Cicely Fairfield (Rebecca West), the youngest of three children (all daughters) of Charles Fairfield (1843–1906) and his wife, Isabella Campbell Mackenzie (1853–1921), was born at 28 Burlington Road, Westbourne Park, on 21st December, 1892. Her father, an anti-socialist journalist, left the family when she was a child. Her feeling of desertion by her father persisted for the remainder of her life."
Cicely's mother was a talented pianist, having come from a musical family. Her brother, the violinist and composer Alick Mackenzie, was president of the Royal Academy of Music (1888–1924). After her husband left the family home, Isabella took her three children to her native Edinburgh.
Cicely attended George Watson's Ladies' College (1904–7). Although highly intelligent her headmistress did not encourage her to go to university. At first she wanted a career in the theatre and while studying at the Academy of Dramatic Art (1910–11), she took the name Rebecca West after the heroine of Ibsen's Rosmersholm). However, she had developed strong left-wing opinions and decided to become a journalist instead.
Three veterans of the women's suffrage campaign, Dora Marsden, Grace Jardine and Mary Gawthorpe, began publishing their a feminist journal, The Freewoman on 23rd November, 1911. In its first edition Rebecca West wrote an article in support for free-love: "Marriage had certain commercial advantages. By it the man secures the exclusive right to the woman's body and by it, the woman binds the man to support her during the rest of her life... a more disgraceful bargain was never struck."
This article created a storm. Mary Humphrey Ward, the leader of Anti-Suffrage League argued that the journal represented "the dark and dangerous side of the Women's Movement". According to Ray Strachey, the leader of the National Union of Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), Millicent Fawcett, read the first edition and "thought it so objectionable and mischievous that she tore it up into small pieces". Whereas Maude Royden described it as a "nauseous publication".
Other feminists were much more supportive, Ada Nield Chew, argued that the was "meat and drink to the sincere student who is out to learn the truth, however unpalatable that truth may be." Benjamin Tucker commented that it was "the most important publication in existence". Floyd Dell, who worked for the Chicago Evening Post argued that before the arrival of The Freewoman: "I had to lie about the feminist movement. I lied loyally and hopefully, but I could not have held out much longer. Your paper proves that feminism has a future as well as a past." Guy Aldred pointed out: "I think your paper deserves to succeed. I will use my influence in the anarchist movement to this end." Others showed their support for the venture by writing without payment for the journal. This included Teresa Billington-Greig, Rebecca West, H. G. Wells, Edward Carpenter, Havelock Ellis, Stella Browne, C. H. Norman, Edmund Haynes, Catherine Gasquoine Hartley, Huntley Carter, Lily Gair Wilkinson and Rose Witcup.
On 28th December 1911, Dora Marsden began a five-part series on morality. Dora argued that in the past women had been encouraged to restrain their senses and passion for life while "dutifully keeping alive and reproducing the species". She criticised the suffrage movement for encouraging the image of "female purity" and the "chaste ideal". Dora suggested that this had to be broken if women were to be free to lead an independent life. She made it clear that she was not demanding sexual promiscuity for "to anyone who has ever got any meaning out of sexual passion the aggravated emphasis which is bestowed upon physical sexual intercourse is more absurd than wicked."
Dora Marsden went on to attack traditional marriage: "Monogamy was always based upon the intellectual apathy and insensitiveness of married women, who fulfilled their own ideal at the expense of the spinster and the prostitute." According to Marsden monogamy's four cornerstones were "men's hypocrisy, the spinster's dumb resignation, the prostitute's unsightly degradation and the married woman's monopoly." Marsden then added "indissoluble monogamy is blunderingly stupid, and reacts immorally, producing deceit, sensuality, vice, promiscuity and an unfair monopoly." Friends assumed that Marsden was writing about her relationships with Grace Jardine and Mary Gawthorpe.
On 21st March 1912 Stella Browne wrote about her views on free-love in The Freewoman: "The sexual experience is the right of every human being not hopelessly afflicted in mind or body and should be entirely a matter of free choice and personal preference untainted by bargain or compulsion." According to her biographer, Lesley A. Hall: "Browne emphasized the need for women to speak about their own experiences. In both principle and practice Stella was a convinced believer in free love, known to have had various lovers, certainly some male, and possibly some female, though these cannot be reliably identified."
The articles on sexuality created a great deal of controversy. However, they were very popular with the readers of the journal. In February 1912, Ethel Bradshaw, secretary of the Bristol branch of the Fabian Women's Group, suggested that readers formed Freewoman Discussion Circles. Soon afterwards they had their first meeting in London and other branches were set up in other towns and cities.
Some of the talks that took place in the Freewoman Discussion Circles included Edith Ellis (Some Problems of Eugenics), Rona Robinson (Abolition of Domestic Drudgery), C. H. Norman (The New Prostitution), Edmund Haynes (Divorce Reform), Huntley Carter (The Dances of the Stars) and Guy Aldred (Sex Oppression and the Way Out). Other active members included Rebecca West, Grace Jardine, Stella Browne, Harry J. Birnstingl, Charlotte Payne-Townshend Shaw, Havelock Ellis, Lily Gair Wilkinson, Françoise Lafitte-Cyon and Rose Witcup.
Rebecca West became very active in the socialist movement and joined the Fabian Society and met George Bernard Shaw at one of its summer schools. In 1912 she became a staff member of The Clarion. She soon developed a reputation as a perceptive reviewer. When she reviewed the novel, Marriage, she described the author, H. G. Wells, "the old maid among novelists". Wells responded by inviting West to his home. Soon afterwards they became lovers and a son, Anthony Panther West, was born on 4th August 1914.
Her biographer, Bonnie Kime Scott, has argued: "West's affair brought her a domesticity which she disliked, and rustication to various places discreetly accessible to Wells, already notorious for extramarital affairs. She happily settled in her own London flat in 1919." Her first novel, Return of the Soldier (1918), was about a soldier from the First World War suffering from shell-shock. This was followed by the novelsThe Judge (1922), The Strange Necessity (1928) and Harriet Hume (1929). She also wrote a study of the author D. H. Lawrence (1930). She also wrote articles for the Daily News, The Star, New Statesman and New Republic.
Rebecca West married Henry Andrews (1894–1968) on 1st November 1930. West continued to take a keen interest in politics and was a supporter of the Popular Front government in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. She joined with Emma Goldman, Sybil Thorndyke, Fenner Brockway and C. E. M. Joad to establish the Committee to Aid Homeless Spanish Women and Children.
Bonnie Kime Scott has pointed out: "Rebecca West has gradually gained recognition as a perceptive and independent interpreter of literature... West's accounts of literature and culture are typically grounded in philosophical paradigms and cultural diagnoses that invite critical study today. She found pervasive examples of Manichaeism, and joined anthropologists of her era in detecting examples of Western degeneracy."
After the Second World War West became more conservative in her political views and wrote for the Daily Telegraph and the New Yorker. Some of her work was extremely anti-communist and some critics, including Arthur Schlesinger and J. B. Priestley, accused of her being in sympathy with McCarthyism - a charge she denied.
Other books published by Rebecca West included The Meaning of Treason (1949), The Fountain Overflows (1957), The Court and the Castle (1958), The Birds Fall Down (1966), McLuhan and the Future of Literature (1969) and 1900 (1982).