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Rebecca West (1892-1983) was born Cicily Isabel Fairfield, the youngest of three daughters of Charles Fairfield, a journalist in London, and Isabel Mackenzie, a talented pianist who supported her family by giving music lessons. Fairfield was a brilliant storyteller who entertained his daughters with tales of wild adventures in America and Australia, but he was moody and unreliable, and in 1901 he left his wife and children to go to Sierra Leone, where he hoped to start a pharmaceutical plant. The plan failed, and he returned to London, though not to his family, dying when Cicily was fourteen. Inspired by such stars of the stage as Sarah Bernhardt and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Cicily hoped to become an actress, and in 1910 she enrolled in the Academy of Dramatic Art. Soon, however, she abandoned her theatrical ambitions and joined the staff of the feminist journal The Freewoman
, for which she began to write regularly under the name of Rebecca West (adopted after playing that character in a performance of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm
). Among Rebecca West’s protean accomplishments are critical studies of two writers she deeply admired, Henry James and D.H. Lawrence; Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
(1941), a vast work about pre-World War II Yugoslavia that combines history, political analysis, and vivid descriptions of travel; The Meaning of Treason
(1947); and several novels, beginning with The Return of the Soldier
(1918) and including The Fountain Overflows
(1956), which is closely modeled on the events of her own childhood.