Nov 11, 2010

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

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.

Favourite bits:
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.

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.
Reviewed at:
A Book Sanctuary
A Work in Progress
Verity's Virago Venture

(Have I missed yours?)

Remembrance Day
Credit

34 comments:

  1. I haven't heard of this one before and it sounds just my thing. Will check the library for it. Thanks for an excellent review.

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  2. I generally have no interest in war stories but must admit that I'm intrigued about this one. I love that the protagonist has amnesia and is seeking a previous love out. That makes for a unique plot line.

    And also, perhaps I just don't enjoy contemporary war stories? We'll see as I'm adding this to my list.

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  3. Cath, I hope you find it, and that you enjoy it as much as I did.

    Christina, I don't always care for books that focus specifically on battles and military efforts, but I'm a sucker for anything about the social/personal/psychological consequences of war. This one does have a very unique premise, and it's much more of a psychological novel than a traditional war one.

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  4. What is not to love here? I will never turn down a story about WWI or WWII, but throw in some memory loss and class conflict, and I'm in. I'm going to see if I can track this one down. Nice Ana!

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  5. This sounds so good! I'm also interested in war stories, but not so much about the actual war -- I'm more interested in the war at home, or the aftermath. I've been hearing a lot about Rebecca West lately -- must move this up on my to-read list. Great review!

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  6. I think this is one of West's best novels, and very appropriate for this day of the year - I rread it for my Virago Venture:

    http://veritysviragoventure.blogspot.com/2010/05/return-of-soldier-west-32.html

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  7. Yet another wonderful sounding book I've never heard of before. Of course, seeing how that happens more often than not when I come here, I'm hardly surprised! :P

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  8. The name seems so familiar to me, but I can't think why. I thought that I might have one of her books, but when I checked I realised I didn't. I am sure it will come to me sooner or later. This sounds like a book I would enjoy though.

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  9. Is this a Persephone book? Just curious.

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  10. I have this but I haven't read it. I didn't get along very well with The Fountain Overflows by West and treated it with the 50-page rule.

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  11. This sounds wonderful. Like Karen, I enjoy war stories that don't focus so much on the actual war. Have just added this to my wish list!

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  12. What an interesting plot this book has, and the way that the plot is used to highlight the prejudices between the different classes sounds fascinating! I am going to have to see if I can make time for this book. You mention that it is shorter, so maybe I can fit it in between two lengthier reads. Wonderful review, Ana! I enjoyed getting a little glimpse of this book!

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  13. Sounds like a really interesting book, and a great choice for today! I had a review scheduled for today that suited the Remembrance Day theme... but then I had to shuffle to post something else I committed too :(

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  14. I loved this book when I read it, I also really enjoyed the fountain overflows. What a great review I can't wait to dig it out and reread it again now.

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  15. Sandy: What's not to love indeed! I think this is definitely up your alley, Sandy.

    Karen: Yes, exactly! It's the same for me.

    Verity: I'm so sorry I missed it! GR search was acting up yet again.

    Debi: Well, you do the same for me :P

    Vivienne: She was also quite well-known as a journalist, so that might be where you know her from. I'd love to hear what you think of this!

    Amanda: No, but it's a Virago Modern Classic. They do have a thing or two in common!

    Claire: I'm sorry to hear you couldn't get into The Fountain Overflows! I picked up a copy not too long ago, and I hope I have better luck than you did.

    JoAnn: That makes three of us! This is definitely more of a domestic/psychological novel.

    Zibilee: West did such a great job of capturing the dehumanising nature of those prejudices. And yes, it's only a little over a hundred pages, so you could read it in no time!

    Amy: Aw, that's too bad! But I look forward to hearing about it later on.

    Le: As I was telling Claire I own a copy of The Fountain Overflows - I need to make time for it soon. PS: Thanks for dropping by! I've just visited your lovely blog for the first time, and now I want crumble and/or carrot cake ;)

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  16. Everything old is new again. My work is about the period between the wars, but sadly, once again today we have returning vets. Bless them.

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  17. I love how you're always discovering these novels with such interesting historical context that I've never heard of before! After a bit of a binge, I put a moratorium on WWI-era books for a while, but I think that I'm going to be lifting that ban pretty soon! All thanks to you! :D

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  18. Well-chosen excerpts: I was already intrigued, but they tipped me over into adding this to my to-read pile.

