The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West by Lorna Gibb

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Lorna Gibb’s new biography, The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West, has a misleading title. Gibb’s account makes West seem ordinary, largely because Gibb skims over the most remarkable things about West.

What made Rebecca West so extraordinary? Was it that she took many lovers during her life, H.G. Wells among them? It’s true that she was ahead of her time in regard to sexuality, and it is probably also true that West’s numerous affairs gave other women the freedom to be more comfortable with their sexual desires, though this is an effect of her promiscuity that Gibb does not bring up. Instead, hers is a splashy tabloid account. Judging by this version of West’s story, it’s a wonder that she had time to write at all, busy as she was pursuing men and moving between different homes. And yet she managed, producing Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, the greatest book on Yugoslavia ever published, and possibly the most searing, certainly the most unforgiving, criticism of the Nuremberg trials in Train of Powder, along with much more journalism and many more novels.

Gibb mentions these books, giving each one a couple of pages. But the majority of the biography is devoted to West’s emotional life, which would be a fine premise except that, according to Gibb, her emotional state is dependent on the actions of each new man in her life. For 262 pages Rebecca West is the vessel for a series of failed love affairs, during which Gibb mentions that she happened to also be a writer.

Is this the state of things, for female writers? Is this how we are to be remembered, even by fellow women? Most of us will never outstrip the success or the talent of Rebecca West—we don’t even dream of it. And yet even a woman so accomplished and admired cannot transcend the men around her. What made West extraordinary was her mind; what she did in her bedroom was her own business and is of little consequence when one considers her lasting effect on literature. Rebecca West’s sexual adventurousness certainly did contribute to her strong, independent character, but it was not the central focus of her life, and should not have been given the primacy that it was in this biography. But this is how women continue to be defined: by their supposedly rabid emotions, not their often-stunning intellect.

Lorna Gibb

Lorna Gibb

Rebecca West was a complex character, even unlikeable in some respects. Gibb brings up the anti-communist leanings that led her to become an FBI informant late in life, and details at length her tortured relationship with her son. West was selfish and unreasonable, writing autobiographical novels and simultaneously suing her son Anthony—whose father was H.G. Wells and who was not allowed to call West “mother” as a child lest her affair with Wells become public—when he attempted to do the same. She seemed incapable of allowing her son to tell his life story if it meant that disparaging aspects of West’s personality might come out. Her political views were alienating and harmful to her colleagues: she reported Charlie Chaplin to the FBI and many of her American friends wrote her to express their discomfort with her public disapproval of anyone she even suspected of being a communist.

I appreciate Gibb’s attempt to show that despite West’s fame, she was a failure—as is everyone—in some parts her personal life. People mess up and that’s okay. West was misguided at times, and rather arrogant all the time. This is one of the only things that Gibb implies about West that I believe.

But the inclusion of aspects of West’s life that paint her as an unsavory character do, in the end, form a portrait that I don’t believe Gibb intended. Gibb doesn’t criticize West’s bad deeds because she wants the reader to judge for herself—a smart move generally, but it fails here because Gibb doesn’t present the reader with all the information she needs to form her own opinion. There’s a huge, looming chasm in this book: the lack of investigation of West’s writing. That absence can be felt on the page like a ghost lurking behind a closed door. The effect on the book is devastating. Instead of learning anything tangible about West’s effect on literary culture past or present, Gibb rattles off a list of facts: West and Virginia Woolf did not get along. She rarely had sex with her husband, Henry. She had a cat named Pounce. She moved around a lot. I know an accumulation of things about Rebecca West, but I don’t know Rebecca West as a person any better, and in fact, I think it would be very dangerous to make any concrete judgment about her from reading this text alone.

I’m not sure why Gibb chose to weight this book so heavily with West’s personal life. Perhaps she was trying to show West as a person, without the shroud of her writing surrounding her. The result borders on insulting, though. It seems to me that Gibb doesn’t understand that a writer as passionate and dedicated as Rebecca West is connected, in every aspect of her life, to her work. The attempt to sever the two is like removing the brain and expecting the heart alone to keep the body conscious. The result is a human on life support: alive technically but unable to express a consciousness.

Gibb is right about one thing, though: Rebecca West was extraordinary. The world of letters would not be open to women the way it is now were it not for her exceptional insight and ambition, her confidence in herself and her work, and her connection to her emotional life. She was passionate in her writing and in her relationships, and what a vibrant woman that combination created. It’s unfortunate that Gibb insists on detailing just one side of her persona. She doesn’t do justice to a woman who gave others the freedom to be heard and valued as artists, independent of the men with whom we choose to associate.

Elisabeth Sherman's work has appeared on Tor, Vitamin W, and Catch & Release, the literary blog of Columbia Journal. She recently interviewed author Jennifer Percy for Harper's Magazine. More from this author →