on 16 November 2010
This bittersweet novel has a deceptively simple story which is brought to life through prose which is more like poetry at times; rich and full and evocative without ever being purple or pompous. It is charged with emotion, both amusing and heartbreaking, and I'm green with envy that Rebecca West wrote this when she was only twenty-four. It may be a quick read, but it's a very intense one.
It's not a word I use often, but the writing is just perfect. The snobbery with which Kitty and Jenny greet Margaret is sometimes cruel: 'She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.' (p. 25) However, it is also funny, reflecting on Kitty and Jenny rather than Margaret. I couldn't help but laugh when Jenny remarks on `her deplorable umbrella, her unpardonable raincoat` (p. 33). Her writing is equally insightful and direct when emotional matters are in focus: 'There was to be a finality about his happiness which usually belongs only to loss and calamity; he was to be as happy as a ring cast into the sea is lost, as a man whose coffin has lain for centuries beneath the sod is dead.' (p. 180)
Rebecca West's use of pronouns is masterful: before Chris returns home having lost all memory of the past fifteen years, Jenny always uses `we' to refer to Kitty and herself. Even though Kitty is his wife and Jenny his cousin, both women seem to occupy the same role in making life happy and comfortable and beautiful for Chris, as they are united in their love for him. After Chris returns, Jenny talks about herself separately from Kitty, so not only is the bond between Kitty and her husband severed but also that between Kitty and Jenny. This cleverly emphasises the loneliness and isolation of Chris' erstwhile wife as, without the narrator's `we', she almost disappears from the novel, leaving the reader feeling as guilty and compassionate as Margaret does when we see her standing mournfully outside the nursery clutching her little dog, looking in at the woman her husband loves. In fact, I started out wanting to see more of Kitty and wishing her character would develop, but I very quickly realised that I wasn't supposed to know her and her absence and immaturity were deliberate and perfectly calculated.
on 23 January 2004
Every now and then I will read a novel that makes me wonder why I don't try to cut down on the other things in my life and dedicate more time to reading. The Return of the Soldier is one such book. It is to be frank a masterpiece which will greatly affect how you look upon the world and reflect on your own attitudes to life and love.
The story is simple but the book is far from a simple story. It tells of a shell shocked soldier Chris who escapes the horrors of Flanders by blotting out the last fifteen years of his life and returning to a passionate love affair of the past. He has no recollection of what has occurred since, of his marriage to the gloriously shallow and vain Kitty, of his having to take on the responsibilities of providing the wealth to allow his family to continue their affluent existence, to furnish Baldry Court with beautiful things, of the death of his father and of his own son.
But the story is not his; it belongs to the three women of his life: Kitty his wife, Jenny his childhood friend who has always loved him, and the now dowdy Margaret whose subsequent hardships in life since he left hers fifteen years ago have taken their toll on her. But more than anything it is the story of class attitudes, of England when a stiff upper lip was the order of the day and when “duty” mattered. A story of the contrasts between those who are not able to do as they wish and those sheltered from the realities of life by having all the comforts of life provided to them. It’s a story about those who have “partaken of the inalienable dignity of a requited love”, of those who have known the love of another and those whose souls have been left bitter by the lack of such. It’s a bygone age when England countryside really was the garden of Eden and the full realities of the 20th Century had not been realised.
The book is full of wonderful insights and memorable passages such as when Kitty is to meet the doctor who will “cure” Chris and return him not only to the present but also back to Flanders and the horrors of the war. It is Jenny who as she begins to see the ugliness of Kitty’s sole reflects, “Beautiful women of her type lose, in this matter of admiration alone, their tremendous sense of class distinction: they are obscurely aware that it is their mission to flash the jewel of their beauty before all men, so that they desire it and work to get the wealth to buy it. And thus be seduced by a present appetite to a tilling of the earth that serves the future.” The novel is short but it is a big story and one I have no hesitation in recommending.
