Rebecca West

Rebecca West

Cicely Fairfield (Rebecca West), the youngest of three children (all daughters) of Charles Fairfield (1843–1906) and his wife, Isabella Campbell Mackenzie (1853–1921), was born at 28 Burlington Road, Westbourne Park, on 21st December, 1892. Her father, an anti-socialist journalist, left the family when she was a child. Her feeling of desertion by her father persisted for the remainder of her life."

Cicely's mother was a talented pianist, having come from a musical family. Her brother, the violinist and composer Alick Mackenzie, was president of the Royal Academy of Music (1888–1924). After her husband left the family home, Isabella took her three children to her native Edinburgh.

Cicely attended George Watson's Ladies' College (1904–7). Although highly intelligent her headmistress did not encourage her to go to university. At first she wanted a career in the theatre and while studying at the Academy of Dramatic Art (1910–11), she took the name Rebecca West after the heroine of Ibsen's Rosmersholm). However, she had developed strong left-wing opinions and decided to become a journalist instead.

Three veterans of the women's suffrage campaign, Dora Marsden, Grace Jardine and Mary Gawthorpe, began publishing their a feminist journal, The Freewoman on 23rd November, 1911. In its first edition Rebecca West wrote an article in support for free-love: "Marriage had certain commercial advantages. By it the man secures the exclusive right to the woman's body and by it, the woman binds the man to support her during the rest of her life... a more disgraceful bargain was never struck."

This article created a storm. Mary Humphrey Ward, the leader of Anti-Suffrage League argued that the journal represented "the dark and dangerous side of the Women's Movement". According to Ray Strachey, the leader of the National Union of Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), Millicent Fawcett, read the first edition and "thought it so objectionable and mischievous that she tore it up into small pieces". Whereas Maude Royden described it as a "nauseous publication".

Other feminists were much more supportive, Ada Nield Chew, argued that the was "meat and drink to the sincere student who is out to learn the truth, however unpalatable that truth may be." Benjamin Tucker commented that it was "the most important publication in existence". Floyd Dell, who worked for the Chicago Evening Post argued that before the arrival of The Freewoman: "I had to lie about the feminist movement. I lied loyally and hopefully, but I could not have held out much longer. Your paper proves that feminism has a future as well as a past." Guy Aldred pointed out: "I think your paper deserves to succeed. I will use my influence in the anarchist movement to this end." Others showed their support for the venture by writing without payment for the journal. This included Teresa Billington-Greig, Rebecca West, H. G. Wells, Edward Carpenter, Havelock Ellis, Stella Browne, C. H. Norman, Edmund Haynes, Catherine Gasquoine Hartley, Huntley Carter, Lily Gair Wilkinson and Rose Witcup.

On 28th December 1911, Dora Marsden began a five-part series on morality. Dora argued that in the past women had been encouraged to restrain their senses and passion for life while "dutifully keeping alive and reproducing the species". She criticised the suffrage movement for encouraging the image of "female purity" and the "chaste ideal". Dora suggested that this had to be broken if women were to be free to lead an independent life. She made it clear that she was not demanding sexual promiscuity for "to anyone who has ever got any meaning out of sexual passion the aggravated emphasis which is bestowed upon physical sexual intercourse is more absurd than wicked."

Dora Marsden went on to attack traditional marriage: "Monogamy was always based upon the intellectual apathy and insensitiveness of married women, who fulfilled their own ideal at the expense of the spinster and the prostitute." According to Marsden monogamy's four cornerstones were "men's hypocrisy, the spinster's dumb resignation, the prostitute's unsightly degradation and the married woman's monopoly." Marsden then added "indissoluble monogamy is blunderingly stupid, and reacts immorally, producing deceit, sensuality, vice, promiscuity and an unfair monopoly." Friends assumed that Marsden was writing about her relationships with Grace Jardine and Mary Gawthorpe.

On 21st March 1912 Stella Browne wrote about her views on free-love in The Freewoman: "The sexual experience is the right of every human being not hopelessly afflicted in mind or body and should be entirely a matter of free choice and personal preference untainted by bargain or compulsion." According to her biographer, Lesley A. Hall: "Browne emphasized the need for women to speak about their own experiences. In both principle and practice Stella was a convinced believer in free love, known to have had various lovers, certainly some male, and possibly some female, though these cannot be reliably identified."

