"All our Western thought is founded on this repulsive pretence that pain is the proper price of any good thing... [Augustine] developed a theory of the Atonement which was pure nonsense, yet had the power to convince... This monstrous theory supposes that God was angry with man for his sins and that He wanted to punish him for these, not in any way that might lead to his reformation, but simply by inflicting pain on him; and that He allowed Christ to suffer this pain instead of man and thereafter was willing on certain terms to treat man as if he had not committed these sins. This theory flouts reason at all points, for it is not possible that a just God should forgive people who are wicked because another person who was good endured agony by being nailed to a cross."
Rebecca West was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield in 1892 in Kerry and grew up in a home full of intellectual stimulation, political debate, lively company, books and music. Her mother, Isabella, a Scotswoman, was an accomplished Pianist but did not pursue a musical career after her marriage to Charles Fairfield. The Anglo-Irish Charles had been a Confederate stretcher-bearer at the siege of Richmond in the U.S. Civil War, and had returned to the UK to become a Journalist of considerable reputation but financial incompetence. He deserted his family when Cicely was eight years old. He never rejoined them, and died impoverished and alone in a boarding house in Liverpool in 1906, when Cicely was 14. The rest of the family moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, where Cicely was educated at George Watson's Ladies College. She had to leave school in 1907 due to a bout of tuberculosis. She chose not to return after recovering from the illness, later describing her schooling at Watson's as akin to a "prison".
Manichaean also was her lifelong struggle with the very question of how to deal with dualisms. At times she appears to favor the merging of opposites, for which Byzantium served as a model: "church and state, love and violence, life and death, were to be fused again as in Byzantium." More dominant, however, was her tendency to view the tensions generated in the space between dualistic terms as life-sustaining and creative; hence, her aversion to homosexuality and her warning not to confuse the drive for feminist emancipation with the woman's Desire to become like a man. Her insistence on the fundamental difference between men and women reveals her essentialism, but it also bespeaks her innate Manichaean sensibility. She wanted respect and equal rights for women, but at the same time she required that women retain their specifically feminine qualities, notably an affinity with the life force: "Men have a disposition to violence; women have not. If one says that men are on the side of death, women on the side of life, one seems to be making an accusation against men. One is not doing that." One reason why she does not want to make an accusation against men is that they are simply playing their assigned role in a flawed universe, which is, of course, the result of an imperfect deity. Only love can alleviate destructive aspects of the sex-antagonism: "I loathe the way the two cancers of sadism and masochism eat into the sexual life of humanity, so that the one lifts the lash and the other offers blood to the blow, and both are drunken with the beastly pleasure of misery and do not proceed with love's Business of building a shelter from the cruelty of the universe." In addition to the operations of love, female emancipation is crucial to removing the moral, professional, and social stigma associated with the notion of the "weaker sex," without trying to do away altogether with the temperamental and metaphysical aspects of the gender dualism itself. Thus, the "sex war" described in West's early short story "Indissoluble Matrimony" (1914) elevates the female character, Evadne, in the end because she accepts the terms of the contest without superficially trying to "win" that war.
West established her reputation as a spokesperson for feminist and socialist causes and as a critic, turning out essays and reviews for The New Republic, New York Herald Tribune, New York American, New Statesman, The Daily Telegraph, and many more newspapers and magazines. George Bernard Shaw said in 1916 that "Rebecca West could handle a pen as brilliantly as ever I could and much more savagely." During the 1920s, West began a lifelong habit of visits to the U.S. to give lectures, meet artists, and get involved in the political scene. There, she befriended CIA founder Allen Dulles, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Ross of The New Yorker, and Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., among many other significant figures of the day. Her lifelong fascination with the United States culminated in 1948 when President Truman presented her with the Women's Press Club Award for Journalism, calling her "the world's best reporter."
The first major test of West's political outlook was the Bolshevik Revolution. Many on the left saw it as the beginning of a new, better world, and the end of the crimes of capitalism. West regarded herself as a member of the left, having attending Fabian socialist summer schools as a girl. But to West, both the Revolution and the Revolutionaries were suspect. Even before the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917, West expressed her doubts that events in Russia could serve as a model for socialists in Britain or anywhere else.
