Dame Rebecca West

Rebecca West (1892-1983) was the name Cicely Fairfield took to pursue her meteoric writing career.

She was the middle daughter of Isabella Fairfield (born Mackenzie and one of the musical Mackenzie family who lived at 41 Heriot Row).

Educated at George Watsons Ladies College, she became an actress, a suffragette, then a campaigning journalist, war reporter and writer. She wrote from a young age and was publishing brilliant hard hitting articles and reviews before she was 20. She knew many legendary writers including Joseph Conrad and George Bernard Shaw. She wrote novels, biographies and works of travel, to great acclaim. She was described by Time Magazine in 1940 as ‘indisputably the world’s number one woman writer’.

She was hugely committed, pro feminist, anti communist and anti fascist. She had left the Victorian conventions of Heriot Row far behind. She had a ten year long affair with the writer H G Wells, with whom she had a son. She is also said to have had affairs with Charlie Chaplin and Lord Beaverbrook. 

After she died, the editor of the New Yorker wrote "Rebecca West was one of the giants and will have a lasting place in English literature. No one in this century wrote more dazzling prose, or had more wit, or looked at the intricacies of human character and the ways of the world more intelligently".

Is it fair to include her in a history of Heriot Row, where she never lived? The answer is that in her memoirs she dwelt in great detail with the lives of the Mackenzie family at Number 41. She was outraged at the harsh impact of Victorian conventions and Heriot Row society on the lives of her mother and grandmother, as a once happy family fractured and sad fates overwhelmed most of its members. Her son Anthony West remarked that "a shabby genteel life in Edinburgh marked those who had to endure it to the bone". Her memoirs, written late in her life, read as a novel as much as a biography, with Heriot Row almost a character in its own right, dispensing favours and penalties.

You can read more in 'Family Memories' by Rebecca West, edited by Faith Evans, published by Virago Press in 1987. Her novel 'The Fountain Overflows' also contains strong biographical elements of her parents' and sisters' lives.


She was described by Time Magazine in 1940 as ‘indisputably the world’s number one woman writer'