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She's Got Mail

Selected Letters of Rebecca West • Edited by Bonnie Kime Scott • University Press of New England • 497 pp • $35.00

In her remarkably astute and compassionate 1932 essay on Charlotte Brontë, the British writer Rebecca West argued that Brontë's novels could have been better. She could have made more efficient use of her literary gifts, West argued, were it not for the distractions and pressures occasioned by her ailing, impecunious siblings. The essay is poignant because one suspects that West's sympathy had roots in her own experience--a suspicion confirmed by the newly published Selected Letters of Rebecca West, edited by Bonnie Kime Scott. As the letters show, West's long life was so crammed with event and travel, family and health problems, romantic dissatisfactions and worries about making a living that it seems a miracle of talent, industry, and sheer determination that she was so prolific and productive--that she wrote as much and as fluently as she did.

Scott has judiciously culled more than two hundred letters from the ten thousand or so West wrote to friends, relatives, editors, and fellow writers. They are grouped in sections corresponding to the major periods in West's life, with a brief preface heading each division. When the book begins, fourteen-year-old Cicily Isabel Fairfield, already a prodigy of clarity and self-assurance, is addressing the editors of the Scotsman on the subject of women's rights. Within four years, she has renamed herself (after an Ibsen character) and gone to London to write for The Freewoman and to teach at a Fabian Society school. Letters chart the progress of her extramarital affair with H.G. Wells from its hopeful inception ("I found him one of the most interesting men I have ever met"), through a stormy period of adjustment, to the precipitous decline accelerated by the birth of their son, Anthony, and finally into the slough of discord and grievance in which the unhappy couple flailed for a miserable decade: "He demanded from me rather more than a husband usually demands in the way of continual help and care, he would give me only the barest amount of money, he prevented me from doing much work...he was extremely bad-tempered and cruel in case of illness or any difficulty arising out of our illegal relationship, and, above all, he was jealous and hostile to my son."

Dispatches from Yugoslavia provide quick snapshots of the scenes that West would paint in elaborate and luminous detail in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, while other letters furnish footnotes to the journalistic essays she wrote from South Africa, the United States, and Nuremberg, where she was sent to cover the Nazi war-crimes tribunals. Growing older, she writes from Ibstone, the country estate she shared with her husband, Henry Andrews (a banker whom Virginia Woolf called, somewhat uncharitably, "such dead, though excellent, mutton"), and later from London, where she lived after her husband's death and until her own, at the age of ninety-one.

The letters offer few revelations that can't be found in Victoria Glendinning's Rebecca West: A Life and in Anthony West's understandably more partial biography of his father. Those who can never get enough personal information may enjoy watching Dame Rebecca squirm as she struggles to explain to Anthony that he was sent away to school not at the age of two, as he believes, but at the age of three, and for good reasons having to do with his physical safety during Germany's bombardment of the British coast, near which they were living. As is well known, West's relationship with her son was a nightmare; his lifelong resentment surfaced in his novel, Heritage, which featured, at its center, a recklessly self-absorbed and unreliable mother. West's response to the book's publication was pained, as were her efforts to convince Anthony that she did not prevent him from seeing his father and did not cheat him out of his inheritance. One's sense of West's innocence is somewhat undermined when she reacts with rage to Anthony's description of his own son as "not an exciting boy." Something truly awful percolates to the surface: "When I think of the hell Anthony made of our lives when he was that age, with continual tale-bearing, extravagance, hysteria, and lying, I can't think how he has the nerve to speak like that of his admirable son."

For West's admirers, some of this can be fairly hard going--the casual anti-Semitism and homophobia, the gleeful relish with which, as the years go by, she strips off the gloves to slap around both the guilty and the innocent. In a letter to Ingrid Bergman, West breaks the bad news about the director Roberto Rossellini: "You may love your husband very much, but you should face the fact that he has no talent." It's disturbing, as well, to confront her bitterly disappointed assessments of her romantic career and of her long, problematic marriage to a man who refused to sleep with her and chased nearly every woman he met: "You say 'this has been a bad experience.' But it's been more than that. It's been a bad life; and the only one I have."

The consolation is the opportunity to experience her forceful and bracing opinions. She adored Dostoyevsky and hated Tolstoy, despised Sinclair Lewis and Henry Miller, had nothing but contempt for the slowness and sexlessness of Americans, and entertained mixed feelings about The New Yorker: "I cannot think that it serves a magazine when it publishes articles so long that you have to cut off the telephone, leave the milk bottles outside the front door to fool the neighbours, if you are to get a chance to read them." She was generous to fellow writers--women writers, in particular--and as she outlived nearly all of her friends, she devoted a certain amount of energy to defending their reputations after they could no longer speak for themselves. "It seems to me that it would be dangerous to consider Elinor Wylie without taking into account the extraordinary spitefulness of the age in which she lived.... Twice it happened to me that I was at a party with Elinor where she was gay and funny and brilliant, and that a few nights later I went to a cocktail party where people who had not been at that party described the ludicrous remarks Elinor had made at it and what a nuisance she had been." In an especially moving tribute to her dear friend Dorothy Thompson, West wrote to correct what she considered a demeaning newspaper obituary: "There was no pathos in her end. If fame had left her, it was because she had put it out in the ash-can."

More satisfying still is the fresh chance this new volume offers to hear West's voice--witty, arch, wise, acerbic, graceful. She was one of the great masters of the English prose sentence, and her letters are filled with the incisive, beautifully cadenced, and frequently hilarious descriptions of characters and places that give her work such resonance and power. Among the book's most wicked and delightful passages is this account of a talk delivered by the editor Frank Harris:

His manner was foully offensive: a barking arrogance with oily declensions at the points where he was moved to speak of the necessity of the artist to feel pity and love--awful passages as though the Sermon on the Mount had kittened, and there were its progeny. But the thing that really horrified me was that his lecture consisted entirely of a criticism of an incident in Madame Bovary which that book does not contain. He had invented it. There is nothing in any of Flaubert's books remotely resembling it. I sat there with the intense solemnity of eighteen, horrified by this charlatan: and even more horrified by the way that not a soul in the room--and it was full of writers...had detected him. So this, I thought, was London. I picked up some consolation from the reflection that if London was such a mug I ought to be able to get some sort of income out of it.
It's striking how rarely (rarely, that is, in comparison with the correspondence of other writers--Flaubert, Elizabeth Bishop, and Flannery O'Connor, for example) her letters talk about the process of writing. When West complains to Janet Flanner that "Telling the truth is really a very difficult job indeed," she is referring to political rather than literary exigencies. Writing, it seems, came more easily and naturally to her than dealing with the difficulties associated with writing: deadlines, editors, assignments, money, the libel suit threatened by Evelyn Waugh, and the libel suit actually brought by a South African judge whom West misidentified in a piece on apartheid. Scott's notes might have offered the reader more help in disentangling this peculiar plot, and her prefaces also could have done more to explain the nature of West's anticommunism, confused by some readers--among them Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who later became a friend--with support for McCarthyism, which in fact she deplored.

In a letter (quoted by Glendinning but not included in this volume) to the Elizabethan scholar A.L. Rowse, West wrote, "I have never been able to write with anything more than the left hand of my mind; the right hand has always been engaged in something to do with personal relationships." It is at once a complaint about the obstacles that West faced and a (perhaps unwitting) boast about her success in overcoming them. Like the rest of her work, these selected letters attest to the heights that a one-handed writer--whether West or Charlotte Brontë--is able to reach.

Francine Prose is a fellow at the New York Public Library's Center for Scholars and Writers. Her new novel is Blue Angel (HarperCollins).

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