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The Quotable Rebecca West

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Her definition of feminism has fired up generations of activists.

Rebecca West was a prolific author with a wide range – she wrote histories and thrillers, love stories and travelogues, biographies and memoirs. She was a journalist, a lecturer, a traveler, a thinker. Along the way, she developed a way with words that made her one of the most frequently quoted authors, even 30 years after her March 15, 1983 death at age 90.

Rebecca West image by Madame Yévonde, courtesy of Bernard SchweizerWest's definition of feminism, written 100 years ago in her essay Mr. Chesterton in Hysterics, has fired up generations of activists. And her quotability doesn't end there. West had something pithy to say on a wide variety of subjects. A few of our favorites:

On writing: "Fiction and poetry are the only way one can stop time and give an account of an experience and nail it down so that it lasts for ever."

On art: "Any authentic work of art must start an argument between the artist and their audience."

On war: "Before a war military science seems a real science, like astronomy; but after a war it seems more like astrology."

On reading: "In these pages your imaginations, your desires, your passions are given life; Thoughts take shape that turn into dreams and our aspirations all start with a dream. Reading is where those dreams really can come true over and over again."

On chasing one's dreams: "It is the soul's duty to be loyal to its own desires. It must abandon itself to its master passion."

On discretion: "If it be ungentlemanly to kiss and tell, it is still further from gentlemanliness to pray and tell."

On good intentions: "If the whole human race lay in one grave, the epitaph on its headstone might well be: 'It seemed a good idea at the time.'"

Rebecca West turned a fine phrase, and there's more where these came from. Interested readers might start with Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a celebrated travel book written after she visited Yugoslavia. With it, she helped define travel literature as handily as she defined feminism.