Rebecca West

Rebecca West

Rebecca West (December 21, 1892 – March 15, 1983) was born in London as Cicely Isabel Fairfield, and grew up in an intellectual home. Her mother was a pianist; her father, a journalist, abandoned his family when West was only eight years old, after which they moved to Scotland. She was a woman of many trades early on: she studied as an actress, started working as a journalist in 1912 at The Freewoman, and was active in the woman’s suffrage movement.  In her work as a journalist, West wrote essays and reviews for publications like New York Herald Tribune, The Daily Telegraph, The New Republic and New York American. After writing a scathing review for H.G. Wells’ Marriage, the two met and had a ten year long affair, which produced a son.

She loved travel and politics, both which made their way into her writing. Traveling to countries such as Mexico, Yugoslavia, and South Africa influenced her works, especially Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and A Train of Powder. Although she worked on her books, she continued to write and take assignments from newspapers and magazines. West’s writing won her the Women’s Press Club Award for Journalism in 1948 in the United States, one of many visits to the country. In 1982, her first novel, Return of the Soldier was made into major film.

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Rebecca West Quotes

Rebecca_West“Any authentic work of art must start an argument between the artist and their audience.”

“Fiction and poetry are the only way one can stop time and give an account of an experience and nail it down so that it lasts for ever.”

“All good biography, as all good fiction, comes down to the study of original sin, of our inherent disposition to choose death when we ought to choose life.”

“Journalism is the ability to meet the challenge of filling space.”

“A copy of the universe is not what is required of art; one of the damned things is ample.”

“There is in every one of us an unending see-saw between the will to live and the will to die.”

“It is always one’s virtues and not one’s vices that precipitate one into disaster.”

“Life ought to be a struggle of desire toward adventures whose nobility will fertilize the soul.”

“My work expresses an infatuation with human beings. I don’t believe that to understand is necessarily to pardon, but I feel that to understand makes one forget that one cannot pardon.”

“Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe neet not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.” (The Thinking Reed, 1936)

“The memory, experiencing and re-experiencing, has such power over one’s mere personal life, that one has merely lived.”

“It’s an absurd error to put modern English literature in the curriculum. You should read contemporary literature for pleasure or not at all. You shouldn’t be taught to monkey with it.” (From an interview with Marina Warner in the summer of 1981, The Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work, Sixth Series)

“There is one common condition for the lot of women in Western civilization and all other civilizations that we know about for certain, and that is, woman as a sex is disliked and persecuted, while as an individual she is liked, loved, and even, with reasonable luck, sometimes worshipped.” (From a speech to the Fabian Society, 1928)

“Just how difficult it is to write biography can be reckoned by anybody who sits down and considers just how many people know the real truth about his or her love affairs.”

“The trouble about man is twofold. He cannot learn truths which are too complicated; he forgets truths which are too simple.”

“Reason’s a thing we dimly see in sleep.” (The Birds Fall Down, 1966)

“It isn’t only living people who die, it is great stretches of living, which can die even when the people who lived there still exist.” (The Birds Fall Down, 1966)

“You must always believe that life is as extraordinary as music says it is.” (The Fountain Overflows, 1956)

“It is sometimes very hard to tell the difference between history and the smell of a skunk.”

“I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.” (“Mr. Chesterton in hysterics,” The Clarion, November 14, 1913)

“I write books to find out about things.”

“The American struggle for the vote was much more difficult than the English for the simple reason that it was much more easy.”

“There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.” (The Harsh Voice, 1935)

“Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.”

“The main difference between men and women is that men are lunatics and women are idiots.”

“Just how difficult it is to write biography can be reckoned by anybody who sits down and considers just how many people know the real truth about his or her love affairs.”

“Everyone realizes that one can believe little of what people say about each other, but it is not so widely realized that even less can one trust what people say about themselves.” (Quoted in The Sunday Telegraph, 1975)

“In these pages your imaginations, your desires, your passions are given life; Thoughts take shape that turn into dreams and our aspirations all start with a dream. Reading is where those dreams really can come true over and over again.”

“Writing has nothing to do with communication between person and person, only with communication between different parts of a person’s mind.”

“Motherhood is the strangest thing, it can be like being one’s own Trojan horse.” (From a letter, August 20, 1959)

“The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.”

“Nobody likes having salt rubbed into their wounds, even if it is the salt of the earth.” (The Harsh Voice, 1935)

“It’s the soul’s duty to be loyal to its own desires. It must abandon itself to its master passion.”

“There was a definite process by which one made people into friends, and it involved talking to them and listening to them for hours at a time.”

“God forbid that any book should be banned. The practice is as indefensible as infanticide.” (“The Tosh Horse,” The New Statesman, 1925)

“If there is a God, I don’t think He would demand that anyone bow down or stand up to Him. I often have a suspicion that God is still trying to work things out and hasn’t finished.” (From an interview with Marina Warner in the summer of 1981, The Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work, Sixth Series)

“I do not myself find it agreeable to be 90, and I cannot imagine why it should seem so to other people. It is not that you have any fears about your own death, it is that your upholstery is already dead around you.” (Quoted in “There is nothing like a dame: Dame Rebecca West at ninety”; Vogue, February 1983)

“Motherhood is neither a duty nor a privilege, but simply the way that humanity can satisfy the desire for physical immortality and triumph over the fear of death.”

“Works of art feel towards human beings exactly as we do towards ghosts. The transparency of spectres, the diffuseness in space which lets them drift through doors and walls, and their smell of death, disgust us not more than we disgust works of art by our meaninglessness, our diffuseness in time which lets us drift through three score years and ten without a quarter as much significance as a picture establishes instantaneously.” (Harriet Hume, 1929)

“There is, of course, no reason for the existence of the male sex except that sometimes one needs help with moving the piano.”

“A good cause has to be careful of the company it keeps.”

“For the sake of my country, and perhaps a little for the sake of my soul, I have given up the deep peace of being in opposition.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, 1941)

“She understood children, and knew that they were adults handicapped by a humiliating disguise and had their adult qualities within them.” (The Fountain Overflows, 1956)

“Men must be capable of imagining and executing and insisting on social change if they are to reform or even maintain civilization, and capable too of furnishing the rebellion which is sometimes necessary if society is not to perish of immobility.”

“Margaret Thatcher’s great strength seems to be the better people know her, the better they like her. But, of course, she has one great disadvantage – she is a daughter of the people and looks trim, as the daughters of the people desire to be. Shirley Williams has such an advantage over her because she’s a member of the upper-middle class and can achieve that kitchen-sink-revolutionary look that one cannot get unless one has been to a really good school.” (From an interview, 1976)


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