First published when she was twenty-six-years-old, Rebecca West's brief, but beautiful novel 'The Return of the Soldier' tells the story of Captain Chris Bawdry who, during the First World War, is returned home from the Front with shell shock and suffering from partial amnesia. Waiting for his return are three very different women: Kitty, his beautiful, indulged and rather shallow wife; Jenny, his devoted and favourite cousin; and Margaret, an inn-keeper's daughter, whom he was deeply in love with fifteen years earlier, and from whom he parted after a foolish misunderstanding ended their relationship. However, this homecoming will be no ordinary event for Chris, or for the three women who await his return, for Chris's mind is locked in a period of time fifteen years earlier, and he is under the illusion that he is returning to the love of his life, Margaret. But what will his wife Kitty and, indeed, Jenny and Margaret do when he returns?
Although Rebecca West was very young when she wrote 'The Return of the Soldier', she was already an accomplished journalist and committed women's rights campaigner, and this is a beautifully written, taut and deftly composed story, which although deceptively simple on the surface, examines the ripple effects of war on individuals and on society. It's also about truth, deception, class differences, morality, goodness, different kinds of love and about confronting reality. Quite a lot for such a short novel and that is one of the reasons why this is such a particularly good piece of fiction.
Set in 1916, Chris is wounded in France and, shell-shocked, loses his memory. Fifteen years are wiped out and he becomes again the twenty-one year old boy just graduated from university falling in love for the first time, rather than the thirty-six year old man with a wife and responsibilities which he really is. Told through the voice of his devoted cousin, this is a simple and simply-told story which yet is hugely resonent and deeply moving.
There are no literary tricks to the narration, no self-conscious flourishes: and, as readers, we are drawn close inside a detailed and intimate story, that is both emotionally-restrained and feels very true.
The three women - Kitty, the beautiful wife; Jenny, the devoted cousin; Margaret, the lower-class lover - are the focus of the book, and West dissects them and their social places with a scalpel, sharp and accurate.
The Freudian psychology which imbues the end of the story feels a little old-fashioned now, but would have been relatively fresh at the time of writing (1918-19).
Overall this is a much deeper story than appears on the simple surface: the return refers not just to the physical return of Chris, but also his return to his place in the social world of the time and the reassumption of all the responsibilities and privileges that go with that. And his reluctance and stoicism in the face of those is a sad indictment of what is meant (and means?) to be a man.
on 28 November 2014
Before I read this, I had known of Rebecca West only through her famous book on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Born in London in 1892, she had little formal education, her family being in genteel poverty. She trained as an actress, but seems to have acted little, becoming a sufragette and then the lover of H.G. Wells. She turned to writing and had a distinguished career in serious journalism. She also wrote a number of novels, but it seems unlikely that most are widely read now. The Return of the Soldier, however, has never quite been forgotten and was filmed, with a stellar cast, in 1982. Her first book, it was published in 1918.
As the book opens, two women are in a country house just outside London on a bright day in the early spring of 1916. They are well-to-do; Kitty is the attractive wife of Baldry, the master of the house, and Jenny, less pretty, is his cousin. Jenny has started to worry that they have heard nothing of Baldry, a serving soldier, for several weeks. Kitty assures her that the War Office would have informed her if there were anything amiss. They are interrupted by the arrival of Margaret, a dowdy woman of limited means from a bleak suburb nearby. She informs them that Baldry is, in fact, in hospital in Boulogne, that he has lost his memory after an explosion, and that he has regressed some 15 years to the time when, as a young man, he loved her. That is why the War Office has not been in touch; it is Margaret to whom Baldry has written, and it is her that he wishes to see.
Baldry is brought home, and is indifferent to his wife; a little less so to his cousin, who he does remember, albeit as a young woman – but he spends his time with Margaret. He is unconcerned that she is now a middle-aged, married, suburban dowd. It becomes clear that he still loves her. Meanwhile his wife, Kitty, desperately wants him restored to normality.