Rebecca West
Rebecca West

The articles on sexuality created a great deal of controversy. However, they were very popular with the readers of the journal. In February 1912, Ethel Bradshaw, secretary of the Bristol branch of the Fabian Women's Group, suggested that readers formed Freewoman Discussion Circles. Soon afterwards they had their first meeting in London and other branches were set up in other towns and cities.

Some of the talks that took place in the Freewoman Discussion Circles included Edith Ellis (Some Problems of Eugenics), Rona Robinson (Abolition of Domestic Drudgery), C. H. Norman (The New Prostitution), Edmund Haynes (Divorce Reform), Huntley Carter (The Dances of the Stars) and Guy Aldred (Sex Oppression and the Way Out). Other active members included Rebecca West, Grace Jardine, Stella Browne, Harry J. Birnstingl, Charlotte Payne-Townshend Shaw, Havelock Ellis, Lily Gair Wilkinson, Françoise Lafitte-Cyon and Rose Witcup.

Rebecca West became very active in the socialist movement and joined the Fabian Society and met George Bernard Shaw at one of its summer schools. In 1912 she became a staff member of The Clarion. She soon developed a reputation as a perceptive reviewer. When she reviewed the novel, Marriage, she described the author, H. G. Wells, "the old maid among novelists". Wells responded by inviting West to his home. Soon afterwards they became lovers and a son, Anthony Panther West, was born on 4th August 1914.

Her biographer, Bonnie Kime Scott, has argued: "West's affair brought her a domesticity which she disliked, and rustication to various places discreetly accessible to Wells, already notorious for extramarital affairs. She happily settled in her own London flat in 1919." Her first novel, Return of the Soldier (1918), was about a soldier from the First World War suffering from shell-shock. This was followed by the novelsThe Judge (1922), The Strange Necessity (1928) and Harriet Hume (1929). She also wrote a study of the author D. H. Lawrence (1930). She also wrote articles for the Daily News, The Star, New Statesman and New Republic.

Rebecca West married Henry Andrews (1894–1968) on 1st November 1930. West continued to take a keen interest in politics and was a supporter of the Popular Front government in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. She joined with Emma Goldman, Sybil Thorndyke, Fenner Brockway and C. E. M. Joad to establish the Committee to Aid Homeless Spanish Women and Children.

Bonnie Kime Scott has pointed out: "Rebecca West has gradually gained recognition as a perceptive and independent interpreter of literature... West's accounts of literature and culture are typically grounded in philosophical paradigms and cultural diagnoses that invite critical study today. She found pervasive examples of Manichaeism, and joined anthropologists of her era in detecting examples of Western degeneracy."

After the Second World War West became more conservative in her political views and wrote for the Daily Telegraph and the New Yorker. Some of her work was extremely anti-communist and some critics, including Arthur Schlesinger and J. B. Priestley, accused of her being in sympathy with McCarthyism - a charge she denied.

Other books published by Rebecca West included The Meaning of Treason (1949), The Fountain Overflows (1957), The Court and the Castle (1958), The Birds Fall Down (1966), McLuhan and the Future of Literature (1969) and 1900 (1982).

Rebecca West died on 15th March 1983 at 48 Kingston House North, South Kensington. She was buried at Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking.

Primary Sources

(1) Rebecca West, Time and Tide (9th February, 1923)

The real reason why women teachers are paid less highly than men who are performing the same work is the desire felt by the mass of men that women in general should be subjected to every possible disadvantage. Men like women in particular; for their wives, their sweethearts, their mothers, and their sisters they can feel as generous and self-sacrificing love as the world knows. But all save the few who have cut down the primitive jungle in their souls want women in general to be handicapped as heavily as possible in every conceivable way. They want this not out of malignity, but out of a craving to be reassured concerning themselves and the part they are playing in the difficult universe. They fear they are not doing well enough. (That fear, enchantingly humble, should keep us forever from bitterness against them. For they do marvellously well.) It would help them to have faith in themselves if they could see others doing much worse. So, hiding their purpose from themselves by a screen of argument they set about contriving that women shall furnish them with this welcome sight. If we are honest and not tainted with the modern timidity about mentioning that there is such a thing as sex-antagonism we must admit that they do this in various unpleasing ways. They exclude her from as many occupations as possible on the ground that she is incapable of following them, thus providing the double benefit of filling the male practitioners of those occupations with a proud sense that they are doing something which half the world cannot, and of embarrassing the woman worker by restricting the market for her labour. They debase the specific work of women as wives and mothers by urging that they should undertake it because they are too weak and foolish to succeed in any other. And wherever possible they arrange that women shall face life in that unequipped condition which comes of having too little money. A person insufficiently fed and clothed is apt to be most satisfyingly inferior to a person who is sufficiently fed and clothed. It is this savage form of sex-antagonism which makes people desire that women teachers should be paid less highly than men who are performing the same work. Since there are so many women engaged in the profession of teaching, and the payment of men teachers is none too high, this affords a pleasing prospect of female discomfort and inferiority on a large scale.

