Rebecca West

Rebecca West

Rebecca West (December 21, 1892 – March 15, 1983), British novelist, journalist, and essayist, was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield in County Kerry, Ireland. She 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 and 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. Her first book, Henry James: A Critical Biography, was published in 1916.

After writing a scathing review of H.G. Wells’ Marriage in 1912, calling him “the Old Maid among novelists,” the two met. The following years they become lovers and had a ten year long affair, which produced a son, Adam West. Among her other lovers were said to be Charlie Chaplin and Lord Beaverbrook, a newspaper tycoon.

Rebecca West loved travel and politics, both of which figured significantly in her writing. Traveling to countries such as Mexico, Yugoslavia, and South Africa influenced her works, notably Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), considered a classic of travel literature.

In 1949 she was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and ten years later became a Dame Commander of the Order, hence her oft-used title, Dame Rebecca West. 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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Dame Rebecca West produced a vast body of work, both fiction and nonfiction. This is but a small sampling of her most enduring.

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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.”

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

“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.”

Rebecca West“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)

“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)

“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.” (from “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.”

“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.”

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