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 .

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

  1. Pingback: The Return of the Soldier, by Rebecca West « Bookaroundthecorner's Blog

  2. I love the way you describe the women in this book, they all sound special.
    Kitty might sound so shallow but a woman like her has a benefit too. At least she doesn’t let things bother her much.

    From your review, I got the feeling that the book doesn’t have much war scene, am I right?

    • The three women are very different. Kitty is easygoing that’s for sure but I doubt she is genuinely carefree, she rather doesn’t want to face conflicts. She lost a child and doesn’t even talk about it.This seems hard to imagine. Also Chris’ illness is only important to her because it could have consequences for her. She doesn’t really care about him either. It’s really Margaret and Jenny who care.
      The war is mentioned and surfaces here and there but only in dreams and thoughts. Chris doesn’t talk about it at all.

  3. The first time I read this, I liked it but didn’t think that much of it, but on a second reading, I found it much more powerful.

    I meant to reread this for the readalong but didn’t.

    The film version is excellent. Have you seen it?

    • I think it deserves a re-reading, it’s quite complex. I’m still surprised it was never translated into German.
      I haven’t seen the movie yet but I’m planning on doing it.

  4. This sounds like a remarkably complex read, with the perspectives of the three women providing an interesting commentary on the events. I’ve never read Rebecca West before – maybe I should rectify matters!

    • I think you should and knowing your taste a bit I also think you might like it. I read that she has more than one great book to offer. It will not be my last, I’m planning on reading another one very soon. The Return of the Soldier is quite short, a great opportunity to just “test the waters”.

  5. Excellent review as usual. I am proud of myself because I caught much of those themes when I read it.
    1. I definitely picked up on Jenny being in love with Chris. “To see him was to desire intimacy with him so that one might intervene between this body which was formed for happiness and this soul which cherished so deepo a faith in tragedy…”
    2. I enjoyed the trashing of the Kitty character because it played into my feelings toward the rich. I loved this description of the rich’s attitude toward the poor – “it would have been such agony to the finger tips to touch any part of [Margaret’s] apparel” and “hated her as the rich hate the poor, as insect things that will struggle out of the crannies which are their decent home, and introduce ugliness to the light of day.”
    3. Love will overcome social distinctions. ” I reflected, while Kitty wept, how entirely right Chris had been in his assertion that to lovers innummerable things do not matter”.
    4. Some of the passages indicate that West was not exactly a feminist. With Margaret sitting next to the sleeping Chris – “It means that the woman has gathered the soul of the man into her soul and is keeping it warm in love and peace so that his body can rest quiet for a little time. That is a great thing for a woman to do.” Here, here! Is Margaret a mother figure? Chris’ mum is not part of his life.
    5. Beautiful women are the engine of civilization.
    “[T]hey are obscurely aware that it is their civilizing mission to flash the jewel of their beauty before all men, so that they shall desire it and work to get the wealth to buy it, and thus be seduced by a present appetite to the tilling of the earth that serves the future”. I will have to confront my wife about this plot.
    6. Where is West going when she reveals that Margaret had a son die at age 5 also of a cold? Coincidence?
    7. Margaret is a saint! Poor women are saintly. Chris is also saintly when he is suffering from the amnesia. Rich men can be angelic, if they are not themselves. Their love is too good to be true.
    8. An innkeeper’s daughter? Come on, West. Gag!

    I enjoyed the book, but not as much as the first two. West is a bit too florid for my taste. I prefer my war novels to have some combat, not just the brief imaginings of a clueless female about what it might be like. (That’s the guy in me talking).
    I recently read a book by James Lee Burke who I labeled the King of the Simile, I now have a Queen of the Semi-colon. I actually counted them and found 113! Most books I read have zero. There were several sentences that had three. I do not know whether to credit this as brilliant writing; it seems she would know what she is doing; the beautiful prose flows like a swan-roiled stream through a cow-laden lea.

