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11:00 PM, Oct 27, 1996 • By DONALD LYONS
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She was the Katharine Hepburn of letters, an outrageously dogmatic and stylish egoist who earned her arrogance by sheer intelligence, a flaming feminist who could be very hard on the male character and yet loved men and was loved by them. Her beauty was in her language -- and very mannered it could sometimes be. Infuriating and intoxicating, partial and partisan, Rebecca West is looking like one of those writers who will live. She wrote a lot, and only a little will live, but that little is choice, or, as Spencer Tracy pronounces it when speaking of Hepburn in Pat and Mike, "cherce."

She was born Cicily Fairfield in London in 1892 to Charles, a handsome but reckless journalist, and Isabella, a bright and educated woman. In 1901 Charles ran off to Africa (why was never clear); Isabella, ailing and poor, moved her three daughters to Edinburgh, where Cicily won prizes in school but preferred acting to studying. Isabella brought the family back to London so that Cicily could go to the Academy of Dramatic Art, but Cicily was pretty much a failure there. Doubtless, she was already too strong a personality to be good at impersonating others. Instead, she got a job at a new suffragist journal, The Freewoman, and was soon writing aggressively polemical articles for its pages. On November 30, 1911, still 18, she published her first review -- of a book about women in India; it began, "There are two kinds of imperialists: imperialists and bloody imperialists."

A bit scared of what her mother would think of such language and such a tone, Cicily decided to adopt a pen name and chose Rebecca West, the name of the heroine of Ibsen's Rosmersholm -- an emancipated vixen who, conscience-stricken by the wiles she has worked on her much older lover, commits suicide. It was a brave but ominous choice, this abandoning of her given name with its oddly Wildean echoes (the two young women in The Importance of Being Earnest are called Gwendolyn Fairfax and Cecily Cardew) for that of a deeply torn "new woman."

One of the books West reviewed for The Freewoman in 1912 was Marriage, a novel by the prolific and popular H. G. Wells, then 46. She was amusing about Wells's iraplausible female characters, finding them "the reaction towards the flesh of a mind too long absorbed in airships and colloids." This sauciness brought an invitation to lunch at Wells's country place. The married philanderer took his time with West, but by the end of 1913 she had seduced Wells. It was the great love of her life, great but crazy.

In August 1914, on the very day England declared war on Germany, West gave birth to a boy called Anthony Panther West ("Panther" was Wells's love-name for her; she called him "Jaguar"). West and the boy lived in a separate establishment, visited from time to time by Wells, playing Santa. Neither parent-the absentee Wells and the part-time West -- admitted parenthood; calling his mother Auntie, the boy grew up embittered and self-conscious about his bastardy. He was to nourish a lifelong resentment principally if unfairly against his mother and would express it in wounding novels and other writings. The business was selfishly and messily done by the parents; everybody involved was forever damaged; there's no credit to be had.

By 1923, West had put Wells out of her life and sailed off to conquer New York as a coming writer. After hot flings with Max Beaverbrook, John Gunther, and others, West met Henry Andrews, a courtly and cultivated banker of 35 who was a great fan of her prose. In 1930, they wed. It was, though sexual for a time, basically a marriage of friendship, of comfort, of companionship: the classic "settling-for" after youthful passages of violent and desolating passion. They traveled, most memorably to Yugoslavia. In 1939, they bought a rural seat in Buckinghamshire: Ibstone House, a Regency pile with a farm, a great walled garden, and a view of the Chiltern Hills. They stayed married, despite a fair amount of straying by both parties, until his death in 1968, whereupon West sold Ibstone and moved back to London, where she died in 1983.

She was 90 and had been complaining, "I wish I wasn't half dead and half alive, it's not good for one's style." She was, above all things, a writer, and she lived a writer's life of observation, solitude, conferences, negotiations with publishers, feuds, reading. Writers' lives are in their books more than their days. That said, West's life was rather more interesting than those of most writers -- more readable than, say, the life of Virginia Woolf or Willa Cather. If nothing else, she was never silent and she was never dull.