The Rebecca West Mystery

By Carl Rollyson

I admire Sylvia Plath’s concern with politics, with understanding how her own life is connected to the polity. She shares this conviction with Rebecca West, and almost every day I think about what an opportunity was missed because Plath did not know or understand Rebecca West. Plath watched West testify at the pornography trial of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) In her journal Plath called her “Lady Rebecca West,” revealing she really had no idea who West was.

How could this be? Plath had been well educated at Smith College and Cambridge University. She had read through the canon of Western philosophy and literature. She had worked as a journalist while still at Smith but seemed not to know about West’s own groundbreaking journalism in The New Yorker, one of Plath’s favorite magazines and the one she wanted publish in. She was taught by a generation of women who would certainly have read West and perhaps even taught her. But, with the exception of the Chatterley trial, there is no sign of West on any Plath syllabus, letter, or journal entry.

It would be easier to understand if Plath had simply rejected West, an ardent anti-Communist that could well have put off Plath, a pacifist who decried anti-Communist hysteria and the execution of the Rosenbergs. A generation of women had been put off by West. So Doris Lessing told me, saying West’s politics had delayed by decades Lessing’s own understanding of West’s importance. Only when Lessing’s own leftist politics changed to a critique of Communism did Lessing begin to take West’s measure and realize what she had denied herself.

In Plath’s case, I suspect the example of Virginia Woolf obliterated any alternative—as it still does today for many scholars who ignore West or just treat her as a difficult case. Even rehabilitations of West, like Jane Marcus’s Young Rebecca (1982), rhapsodize about her early feminism and attacks on the Conservative establishment. West’s marriage to a banker and her country estate did not sit well with her earlier nonconformity. Woolf’s novels and essays, coupled with her suicide and the sense of loss that self-annihilation instilled in her readers robbed West of an audience. West was simply too robust, too extroverted, too much a part of the established world. Woolf herself recoiled in her meetings with West and yet could not get enough of a West so attuned to the world OUT THERE.

Virginia Woolf, if I may start an argument, fits very well into English departments. You can teach her novel after novel. West wrote novels too, of course, but they have been crowded out by her journalism and the verdict that she is not modernist enough, alienated enough, and did not suffer in quite the right way to serve as a role model or a canonical figure. West herself referred to the interstices in her body of work, and the canvas of her achievement is too much for most English professors to cover, since they would have to encompass history, journalism, art history, biography, esthetics, philosophy, politics and much more. Far more convenient to reside in Woolf’s compact novels and essays and avoid the brilliant sprawl of Rebecca West’s work.

West would seem less untidy if, as in the case of Isaiah Berlin, her essays were collected. They would fill several volumes. But she opposed such repackaging, telling Berlin to his face that she did not see why he came out with essay collections so often. She collected herself once, in Ending in Earnest: A Literary Log (1931). Her other essay-driven collections, like The Meaning of Treason (1947) and A Train of Powder (1955), were rewritten and augmented as book-length narratives. She did not publish volumes of literary logs, as have writers like John Updike and Gore Vidal. She seems to have treated work once published as just that—a one off—not to be served again like leftovers. Yet her remains are brilliant and survive in her astringent prose, whatever you think of her opinions. No one reads Vidal, I hope, because they agree with all that he says. But to West such essay-mongering seemed stale. New work engaged her. She wanted to know what was next.

I don’t know if a collected edition of West’s essays would revive her reputation, but they deserve that treatment for both their historical and literary importance—to show how much of her writing defined an age but also what we still need to know about how literature, history, politics, art, and so much more, come into the purview of a great writer.

Carl Rollyson is the author of Rebecca West: A Life (1996), The Literary Legacy of Rebecca West (1998) and American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath (2014).

For more from Carl, please visit: http://www.carlrollyson.com/index.htm

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