Biography of Rebecca West: more a sketch than a rich life portrait

Rebecca West: A Life, by Victoria Glendinning. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 300 pp. Illustrated. $19.95. Rebecca West lived a long, eventful, often dramatic life. Born Cicely Isabel Fairfield in 1892, familiarly known as ``Cissie,'' she was the youngest of three daughters whose childhood was overshadowed by the desertion of their talented, erratic father and influenced by the example of their high-strung, long-suffering mother. Charles Fairfield was a journalist of conservative views but unconventional temperament. Rebecca compared him to Edmund Burke: Both, she asserted (in an observation quoted by her biographer), ``went on and on about order and stability while they reeled through space like a couple of drunken comets.''

Taking the pen name ``Rebecca West'' from Ibsen's ``Rosmersholm,'' the 19-year-old Cicely quickly emerged as a distinctive voice in journalism: an outspoken feminist and socialist. Following her sharp-tongued review of his novel ``Marriage,'' she embarked on a love affair with H.G. Wells, then in his 40s, famous, married, and the veteran of numerous erotic entanglements. Almost immediately and quite accidentally, Rebecca was plunged into the enormous difficulties of unwed motherhood. The joys and miseries of her 10-year liaison with Wells were succeeded by more troubles in love, from an ill-fated infatuation with the press baron Lord Beaverbrook to her problematic marriage to the shy, eccentric, scholarly banker Henry Andrews. Difficulties with Anthony West, her son by Wells, would plague the lives of both mother and child.

The complications of her life were matched by a mind capable of grasping the sheer complexity of human experience. West's writings testify to her ability to see in many dimensions. Yet her consciousness of life's complexity left her with far more questions than answers. A month before she died in 1983, in her 91st year, ``when she had been semiconscious for weeks,'' her niece has told me, ``she suddenly became coherent and demanded, in measured philosophical terms, to be told what her life had been for.'' The question - like so many she had raised in her long career - was personal, yet characteristically metaphysical. Questions of what life is for, how it should be lived, questions about justice, the state's responsibility to the individual, the individual's to God, relations between men and women, fate and free will, and the strange drive that makes us too often choose death over life recur throughout the richly various body of her work.

Her legacy includes fiction, political reportage, literary criticism, biography, and her extraordinary masterpiece ``Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,'' part travel book, part history, mostly an attempt to locate her personal perspective at a particular time and place where the lines of political and moral history appeared to converge. And there are the countless articles, from her earliest contributions to the Freewoman to the vivacious book reviews she continued to write for the Sunday Telegraph almost until her death. As biographer Victoria Glendinning aptly notes, she was ``never pompous, never tentative.'' Although her opinions changed somewhat over the years, her voice never wavered.

Destiny, West observed, ``likes to hold its cornucopia upside down and wave it while its contents drop anywhere they like over time and space. Brave are our own human attempts to correct this sluttish habit.'' In quoting this, Glendinning may well have been reminded of her own predicament in trying to impose order on her subject's complicated life. West herself was working on a memoir - never finished. And between West's attempts to turn her life into some semblance of a meaningful story and the determined efforts of her son to provide his version of events, the biographer's task is additionally complicated.

After a rather coy prologue, Glendinning guides us wisely and tactfully through welters of conflicting evidence and attitudes. Her gracefully understated writing commands our attention throughout. On the whole, she is more skillful in understanding West's vulnerabilities than in analyzing her strengths, perhaps because she did not have the space to develop this side of the story. Circumstances may be to blame (she was authorized to write a short work, another biographer, Stanley Olson, to do a longer book). Still, it is regrettable that so gifted a biographer as Glendinning, who moves from strength to strength in her studies of Elizabeth Bowen, Edith Sitwell, and Vita Sackville-West, should have written the sketchiest of her biographies about Rebecca West, the longest lived and most impressive of her subjects.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

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