On this day in 1983 Dame Rebecca West died at the age of ninety. Cicily Fairfield took her pseudonym from the passionate, outspoken heroine of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm; from her early days writing about suffragettes to her last days writing about Watergate — a seventy-year career of novels, essays, journalism, literary criticism, and nonfiction books on a range of topics — she lived up to her choice. This extended even to scoffing at the pseudonym: it was chosen in a hurry, she said, chiefly to pacify her mother, who knew what the family name was in for once her daughter got rolling. Ibsen first taught her that ideas made the world go round but, said West later, “I began to realize that Ibsen cried out for ideas for the same reason that men call out for water, because he had not got any.”
West’s autobiographical novel, The Fountain Overflows, a 1957 bestseller, portrays the shabby-genteel world and the eccentric intellectuals among whom she grew up in turn-of-the-century London. She joined the Fabian Women’s Group as a teenager, meeting Shaw and admiring his “greyhound” appearance: “The effect he created was more stupendous since in those days every well-to-do man wore stuffy clothes, ate too much, took too little exercise, and consequently looked like a bolster.” Later she would skewer Shaw as a “eunuch perpetually inflamed by flirtation,” and as a writer who used “a beautiful style … to preach tedious and reactionary ideas.” Getting an embrace from Ford Madox Ford was like “being the toast under a poached egg.” Reviewing a book, even as a teenager, was bare-knuckle: “Writers on the subject of August Strindberg have hitherto omitted to mention that he could not write.”
This sort of style attracted H. G. Wells, even though a quarter-century older and one of West’s targets. Their relationship was provoked by her review of his Marriage, in which she described him as “the Old Maid of novelists,” his mind “too long absorbed in airships and colloids” to react properly to a woman. After ten years, and having concluded that Wells would never divorce his wife, West settled for a substantial support payment for their son and the last word: “The greatest use of marriage is for riveting the fact of paternity in the male mind.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.