    • Ver interesting comments. I’m glad you could at least like it a bit.
      Jenny’s love is very obvious, I agree and I also liked what she said about Kitty. I think it is the combination of being wealthy, upper-class and attractive that make her an insufferable woman. The “insect part” shocked me a bit. Did the upper-classes really think ike this?
      West was one of the first feminists. She fought for the women’s cause all her life. Had a child outside of marriage. I’m not sure she renders her own views but on the other hand feminism might have changed. I rather think these are not the writer’s views but purely the view’s of the characters.
      This bit about the engine of civilaziation is Freudian, I guess.
      Bookarounthercorner criticizes this coincidence of the double death of the two children. I’m not a fan of this type of coincidences at all. Probably symbolical as well.
      I do not get point 8?
      Your comments on the style are interesting as well. And well captured. I didn’t see the semi-colon use. In German it is still widely used maybe that’s why it didn’t strike me.

      • #8 – I was being a bit humorous by commenting on how it is a cliche. The upper class boy falls in love with someone on the opposite end of the spectrum, but pure. Similar to a barmaid or farmer’s daughter.

        I do not question that she was a feminist, but she does not advance feminism in her book. To me, if you believe strongly in something, your work should not undermine it.

        I really did not think of it until now, but the book really indicts beautiful women as well as the rich. Kitty is both. We can assume Jenny is more plain, but not like Margaret. Once again Jenny is the compromise character. I wonder if West was a beauty …. and rich.

        I just have a thing about semi-colons. I guess I’m not sophisticated.

        • Rebecca West was very beautiful but as far as I know not rich. She was H.G. Well’s lover and had his child.
          I understand the semi-colon comment. I don’t think I see it often in contemporary American fiction.

    • Really interesting review, Kevin. May I comment your points?

      1) I suspected Jenny’s love from the first pages, the way she talks about Chris is not the way you talk about a beloved cousin. I noted the same quote as you.

      2)I thought Kitty awful. Losing her wealth would be the worst thing that could happen to her. she’s the kind of characters you see in Anne Perry’s novels : the ones that are ready to kill to keep their social position.
      The rich were obviously raised to look down upon the poor and be repulsed by their shabby clothes, poor houses…Jenny is repulsed too but she’s a good-hearted woman and her personal qualities allow her to overcome her first instincts. She can see Margaret’s goodness behind her poor appearance. Kitty cannot.

      3) How very optimistic that love can overcome social class, isn’t it? It’s the Romeo & Juliet part of the book.

      4) I didn’t read anything about West before reading the book. I enjoy discovering works without being prejudiced by what I know of the writer. I perceived her as being feminist,actually.
      Why ? Because she describes the “yoke” put by female relatives on Chris. He has to give up his dreams to support an army of useless women. By emphathizing on this, Rebecca West shows what men could win if the women in their lives worked and had their own income.

      I agree with you on the passage you quote, this doesn’t sound feminist. And yes, I think Margaret is a mother figure.

      5) I hadn’t seen that, thanks. It’s a strange way to imagine economy, eh?

      6) I didn’t like that part.

      7) Yes and no. I’m not going to repeat everything I said in my review, but there’s definitely something about catholic religion in there. Afterwards I saw that West has written a book about St Augustine.
      I don’t think Margaret is a saint because she’s poor. She’s a saint because of her personal qualities.

      8) Sorry, I didn’t get it.

      Chris was also “saintly” 15 years ago. With the amnesia, he found his former self. His love was pure before society brought him back to his duties. His love is pure but he can’t afford it, it doesn’t fit in his social class. It’s also a way to show the burden inflicted on us by social rules and family expectations and also how becoming an adult leads you to compromise with your dreams and wishes.

      About the semi-colon. I’m French, the use of commas and semi-colons like this is very frequent in French. (The King of the Semi-Colon would be Proust, I guess) so I didn’t notice this about her style. And now I wonder if I enjoyed it that much BECAUSE of these flowing words, so close to my native language.

      • Bookaroundthecorner, I think this is so very true about her writing, there is a French quality to it…
        I definitely think she is a feminist. Doesn’t she openly criticize Kitty because she isn’t really “producing” anything and her ways and the ways of other women are exploitive. She shows us the “Cinderella-Complex” at work.

