Rebecca West Prize for Writing

Rebecca West
Rebecca West

About the Prize

This annual prize was established in 2017 at St Edmund Hall by the Rebecca West Literary Estate, to celebrate the writing, life and achievements of Dame Rebecca West. There is a prize of £1,000 for the winning essay and £500 for the runner-up. Applicants are asked to submit one piece of writing on a topic related to Rebecca West’s interests, set each year by the International Panel.

Rebecca West (1892-1983) has been called “the world’s number one woman writer”, “the greatest woman since Elizabeth I”, and “a strong contender for woman of the century.” As a young woman she was a fiery suffragette and socialist; by her thirties, she was a world-famous journalist and political analyst, as well as a distinguished novelist.

2019 Competition

The title originally set for this year’s prize echoes that of Rebecca West’s pioneering post-war novel, The Return of the Soldier (1918).

Our aim was to invite a contemporary re-imagining of that novel’s central dilemmas of reintegration and culpability, specifically developing West’s investigation of the question of gender. With the comments we have received in the past few days, it is clear that in encouraging a theoretical and literary critical focus on the figure of the ‘ISIS soldier’s wife’ from the perspective of gender, we have been insufficiently alive to the social and political problems in presenting the cases we refer to. We understand that race intersects with gender to exclude and stigmatise, and that our posing of the question of one at the expense of the other has caused harm and offence, which we regret and apologise for.

We withdrew this title, and now relaunch the competition with the title below to best reflect both the challenges of Rebecca West’s work, and the engagements and concerns of contemporary experience.

The Return of the Soldier at 101

We ask students to consider West’s now-canonized novel The Return of the Soldier 101 years after its publication in 1918. Applicants are invited to consider any (or all) of the following questions:

  • How do we read The Return of the Soldier now?
  • More than a century later, what do contemporary readers make of West’s central ideas and concerns: gender, class, Freudian psychoanalysis, loyalty, and the twinned traumas of conflict and return?
  • The Return of the Soldier: a ‘modernist’ text?
  • How does the presentation of War and its aftermath in The Return of the Soldier compare to such classics as All Quiet on the Western Front, Goodbye to All That, Parades’ End or The Good Soldier?
  • The Return of the Soldier: contemporary resonances and remakings?
  • How do West’s concerns relate to more contemporary portrayals of the effects of combat on humans,  in novels and on film – from The Hurt LockerComing Home, and American Sniper,through to Taxi Driver, Home of the Brave, and Brothers (and beyond…)?

At the time of the publication of West’s novel, very little was known about combat-induced PTSD, and the subject matter was regarded as shocking: The Guardian last year pronounced the novel “a wonderful provocation”. The idea that soldiers bring the battlefield “home” with them is now fairly commonplace; and yet the very notion of “home” remains, as it was for West, a complex battlefield. We invite applicants to re-read The Return of the Soldier and to explore the ways in which literature (and fiction-making more generally) intersect with important social and cultural issues of our times.

The International Rebecca West Panel:

  • Professor Ann Holbrook, Professor of English at Saint Anselm College, US, and President of the International Rebecca West Society
  • Dr Kathryn Laing, Department of English Language and Literature, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick
  • Professor Wes Williams, Fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford University
  • Ms Helen Atkinson, Executor, Rebecca West Literary Estate

How to Enter

All students at the University of Oxford can apply. Limit is one submission per entrant. Submissions should be in essay form of 1,500-2,000 words in length. Please mark each page with page number, author, and title. Please submit original work that has not been submitted elsewhere. Please respect the judge’s time and keep the subject matter relevant!

The essay must be sent in an electronic PDF form to by midnight on Sunday 28 April, 2019. The International Panel will shortlist candidates, and the prize and runner-up prize will be awarded at a presentation ceremony held at St Edmund Hall on Friday, May 24, followed by a dinner.

Previous Winners

In 2018, entrants were invited to write on the topic of ‘Are Men (still) Beasts? : Rebecca West’s legacy in the time of #metoo’. Sophie Hardcastle, a visiting Provosts Scholar at Worcester College, won first prize with her essay Where The Voices Aren’t: moral accountability at the end of the earth, while Amy Holguin, an undergraduate in Archaeology and Anthropology at Hertford College, was the runner-up for her essay Beauty and the Beasts: Rethinking fantastical paradigms that cast women as damsels in distress, in need of being saved from agentless men in a global context.

The topic for 2017’s prize was ‘The Meaning of Treason’, and the inaugural Rebecca West Prize for Writing was awarded to Ian Madison, a DPhil student in International Development at Jesus College. Read Ian’s winning essay Treason in the Age of Globalization: A Journey through Kosovo. The runner-up was Owain Johnstone, a DPhil student in Socio-legal Studies at Christ Church, for his essay, The Meaning(fulness) of Treason.