There is an understated lyricism in West’s writing that makes the book poignant and vivid. The sequences in which Baldry remembers his early courtship of Margaret 15 years earlier are set on Monkey Island at Bray, in a curve of the Thames, where Margaret’s father is landlord of the Monkey Island Inn. The place is real enough; today it is an hotel and conference centre just a mile or so from the M4 motorway. West and Wells had frequented Monkey Island immediately before the First World War. In the book, it is a quiet country pub catering to the odd passing boatman. Baldry describes how it was reached:
...a private road... followed a line of noble poplars down to the ferry. Between two of them... there stood a white hawthorn. In front were the dark-green, glassy waters of an unvisited backwater, and beyond them a bright lawn set with many walnut-trees and a few great chestnuts, well lighted with their candles...
To anyone who knows the countryside in the south of England, this is evocative. In April, May and June the sky turns a deeper blue and the trees and hedgerows come alive; the white and pink chestnut candles are a delight, as are the white patches of hawthorn.
Underneath this lyricism, however, this book has some hard themes, some of which must have raised eyebrows at the time. Some have seen the book as a clinical description of combat trauma. Others will see a feminist message here – that the dependence of women on men distorts the behaviour of both, and is even a driver for war. There is plenty of evidence in the book for this interpretation and besides, West was a strong proponent of women’s rights. But perhaps we shouldn’t apply modern labels to people who pre-date them.
Class is another theme. Margaret, the woman to whose affections Baldry has returned, is a woman of a lower station. Jenny and Kitty meet Margaret for the first time, when she first calls at the Baldry house: She wore a yellowish raincoat and a black hat with plumes. The sticky straw hat had only lately been renovated by something out of a little bottle bought at the chemist’s. ...Margaret starts to explain that Baldry is wounded, in Boulogne, and that it seems they do not know. Her words are not taken at face value: This was such a fraud as one sees recorded in the papers ...Presently she would say that she had gone to some expense to come here with her news and that she was poor... These class tensions have still not been excised from British life.
However, West makes an even more important point that is made much more explicitly, and in my view less well, by a more famous book, Heller’s Catch-22. That is the whole question of the logic of war. Kitty, the spurned wife, calls in a series of doctors to try to bring back his memory and restore him to normal. If she succeeds, he will of course return to the front. Cousin Jenny understands this, and feels growing sympathy for Margaret. It slowly becomes clear that, by trying to restore him to “normal” and send him back to war, Kitty is being monstrously selfish. The lover is right; the wife is wrong; restoration to “normal” means death. This was a brave message for 1918.
An expensive specialist has arrived to “cure” Baldry – that is to say, restore his memory. Margaret, the working-class woman that he loves, protests to the doctor:
“What’s the use of talking? You can’t cure him,” – she caught her lower lip with her teeth and fought back from the brink of tears, – “make him happy, I mean. All you can do is to make him ordinary.”
“I grant you that’s all I do,” he said. ..”It’s my profession to bring people... to the normal. There seems to be a general feeling it’s the place where they ought to be. Sometimes I don’t see the urgency myself.”
In Catch-22, the American airman, Yossarian, finds that there is a twisted logic: if you request relief from combat duty on the grounds of insanity, you must be wrong, because to do so is sane. West is subtler but the message is the same; by being “cured”, Baldry will be made to go back to the front, which is mad. Being restored to sanity would make Baldry do something insane. The Return of the Soldier is a beautiful book, but it is also a very subversive one; it questions not only the definition of normality, but, in so doing, the very nature and legitimacy of the authority of one human over another.
on 12 May 2014
The main World War I novel by a woman, "The Return of the Soldier" is based on the home front of Harrow and Wealdstone in 1916 and shows the relationship between shell-shocked Chris and three women in his life. His broken memory wipes out the last 15 years, including his marriage, and sends him back to the love of his life, Margaret.
The book was written before the end of the war and transmits the uncertainty, frustration and desperation of those days. In settling how they will relate to each other, the four characters answer questions that loom even bigger than war, such as 'what is a man?', 'what is love?' and, bringing the two together, 'what is honour?'. Only 24 when she wrote the book, Rebecca West was still working out her style as she created this big canvas. The whole story is given yet another slant by the fact that the narrator, Chris's cousin, is a shocking snob - the kind of woman who lost out to social evolution after World War I, but not before she despised the working class Margaret for the clothes she wore and the roughness of her skin.