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Rebecca West letters to Barbara Back

Identifier: MSS 0676

Scope and Content Note

British writer, critic, and journalist Rebecca West (1892-1983) wrote fifty-five letters to her friend Barbara Back between 1955 and 1968, commenting on her literary work and travels, various political scandals, and the health and social lives of mutual friends.

West wrote to Back to update and inquire about mutual friends and acquaintances, concerning their health and social intrigue. West's turbulent relationship with the actress Charlotte Boissevain (born 1897), whom West criticized for her lack of social graces, provided a constant source of conversation. Additionally, West was preoccupied for a long period with the health of Charlotte's husband, Jan (1883-1964). Other mutual friends about whom West wrote include artist and stage designer Gladys Calthrop (1894-1980), author and literary critic G.B. Stern (1890-1973), West’s sister Winifred’s death, and her own battle with periphlebitis.

Aside from health issues, West demonstrated an interest in her acquaintances' professional development. For example, she notes the sale of the rights of author Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels for film adaptation. Not only do the letters highlight West’s current relationships, they show how her circle widens through social engagements. A timely example, she wrote to Beck about her friend and newspaper Baron Max Beaverbrook reached out to lawyer David Jacobs after his famous involvement in Liberace’s (1919-1987) libel suit.

West’s letters provide insight into her larger social context through her writings on political events, criminal cases, and scandals. West wrote Beck in detail about the case she was following pertaining to Wayne Lonergan who murdered his heiress wife out of personal interest. On a political level, she asserted her opinions on the Profuma Affair and the controversial trial of osteopath and socialite Stephen Ward (1912-1963), who she condemned as a communist. Not merely interested in scandals, West provided her views on the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle in America and apartheid in South Africa.

In addition to demonstrating West’s views and concerns, the letters refer to literary work. A letter from Martin Secker and Warburg is included in the collection, concerning their attempted publication of a novel by Rebecca West’s son, author Anthony West (1914-1987), Heritage (1955). Several of West’s letters responded to the attempt to make her son’s book available in England, which she adamantly opposed due to its unfavorable depiction of her. Relatedly, West expressed concern about the revenue from her own autobiographical novel, The Fountain Overflows (1957). The letters also attest to her prolific output in various media, such as her unfavorable review of historian William Manchester’s (1922-2004) account of the John F. Kennedy assassination, The Death of the President (1967).


  • Creation: 1955-1968


Language of Materials

Materials entirely in English.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open for research.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Use of materials from this collection beyond the exceptions provided for in the Fair Use and Educational Use clauses of the U.S. Copyright Law may violate federal law. Permission to publish or reproduce isrequired from the copyright holder. Please contact Special Collections Department, University of Delaware Library,

Rebecca West

British writer, critic, and journalist Rebecca West (1892-1983) authored numerous articles and books, including the "Aubrey Trilogy" of autobiographical novels. As a journalist, she is perhaps best known for her coverage of the Nuremberg trials collected in her A Train of Powder. Well-traveled, she was part of a transatlantic literary circle, which also included her one-time lover British science fiction author H.G. Wells (1866-1946), with whom she had a son, British author and literary critic Anthony West (1914-1987).

Born in London as Cicily Isabel Fairfield, she took the name "Rebecca West" from a Henrik Ibsen play during her early attempt to pursue a career in theater. After leaving the theater, West established herself as a journalist. A suffragette from an early age, she joined the staff of the feminist paper, The Freewoman, in 1911. A year later, she began to write for the socialist paper, The Clarion. It was her writing which attracted the attention of H.G. Wells and began their decade-long affair. During this period, she wrote her first novel, The Return of the Soldier (1918), about a soldier who experiences amnesia from shell shock.

Over the next decades, West produced a prolific body of work. She contributed to periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Sunday Telegraph, Harper's, the New York Herald Tribune, Vogue, and the Times (London). West's cosmopolitan travels informed her writing. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941) was based on her time in Yugoslavia examining the politics and culture of the Balkans. Her valorization of Balkan nationalism lead her to investigate its theoretical opposite in her own country, the professionalization of treason. The Meaning of Treason (1949), first published after World War II, looked at British fascists, and was revised as The New Meaning of Treason (1964) to include the influx of British Communist spies. West's anti-communism, as well as her position against South African apartheid, became defining features of her public persona.

West maintained an active personal life that brought her into contact with many notable figures of her time, including author and literary critic G.B Stern and British novelist Ian Fleming. After her affair with Wells ended, she had an affair with Max Beaverbrook, the newspaper baron. She married banker Henry Andrews (1894-1968) in 1930, and they moved into Ibstone House in 1941, where they hosted various guests from their circle. Her son, Anthony West, became a successful writer. His novel Heritage (1955) was generally received as a veiled autobiography that unfavorably depicted his mother, prompting her to threaten to sue anyone attempting to publish it in Britain. It was never published in Britain until after her death. Shortly after the appearance of Heritage, West began her trilogy of autobiographical novels, beginning with The Fountain Overflows (1957). The other installments, This Real Night (1984) and My Cousin Rosamund (1985), were published posthumously.

Hastings, Selina. 2009. The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham. London: John Murray. Meyers, Jeffrey. 2004. Somerset Maugham: a life. New York: Knopf."Rebecca West." Contemporary Authors Online. GALE|H1000105108Rogal, Samuel J. 1997. A William Somerset Maugham encyclopedia. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.Scott, Bonnie Kime. "Andrews [née Fairfield], Dame Cicily Isabel [pseudo. Rebecca West] (1892-1983)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (accessed November 5th, 2014).

Barbara Back

Barbara Back was a close friend of author W. Somerset Maugham (1864-1965) and often hosted his parties at Villa Mauresque and for his play openings. She was in all likelihood the model for a sympathetic female character, Constance Middleton, in Maugham's The Constant Wife (1926), and was possibly the model for Margery Hobson Bishop in the short story "Virtue" (1931) A well-known socialite, she was a major source for news and London gossip and include homosexuals among her guests. In 1923, she married the London surgeon Ivor Back (1879-1951). After his death, she supported herself writing a beauty column for the Daily Mirror and teaching manners to debutantes. Later in life, she wrote a collection of short stories about social life in London.


.3 linear foot (1 box)


British writer, critic, and journalist Rebecca West (1892-1983) wrote fifty-five letters and postcards to her friend Barbara Back between 1955 and 1968, commenting on her literary work and travels, various political scandals, and the health and social lives of mutual friends.


Purchase, 2013.

Related Materials in this Repository

MSS 0620 Beverley Nichols papers

Shelving Summary

  1. Box 1: Shelved in SPEC MSS manuscript boxes (1 inch)


Processed and encoded by Sean Lovitt, November 2014.

Finding aid for Rebecca West letters to Barbara Back
University of Delaware Library, Special Collections
2014 November 11
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Part of the University of Delaware Library Special Collections Repository

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