The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

A birthday is a good time to remember a neglected author, especially one of the many neglected women authors. Rebecca West was born on 21stDecember 1892. She was progressive, radical in her early life, and her first novel, The Return of the Soldier, was considered quite risky. It was published in the last year of the First World War. It is an unusual criticism of the harm that war can do.

Rebecca West herself had not lived her life as she a girl of her class was expected to. She had been a suffragette before the war and was a feminist and journalist. A provocative article calling HG Wells an  ‘Old Maid among novelists’ led to their meeting, a long affair and a son born in 1914. She supported herself through her writing.

Jane on beyondedenrock blog posted A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authorsand I support her suggestion that we celebrate birthdays of the more neglected women writers.

Cover: detail from The Other Room by Vanessa Bell

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

The wife and cousin (Kitty and Jenny) of the soldier, Chris, wait for their hero to return and for the war to end. In anticipation they have spent time and money of the house he redesigned. They have made it beautiful for his return. Kitty herself is a beautiful woman, very conscious of her social value and of the persuasive powers of her beauty.

The novel is narrated by Jenny, Chris’s cousin, and she is in love with this man whom she has known since childhood. She lives with Kitty and believes that she shares Kitty’s values: the importance of behaving properly, and the value of beautiful things and surroundings. As they wait, a little anxious for they have not heard from Chris for a couple of weeks, Jenny reflects on the money they have spent on the garden and the furnishings of Baldry Court.

I was sure that we were preserved from the reproach of luxury because we had made a fine place for Chris, one little part of the world that was, so far as surfaces could make it so, good enough for his amazing goodness. (16)

Notice the word ‘surface’, for eventually both Jenny and Chris, but not Kitty, would see the life they had created and were preserving for Chris was just that – a surface. Underneath there was a vacuum.

As they are waiting news comes from a strange woman, lower class, not wearing beautiful clothes and her body not well preserved. Jenny and Kitty are revolted by the poverty and careworn appearance of Mrs Grey. This is Margaret who Chris had loved 15 years before. She tells Kitty and Jenny that Chris has amnesia.

The soldier is sent back from the war. He has forgotten Kitty, the remodelled house, the war – everything of the last few years. In talking to Jenny he reveals that he only feels comfortable around Margaret and she agrees to come and be with him, even though she too is now married.

The situation is difficult. Kitty, used to getting her own way, finds herself replaced by Margaret in Chris’s affections, who comes to share her days with Chris. It is not spelled out precisely how intimate they become, but Kitty finds it more and more intolerable. Jenny, on the other hand, finds herself increasingly respecting Margaret and her relationship with Chris.

Eventually, Margaret sees that the way to ‘cure’ the soldier is to remind him of his dead son. Here is a dilemma: to bring back his memory will mean he has to return to the front, and he will loose the happy state into which he has entered with Margaret.

It is also clear that it is more than the war that has caused his amnesia: his life with Kitty is all on the surface. The reader sees that relationships which are all about servicing and pleasing the men are flawed.

In the final scene Kitty asks Jenny to watch from the house for his return after Margaret has forced Chris to see the truth and regain his memory. Jenny sees him approach the house across the lawn.

He wore a dreadful decent smile; I knew how his voice would resolutely lift in greeting us. He walked not loose limbed like a boy, as he had done that very afternoon, but with the soldier’s hard tread upon the heel. It recalled to me that, bad as we were, we were not yet the worst circumstance of his return. …

“Jenny, Jenny! How does he look?”

“Oh …” How could I say it? “Every inch a soldier.”

She crept behind me to the window, peered over my shoulder and saw.

I heard her suck her breath with satisfaction. “He’s cured!” she whispered with satisfaction. “He’s cured!” she whispered slowly. “He’s cured!” (187-8)

It is a victory for appearance, surface, doing things because others say they are right, ignoring your own heart. And the warning that Chris must return to the front suggests that the war is itself an attack on deeper, more decent ways of loving and being.

Rebecca West lived a long and productive life. She died in 1983 aged 90. She had written and published a great deal of fiction, non-fiction and journalism.

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca Westwas first published in 1918. I read the edition by Virago Classics (1980) which has an introduction by Victoria Glendining. 188pp It has been reissued with a striking new cover.

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7 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

7 Responses to The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

  1. It’s a profoundly moving novel, if a little schematic. In my short post last year (I had to check) I singled out RW’s brilliant eye for detail and telling use of clothing as an index of class and class attitudes. Great covers, aren’t they!

    • Caroline

      That’s a good bit of noticing, and I guess is an aspect of that importance that Kitty applies to appearances to surface, and Chris and Jenny at one time. They, and we the readers, come to see how superfluous it all is.

      Thanks Simon for continued interesting comments on this blog.
      Caroline

  2. Jay

    I have yet to read her novels, but her short story, Parthenope, is one of my all time favorites. So poignant.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for adding this recommendation. She wrote many short stories as well as novels, even nonfiction and we should celebrate all aspects of her writing on her birthday.

      Caroline

  3. As Simon says, it’s a very moving novel. Such a powerful story, beautifully conveyed. I love the cover of your old green Virago edition, it seems to fit the narrative perfectly.

  4. It’s such a powerful read, isn’t it, and more amazing for being her first novel. So evocative.

    • Caroline

      I think she had a talent for being provocative. That’s how she met HG Wells, and the pseudonym she chose for herself was from a provocative and feisty character in a play from the time. She enjoyed it.
      I find women such as her inspiring.
      And yet it is more than provocative, as she explores how Chris (the soldier), Kitty his beautiful entitled wife, Jenny the adoring observer and Margaret the patient and generous former lover, respond to Chris’s amnesia. And she poses the difficult question – can life ever be happy in this word?
      Caroline

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