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.