Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier

This strange, beautiful, overwrought little novel surprised and disturbed me. Its story is  simple: a soldier, Chris Baldry, returns from the front a victim of shell-shock that has cost him fifteen years worth of memory. The news is broken to his wife, Kitty, and his cousin, Jenny, by Margaret Grey, who as Margaret Allington was once in love with (and loved by) Chris. In his damaged mind, their affair is immediate and ongoing, while his marriage is unknown, his wife a stranger. As the novel progresses we realize, with Jenny (our narrator), that the fifteen years lost to his memory were, to him, years already lost in another way: lost to the love he had to give up, lost to the effort to maintain his family business and the family home, Baldry Court. Kitty and Jenny have never understood that the life they shared with him–perfect, elegant, insulated against ugliness–was for him a death of the soul. His return from the war, ill and lost and confused, is a return to Margaret and an opportunity to find himself again through her; their reunion is painfully touching, the more so because we see and feel it only from the literal and emotional distance of Jenny’s perspective.

Jenny’s point of view is the most disconcerting aspect of The Return of the Soldier. At first I was troubled by uncertainty about far we were supposed to go along with her, which is a question that matters because she’s really dreadful: not just judgmental, but nastily so. Here’s her initial description of Margaret, for instance, just arrived to break the news of Chris’s illness:

The bones of her cheap stays clicked as she moved. Well, she was not so bad. Her body was long and round and shapely and with a noble squareness of the shoulders; her fair hair curled diffidently about a good brow; her grey eyes, though they were remote, as if anything worth looking at in her life had kept a long way off, were full of tenderness; and though she was slender there was something about her of the wholesome endearing heaviness of the draught-ox or the big trusted dog. Yet she was bad enough. She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped 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.

But Jenny can already sense something significant, can at least credit Margaret with an impulse towards “candour and gentleness.” As the story goes on, though her language remains permeated with the same hateful condescension, Jenny–in spite of herself–also acknowledges repeatedly that Margaret has, that Margaret is, something valuable and beautiful. It’s Jenny’s problem, not Margaret’s, that Jenny can’t reconcile this knowledge with her own repugnance towards Margaret. Jealousy is  part of it, as Jenny clearly (thought this is never overtly admitted) loves Chris herself. It’s not only personal animosity, though: Jenny and Kitty practice a creepy kind of aestheticism literalized through the way they tend to Baldry Court, where everything must “be made delicate and decorated into felicity.” How can Margaret, with her coarse hands and cheap clothes, even dare to enter? “Surely she must see … that no one accustomed to live here could help wincing at such external dinginess as hers.”

The novel overall is a profound chastisement of Jenny for her cruelty, her judgments, her mistaken priorities, even for her love, which is cloying and limiting in comparison to the luminous generosity of Margaret’s. It’s Jenny and Kitty–especially Kitty (eventually seen by Jenny as “the falsest thing on earth”)–that have destroyed Chris, as much as the war has; it is his life with them, especially his marriage, which he wants to forget as much as anything he has seen in the trenches. They don’t even know him well enough to cure him: it’s Margaret who does, and the bitter irony of the novel is that the cure will in fact destroy him–again. Worse yet, for Margaret, is that one inevitably consequence of his return to reality will be her banishment, her loss now replacing his. A further extension of this irony is that his return to sanity will send him back (healthy, once again) to war: once he returns to them with his memory restored, he must return as a soldier.

The moral and emotional stakes are high, and West makes the most of them. In fact, at times I thought she made too much of them: the writing is (like Baldry Court) highly decorated, rich with adjectives and imagery and detail. Not knowing anything of West’s writing except some bits of her criticism, I was surprised by the thickness of the style: its insistently showy but languid artistry. I didn’t dislike it: it’s compelling, and as I became more interested in Jenny as a narrator, I thought it mostly reflected her consciousness, her self-consciously aesthetic sensibility. But then there’s this bit, as Jenny observes Margaret watching over Chris while he sleeps:

…it was the loveliest attitude in the world. 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. I know there are things at least as great for those women whose independent spirits can ride fearlessly and with interest outside the home park of their personal relationships, but independence is not the occupation of most of us. What we desire is greatness such as this which had given sleep to the beloved.

It is Jenny speaking, of course, but the moment is infused with such intensity, and the comments reflect so much of what is held out as noble, even heroic, about Margaret overall (that she loves so generously, that she gives so much of herself and expects nothing in return, that she is sanctified in her devotion to others) that I can’t attach them only to Jenny’s already problematic point of view. In fact, I think this is meant to be an epiphany of sorts for Jenny: an acknowledgement of where she and Kitty have fallen short in their love, and perhaps by extension fallen short as women. Kitty’s icy beauty (not to mention the entire relationship she has in fact had with Chris–her husband, after all) is completely devalued by comparison with Margaret’s hovering nurturance. This scene, for me, was a low point. The novel’s conclusion, on the other hand, with its commitment to “the wine of the truth” which we “must drink or not be fully human,” was a high point. If Chris’s marriage to Kitty has been in some fundamental ways a lie, it’s no better to repress the marriage itself and go on living another lie. In imagining that they could protect him, Jenny and Margaret have “forgotten that it is the first concern of love to safeguard the dignity of the beloved.” And so we arrive at the saddest moment of all, as Chris walks back towards the house, “not loose limbed like a boy, as he had done that very afternoon, but with the soldier’s hard tread upon the heel.” “He’s cured!” whispers Kitty. As the soldier returns, it is easier to mourn than to celebrate.

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4 Responses to Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier

  1. Susan Messer says:

    As usual, Rohan, a careful and deeply insightful review. I was just complaining to my husband the other day about a review I saw in the NY Times that spent almost the whole length (which went onto a second “page”) reiterating the plot instead of going deeply into the writing, characters, themes, impact. Thank you for being the antidote to that. I also admire the complex picture you present–that a book can be affecting and disturbing and disappointing and very much worth talking about all at once. Plus that image of a glove that has fallen behind the bed . . . stunning. Thank you for choosing that passage. It has truly “made my day.” For an author to discover and present an image that perfect is . . . what? . . . worth a lifetime of work?

  2. Thanks so much for this review! I read this book, many years ago, before I understood much about its context. Your review makes me want to revisit the text.

  3. Rohan says:

    Thank you both for your comments! For a small book it has such a lot going on. I didn’t even get into the way it messes with our minds about how far memory is true or real, or constitutes our identity. Susan, it is an amazing image, isn’t it? And there are actually many quite as striking in among the more florid bits. I expected something much more cleanly intellectual, for some reason, maybe because I have always thought about Rebecca West as a writer of non-fiction. Victoria, I expect you would find a revisit provoking. I have a couple of West’s other novels–The Fountain Overflows and This Real Night, and also The Judge, I think–but what I really want to read next is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, as well as more of her journalism. I have two tempting collections, The Young Rebecca: Writings 1911-1917, and The Essential Rebecca West. I’m not sure how or where her story overlaps with the Brittain / Holtby gang but there is certainly some proximity, intellectually.

  4. Dorian Stuber says:

    I used to teach this in my modernism class and then I dropped it for other things. Your enthusiasm and questions make me want to return (ha!) to it. I wonder if you’ve read Henry Green’s autobiography Pack my Bag. The whole thing is brilliant, but the bits about WWI, when his parents turned the family home into a convalescent home for officers, are really terrific and would be, I think, a nice addition to the stuff you’ve been reading. (BTW, I swear the Downton Abbey people have read their Henry Green.)

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