West, Rebecca (1892–1983) By Randall, Bryony
Rebecca West was a novelist, journalist, essayist, and travel writer, and a central figure in twentieth-century literary and political culture. Her The Return of the Soldier (1918) was the first World War I novel to be written by a woman. She was in her lifetime particularly celebrated for her travel writing, notably Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), and her coverage of the Nuremberg trials for The New Yorker, published as A Train of Powder in 1955. Time magazine called her “indisputably the world’s number one woman writer” in 1947.
Rebecca West (born Cicely Isabel Fairfield) and her two older sisters were brought up by their mother in London and Edinburgh, having been abandoned by their father when she was eight years old. Her political interests were evident from a young age; her first publication was a letter written to The Scotsman when she was just fourteen, defending the suffragist National Women’s Social and Political Union (she was later to publish an appreciation of Emmeline Pankhurst, “A Reed of Steel,” in 1933). In young adulthood she supported herself through her journalism while training as an actress, taking the nom de plume Rebecca West from the freethinking heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm (although she later distanced herself from both the play and the character).