyce, known as Lord Haw-Haw, who had broadcast Nazi propaganda to Britain; eloquent, personal and combative, it was a best seller and the forerunner of the kind of documentary novel that would later make Truman Capote famous. No single form or genre was sufficient to contain her energy, and she lived as hard as she wrote. Rebecca West went everywhere, read everything, knew everyone. As Bonnie Kime Scott says in her editor’s introduction, “To read her letters in an informed way is to receive an education in the culture of the twentieth century.”

It is estimated that she wrote ten thousand letters in her lifetime, and some two hundred of them are reproduced here. She set a great deal of value on them; she designed them for the public realm and expected addressees to preserve them, though she insisted to Anaïs Nin that “I loathe having the details of my private life published to the world.” Publication was Rebecca’s business, and with it goes the artist’s necessary self-exposure; but she found it difficult to accept that stories take on a life apart from their teller. Her life and work are fascinating because there were contradictions in her politics, in her sexuality, in everything she did and everything she was; in old age she spoke of the “distressing multiplicity” of the human personality. She was a rebel whose instincts were profoundly conservative, a proud outcast who loved the status quo. She was a person of strongly expressed tastes and opinions: often wise, seldom benevolent. It is easy to be intimidated by West’s mind, which is quick and digressive; in the digressions, she shows off her learning. Her fiction suggests she has the grace of empathy, and she takes herself to be perceptive in psychological terms and an acute social analyst. But you can also make the case that she is a class-bound snob, frequently…

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