Rebecca West, novelist, biographer, journalist, and critic, was one of the century’s most brilliant and forceful writers. Born Cicily Isabel Fairfield on December 21, 1892, she was educated at George Watson’s Ladies College. She adopted the nom de plume Rebecca West from Ibsen’s Romserholm in which she once appeared. At an early age she threw herself into the suffragette movement and in 1911 joined the staff of the Freewoman and in the following year became a political writer on the socialist newspaper the Clarion. Her love affair with the novelist H.G. Wells began in 1913 and lasted for ten, not always happy, years. Their son, Anthony West, her only child, was born in 1914. After the break with Wells she went to America where she lectured and formed what was to be a long association reviewing for the New York Herlad-Tribune. In 1930 she married Henry Maxwell Andrews, a banker, and they lived in Buckinhamshire until his death in 1968, after which Rebecca West moved to London.
Her first published book was a critical study of Henry James, her second a novel, The Return of the Soldier (1918), which was recently made into a successful film. She published eight novels including The Judge (1922), Harriet Hume (1929), and the largely autobiographical The Fountain Overflows (1957). Her last novel, The Birds Fall Down (1966), was adapted or BBC television in 1978. In the mid-thirties she made several trips to the Balkans in order to gather material for a travel book. But her interest in the subject deepened and she returned to the area many times to collect more material. The result was her masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, published in 1941 in two volumes. In her obituary The Times (London) remarked of this work that it “was immediately recognized as a magnum opus, as astonishing in its range, in its subtlety and power of its judgment, as it is brilliant in expression.” As a result of the books’ publication, she was invited during the war to superintend the BBC broadcasts to Yugoslavia. After the war she was present at the Nuremberg Trials and her account of these and of other trials which arose out of the relation of the individual to the state, were published in two books, The Meaning of Treason (1949) and A Train of Powder (1955).
She was created a CBE in 1949 and advanced to a DBE (Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire) in 1959. In 1957 she was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, in 1968 a Companion of Literature, and in 1972 an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She died on March 15, 1983 at the age of ninety. In a tribute to her, Edward Crankshaw wrote, “Rebecca West was so much a part of this century that now that she has gone it seems almost as though the century itself were over.”