For all her censures of Communism, however, West was hardly an uncritical supporter of the Western democracies. Thus in 1919–1920, she excoriated the U.S. government for deporting Goldman and for the infamous Palmer Raids. She was also appalled at the failure of Western democracies to come to the aid of Republican Spain, and she gave money to the Republican cause.
West paid a heavy price for her cool reaction to the Russian Revolution; her positions increasingly isolated her. When Emma Goldman visited Britain in 1924 after seeing Bolshevik violence firsthand, West was exasperated that British intellectuals ignored Goldman's testimony and her warning against Bolshevik tyranny.
West's parents had her baptised into the Church of England two months after birth and she considered herself a Christian, though an unconventional believer. At times, she found God to be wicked; at other times she considered Him merely ineffectual and defeated. However, she revered Christ as the quintessentially good man, she had great respect for the literary, pictorial, and architectural manifestations of the Christian ethos, and she considered faith a valid tool to grapple with the conundrums of life and the mysteries of the cosmos. Although her writings are full of references to the Bible and ecclesiastical history, she was essentially anti-doctrinaire and occasionally blasphemous. In 1926 she expressed the unorthodox belief that "Christianity must be regarded not as a final revelation but as a phase of revelation." Moreover, she rejected specific articles of belief such as the virgin birth, Original sin, the Atonement, and Providence. Her contribution to Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Letters Series, Letter to a Grandfather (1933), is a declaration of "my faith, which seems to some unfaith" disguised as philosophical fiction. Written in the midst of the Great Depression, Letter to a Grandfather traces the progressive degeneration of the notion of Providence through the ages, concluding skeptically that "the redemptive power of Divine grace no longer seemed credible, nor very respectable in the arbitrary performance that was claimed for it." As for the Atonement, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is in part meant as a refutation of that very doctrine, which she saw as having sparked a fatal obsession with sacrifice throughout the Christian era and, specifically, as having prompted Neville Chamberlain to formulate his policy of appeasement, which she vehemently opposed. She wrote:
In 1930, at the age of 37, she married a banker, Henry Maxwell Andrews, and they remained nominally together, despite one public affair just before his death in 1968. West's writing brought her considerable wealth, and by 1940 she owned a Rolls-Royce and a grand country estate, Ibstone House, in the Chiltern Hills of southern England. During World War II, West housed Yugoslav refugees in the spare rooms of her blacked-out manor, and she used the grounds as a small dairy farm and vegetable plot, agricultural pursuits that continued long after the war had ended.
As West grew older, she turned to broader political and social issues, including humankind's propensity to inflict violent injustice on itself. Before and during World War II, West traveled widely, collecting material for books on travel and politics. In 1936–38, she made three trips to Yugoslavia, a country she came to love, seeing it as the nexus of European history since the late Middle Ages. Her non-fiction masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is an amalgamation of her impressions from these trips. New York Times reviewer Katherine Woods wrote: "In two almost incredibly full-packed volumes one of the most gifted and searching of modern English novelists and critics has produced not only the magnification and intensification of the travel book form, but, one may say, its apotheosis." West was assigned by Ross' magazine to cover the Nuremberg Trials for The New Yorker, an experience she memorialized in the book A Train of Powder. In 1950 she was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She also went to South Africa in 1960 to report on Apartheid in a series of articles for the Sunday Times.
A staunch anti-Fascist, West attacked both the Conservative governments of her own country for appeasing Adolf Hitler and her colleagues on the left for their pacifism. Neither side, in her view, understood the evil Nazism posed. Unlike many on the left, she also distrusted Joseph Stalin. To West, Stalin had a Criminal mentality that Communism facilitated. She was outraged when the Allies switched their loyalties in regards to Yugoslav resistance movements by deciding in 1943 to start backing the Communist-led Partisans led by Tito in Yugoslavia, thus abandoning their support of Draža Mihailović's Chetniks, whom she considered the legitimate Yugoslav resistance. She expressed her feelings and opinions on the Allies' switch in Yugoslavia by writing the satirical short story titled "Madame Sara's Magic Crystal", but decided not to publish it upon discussion with Orme Sargent, Assistant Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office. Writing in her diary, West mentioned Sargent persuaded her that "the recognition of Tito was made by reason of British military necessities, and for no other reason" and following Sargent's claim, she described her decision not to publish the story as an expression of "personal willingness to sacrifice myself to the needs of my country". After the war, West's anti-Communism hardened as she saw Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other Eastern and Central European states succumb to Soviet domination.