(2) Rebecca West, reviewed Jailed for Freedom by Doris Stevens in Time and Tide on 24th March, 1922.

They (members of the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage) found that the police while constantly arresting them for minute technical offences, would not interfere when they were assaulted by hooligans, and later on led Government-organised crowds of uniformed soldiers and sailors against them. They went to prison and, in an interesting penal institution called the Occoguan workhouse, were fed on worm-crawling food and exposed in insanitary conditions and when they denounced this state of affairs, not only on their own account but (as has always been the gentlemanly suffragist way), on behalf of the ordinary offenders, the administration called to mind a penitentiary in a swamp, which had been declared unfit for human habitation nine years before, and put them there. All this they endured and thereby, without any doubt at all, acquired the vote. With extraordinary naivety the United States Government failed to cover up its tracks and left it patent that it gave women the franchise not because of any consideration of justice, but because they were a nuisance. There was no such magnificent exhibition of the art of climbing down in the grand manner (with classical quotation from Mr. Asquith) as our Parliamentary debate on the passing of the Act. A crude, new country America; but no doubt it will learn.

The resuscitation of the suffrage agitation in the United States from the catalepsy of unhopeful routine into which it had fallen at the death of Susan B. Anthony, was due to Alice Paul, whom many of us remember as a brown wisp of Americanism who had rather unaccountably strayed into the ranks of Holloway prisoners. It appears that she returned home an inspired leader. She was equipped with that gift of double vision which, though we speak of those prophets we respect as single-eyed, is nevertheless the first necessity of great leadership: a Talleyrand-like awareness of the baseness of our enemies and the infirmities of our supporters combined with a Franciscan faith that innocency is the normal condition of human affairs, and will prevail again when these quite temporary disturbances are quelled. She had magnificent courage of the profound, enduring sort. This she needed badly, for apart from the rough and tumble of street attacks and forcible feeding (which she had already experienced in Holloway) she was exposed to great mental torture. When she led a hunger strike in the Washington District Jail the authorities sent doctors to her, who made it plain to her that they were examining her with a view to sending her to the State Asylum as a victim of persecution mania, on the ground that she had an obsession on the subject of President Wilson. As this had no effect on her resolution, they then put her in a psychopathic ward among criminal lunatics, who were awaiting dispatch to the asylum, and ordered a nurse to go to her once every hour all through the night and flash an electric light into her face, so that she was prevented from sleeping for more than a few minutes at a time. This also had no effect upon her, and she carried on the hunger strike till the Administration was beaten and had to release all suffrage prisoners.

(3) Rebecca West, Time and Tide (16th July, 1926)

Dora Marsden conceived the idea of starting the Freewoman because she was discontented with the limited scope of the suffragist movement. She felt that it was restricting itself too much to the one point of political enfranchisement and was not bothering about the wider issues of Feminism. I think she was wrong in formulating this feeling as an accusation against the Pankhursts and suffragettes in general, because they were simply doing their job, and it was certainly a whole time job. But there was equally certainly a need for someone to stand aside and ponder on the profounder aspects of Feminism. In this view she found a supporter in Mary Gawthorpe, a Yorkshire woman who had recently been invalided out of the suffrage movement on account of injuries sustained at the hands of stewards who had thrown her out of a political meeting where she had been interrupting Mr. Winston Churchill. Mary Gawthorpe, was a merry militant saint who had travelled round the provinces, living in dreary lodgings on $15 or $20 a week, speaking several times a day at outdoor meetings, and suffering fools gladly (which I think she found the hardest job of all), when trying to convert the influential Babbits of our English zenith cities. Occasionally she had a rest in prison, which she always faced with a sparrow-like perkiness. She had wit and common sense and courage, and each to the point of genius. She lives in the United States now, but her inspiration still lingers over here on a whole generation of women.