Lorna Gibb’s biography The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West is a fascinating portrayal of one of the world’s earliest feminist icons (excluding the outliers such as Eleanor of Aquitaine). Of course, I was familiar with who West was – particularly with the quote about doormats and prostitutes that she has been credited with – but Gibb’s account fleshed out a woman who was equal parts flawed and fascinating. But then, name me a sociopolitical icon who isn’t.
I was completely unaware of West’s relationship with (the married) HG Wells. This relationship – and the son that came from it, Anthony, the only child she would have – was a huge influence in her life. Reading about it in 2017 is both cringeworthy and hearthbreaking, to read of a woman whose life was largely put on hold for a married man who had no real intention of leaving his wife; even after Amy died, there was no serious interest formalizing his relationship with West, though he was happy to enjoy the benefits such a relationship brought him. It’s easy to see how such a relationship would have been so formative in the evolution of her thoughts and as a writer. I found it frustrating that West set such a stock by him, although she was hardly the first woman – even the first feminist icon (Ms Shelly, I’m looking at you) – to do so.
On reflection, the biography focuses largely on her domestic life and how it influenced her as a writer, although I think that’s true of a lot of figures; to bring up another feminist icon, reading Daddy, We Hardly Knew You gave me a much deeper understanding of Germaine Greer and what had motivated her own writing, and upon reading of Marx’s parasitical upbringing and lifestyle, it’s easier to see how he came up with the Communist Manfesto.
I have to admit, I am unfamiliar with West’s work – beyond the prostitutes and doormats quote which may or may not have been hers – but reading this book made me want to explore her ideas further. She lived well into her nineties – her son only outlived her by a few years – and faced a lot of rough times, some of her own doing, some as a result of the society she lived in at the time. It’s a shame she isn’t as well known as Wells, because it seems she contributed as least as many great ideas to our society as her more famous lover.