- Rebecca West Today: Contemporary Critical Approaches
This is the first collection of essays on the British novelist, journalist, and public intellectual Rebecca West (1892–1983). It is also a noteworthy contribution to the project of recuperating for the twentieth-century canon a writer whose reputation has slipped into the characteristic obscurity of those mid-century British novelists whose careers either intervened between or spanned the thoroughly institutionalized fields of modernism and postmodernism. Contributors such as Bonnie Kime Scott and Kathryn Laing, as well as Bernard Schweizer, the book’s editor, have already done much to restore West to view by bringing to press her letters and other unpublished writings, and the collection integrates these more recent publications into discussions of familiar works such as the novels The Return of the Soldier (1918) and Harriet Hume (1929), the much-anthologized story “Indissoluble Matrimony,” and West’s late modernist masterpiece, the travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941). Ann Norton’s meticulous contribution on the material deleted from West’s mid-century trilogy, The Fountain Overflows (1957), along with Laing’s discussion of West’s unfinished suffragette novel The Sentinel (2002) are important reminders of the part played by archival scholarship in the ongoing rediscovery of West.
Of course, what becomes clear in reading this necessarily wide-ranging collection is that the heterogeneity and volume of West’s output are going to present problems for those who would see her in the canon: which version of West do we foreground? Best known of her fictional works is The Return of the Soldier, a slim and teachable novella about three women and a shellshocked soldier in an English country house; but her nonfictional meditations on treason, totalitarianism, and war crimes are at least as compelling. And then there is the problem of periodization presented by an author with a seventy-year career, which began prior to the Great War and lasted well into the Thatcher era.
Precisely why a recuperative effort should be necessary for someone who was a household name in her own time–latterly as “Dame Rebecca West,” which indicates some of the esteem in which she was once held–becomes clear in the opening and closing contributions to this book. The preface is a survey of West’s politics by one of her biographers, Carl Rollyson, who describes how she alienated her natural allies on the Anglo-American left by denouncing Communism at the very moment when, thanks to McCarthy, it was enjoying a renewed chic among those with whom West otherwise had most in common. The perception that this one-time radical had turned right was profoundly damaging to her reputation, and it was also, as Phyllis Lassner’s fine essay on West and anti-Semitism makes clear, a real misrepresentation of West’s liberal and humanistic politics. Lassner’s essay and Loretta Stec’s contribution on West’s travels to apartheid-era South Africa both do useful work to indicate the complexity of West’s political views, views that can be problematic but never crude or irrelevant. [End Page 376]
Acutely aware of the ways in which reputations are made and sustained by the undergraduate syllabus, Scott closes the collection with an illuminating essay on teaching West’s writing. Through her two-volume Refiguring Modernism and her anthology The Gender of Modernism, Scott has already done much to indicate West’s significance to modernist literary culture, and here she explores some of the other contexts in which West might make her reappearance: as a travel writer, a political writer, and, of course, as a provocative thinker of gender and sexuality.
As far as West’s classroom presence is concerned, it may be surprising that the collection pays so much attention to West’s Harriet Hume: A London Fantasy, which is unteachable because out of print. On the other hand, this modernist experiment from 1929 is among the most original of West’s novels (her admiration for Henry James, on whom she published her first book, can sometimes be too apparent in her own fiction). Certainly...