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  19. How's this for random coincidence/divine providence? I received the new Virago edition of this in the post today... Uncanny.

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  20. I should look for this one. I think Rebecca West is one of the more overlooked authors of the 20th century. She wrote a lot of non-fiction as well as novels. I'm of the opinion that her non-fiction is better than her fiction, but both deserve more attention than they get.

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  21. "There’s no overt authorial comment on Kitty’s snobbishness, but there doesn’t need to be."

    It's wonderful, that feeling that an author is doing exactly what needs doing, so you can simply settle into your experience of the story. I quite liked this novels of hers, but I haven't read any others yet.

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  22. I've not ready any WWI war-related fiction other than All Quiet on the Western Front. I am fascinated to read a book like this that explores the many effects of war and also points out the hypocrisy inherent in a class-based system. This sounds like one to add to my list.

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  23. I've never heard of The Return of the Soldier! I love the quote you open with--what lovely writing. I'm interested, now, to read the first WW1 novel by a woman!

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  25. Sounds absolutely wonderful -- this is the sort that really makes me drive to a bookshop in the pouring rain with one windshield working, just so I can pick this up and settle down right away to read. Cozy and snug, with a book like this would be perfection and heaven.

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  26. I love Rebecca West - she's an amazingly powerful writer. I've enjoyed everything I've read by her, and have this one still ahead. I'm looking forward to it!

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  27. For me, the clincher in this review is when you said West doesn't overtly comment on Kitty's snobbishness because the events speak for themselves. In my opinion, that is the mark of really good writing. When an author is skilled, he/she never has to include even one sentence about "theme"; he/she can just tell the story and the reader will deduce it all on their own.

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  28. I read a recent review of this somewhere that made me want to read it already, now you've reminded me of it again. Sadly my library doesn't have it, although apparently there's an 80s movie version... My reading goal for the rest of this year is to focus on Viragos, in preparation for Virago reading week in January!

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  29. I've never read anything by Rebecca West, but I like how this one sounds. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

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  30. Thanks for this very interesting post-I hope to read Return of the Soldier this year-it can be found online for free

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  31. I am not sure that I would enjoy this one. While I love books about the crumbling social structure in Britain, it seems (and maybe I am misinterpreting your review) that the upper-class women are stereotypically cruel and vindictive, while the poor woman is kind and wonderful. While I understand the whole "Beauty is only skin-deep" messaging, I don't like to be hit over the head with it in that sort of manner.

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  32. My gosh, where do you find these books?! Sounds interesting to me because I don't think many people (Americans) realize the impact that WWI had on Europe and it's people. Whole generations wiped out. Excellent review and thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

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  33. Shelley: "Everything old is new again." So very true!

    Steph: I hope you enjoy them all! I've been binging myself lately, so it might be time for a moratorium soon before I get sick of the topic.

    Christy: I'm glad you like them! I was so impressed with West's writing.

    Claire: Ha, perfect timing!

    C.B. James: I'll certainly be reading more of her fiction and some of her non-fiction in the future!

    Buried in Print: It really is a wonderful feeling.

    Kathleen: I haven't read All Quiet... yet myself, but it's on my list for next year! My favourite books are usually the ones that explore the unseen consequences of War, though. And this one certainly does.

    Erin: I hope you'll enjoy it! I thought the writing was just stunning.

    Coffee and a Book Chick: Your idea of heaven is very close to my own ;)

    Litlove: This was my first time reading her, but I can't wait to read more!

    Trisha: I completely agree!

    Carolyn: I'm so so excited about Virago Reading Week!

    Alita: I hope you find it!

    Mel U: Hooray for e-books online!

    Aarti: Oh dear, in my attempt not to give too much away I really made it sound that way, didn't I? But rest assured that the book itself is a lot more complex than that! Jenny herself is far from cruel and vindictive, and in Kitty's case, there are all sorts of complicating factors like a dead child and a marriage that was less happy than it seemed on the surface. In the end, she didn't come across as inhuman - only unhappy.

    Jenny Girl: I found this one through random browsing, and as Remembrance Day was coming I couldn't resist!

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  34. I have recently studied this text as part of my English Lit A levels and i must say it is phenomenal. I am personally not the kind to read war literature but this book kept my attention the whole way

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.