SELECTED LETTERS OF REBECCA WEST Selected and edited by Bonnie Kime Scott Yale University Press, 497 pages, $54.50
'Y ou may love your husband very much," Rebecca West wrote Ingrid Bergman, whom she had met with Bergman's husband, Roberto Rossellini, in 1952, "but you should face the fact that he has no talent. You have great talent and a great personality, and it is absurd that for the sake of your private emotions you should allow these gifts to be wasted. . . .
"You will not believe this when you read it, and you will think me an odious woman. But when your husband has made two more films for you, you remember this letter, and think about putting yourself in the hands of a competent director."
Whether Bergman thought West odious, I can't say, though the Rossellinis divorced a few years later, so perhaps Bergman took the advice. But the snippet does capture West at her outrageous best, and hints at the full-bodied character -- part Maggie Thatcher, part dowager aunt -- who emerges from the pages of Bonnie Kime Scott's Selected Letters of Rebecca West. She was opinionated, impertinent, probably impossible; she was a bit of a bully, with the bully's thin skin, and she saw Commie conspirators under every rock. But she is never a bore to read.
She was born Cicely Fairfield in 1892 -- "Rebecca West" was a nom de plume based on a character in Ibsen's Rosmersholm -- the youngest of three sisters. Toward her siblings, particularly the eldest, Letitia, she bore feelings of a passionate and unsettling nature, for she classed them (as she would her lover, H. G. Wells) among the myriad "neurotics" who, she claimed, "bled me nearly white."
Her writing career began early and ended late, and despite the odd disclaimer ("I hate hate HATE journalism"), she pursued it steadily for seven decades, long after her marriage to banker Henry Andrews obviated the need from any financial point of view. She was prolific; her novels (10 of them), short stories, essay collections, critical works and the famous, unclassifiable Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her 1941 classic on Yugoslavia, were churned out alongside a steady stream of articles for newspapers and magazines at home and abroad.
"I write because all my family do," she explained to an editor at the Saturday Review, "it is in the blood." In fact her own prolixity amazed and dismayed her. Overwriting was her curse. " The Strange Necessity (god dammit) has gone from 6,000 to 30,000 words," she wailed; her 1929 novel Harriet Hume (West called it her "ghastly incubus") began "as a short story 5,000 words long -- it has turned out to be just short of 70,000 words." Black Lamb took five years to complete; her final trilogy of novels saw her into the grave.
"Alas, I have always had too many family ties to get on with my writing or my letter-writing as I would have wished," she told an American correspondent in 1953, and there's no doubt she meant it. But it's extremely hard to credit. Not even Anthony, her son by Wells, would seriously curtail her writing activities -- a fact, along with six dozen others, that he nursed with unabated resentment throughout the course of his adult life. ("From 1942," West wrote in 1973, "Anthony has been a perpetual source of misery and humiliation to me, and there has never been any way of placating him.")
He was born, with fitting symbolism, as war was being declared in 1914. West, a single mother at a time when the phenomenon was not acknowledged to exist, and forced for safety reasons into out-of-the-way lodgings in the country, was anxious, ambitious, frustrated and bored. " I hate domesticity," she wrote a friend when Anthony was 2. "Anthony looks very nice in his blue lambs-wool coat, and I feel sure that in him I have laid up a treasure for the hereafter (i.e. dinners at the Carlton in 1936) but what I want now is ROMANCE. Something with a white face and a slight natural wave in the dark hair and a large grey touring-car is what I really need."
What she got was Wells. He was 46 to her 19 when they met in 1912 ("I must say I like Wells . . . it is fun watching his quick mind splashing about in the infinite") and their relationship -- "intense and subtle and tragic," West called it -- lasted 10 years; West maintained she spent seven of them trying to leave him. Nevertheless, they corresponded until his death in 1946, and in her letters West shows an insight into him utterly lacking into herself. "It really was a source of misery to him that he had to take a hammer and smash up life whenever it formed the pattern that he most liked," she wrote Anthony in 1949. "If you saw him as a happy man it was because he was seeing you and was temporarily happy. He was a witty and humorous man, which is quite different from a happy man."
Happiness was no more her forte, at least in matters of the heart. She finally broke free from Wells in 1923 when she went to the United States, where she seems to have had a ripe old time. (Though American women appalled her: "Their utter and complete lack of sex attraction is simply terrifying.") But satisfaction in the romantic realm eluded her. More men than seems decent to number turned on her, some violently, for having in her strength apparently rendered them impotent. Newspaper magnate Max Beaverbrook treated her caddishly, and when she found a fellow she hoped would answer, a lanky banker from California named Steven Martin, he up and died. "Haven't I had rather hard luck with the men I'm with?" she queried a friend in 1924, with some justification.