  6. I had hoped to try and join you for this one, Caroline, but I ran out of reading time before the deadline this month. Love what you say about the multiple ways to read the book and will therefore really look forward to comparing Bookaroundthecorner’s post to yours sometime this weekend (one of the great joys in having blogger friends participate in challenging group reads and readalongs)!

    • Too bad you didn’t make it but you have your own readalong and the Vargas LLosa is quite substantial. I almost ran out of time myself.
      Yes, do read her review as it is totally different from mine and complements it very well. I wrote about the multiple ways of reading it and when I saw Bookarounthecorner’s post I saw this confirmed.

  7. Pingback: Review: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West « Diary of an Eccentric

  8. Thankfully, the library had my copy yesterday, so I was able to finish it in time for the discussion!

    I think you liked this book way more than I did. I was able to appreciate it, but at times I found the writing really boring. I think I wanted more from Chris’ point of view, and I wanted to know his war story, but I understand that it wasn’t the point of the book. I also didn’t like the ending at all. It was very abrupt and didn’t seem authentic.

    The copy I got from the library was published in 1918, and it was very brittle and falling apart. So I didn’t have any critical writings about the book to go a little deeper.

    Here’s the link to my review:

    • I can understand your disappointment. If I had read it without reading something about it first, which I only did after seeing the comment of the psychologist on the other post, I would have expected something different. At one point I also wondered if it had been such a good choice for this readalong. On the other hand, I still think the war is very important. I must however say, that I liked the other two books better as well maybe that didn’t come through. I loved her lyrical passages though, loved the world she describes.
      I would definitely have preferred to hear more from him and think the book would have had potential to go on. But this wasn’t her aim.
      Reading Bookaroundthecorner’s post I think there was a religious subtext that I didn’t really get.

  9. I’m so sorry not to have read this in time to join in properly – I’ve had such a stressful couple of weeks I haven’t been reading much. But I will certainly read this as I’m a big fan of Rebecca West anyway, and adored The Fountain Overflows. I also have a copy of The Winter of the World, so do hope I’ll be able to join in next time.

    • Don’t worry, dear litlove. I know how stressful it has been and maybe still is. Maybe next month? All that counts is that you do exactly what feels right for you. Thanks for taking the time anyway and visit.
      I would like to read The Fountain Overflows as well. I’m very curious to read The Winter of the World as this is one of those books I know the least about.

  10. I want to add something that may come as a surprise from me. Kitty is not likeable, but regardless of how she manifests it, most of us (including myself) would have been appalled that our significant other not only is now in love with another but does not even know who we are! Throw in that she is on the other end of the social spectrum and is already married. You have your own and now you are coming to steal mine?!!! And you are worming your way into our lives because of a war-related trauma?!!! Kitty may be a b***, but she has reasons to be upset. Also, consider the high likelihood that the pre-amnesia Chris was a jerk and they were made for each other. Recall that he did abandon the true love of his life and chose to marry Kitty. My impression is he is so saintly as an amnesiac to contrast his real personality. He and Kitty were probably made for each other. Cut Kitty some slack.

    Oh, and does anyone feel sorry for Margaret’s poor shlub of a husband? She is ready to leave the guy and he obviously would not survive without her. I have now convinced myself that Kitty is admirable and Margaret is evil. LOL

    • True, what happens to Kitty is no picnic but she’s already not very concerned about his well-being before he is even traumatized.
      I’m not sure Chris is a jerk as you call him. He leaves Margaret because he thinks she is having an affair.
      I did briefly think of her husband but not for more than a second.

  11. I very much enjoyed this–it’s a book well worth more than one read. I almost feel as though it is less a book about WWI than about the way war in general affects people. Had it not been written at the time it was happening, I almost would have thought she was using that as a setting to explore the psychology of the characters, though I suppose really she was doing that exactly. It’s interesting to think about how this compares to the other two books we’ve read as she was living through the actual experience!

    • I will reread this one day, I’m sure and can see how this will chnage the reading again. I would like to know more, know why she chose to write it this way. I bought the REbecca West biography by Victoria Glendinning and browsed it briefly but couldn’t find anything more specific. In her work as a journalist she also wrote about the homefront, women in munition factories, about pacifism.

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