Books: Circles of Perdition

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No. 1 Woman Writer. When, at the end of World War I, Rebecca West became the book critic of the New Statesman and Nation, she was already a minor celebrity. She wrote with an authority beyond her years or experience in a prose in which, at its best, a logic of music was magnificently mated to a logic of ideas. At its worst, it was excessive and overblown. Sometimes she took time out from her breadwinning chores to write a novel (Harriet Hume). Sometimes she collaborated on satirical sketches (Lions and Lambs, The Rake's Progress) with Cartoonist David Low. She managed to get abroad a good deal, and a shimmering list of continental hosts and hostesses were always eager to entertain her. The posh social life of Paris, the spas and resorts, which Miss West described in loving detail in The Thinking Reed, was first-hand reporting. When in 1937 the British Council sent Miss West to Yugoslavia and she recorded her experience in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, she became indisputably the world's No. 1 woman writer.

Flowers & Cows. At 55, Rebecca West is greying and has put on weight which makes her look stocky rather than stout. Vestiges of her girlhood beauty now light a face that is impressive with mature intelligence. But, since she has little interest in dress, she often looks as if somebody had thrown her clothes on her as she rushed for the train.

With her devoted husband, Henry Maxwell Andrews, an investment banker with a cool, scholarly, finely whetted mind, she lives at Ibstone House, in the county of Buckinghamshire, 36 miles from London. There she prefers to be known as Mrs. Andrews. Ibstone is an 18th Century manor house whose back windows command one of the noblest vistas in southern England—broad fields falling away to a deep valley in the Chiltern Hills. Around the house lies the 85-acre farm, where the Andrewses raise fruit, vegetables, flowers, hogs, and pasture their purebred Jersey herd. Near the house is an immaculate modern dairy equipped with electric milkers. Miss West has been known to take visitors to the dairy and, in one of those transports common to cattle lovers, throw her arms around a cow's neck and murmur: "You beautiful, beautiful creature!"

Unlike most writers' farms, the Andrews project makes a profit. But not enough to support Ibstone House. Since her husband has lost most of his fortune, Rebecca West must still write for a living. The U.S. market pays her top rates for practically anything she cares to write, and she writes at top speed. Her report on Lord Haw Haw's trial, some 6,500 words, was in the New Yorker's office 24 hours after the trial ended, and almost no editing had to be done on it. Says grateful New Yorker Editor Harold Ross: "It was the quickest piece of journalism I've seen." Says grateful Miss West of Ross: "The best editor I've ever known."

Last fortnight, her 2,500-word report on the Princess Elizabeth wedding was dashed off in time to make the London Evening Standard's early afternoon edition and the New York Herald Tribune's morning edition (TIME, Dec. 1). It was a mood piece with one notable dig at the Labor government. Her jab was about a huge national savings advertisement sign opposite Westminster Abbey: "An imaginative administration would surely have blanketed it for this one day."

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