My Famous Great Aunt Rebecca: Chronicles of a Struggling Literary Executor

By Helen Macleod Atkinson

Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright natures fight in us with this yeasty darkness, and neither part is commonly quite victorious, for we are divided against ourselves.” – Rebecca West

Chapter One – The Poor Relation

I received today the proof copies of the cover for a Spanish translation of The Fountain Overflows – “La Familia Aubrey”. It’s all very exciting, of course. Rebecca’s work is being translated into more languages than Donald Trump’s tweets these days (including Catalan). Battling my rudimentary grasp of the language, I noticed they had spelled her name wrong on the fly-sheet author blurb – “Cecily Fairfield” instead of Cicely. Catching this sort of error is, of course, the daily grind of being a literary executor.

But what really caught my eye was that the publishers described Rebecca as a “friend of Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing”. Huh? For a start, Doris Lessing shunned Rebecca for her politics (too critical of Russian communism), which she later said she regretted. Too right! Lessing could have had some of the most entertaining and memorable gin and tonics of the 20th century, holed up in Rebecca’s elegant flat opposite the Albert Memorial AND had the benefit of being on the right side of history, to boot. And, although Virginia Woolf offered Rebecca a grudging admiration, they clearly didn’t like one another and were definitely not friends.

I have written to the agent in London protesting two problems with this perfectly understandable attempt to promote Rebecca’s brand through association. Firstly, why, oh why, oh why do her “friends” have to be women writers? She was mentored by G.B. Shaw. She defended D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in court (that took some ovaries). She had a child by H.G. Wells, for the love of Venus! Why not mention them?

I mean, look, one of the challenges of promoting Rebecca as a person worthy of interest is avoiding going straight to the H.G. Wells connection.

Here’s how it usually goes:

Rebecca West? I think I’ve heard of her. Tell me more.

She was one of the great minds of the 20th century. She was a very early proponent of gender equality. She denounced Stalin’s Russia when the Westy Lefties were still in love with the idea of Communism, no matter how it was dished up. She covered the Nuremberg trials for the New Yorker.

I see. That’s interesting. What did she write?

Her most famous book is a 1,500-page travelogue through Yugoslavia just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Okay. Uhhh…

…but it isn’t just about Yugoslavia. It’s about the causes of war and mankind’s hostility to mankind, the battle of the sexes, the Hapsburg empire, the Romans, the Ottomans… gosh, so many important things. And it’s funny, too!

What else?

She was on the cover of Time magazine in 1957, hailed as “the World’s No. 1 Woman Writer”.

Cool. 1957. I see.

Plus, she had an illegitimate child by H.G. Wells. And she had an affair with Charlie Chaplin. And Lord Beaverbrook, who was the Rupert Murdoch of his day.

H.G. Wells! You’re kidding! Wow!! What happened to the child? Is he still alive? What about Charlie Chaplin?

Ad nauseum…

The irony of getting people interested in my superstar feminist great aunt by listing the famous men she slept with is not lost on me. It is a burden I bear with a pained grin. Nevertheless, why do we have to corral her in with the female writers? I have mixed feelings about that Time magazine cover. Okay, it was more than 60 years ago, but would they have dared feature anyone as “the World’s No. 1 Man Writer”? Of course not. Enduringly, even in 2019, there’s the underlying assumption that men write for both male and female audiences, but women are expected to be read, mostly, by women.

And here’s the second source of frustration – what is it with Virginia Woolf these days? How did she end up with the mantle of Most Famous Feminist Writer Ever? She’s all over social media, and there’s a growing society of women called Woolfers, self-described as “literary-minded feminists over 40”, with an associated Facebook group called “What would Virginia Woolf do?” Forgive me, but I can think of a much better role model for literary-minded feminists over 40. Rebecca was still writing insightfully incendiary columns for the London Telegraph at 90, gloriously single and in complete charge of her marbles. And, by the way, she got chick-knighted in 1959, which shows she was a culturally important person. Virginia Woolf didn’t even get an OBE. I’m just sayin’.

Okay, it’s sour grapes. I freely admit it. Woolf pretty much set modern feminism on its course (discuss). She has far more academics studying her than are interested in my Famous Great Aunt. And, since The Hours, she has name recognition like a leading brand of laundry detergent (make your feminist credentials sparkle!). I mean, good for her (and her beneficiaries), but Rebecca deserves equal, if not greater, fame. And, somehow, at present, it feels like there’s only room in the world for one Famous Feminist Writer. When we had a Rebecca West Society conference at University College London, back in the Noughties, there was an incident that just about sums it up. Here we were, all 18 of us, maybe, huddled in a small conference room deep in the bowels of the University’s lovely art deco building. A Very Literary Looking Woman, festooned in vivid scarves, opened the door and poked her head in, halting proceedings. She surveyed our modest gathering and asked, sceptically, “Virginia Woolf?”

“No,” we said. “Rebecca West.”

Rebecca West,” she sniffed, derisively, as if she had ordered an expensive glass of Bandol rosé wine and instead been presented with a jug of white Zinfandel. Without further salutation, she turned and closed the door behind her.

Curious as to what was going on, I went on an exploratory mission. As I walked down a long, solemn corridor, a giant pair of double doors swung open, unleashing an enlivened hubbub of many voices followed by a giant crowd of Very Literary Looking People, eagerly conversing in earnest. They spilled out from a vast auditorium, at the apex of which was a huge screen emblazoned with Woolf’s image. No doubt they were headed to a splendid luncheon of rare meats at a nearby Bloomsbury swankery, where deep draughts would be drunk to Woolf’s glittering legacy, and new ideas for books and films would be spun like gossamer in the high-ceilinged sunlight, buoyed by intoxicated, intelligent laughter. I returned deflated to my tribe, who were politely picking over a collection of dismal sandwiches. I don’t think I ever quite grasped before how it might feel to be described as a poor relation. But I did now.

Well, I have my work cut out for me. Since my father – Rebecca’s favourite nephew – died in 2017, I’ve been left in sole charge of my Famous Great Aunt Rebecca’s literary estate. My mission is to bring her back to the standing she deserves, as one of the most significant, entertaining, arresting and clever commentators on the human condition that ever lived. I’m going to do it, too. Just watch me.

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