Henry, whom she married in 1930, was supposed to be her sanctuary -- "He says he is going to look after me and let me write, so it ought to be grand" -- but it didn't quite fall out that way. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, he suffered a stroke about two years after they married and the ensuing brain damage played havoc with his judgment, sending him off on all sorts of queer stunts. "He is getting wilder and wilder in odd sorts of ways. One of them has resulted in my having in my garden now enough cabbage plants to carpet the whole of Buckinghamshire. It is an awfully prosaic form of wealth."
She was exasperated; she was bewildered; she accepted it. Self-examination was not West's strong point; self-awareness even less so. "I do not take myself very seriously," she wrote Joyce scholar Richard Ellmann, "and I really do not mind emotionally very much what is said about me." It is, with the exception of the Bergman career tip, the most outrageous statement in the book. She waged war with anyone who she thought had misinterpreted her (and who had the temerity to publish their views); when letters lacked the necessary immediacy, telegrams were fired off. "UNABLE TO UNDERSTAND MOTIVE BEHIND GROSSLY OFFENSIVE LETTER YOU HAVE HAD THE IMPERTINENCE TO SEND ME STOP" -- this in 1953 to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who criticized her defence of Joseph McCarthy ("a half-baked gorilla from the Middle West," she sniffed to J. B. Priestley).
Her self-conception simply did not brook contradiction, and she saw herself as the sole repository of facts pertaining to herself. As she aged, and became the subject of biographies and critical studies, she felt called upon to set the record straight. "I have rewritten the passage about my youth," she informed Wells biographer Lovat Dickson. "The trouble is that most of what you have written about me is -- forgive me for my candour -- the wildest nonsense."
In the same letter she tries to explain herself. "I don't expect you can understand the intense revulsion I feel to accounts of my life which are not true. It is like being dissolved in mist."
Not a chance of it. The Letters are verbal snapshots of an extraordinary career, and West booms forth, larger than life.
WEST ON HER PEERS: 'NITWITS AND FRAUDS'
Rebecca West was known for her blunt tongue, and her comments on writers alone would make a chapbook. She particularly loathed T. S. Eliot and Tolstoy -- ". . . I can't agree with you about Tolstoy. Twice have I read War and Peace and found nothing but stuffed Tolstoys . . . And plainly Anna Karenina was written simply to convince Tolstoy there was nothing in this expensive and troublesome business of adultery and oh Gawd oh Gawd, Kitty!" But lesser culprits also felt the spear of her nib:
George Bernard Shaw "was a eunuch perpetually inflamed by flirtation"; James Joyce "I think a pretentious nitwit but who has guts . . ."; Evelyn Waugh, who once threatened to sue her, was "that filthy little creature," while E. M. Forster was dismissed as "a self-indulgent old liberal with hardly a brain in his head."
U.S. poet Laura Riding was one of the few, along with Anäis Nin -- "I think the only real genius I have ever known in my life" -- who came in for (measured) praise: "I think she writes quite atrociously, almost as badly as anybody I have ever come across. . . . But I think she may have something to say." Not even Virginia Woolf was accorded sympathy, despite the retrospective of more than 40 years: "I could not have admired Virginia Woolf more as a writer and I was very fond of [art critic] Clive Bell," West wrote in 1980. "But I cannot say I found the company of this group very entertaining. . . . I may be prejudiced on this matter by the fact that any demented lady, even if a genius, is a difficult neighbour in the country; and that she was for a summer [in 1939] when she was really unpardonable."
Henry Miller -- whose influence on Nin she decried -- was explained to George Orwell thus: "The commonplaces of his opinions and the emptiness of his language . . . are, I think, due to the fact that he is, beyond all possible doubt, a humbug. But I do not find him personally an unpleasant humbug, and I feel . . . that if he stopped being a humbug he might, with the aid of the fluency he has acquired while writing as a humbug, become quite a valuable writer."
It was the 1962 Writers' Conference in Edinburgh, however, that really got West going. "I have never in my life seen such degraded cantrips. . . . There was that old fraud Henry Miller . . . an unutterably disgusting creature called William Burroughs, the author of a filthy book called The Naked Lunch . . . and that stupid lout Norman Mailer. Added to which was Miss Mary McCarthy . . . who said she was beautiful? She has long greasy hair which she can't manage, and a behind built on the lines of a canal barge." Kathleen Byrne, an editor at The Globe and Mail, frequently reviews for the Books section.