Rebecca West

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Everyone realizes that one can believe little of what people say about each other. But it is not so widely realized that even less can one trust what people say about themselves.

Dame Cicely Isabel Fairfield DBE (21 December 189215 March 1983), known as Rebecca West, or Dame Rebecca West, was a British author, journalist, literary critic and travel writer. A prolific, protean author who wrote in many genres, West was committed to feminist and liberal principles and was widely considered to be among the important public intellectuals of the 20th century.


  • I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.
    • "Mr. Chesterton in hysterics," The Clarion, 14 November, 1913
  • God forbid that any book should be banned. The practice is as indefensible as infanticide.
    • "The Tosh Horse," The New Statesman (1925); later included in Strange Necessity: Essays and Reviews (1928), ch. 11
  • There is one common condition for the lot of women in Western civilization and all other civilizations that we know about for certain, and that is, woman as a sex is disliked and persecuted, while as an individual she is liked, loved, and even, with reasonable luck, sometimes worshipped.

March 16, 1983. Retrieved September 18 2014.

  • For one cannot serve the national spirit merely by getting a lump in the throat whenever one catches sight of the Union Jack, or by seeing red when a newspaper reports that some foreign power has acted aggressively towards England. These reactions bear the same relation to true love of country that a chance encounter between a man and a woman who meet in the street bears to a happy marriage.
    • "The Necessity and Grandeur of the International Ideal" (1935), reprinted in Rebecca West, Woman As Artist And Thinker. Lincoln, Nebraska, iUniverse, 2005.
  • I am for the legal government of Republican Spain against Franco, since Spain herself, at a properly conducted election, chose that Government and rejected the party which now supports Franco. I am also against Fascism; the reforms of Diocletian were a work of genius and made many people temporarily happy, but failed in the end and added greatly to human misery. I see no reason why this inferior modern copy of them should succeed.
    • "Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War" (1937),edited by Nancy Cunard, reprinted in The Spanish Front: Writers on the Civil War, edited by Valentine Cunningham. Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • The word “idiot” comes from a Greek root meaning private person. Idiocy is the female defect: intent on their private lives, women follow their fate through a darkness deep as that cast by malformed cells in the brain. It is no worse than the male defect, which is lunacy: men are so obsessed by public affairs that they see the world as by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature.
  • Motherhood is the strangest thing, it can be like being one’s own Trojan horse.
    • Letter (20 August 1959), as quoted in Victoria Glendinning, Rebecca West: A Life (1987), Part 5, Chapter 8, p. 206
  • Everyone realizes that one can believe little of what people say about each other. But it is not so widely realized that even less can one trust what people say about themselves.
    • As quoted in The Sunday Telegraph, London (1975), and Rebecca West : A Life (1987) by Victoria Glendinning, p. xi
  • I can't help thinking that the whole of the Vietnam War was the blackest comedy that ever was, because it showed the way you can't teach humanity anything. We'd all learnt in the rest of the world that you can't now go around and put out your hand and, across seas, exercise power; but the poor Americans had not learned that and they tried to do it. The remoteness of Americans from German attack had made them feel confident. They didn't really believe that anything could reach out and kill them. Americans are quite unconscious now that we look on them as just as much beaten as we are. They're quite unconscious of that. They have always talked of Vietnam as if by getting out they were surrendering the prospect of victory, as if they were being noble by renouncing the possibility of victory. But they couldn't have had a victory. They couldn't possibly have won.
    • Interview with Marina Warner (Summer 1981), The Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work, Sixth Series [Viking/Penguin, ISBN 0-14-00.7736-7] (pp. 13-14)
  • If there is a God, I don't think He would demand that anyone bow down or stand up to Him. I often have a suspicion that God is still trying to work things out and hasn't finished.
    • Interview with Marina Warner (Summer 1981), The Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work, Sixth Series (p. 15)
  • Like all bad drivers, he thought he was the best driver in the world.
    • Interview with Marina Warner (Summer 1981), The Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work, Sixth Series (p. 17)
  • It's an absurd error to put modern English literature in the curriculum. You should read contemporary literature for pleasure or not at all. You shouldn't be taught to monkey with it.
    • Interview with Marina Warner (Summer 1981), The Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work, Sixth Series (p.31)
  • After any disturbance (such as two world wars coinciding with a period of growing economic and monetary incomprehensibility) we find our old concepts inadequate and look for new ones. But it unfortunately happens that the troubled times which produce an appetite for new ideas are the least propitious for clear thinking.
    • As quoted in The Sunday Telegraph, London (1981), and The Annual Obituary 1983 (1984) edited by Elizabeth Devine and Marion Stoker Morgan, p. 143
  • I do not myself find it agreeable to be 90, and I cannot imagine why it should seem so to other people. It is not that you have any fears about your own death, it is that your upholstery is already dead around you.
    • Quoted in "There is nothing like a dame: Dame Rebecca West at ninety," Vogue (February 1983)
  • So life ought to be a struggle of desire towards adventures whose nobility will fertilise the soul and lead to the conception of new, glorious things.
    • The young Rebecca: writings of Rebecca West, 1911-17, p. 21

