Rebecca West feminism

Ten Reasons To Worship Rebecca West

Rebecca West.Rebecca West

Photograph by Madame Yevonde/Wikimedia Commons.

At one time, the novelist, critic, feminist, and troublemaker Rebecca West, whose birthday incidentally is on Friday, was considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. In 1947, her picture was on the cover of Time and her dazzling, ferocious prose was admired across the world; but now she is largely overlooked, underread, and out of print. Here, then, are 10 reasons to drop everything and read Rebecca West (and rather than her best known book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, I would suggest her stylish, innovative essays).

1) She was an ardent feminist (as she put it, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely 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”) but also a spirited and independent thinker. She was not afraid to attack or mock the suffragist movement when necessary, but she was also one of its most vivid voices. (She once made fun of one of the feminists from the New Freewoman “who was always jumping up and asking us to be kind to illegitimate children, as if we all made a habit of seeking out illegitimate children and insulting them!”)

2) Her fierce feminist inquiries were original and inflammatory; she was not content with slogans and bromides, and went deeper than other politically progressive women of her time, and in fact, our time. She wrote, for instance, a provocative attack on women, herself included, for devoting too much of their energy to love and relationships in the New Republic, denouncing them for “keeping themselves apart from the high purposes of life for an emotion that, schemed and planned for, was no better than the made excitement of drunkenness.” And later in a novel, she elaborated the thought: “Since men don’t love us nearly as much as we love them that leaves them much more spare vitality to be wonderful with.”

3) She used her famously fierce wit to deflate male pompousness. In a lively attack on the formidable Great Male Novelist of the day, H.G. Wells, with whom she would later embark on a long affair, the 19-year-old West wrote, “Of course he is the old maid among novelists; even the sex obsession that lay clotted on and like cold white sauce was merely an old maid’s mania.”

4) Though people like to think of the first “nonfiction novel” as Truman Capote’s, West was doing that kind of innovative nonfiction writing long before. The idea of taking a cultural event, and investigating it with the storytelling eye of the novelist informs both her crime writing and her longer work. (See her brilliant meditation on the public trial of an Englishman who became a radio personality for Nazi propaganda, Lord Haw-Haw, , which first appeared as a series of articles in The New Yorker.)

5) We associate a certain kind of cultural analysis, where the writer takes apart a social event and analyzes it in graceful prose, with the stylish deconstruction of new journalism, with writers like Joan Didion in the ’60s, but Rebecca West’s pieces doing just that were appearing in The New Yorker when the young Joan Didion might have been reading it. Take this passage about the wife of an accused murderer:

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