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on 2 November 2015
No problem thank you
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The book is set in the First World War and written in 1918. It centres around the family living in an old country house – Chris, the soldier of the title; his wife Kitty who is fashionable and obsessed with how things look; and Jenny, Chris’s cousin who has unrequited love for him. Kitty and Jenny start the novel living alone in the house as Chris is at war. They are filled with fear about Chris’s time at the front and they seem to be in limbo as they wait for his return. Into this situation arrives Margaret, a working class woman who the two ladies initially think is trying to con them. Margaret has been contacted by Chris who has returned from the front wounded and, having forgotten his recent past, can only remember a time in his youth when he was in love with Margaret.

This is actually quite a complex novel despite the fact that it is so short. It deals with shell shock and nervous problems, including having Chris treated by a psychoanalyst. It also deals a fair amount with loss and regret – Margaret has lost her beauty and her chances in life with time, Chris and Kitty have lost a small child, Jenny has lost any chance of love with Chris and Chris ends up losing any chance to make a future with Margaret in favour of the vows he has made to Kitty. It’s bittersweet and the whole book seems to suggest that the status quo must be restored irrespective of any other choice or anyone’s deep felt wishes.

Where the book shocks the modern reader is probably not what would have made an impact at the time in which it was written. Jenny is the narrator and her description of Margaret when she first arrives is appalling. She is repelled by the cheapness of her clothing and the fact that it is in poor taste and the fact that Margaret does not have refined looks. Over and over again she mentions Margaret’s large, red and worn hands. In the end Jenny feels that Margaret behaves the best of any character but you do get the impression that this is particularly notable because of her class and the fact that you wouldn’t expect such refinement of character and self-sacrifice from the lower classes. A lot of this is quite painful for the modern reader, possibly because in every other way you recognise these people and their dilemma and identify with them – I wonder if this book was written today whether the ending would be the same ? I think not.

It’s an interesting, if rather dated read, and I enjoyed it. This is the only book by Rebecca West I have ever read but I would be prepared to try others.
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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.
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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.
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on 20 September 2014
Boring to read, too many describing the situation words. By passed a lot because of this...
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on 11 September 2013
Didn't quite enjoy this book. Maybe it was the style it was written in. Very difficult to get your head round it. Although it was in good condition and delivery came on time.
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on 2 December 2015
Different, extraordinary tale of soldier returning shell-shocked from WWI. Well-written.
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on 1 July 2015
Haven't read it yet, but the guides for it look promising. Bought as part of wider reading for English Lit A Level.
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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.

5 Stars.
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on 7 March 2013
Some of the prose is incredible but I didn't like the ending.

Brilliant idea, well executed. The end......just answered none of my questions.

I guess this is just a matter of individual taste though.
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