The offspring of literary parents rarely fare well, or so it seems in biography. Lorna Gibb's fair and balanced account of the life of Rebecca West (1892-1983) finds itself almost as preoccupied with West's relationship with her son as with the writer herself. Is this a bad thing? Not when such a relationship reveals so much about both the woman and the writer: then, it becomes essential.
“Rebecca West” was a pseudonym for Cicely Isabel Fairfield, “a 'Mary Pickford' of a name for someone blonde and pretty” that “wouldn't have suited a professional writer through her life at all”. The pseudonym was taken from Ibsen's play Rosmersholm, about a woman who becomes the mistress of a married man. I'm not sure how much West reflected on that choice later when she became the mistress of the married HG Wells, but there's a suggestion that for all the psychological acuity she showed in her novels, she displayed less of it in real life, especially in her relations with men.
Her early encounter with Wells, who had asked to meet the young female journalist who had crucified his latest novel Marriage, resulted in pregnancy for the then 20-year-old West. Tellingly, she gave her son names that showed no indication of his paternal lineage – Anthony “Panther” West. As Gibb points out, it was West who gave herself and Wells the nicknames “Panther” and “Jaguar” respectively, as she loved cats. Her son had two fictional names then, both reflections of his mother.
West's relationship with Wells, which overtook her flourishing career as a journalist but did spark her in a new direction as a novelist, lasted for 10 years. It's a hard relationship to track, as Wells destroyed most of the letters West sent him during that time. When West met her husband, Henry Andrews, though, she had recovered her passion for journalism. It wasn't long into the marriage before she embarked on her trips to Yugoslavia, which would result in what Gibb considers West's greatest work, Black Lamb, Grey Falcon (1941).
Gibb presents a West who is a believably busy, preoccupied, focused figure. She commendably does not spare her heroine when it comes to relations with Anthony, or with the other men in her life. Despite a great deal of the misery being involved with a married man caused her, West never seemed to learn from her mistake and continued to get involved with men who were mostly spoken-for. The sexual side of her marriage failed after only a couple of years, but she never seems to have wondered whether Henry might be getting satisfaction elsewhere, and seems genuinely devastated when she finds, after his death, details of a long love affair.
But it's Anthony who dominates – the “monster” son who writes a condemnatory novel of his early life with his parents, Heritage, and another autobiographical tale, David Rees, Among Others. The son is kept in denial of his own parentage, bullied at school, treats his first wife badly, and causes his mother constant anguish. Gibb doesn't deny Anthony's weak points but there is a latent sympathy for this son of two brilliant writers who would never match up to what they had achieved. West's relationship with him reveals her as a controlling, dominant and often short-sighted woman, but it also highlights her spectacular writing success, partly because it is set against writing failure. Her literary achievements were extraordinary; her personal life, perhaps inevitably, would always be found wanting. Anthony, one suspects, came off the worst for it.
Lesley McDowell's 'Between The Sheets' is published by Duckworth