Although West's anti-Communism earned the high regard of conservatives, she never considered herself one of them. In postwar Britain, West voted Labour and welcomed the Labour landslide of 1945. But she spoke out against domination of the Labour Party by British trade unions, and thought left-wing politicians such as Michael Foot unimpressive. She had mixed feelings about the Callaghan government. West admired Margaret Thatcher, not for Thatcher's policies, but for Thatcher's achievement in rising to the top of a male-dominated sphere. She admired Thatcher's willingness to stand up to trade union bullying.
World War II shocked her into a more conventional belief: "I believe if people are looking for the truth, the truth of the Christian religion will come out and meet them." And in the early 1950s, she thought she had a mystical revelation in France and actively tried to convert to Catholicism. There was a precedent in her family for this action, as her sister, Letitia, had earlier converted to Catholicism, thereby causing quite a stir. But West's attempt was short-lived, and she confessed to a friend: "I could not go on with being a Catholic... I don't want, I can't bear to, become a Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, and I cannot believe that I am required to pay such a price for salvation." Her writings of the 1960s and early 1970s again betray a profound mistrust towards God: "The case against religion is the responsibility of God for the sufferings of mankind, which makes it impossible to believe the good things said about Him in the Bible, and consequently to believe anything it says about Him."
At the same time, West worked on sequels to her autobiographically inspired novel The Fountain Overflows (1957); although she had written the equivalent of two more novels for the planned trilogy, she was never satisfied with the sequels and did not publish them. She also tinkered at great length with an autobiography, without coming to closure, and she started scores of stories without finishing them. Much of her work from the late phase of her life was published posthumously, including Family Memories (1987), This Real Night (1984), Cousin Rosamund (1985), The Only Poet (1992), and Survivors in Mexico (2003). Unfinished works from her early period, notably Sunflower (1986) and The Sentinel (2001) were also published after her death, so that her oeuvre was augmented by about one third by posthumous publications.
She traveled extensively well into old age. In 1966 and 1969, she undertook two long journeys to Mexico, becoming fascinated by the indigenous culture of the country and its mestizo population. She stayed with actor Romney Brent in Mexico City and with Katherine (Kit) Wright, a long-time friend, in Cuernavaca. She collected a large number of travel impressions and wrote tens of thousands of words for a "follow-up" volume to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, tentatively titled "Survivors in Mexico." The work, however, was never finished, and only saw publication posthumously in 2003. Even into her late 70s, she visited Lebanon, Venice, Monte Carlo, and always went back to the United States.
Her husband became both sleepy and inattentive as he got older. The sleepiness led to a car accident where no one was hurt but Henry was charged with dangerous driving. He became obsessed by the Norwegian ballerina Gerd Larsen and he would refuse to travel with West but wanted to return to London to be with Larsen. West initially considered this to be purely her husband's infatuation, but she came to think that Larsen was driven by money. At her husband's funeral she had the upsetting Problem of Larsen's request to be amongst the mourners, even though she had only known him for 18 months. Henry's will left £5,000 for Larsen. After her husband's death in 1968, West discovered that he had been unfaithful with other women.
After she was widowed, she moved to London, where she bought a spacious apartment overlooking Hyde Park. Unfortunately, it was next door to the Iranian embassy. During the May 1980 incident, West, then 87, had to be evacuated. In the last two decades of her life, West kept up a very active social life, making friends with Martha Gellhorn, Doris Lessing, Bernard Levin, Comedian Frankie Howerd, and film star and Director Warren Beatty, who filmed her for the movie Reds, a biography of Journalist John Reed and his connection with the Russian Revolution. She also spent time with scholars such as Jane Marcus and Bonnie Kime Scott, who began to chronicle her feminist career and varied work. She wrote at an unabated pace, penning masterful reviews for the Sunday Telegraph, publishing her last novel The Birds Fall Down (1966), and overseeing the film version of the story by BBC in 1978. The last work published in her lifetime was 1900 (1982). 1900 explored the last year of Queen Victoria's long reign, which was a watershed in many cultural and political respects.
