Rebecca West: A Celebration help, with a critical introduction by
selected from her writings by her publishers with her Samuel Hynes
Viking, 780 pp., $20.00
In a possibly invented interview with a thesis-writing student, which she put into her most impressive and eccentric book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West wrote:
I explained that I was a writer wholly unsuitable for her purpose…that I had never used my writing to make a continuous disclosure of my own personality to others, but to discover for my own edification what I knew about various subjects which I found to be important to me…
and concluded that her work “could not fuse to make a picture of a writer, since the interstices were too wide.”
These words were neither modest nor grandly evasive. It is disconcerting, as Mr. Samuel Hynes says in his introduction to this bulky anthology drawn from her writing over six decades, that her work has not “fused” in the mind of her critics, chiefly because her “thinking imagination” has turned to so many different forms of writing. He calls his collection of long extracts a “celebration” and one that her often trenchant gifts certainly deserve. But to have put slices of her novels, her criticism, a witty review or two, her dashing and impressive biographical study of Saint Augustine, episodes from her finest book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and from her well-known reports of the treason trials, and of two notorious murders, abruptly together in one volume is hard luck on their author and confounding to the critic. There is nothing more trying than abridged writing and it is particularly hard on her most ambitious novel about the Russian terrorists: The Birds Fall Down (1966). A short and lesser thing like “The Salt of the Earth” is far more effective in such a collection. Still one admires a thinking imagination and a moralist traveling in history; it is indeed her virtue that she has written for her own edification. For a Women of Letters, as for the male of that restless species, it is important to be on the move and to write for oneself first and foremost.
I have called her a traveler; really she is an invader. Her choice of the name of Ibsen’s heroine as a pseudonym was an invader’s act. A persona is invoked and explores new territory, and shows that the territory was not reserved for men, but was open to a mind that was androgynous. This mind was defined by Virginia Woolf as “resonant and porous;…it transmits emotion without impediment; it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.” Whether this kind of mind was rare in 1931 (when Rebecca West said she could think of only a few women who had not accepted masculine values) seems to me doubtful. The only ones she could recollect offhand were Mme de la Fayette, Mme de Sévigné, Jane Austen, Colette, and Willa Cather. I would have thought that Mme de Stael, George Sand, and George Eliot could hardly be said to have affected a masculine mind.
As it developed, Rebecca West’s feminism became less aggressive …