restricted access The Calm After the Storm: Researching Rebecca West
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The Calm After the Storm:
Researching Rebecca West

When I began writing my biography of Dame Rebecca West, my husband and I were living in Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula.1 It was strange to sit in my large study overlooking our compound, hiding from the relentless sun or occasional sand storm, while reading photocopies of letters I had received from a small selection of American archives. It seemed to me, at the time, that weather featured a lot in West's letters whether it was the damp and penetrating wind of Ibstone, the village where she had her last marital home, or the snow flurries she watched over Hyde Park in her final years. But then, of course, it may just have been my perspective.

Arabia was a long way from any archival collections, but Qatar University was generous and did grant me quite substantial sums so that I could order what turned out to be three large boxes of manuscript copies from Connecticut, Indiana, and New York. These, I soon found out, only scratched at the surface of a correspondence that I had to chase in the Balkans, the United Kingdom, France, family spare rooms, and finally, most importantly, the huge West archive collection in McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.

West's last secretary, Diana Stainforth, had provided me with a typed list of all the documents she had catalogued at the time of West's death in 1983. Most of these were in Tulsa, and it was thus armed that I arrived at the University's campus on a lovely warm, sunny day in May 2010. It was to prove to be a deceptive meteorological promise; the weather would soon catch up with me again.

Because my time was limited to three weeks, I combined note taking with ordering copies of longer letters, which I would study on my return to London, where I was once again living. I had hoped to focus on a particular aspect of West's life that was becoming more and more central to my book, that of her friendship with Emanie Arling. It was a friendship that lasted almost sixty years, and its correspondence gave glimpses into West's insecurities and personal tragedies more insightfully than any of the letters written to the other myriad personalities who were close to her through the decades. The friendship with Emanie seemed to me to be the key to the private West, the one hidden behind the slightly thorny television [End Page 181] personality we glimpsed in her later years and the caustic literary criticism that was almost more of a legacy than her own writing.

West met Emanie on her first trip to New York City in 1923. Emanie was a successful writer and biographer and had recently completed a novel entitled Talk (1924). On its release the following year it would be both a commercial success and critically acclaimed. Emanie was married to Walter Sachs, whose family owned the banking firm, Goldman Sachs. She was only a year younger than West, and the two women became the closest of friends, remaining so until Emanie's death in 1981. Indeed their friendship was so intense that, shortly after they met, Emanie told West she had fallen in love with her. In a letter in 1924, Emanie wrote to her, wondering if West's romantic adventures were perhaps a sign that she did not want a peaceful life, adding, "if you are so fascinating when you are living through a tragedy, you must be dangerous indeed now that it is over."2

I had tracked West's friendship with Emanie largely through the archive at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University but then had come to a dead end sometime in the 1960s. The later letters were in Tulsa, and just like any reader who is desperate to know how a story ends, I was excited and curious to find out what had passed between the two women in their later years. More than that, West's letters to Emanie often described emotions and events that she did not share with anyone else...