Bill Moyers's interview "A Visit With Dame Rebecca West," recorded in her London home when she was 89, was aired by PBS in July 1981. In a review of the interview, John O'Connor wrote that "Dame Rebecca emerges as a formidable presence. When she finds something or somebody disagreeable, the adjective suddenly becomes withering."
West's first novel, The Return of the Soldier, was turned into a major motion picture in 1982, directed by Alan Bridges, starring Alan Bates, Glenda Jackson, and Julie Christie. More recently, an adaptation of The Return of the Soldier for the stage by Kelly Younger titled Once a Marine took West's theme of shell-shock-induced amnesia and applied it to a soldier returning from the war in Iraq with PTSD.
West suffered from failing eyesight and high blood pressure in the late 1970s, and she became increasingly frail. Her last months were mostly spent in bed, sometimes delirious, sometimes lucid, and she complained that she was dying too slowly. She died on 15 March 1983 and is buried at Brookwood Cemetery, Woking.
West's relationship with her son, Anthony West, was not a happy one. The rancor between them came to a head when Anthony, himself a gifted Writer, his father's biographer (H. G. Wells: Aspects of a Life ), and a Novelist, published Heritage (1955), a fictionalized autobiography. West never forgave her son for depicting in Heritage the relationship between an illegitimate son and his two world-famous, unmarried parents, and for portraying the mother in unflattering terms. Essentially, she felt Anthony was airing in public his accusations against her as a bad mother, which stemmed partly from the fact that she had made a fiction of his provenance. She had asked him to call her Auntie, and his father Wellsie, until he was about four or five. He also felt she had made a habit of leaving him in institutions in his early years while she developed her career in the United States. West countered by claiming that she spent as much time with him as any child could reasonably hope to spend with a mother who was a professional. She was exasperated at his focus on her parenting, when he did not accuse his father of abandonment, even though Wells had been even more absent during Anthony's youth. Anthony, in fact, idolized Wells. The depiction of West's alter ego in Heritage as a deceitful, unloving Actress (West had trained as an Actress in her youth) and poor caregiver so wounded West that she broke off relations with her son and threatened to sue any publisher who would bring out Heritage in England. She successfully suppressed an English edition of the novel, which was only published there after her death, in 1984. Although there were temporary rapprochements between her and Anthony, a state of alienation persisted between them, causing West grief until her dying hour. She fretted about her son's absence from her deathbed, but when asked whether he should be sent for, answered: "perhaps not, if he hates me so much".
A 1990s female Canadian rock group headed by Alison Outhit called itself "Rebecca West."
Robert D. Kaplan's influential book Balkan Ghosts (1994) is an homage to West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), which he calls "this century's greatest travel book"
There have been two plays about Rebecca West produced since 2004. That Woman: Rebecca West Remembers, by Carl Rollyson, Helen Macleod, and Anne Bobby, is a one-woman monologue in which an Actress playing Rebecca West recounts her life through some of her most famous articles, letters, and books. Tosca's Kiss, a 2006 play by Kenneth Jupp, retells West's experience covering the Nuremberg trials for The New Yorker.
In February 2006, BBC broadcast a radio version of West's novel The Fountain Overflows, dramatized by Robin Brook, in six 55-minute installments.
West grew up in a home filled with discussions of world affairs. Her father was a Journalist who often involved himself in controversial issues. He brought home Russian Revolutionaries and other political Activists, and their debates helped to form West's sensibility, which took shape in novels such as The Birds Fall Down, set in pre-revolution Russia. But the crucial event that molded West's politics was the Dreyfus affair. The impressionable Rebecca learned early on just how powerful was the will to persecute minorities and to subject individuals to unreasonable suspicion based on flimsy evidence and mass frenzy. West had a keen understanding of the psychology of politics, how movements and causes could sustain themselves on the profound need to believe or disbelieve in a core of values—even when that core contradicted reality.