A plaque for Dame Rebecca West

Rebecca West portrait

A plaque honouring an eminent 20th century writer is to be unveiled at the author’s childhood home and IASH’s current premises. The memorial is a tribute to the acclaimed novelist, literary critic and journalist Dame Rebecca West. The plaque is one of six commemorating prominent women to be announced by Historic Environment Scotland to coincide with Women’s History Month in March. The body is responsible for administering the commemorative plaques scheme in Scotland, with nominations accepted from members of the public and an independent panel responsible for the final list.

An unveiling ceremony will be held during the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2020. It will feature a reading of West’s work and a walking tour of locations that inspired her writing. IASH will also host events in 2022 to mark the centenary of publication of West’s second novel, The Judge, set in Hume Park Square, a thinly-disguised version of Hope Park Square.

Born Cicily Isabel Fairfield in London in 1892, West moved to 2 Hope Park Square in Edinburgh with her Scottish mother and sisters in 1902. She lived there for about a year before moving to nearby Buccleuch Place to attend George Watson's Ladies College, then based in George Square. Her memories of poverty in the area strongly informed her portrayal of tenement life that featured in The Judge.

Beyond the archway lay the queerest place. It was a little box-like square, hardly forty paces across, on three sides of which small squat houses sat closely with a quarrelling air, as if each had to broaden its shoulders and press out its elbows for fear of being squeezed out by its neighbours and knocked backwards into the mews. They sent out in front of them the slimmest slices of garden which left room for nothing but a paved walk from the entry and a fenced bed in the middle, where a lamp-post stood among some leggy laurels, which the rain was shaking as a terrier shakes a rat. Huddled houses and winking lamp and agued bushes, all seemed alive and second cousins to the goblins. On the fourth side were railings that evidently gave upon some sort of public park, for beyond them very tall trees which had not been stunted by garden soil sent up interminable stains on the white darkness, and beneath their drippings paced a policeman, a black figure walking with that appearance of moping stoicism that policemen wear at night. He, too, participated in the fantasy of the place, for it seemed possible that he had never arrested anybody and never would; that his sole business was to keep away bad dreams from the little people who were sleeping in these little houses. They were probably poor little people, for poverty keeps early hours, and in all the square there was but one lighted window. And that he perceived, as he got his bearings, was in the house to which Ellen was leading him down the narrowest garden he had ever seen, a mere cheese straw of grass and gravel. It was a corner house, and of all the houses in the square it looked the most put upon, the most relentlessly squeezed by its neighbours; yet Ellen opened the door and invited him in with something of an air.

An extract from The Judge (1922)

During her own lifetime, West’s novels drew much less attention than her social and cultural writings. Her reports on the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1946, were widely acclaimed. By the end of her life, West’s literary reputation had risen considerably. On hearing of her death in 1983, The New Yorker’s editor-in-chief William Shawn described West as “one of the giants who will have a lasting place in English literature”. No one in the 20th century, said Shawn, had written more dazzling prose, or displayed more wit.

2019-20 is IASH’s 50th anniversary, and we are especially delighted to be able to mark the occasion by celebrating our link with one of the twentieth century’s great authors. Rebecca West’s partner, H.G. Wells, has been honoured with several plaques, but this is the first to commemorate her. In her masterpiece 'Black Lamb and Grey Falcon', she writes of showing ‘the past side by side with the present it created’. We hope that this plaque brings her past and our present together just as she would wish.

Professor Steve Yearley, IASH Director

The unveiling in August will be attended by Edinburgh Principal Peter Mathieson, guests from the Rebecca West Society and some of the writer’s descendants. Also attending will be Dr Alex Thomson, Head of English Literature and former IASH Fellow – whose research interests include 20th century Scottish literature – and IASH Director Professor Steve Yearley.

Celebrated in her lifetime for her pioneering journalism, criticism, fiction and travel-writing, Rebecca West continues to exert a fascination on readers seeking to understand the twentieth century: her work teaches us about how writers can respond in times of social and political turbulence. Drawing on critical years in her early life, her novel 'The Judge' connects this international writer to the streets around the University of Edinburgh.

Dr Alex Thomson, Head of English Literature at Edinburgh

For media coverage of the plaque, see The Scotsman.

Our thanks go to Honorary Fellow Dr Karina Williamson for rediscovering the connection between West and IASH, and to West's family.