Rebecca West: The Return of the Soldier (1918) Literature and War Readalong March

The soldier returns from the front to the three women who love him. His wife, Kitty, with her cold, moonlight beauty, and his devoted cousin Jenny wait in their exquisite home on the crest of the Harrow-weald. Margaret Allington, his first and long-forgotten love, is nearby in the dreary suburb of Wealdstone. But the soldier is shell-shocked and can only remember the Margaret he loved fifteen years before, when he was a young man and she an inn-keeper’s daughter. His cousin he remembers only as a childhood playmate; his wife he remembers not at all. The women have a choice – to leave him where he wishes to be, or to ‘cure’ him. It is Margaret who reveals a love so great that she can make the final sacrifice.

The Return of the Soldier is unusual because it has been written by a woman and during the war. But it is also unusual in its treatment of the war. Although a tale that takes place on the home-front, the horrors of the war in the trenches shine through constantly.

The novel is a first person narrative,  told by Jenny, Chris’s cousin. It opens on a domestic scene showing Kitty, Chris’ wife and Jenny together in the nursery. We learn immediately that the child who lived there is dead and we also learn a lot about the very different characters of these two women. Kitty is not easily alarmed even though they haven’t heard from Chris for weeks. The very first paragraph shows that she treats the war lightly, does maybe not take it very seriously at all, rather like some adventure, while Jenny is aware of the dangers.

“Ah, don’t begin to fuss!” wailed Kitty. “If a woman began to worry in these days because her husband hadn’t written to her for a fortnight—! Besides, if he’d been anywhere interesting, anywhere where the fighting was really hot, he’d have found some way of telling me instead f just leaving it as “Somewhere in France. He’ll be alright.”

Jenny will tell us later what a very shallow woman Kitty is. Appearances is all that is important to her.

Now, why did Kitty, who was the falsest thing on earth, who was in tune with every kind of falsity, by merely suffering somehow remind us pf reality?

The initial scene is almost idyllic as the house and its surroundings are so lovely and Jenny cannot help but think of how much Chris must miss his life there. Rebecca West is excellent when she describes the surroundings. She chooses words like a painter who tries to get every little shade of what he paints right. Her writing is nuanced and poetical.

The house lies on the crest of Harrowweald, and from its windows the eye drops to miles of emerald pastureland lying wet and brilliant under a westward line of sleek hills blue with distance and distant woods, while nearer it ranges the suave decorum of the lawn and the Lebanon cedar whose branches are like darkness made palpable, and the minatory gauntness of the topmost pines in the wood that breaks downward, its bare boughs a close texture of browns and purples, from the pond on the hill’s edge.

Of the two women, Jenny is the one that brings the war into the novel through her worrying. It is deeply rooted in her consciousness as well as in her subconscious. Her feelings for her cousin are so intense, the identification is total at times and she seems to be the one experiencing the battlefield. Through Jenny we get a clear picture of how much was known on the home-front. In the movie theaters they were shown black and white footage of the front line. To be like Kitty, unaware of the real dangers, you had to be really determined to keep them away from you.

Of late I had had had dreams about him. By night I saw Chris running across the brown rottenness of No Man’s Land, starting back here because he rod upon a hand, not even looking there because of the awfulness of an unburied head, and not till my dream was packed full of horror did I see him pitch forward on his knees as he reached safety—it was that. For on the war-films I have seen men slip down as softly from the trench parapet, and none but the grimmer philosopher would say that they reached safety by their fall.

Into the initial idyll breaks a shabby and elderly looking woman. She is badly dressed and seems of the lowest social class. Both women feel revolted and when they hear why she has come they are quite shocked. Margaret has come to inform them that Chris has been is in a hospital in France and suffers from severe shell-shock. He is amnesic and has eradicated the last 15 years of his memory, believing to still have a relationship with Margaret. The reactions of the two women towards this member of the lower classes is quite disturbing. They almost react as if she was contaminating the house.

Soon after this conversation, Chris is brought back and has indeed lost every memory of his wife and barely recognizes his cousin who is now fifteen years older.

In what follows we see how each of the three women reacts so differently, how each wishes and longs for other things. We learn also about the relationship Chris had with Margaret and why he broke it off and what happened to her after he left her. Despite all this there is no sign of his recovering his memory and finally a doctor is called. At first he isn’t successful but he points out that there may have been a reason why Chris repressed the memory of his marriage. It is only after Margaret suggests to show Chris something that will trigger a strong emotion – in this case things that belonged to the dead child – that he will be able to regain his memory. I the moments before he is shown the baby’s things Jenny is suddenly painfully aware of what a recovery truly means. Should he recover, he will have to go back to the front. In sharp contrast to this, Kitty doesn’t care. She wants her husband to recognize her again, that’s all she cares about. Once the recovery has happened, it’s Jenny again who states clearly what will be.

He walked not loose limbed like a boy, as he had done that very afternoon, but with the soldier’s thread upon the heel. It recalled to me that, bad as we were, we were yet not the worst circumstance of his return. When he dad lifted the yoke of our embraces from his shoulders he would go back to that flooded trench in Flanders under that sky more full of flying death than clouds, to that No Man’s Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead.

I found it very interesting that The Return of the Soldier can be read in many different ways. Considering the theme of the readalong, I focused on the way she treated WWI but that is not the only topic in this novel. One could also explore the psychological theories or the sociological dimension.

I think The Return of the Soldier is an incredibly subtle and artful novel. The war and it’s horrors are like threads that are woven into the fabric of the story. As a journalist Rebecca West was interested and did report on the war but she was also very interested in Freud’s theories, some of which she has applied in the novel. I think to make of Chris a shell-shocked soldier suffering from amnesia which was not realistic, shows us that she wanted this to be taken symbolically. The psychologist Glen Clifford kindly and eloquently pointed out in a comment on my introductory post that PTSD is characterized by the incapability to forget and amnesia is a very unlikely occurrence.

The three women all symbolize something else and represent different levels of consciousness. Kitty, the wife he has forgotten is the symbol of all the forces that contribute and maintain the class system and the war. She is a typical representative of the British upper class, of those who decide to send  thousands of young men to a certain death. Those who don’t care what is going on “over there”. She symbolizes the unconscious. Margaret on the other hand stands for the working classes, simplicity, those who have to endure what others force upon them. That seems to be pretty much how Chris feels as well. She may be read as the subconscious. Jenny is by far the most intriguing. She moves back and forth between the different levels of consciousness with a capability of seeing things clearly. She is his cousin but thinks and feels rather like a lover. She seems the most authentic, the most emotional, the one who feels what either Kitty or Chris should feel, namely the horror and despair caused by this horrible war and the sadness about the loss of the little boy. It may very well be that the death of the child drove the spouses apart.

I would like to say thanks to Ann Norton from the International Rebecca West Society, for pointing me towards a new critical edition by Bernard Schweizer and Charles Thorne. It contains invaluable material and background information to the book. If you want to have a look at the content here’s the link to the broadview press.

Ann Norton wrote the introduction to the Barnes and Noble Library of Essential Reading Edition.

I am really curious to read what others have to say about this complex novel, be it in a review or in comments.

Other reviews:

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)


Danielle (A Work in Progress)


The Return of the Soldier was the third book in the Literature and War Readalong. The next one will be Carol Ann Lee’s The Winter of the World. Discussion starts on Friday April 29, 2011 .