Rebecca West

Posted on March 7th, 2011 by

Rebecca West – (Dame Rebecca West (Cecily Isabel Andrews (née Fairfield)) by (Percy) Wyndham Lewis pencil, 1932 )

 Rebecca West used her deep understanding of music, to clearer articulate her intellectual ideas. On Agate Eros  she wrote,  ‘The sense of doom beats behind the frivolity like a majestic theme in the bass.’’ The milieux in which West moved, from her conversations with Eliot, to the Vorticists, to her long friendship with the virtuosa Harriet Cohen, herself a presidente  of the old school, were those where the discussion of the arts, of social issues, of trivia, washed over each other without prejudice or hierarchy.

 This sketch documents West’s connection with another artist/writer, Wyndham Lewis, and perhaps his voice speaks as strongly from it as hers. Osbert Sitwell remembered Wyndham Lewis’s presence in a fabulously decadent ‘after-hours’ environment, seemingly as seedy as it was creative.

 [Osbert Sitwell] ‘…to the ‘Cabaret Club’, where the lesser artistes of the theatre, as well as the greater, mixed with  painters, writers and their opposite, officers in the Brigade of Guards [1913] this low-ceilinged night club, appropriately sunk below the pavement of Beak Street, and hideously by relevantly frescoed by the painter, Percy Wyndham Lewis, appeared in the small hours to be a super-heated Vorticist garden of gesticulating figures, dancing and talking, with the rhythm of the primitive forms of Ragtime throbbed through the wide room. Over it presided Mme Strindberg the third and not least exceptional of the great writer’s wives. I remember her as a small, pale, determined woman, but Augustus John, in his memoirs, gives a rather different and more spirited account of her. When not engaged in organising the club, this lady busied herself in discovering pictures by Whistler, a pursuit in which she was singularly, almost unnaturally successful.’

 Noel Coward was in no doubt as to why one would seek out West. He gives a touching portrait of the comfort that he found in such a mind.

 [Noel Coward] ‘Sunday July 1 1954-Paris: the evening that [his mother] died, I had arranged to dine with Rebecca West. I didn’t put it off because I felt that her clear, astringent mind would be a comfort. I was quite right. We dined quietly and talked of all sorts of things. She knew, of course, that I was miserable, and made no effort to cheer me up; she merely talked away and we laughed a lot and she cheered me up a great deal.’

 We have no idea of what they spoke, but traces of their conversational jeux d’esprit can always be found in writers’ formal work. In 1918, West had written:

 ‘It is queer how it always one’s virtues, and not one’s vices, that precipitate one into disaster.

 I would imagine that it was just this kind of elegant speech, at once a bon mot and profound, which might have salted their lost conversation.

 But West herself took no prisoners, not, at least, when it came to what she demanded of her contemporaries in conversation and philosophy. Perhaps the following is a record of her salon  conversation, in all its froideur.

 ‘Wells at least had an idea that people would have ideas if they were taught by other people who had some, and was also as sublime a conversationalist as Voltaire when he met with an irrational fool, but Shaw stands for nothing but a socialism which has nothing to it except a belief that it would be a nicer world if everybody were all clean and well fed, which is based on no analysis of man and depends on no theory of the state, and an entirely platitudinous denunciation of hypocrisy, which nowhere rises to the level of Tartuffe. 

 We can set Wyndham Lewis in riposte to her brilliance, in true debating society style-even if there is a hint of irony in his tone, in this fictitious interchange:

 [Wyndham Lewis] ‘Those preposterous mountebanks who alternately imitate and mock at and traduce those figures they at once admire and hate.’

 Such bickering could even be carried on as a sketch was being made, on the banquette of a Mayfair nightclub, the band careening away behind. But in all conversational brilliance, it seems, there is so often, as in music, a moment when ‘an angel passes’ and West herself, in 1915, in the midst of the growing horror of World War 1, notes the problem of never-ending ‘connection’:

‘The great geniuses of the past still rule over us from their graves; they still stalk or scurry about in the present, tripping up the living, mysteriously congesting the traffic, confusing values in art and manners, a brilliant cohort of mortals determined not to die, in possession of the land.’

 The Bloomsbury group are excluded from our circle. Clearly Virginia Woolf had little time for Lewis’s paintings, and was astonished at Eliot’s apparent lack of judgement. She signs off with an extraordinary put-down, terrifying across a dinner table or drawing room, as she observes T.S.Eliot smoothing himself out.

 [Virginia Woolf] To Vanessa Bell, Monks House, Rodmell Sussex, Tuesday 28th December 1937. ‘I see from The Times K.Clark is in hot water about his Georgiones again; and that a subscription is on foot to buy one of Wyndham Lewis’s pictures for the nation. Old Tom [Eliot] actually signs this balderdash. He dined with us, but let on nothing; was in fact as genial and gentle as could be, and has mounted into the oddest world of antique respectability.


 Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun, Harper Collins, London 2001, P754

Great Morning, Osbert Sitwell, Macmillan, London, 1948,P.208

The Noel Coward Diaries, Payn & Morley, Phoenix, London, 1982, P.239

Return of the Soldier (1918) Ch. 1

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West, Canongate Classics, Edinburgh, 2001

The Apes of God (1930) pt 3

Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun, Harper Collins, London 2001, P. 718

 The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 6 1936-1941, Ed. Nicholson and Trautman, HBJ, NYC, 1980, P.198