Miss Rebecca West

Rebecca-West
Rebecca West in 1934[3] 
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Cicely/Cicily Isabel Andrews, née Fairfield, pseud. Rebecca West, 40, (1892-1983) was a writer, critic, and journalist. A Board member of Time and Tide since 1922, she was one of the few attendees accompanied by her husband at the dinner (Henry Andrews). She was one of the eight speakers. “The young Rebecca West stood for revolution, free love, equal pay, the working class, votes for women and the most advanced ideas in literature”.[1]   And as for the division of labour: “Haircutting is the sort of work a man should do. Women should be saved for more important jobs”.[2]

SEATED BESIDE

As the dinner wasn’t particularly formal she may well have not been seated with Henry. She would probably have been a feisty conversationalist for everyone. For a writer she had a choice of one from five: E.M. Delafield, St John Ervine, Stephen Gwynn, Cicely Hamilton or Winifred Holtby.  Then there was her publisher Harold Macmillan as a possibility.  Of the others I’d be tempted to seat her with illustrator Arthur Watts. Or maybe Lilian Baylis. Of the others on the table not already spoken for she might have been rather dominant, I feel, except perhaps for Lord Camrose.

puzzle-piece2-50with whom would you seat Rebecca West?

WHAT’S ON HER MIND?

Strongly anti-fascist, anti-appeasement and anti-pacifism, she may have been holding increasingly strong views as to what needed to be done to stop Hitler. She also had a speech to make – the reports tell us she was frivolous and spoke as a colleague of Time and Tide. I am assuming she was full of praise, and where she had a little dig ensured it was all in the friendliest of spirits.

REBECCA’S STORY SO FAR

Rebecca was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield on 21st December 1892 at 28 Burlington Road, Westbourne Park, London, the youngest of the three daughters of Edinburgh-born Isabella Campbell Mackenzie (1854–1921) and Tralee-born Charles Fairfield (1841–1906). Born Cicely, she changed the spelling to Cicily to agree with an earlier Fairfield spelling.

Her mother Isabella (mother Jessie Campbell, father Alexander Mackenzie) was a talented pianist, from a musical family – and from 1901 was left to look after her three daughters after their father Charles had left the family home. They moved to Edinburgh in 1902. Her ODNB biographer noted that Rebecca’s “sense of desertion by her father persisted for the rest of her life”.[4]

Her father Charles, born in Tralee, Co. Kerry, Ireland, c1841, was an officer in the Prince Consort’s Own Rifle Brigade, and an anti-socialist journalist turned financial commentator and speculator.  His peripatetic career first took him to the USA where he is said to have carried stretchers in the Civil War, managed a sawmill, become a father, and a sheriff and managed a mine. Moving to Australia he practised journalism and met and married Isabella in Melbourne, Victoria – where their first two daughters were born. He then moved back to Britain, where Rebecca was born, his occupation then “dramatist”. Finally he went to Sierra Leone, before dying alone in Liverpool in 1906. I don’t know what they knew of their ancestry, but her father’s family once lived in the castle of Tralee and if recent genealogy work is sound (I haven’t checked so cannot be certain) were descendants of the Nevilles, the Plantagenets (King John and before) and Robert Duke of Normandy. How are the mighty fallen.

Cicily and both her sisters were awarded bursaries towards their education, albeit at different schools. Her eldest sister Letitia (1885–1978) became a senior medical officer for the LCC. The ODNB notes “Rebecca felt criticized by “Lettie” throughout her life; they quarrelled, yet stayed in contact, responding to each other’s emergencies.” At least she accompanied Rebecca to the church for her marriage to Henry Andrews – presumably that was not an emergency?

Dr Fairfield.png
Dr Fairfield (left) arrives with her sister Rebecca West The Sketch 12th November 1930 ©Illustrated London News Group/Mary Evans[5]
ODNB also reports that she “felt an easier fondness for the introspective middle sister, Winifred … she extended this affection to Winnie’s children, and particularly to her son, Norman Macleod, who became one of her principal beneficiaries.”

After a year at Richmond High School, Surrey and a term at Helsington Towers, Bournemouth, she spent three years at George Watson’s Ladies’ College, Edinburgh (1904–7). Later she said that the headmistress should have encouraged her to go to university. Instead she attended the Academy of Dramatic Art, London (1910–11), leaving a term early, feeling discouraged by her teachers.

However her spell in the dramatic world did provide her “stage name”, so to speak, for the rest of her life, adopting the name Rebecca West, the heroine of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. Under this name she started as a London journalist, keeping it for her public and much of her private life – though after marriage she occasionally used Cicily Andrews, or Mrs Henry Andrews.

Rebecca started on the feminist and socialist left, poles apart from her errant father. Her first publication, at the age of 15, was a letter to The Scotsman (1907), objecting to anti-feminist, imperialist sentiments and addressing class issues. She and her sisters went on suffragette demonstrations, where at 14 she was “ragged and worried for wearing a Votes for Women Badge”.[6]

Rebecca joined the staff of The Freewoman in 1911, discovered the Fabian Society, met George Bernard Shaw and wrote for the socialist publication The Clarion, gaining attention for factually grounded social analysis and independent, sharp critical reviews. As the editor’s daughter put it “She is the sturdiest and most gallant wielders of the battle-axe it has ever been my luck to see”.[7]

Rebecca wrote in the Daily News in 1912: “Ladies of Great Britain, we are clever, we are efficient, we are trustworthy, we are twice the women that our grandmothers were, but we have not enough devil in us”. … We want to earn good wages. But we try to do it by being amenable and competent wage-slaves, and thus pleasing the capitalist”.[8]

Her judgment that H.G. Wells was “an old maid amongst journalists” led to an invitation for tea and rest is history: a decade long affair and the birth of their son Anthony Panther West shortly before Britain declared war on Germany.[9] Wells came up with the name Panther – Rebecca called Wells, Jaguar.