The Harsh Voice:Four Short Novels (1935)[edit]

  • The point is that nobody likes having salt rubbed into their wounds, even if it is the salt of the earth.
    • "The Salt of the Earth"
  • There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.

The Thinking Reed (1936)[edit]

[Viking/Penguin, ISBN 0-14-00.7321-3]

  • But just as it sometimes happens that the most temperate people, who have never acquired the habit of drinking alcohol, or even a taste for it, are tormented by the fear that somehow or other they will one day find themselves drunk, so Isabelle perpetually feared that she might be betrayed into an impulsive act that was destructive to such order as reason had imposed on life. Therefore she was forever running her faculty of analysis over in her mind with the preposterous zeal of an adolescent running a razor over his beardless chin.
    • Chapter I
  • To him boredom was a tragedy, for he had no more realization than if he had been an animal that any state he was in would ever come to an end.
    • Chapter III
  • She was indeed aching with that depression, which oddly takes the form of a sense of guilt, that comes to those who find themselves alone in sobriety among the alcoholized.
    • Chapter III
  • That certain women were ready to sell themselves caused no excessive disgust in Isabelle. It was inevitable that a number of both men and women should compromise the institution of marriage by marrying for money, and once that happened there could be no question of impressing on the toughly logical female mind the unique vileness of prostitution. She had sometimes wondered, too, whether the contempt men felt for women who market their favors did not in part proceed from from the sense of grievance eternally felt by buyers against vendors.
    • Chapter VI
  • These women were fatuous with a fatuity which had threatened her all her life, as it threatened all people of means, and which was of mournful significance for humanity in general, since it proved the emptiness of one of man's most reasonable expectations. No more sensible form of government could be imagined than aristocracy. If certain able stocks in the community were able to amass enough wealth to give their descendants beautiful houses to grow up in, the widest opportunities of education, complete economic security, so that they need never be influenced by mercenary considerations, and easy access to any public form of work they chose to undertake— why, then, the community had a race of perfect governors ready made. Only, as the Lauristons showed, the process worked out wholly different in practice. There came to these selected stocks a deadly, ungrateful complacence, which made them count these opportunities as their achievements, and belittle everybody else's achievements unless they were similarly confused with opportunities; and which did worse than this, by abolishing all standards from their minds except what they themselves were and did.
    • Chapter VII
  • One was kind, out of a bounty that could hardly be exhausted, to old governesses and gardeners, who could be relied upon to give thanks with proper abjection; one performed public duties, for which one was paid in full by deference; one was chaste, refusing to run away from one's husband with other men who for the most part did not ask one to do so, and who in any case had nothing better to offer than one's own home. Knowing no difficulties one was without fortitude; knowing no criteria but one's own achievements one was without taste.
    • Chapter VII
  • The general tendency to be censorious of the vices to which one has not been tempted.
    • Chapter IX

Quotes about West[edit]

  • No single form or genre was sufficient to contain her energy, and she lived as hard as she wrote. Rebecca West went everywhere, read everything, knew everyone. As Bonnie Kime Scott says in her editor’s introduction, “To read her letters in an informed way is to receive an education in the culture of the twentieth century.”
    • Hilary Mantel, "Conservative Rebel", (Review of Selected Letters of Rebecca West), The New York Review of Books, June 29, 2000.

External links[edit]

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