That day its beauty was an affront to me, because like most Englishwomen of my time I was wishing for the return of a soldier. Disregarding the national interest and everything except the keen prehensile gesture of our hearts towards him, I wanted to snatch my cousin Christopher from the wars and seal him in this green pleasantness his wife and I now looked upon.Rebecca West’s 1918 The Return of the Soldier, the very first WW1 novel by a woman, tells the story of Christopher Baldry, a captain who, as the result of a war injury, loses his memory of the past fifteen years of his life. Baldry is sent to hospital, where instead of asking for his wife Kitty, he says he wants nothing more than to see Margaret Allington, the woman he was in love with fifteen years before. Only Margaret is now married to another man, and to complicate matters further, she belongs to a different social class.
The Return of the Soldier is narrated by Chris’ cousin Jenny, who is staying with his wife Kitty at Baldry Court when the two receive the news of his injury. The news come from none other than Margaret Allington herself, who discoveres what had happened before they did due to Chris’ amnesia. Going up to a genteel house and telling a lady that she knows more of her husband than she herself does is intensely painful to her – Jenny realises this, of course, but Kitty shows Margaret no mercy.
The fact that The Return of the Soldier is as much about the class as it is about the Great War becomes increasingly obvious as the story progresses. The initial chapters were actually somewhat uncomfortable for me to read, because West portrays the full force of the upper class’ contempt for Margaret with no restraint whatsoever. Kitty and Jenny hate Margaret “like the rich hate the poor”; she’s portrayed as grotesque by virtue of being plain and having no money; her mere existence is an unforgivable intrusion on the perfection of Baldry Court.
But of course, Rebecca West does this for a reason, and as the story progresses this picture begins to alter. Through Chris’ eyes, and eventually through Jenny’s as well, we begin to see this woman’s humanity, and all that lies beyond the reach of money or social stance. There’s no overt authorial comment on Kitty’s snobbishness, but there doesn’t need to be. The facts of the story speak for themselves.
All through this short novel, Jenny’s narration builds up a mood of loss, missed opportunities and nostalgia. Her initial account of their perfect pre-war life begins to break apart, and what surfaces in its stead is a world of suppressed feelings and unacknowledged problems lurking behind the seemingly perfect Baldry Court life. The Return of the Soldier is a mediation on the then unacknowledged psychological effects of the Great War, on memory and identity, on social class, and on the concepts of sanity, adulthood, responsibility and truth. For all its brevity, it’s a very moving book.
Of late I had had bad dreams about him. By night I saw Chris running across the brown rottenness of No Man's Land, starting back here because he trod upon a hand, not even looking there because 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 - if it was that.Reviewed at:
Yet all through the meal I was near to weeping because whenever he thought himself unobserved he looked at the things that were familiar to him. Dipping his head he would glance sideways at the old oak panelling; and nearer things he fingered as though sight was not intimidate enough a contact, his hand caressed the arm of his chair, because he remembered the black gleam of it, stole out and touched the recollected salt-cellar. It was his furtiveness that was heartrending; it was as though he were an outcast and we who loved him stout policemen.
I felt a cold intellectual pride in his refusal to remember his prosperous maturity and his determined dwelling in the time of his first love, for it showed him so much saner than the rest of us, who take life as it comes, loaded with the inessential and the irritating. I was even willing admit that this voice of what was to him reality out of all the apperances so copiously presented by the world, this adroit recovery of the dropped pearl of beauty, was the act of genius I had always expected from him. But that did not make less agonizing this exclusion from his life.
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