At the time of the dinner her most notable writings and controversies were still ahead of her. She was producing literary reviews, had written four of her dozen or so fiction works, (including The Return of the Soldier, (1918) and The Judge (1922), and Harriet Hume (1919) and another four of her almost 20 non-fiction publications – including her short book on Henry James (1916). She had started her frequent visits to the US and at this time was in dispute with Wells over the inheritance for their son.

Rebecca joined the Board of Time and Tide in 1921, already a contributor, but the disagreement over her appointment contributed to Elizabeth Robins’s departure a year later, despite the entreaties of Lady Rhondda – Elizabeth disliked Rebecca largely because of her relationship with H.G. Wells. In 1932 Rebecca was the first guest contributor to St John Ervine’s “Notes on the Way” Time and Tide weekly feature.[10] She wrote years later, in 1941, of the high standards expected from contributors to the paper: “The best one could write for Time and Tide has never been good enough for the editor and owner, who has made it what it is, after the image of her own integrity”.[11] After Lady Rhondda had died Rebecca “remarked how nice she had been in the 1920s but in recent years she had become ‘megalomaniac and fantastic’ making demands that outraged her if they were not satisfied.”[12]

In addition to her books Rebecca was particularly well known as a literary critic and doubtless could sharpen her pen when she felt the need. Indeed she was called by some a “Bernard Shaw in petticoats and he himself proclaimed a few years later that “Rebecca can handle a pen as brilliantly as ever I could, and much more savagely”.[13]

She was by now into her third year of marriage to Henry Maxwell Andrews, which might sound like a smart move for a writer, but in reality she was the main breadwinner, Henry’s fortunes having taken a turn for the worse in the crash (though he was still a practising banker).

WHAT REBECCA DID NEXT

letter grandfather.pngIn 1933 she published St. Augustine, the “first psycho-biography of the Christian Church Father”, and “A Letter to a Grandfather”, which she termed “a declaration of my faith or my unfaith”, the 7th of the Hogarth Letters published by Leonard Wolff’s imprint.

Black-Lamb.png A year later she co-authored The Modern Rake’s Progress with cartoonist David Low. Perhaps one of most important tomes was the travel classic of more than 1000 pages Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, in two volumes, based on her trip to Yugoslavia in 1937, an account of Balkan history and ethnography, and the significance of Nazism, published in 1941. After the War she reported on the Nuremberg Trials, for the New Yorker, later covered in the book A Train of Powder in 1955. All in all an immense output of work across many fields, and dubbed “indisputably the world’s number one woman writer” by Time in 1947.

That year she and Henry purchased Ibstone House, a large estate in the Chilterns, but the country life was not for her.[14] The marriage didn’t work particularly well, though they stayed together, and she had a difficult relationship with her son Anthony.

Rebecca-and-Henry.png
Rebecca and Henry on the Normandie. The Tatler 17.2.1937, Image © Illustrated London News Group/Mary Evans[15]
Her honours included the Order of St Sava in 1937 – a Serbian award; CBE in 1949, chevalier of the Légion d’honneur, and DBE in 1959.[16]

Increasingly infirm in her latter years, Dame Rebecca died on the Ides of March 1983, at her flat in Kensington, aged 90 – a day, a week and full half century after the dinner at the Rembrandt Rooms.

BACK TO TOP TABLE



[1]
Jane Marcus, 1980 The Young Rebecca, Writings of Rebecca West 1911-17, 1980, p352, Macmillan in association with Virago Press.

[2] Jane Marcus, 1980 The Young Rebecca, Writings of Rebecca West 1911-17, 1980, p11, Macmillan in association with Virago Press.

[3] Photo by Howard Coster, Half-plate film negative, 1934, NPGx23917, ©National Portrait Gallery

[4] Bonnie Kime Scott, Andrews née Fairfield, Dame Cicily Isabel pseud.Rebecca West) (1892–1983), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23.9.2004, updated 19.5.2011

[5] The Literary Lounger The Sketch 12.11.1930 p42 ©Illustrated London News Group/Mary Evans accessed 21.4.2019 from the British Newspaper Archive

[6] Jane Marcus, 1980 The Young Rebecca, Writings of Rebecca West 1911-17, 1980, p4, Macmillan in association with Virago Press.

[7] Jane Marcus, 1980 The Young Rebecca, Writings of Rebecca West 1911-17, 1980, p89, Macmillan in association with Virago Press. Citing Winfred Blatchford, daughter of Robert Blatchford.

[8] Jane Marcus, 1980 The Young Rebecca, Writings of Rebecca West 1911-17, 1980, p295, Macmillan in association with Virago Press.

[9] Bonnie Kime Scott, Andrews née Fairfield, Dame Cicily Isabel pseud.Rebecca West) (1892–1983), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23.9.2004, updated 19.5.2011

[10] Angela V. John, Turning the Tide, Parthian, 2013, pp301,307,

[11] Angela V. John, Turning the Tide, Parthian, 2013, pp301,307,317

[12] Angela V. John, Turning the Tide, Parthian, 2013, p523, citing Carl Rollyson, Rebecca. A Saga of the Century, Hodder and Stoughton, 1955 p279

[13] Jane Marcus, 1980 in her preface to The Young Rebecca, Writings of Rebecca West 1911-17, 1980, Macmillan in association with Virago Press.

[14] Ibstone House, their Buckinghamshire home, on the market January 2018

[15] The Tatler – Wednesday 17.2.1937, Image © Illustrated London News Group/Mary Evans. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board.

[16] Rebecca West Wikipedia

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