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The Return of the Soldier ()

Feminista 100 Greatest Works of 20th Century Fiction by Women Writers

This very fine short novel, like most of the rest of Rebecca West's work, is vastly underappreciated.  It captures, as well as any of the books I've read, the desperate yearning of the Great War generation for a return to the world that the War had shattered.  It is spare but thoughtful, and quite lovely.

It is March 1916 and the bloody stalemate continues in France.  The soldier whose return is awaited is Captain Chris Baldry.  Awaiting him are his wife Kitty and his cousin Jenny, both ensconced at Baldry Court, a Thames Valley manor house whose bucolic beauty is being encroached upon by the 'red suburban stain" of the neighboring town of Wealdstone, just as surely as the red stain of war has encroached upon the lives of Britons everywhere.  Jenny, who narrates the story, sets the scene:

    I took the brush and turned to the window, leaning my forehead against the glass and staring
    unobservantly at the view. You probably know the beauty of that view; for when Chris rebuilt
    Baldry Court after his marriage he handed it over to architects who had not so much the wild eye of
    the artist as the knowing wink of the manicurist, and between them they massaged the dear old place
    into matter for innumerable photographs in the illustrated papers. The house lies on the crest of
    Harrowweald, and from its windows the eye drops to miles of emerald pasture-land lying wet and
    brilliant under a westward line of sleek hills, blue with distance and distant woods, while nearer it
    range the suave decorum of the lawn and the Lebanon cedar, the branches of which are like darkness
    made palpable, and the minatory gauntnesses 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 edge of the

    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 else except the
    keen prehensile gesture of our hearts toward 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. Of late I had had
    bad dreams about him. By nights 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 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, if 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 philosophers could say that
    they had reached safety by their fall. And when I escaped into wakefulness it was only to lie stiff
    and think of stories I had heard in the boyish voice, that rings indomitable yet has most of its gay
    notes flattened, of the modern subaltern.

    "We were all of us in a barn one night, and a shell came along. My pal sang out, 'Help me, old man;
    I 've got no legs !' and I had to answer, 'I can't, old man; I've got no hands!'"

    Well, such are the dreams of Englishwomen today. I could not complain, but I wished for the
    return of our soldier.

Then a woman turns up at the door to tell them that Chris has been wounded.  And how would she know, this daughter of a local publican?  It turns out that Chris has shell shock induced amnesia and remembers nothing after the year 1901, when he and the woman, Margaret Grey, were lovers.  He has been writing to her as if the intervening 15 years never happened.

So Chris does return, but not as a soldier.  Instead, he believes himself still to be the naive young man of 1901, not coincidentally the final year of Queen Victoria's reign.  He remembers nothing of his wife and begins a chaste courtship of the willing, though married, Margaret.  Jenny happens upon them one day and they seem to embody something special, which is in danger of being lost:

    It was not utter dullness not to have anticipated the beauty that I saw. No one could have told. They
    had taken the mackintosh rug out of the dinghy and spread it on this little space of clear grass, I
    think so that they could look at a scattering of early primroses in a pool of white anemones at an
    oak-tree's foot. She had run her hands over the rug so that it lay quite smooth and comfortable under
    him when at last he felt drowsy and turned on his side to sleep. He lay there in the confiding
    relaxation of a sleeping child, his hands unclenched, and his head thrown back so that the bare throat
    showed defenselessly. Now he was asleep and his face undarkened by thought, one saw how very
    fair he really was. And she, her mournfully vigilant face pinkened by the cold river of air sent by
    the advancing evening through the screen of rusted-gold bracken behind her, was sitting by him, just

    I have often seen people grouped like that on the common outside our gates on Bank holidays. Most
    often the man has a handkerchief over his face to shade him from the sun, and the woman squats
    beside him and peers through the undergrowth to see that the children come to no harm as they play.
    It has sometimes seemed to me that there was a significance about it. You know when one goes into
    the damp, odorous coolness of a church in a Catholic country and sees the kneeling worshipers, their
    bodies bent stiffly and reluctantly, and yet with abandonment as though to represent the inevitable
    bending of the will to a purpose outside the individual person, or when under any sky one sees a
    mother with her child in her arms, something turns in one's heart like a sword, and one says to
    oneself, "If humanity forgets these attitudes there is an end to the world." But people like me, who
    are not artists, are never sure about people they don't know. So it was not until now, when it
    happened to my friends, when it was my dear Chris and my dear Margaret who sat thus englobed in
    peace as in a crystal sphere, that I knew it was the most significant, as 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. I had known that he was having bad nights at Baldry Court in that
    new room with the jade-green painted walls and the lapis-lazuli fireplace, which he found with
    surprise to be his instead of the remembered little room with the fishing-rods; but I had not been
    able to do anything about it.

But inevitably this brief pre-War idyll in the midst of War must come to an end.  The soldier in Chris Baldry must return and with his return Chris will return to the War.  And, as we well understand, the men who return from the War, and many will not or will not return whole, will indeed be soldiers and not the young men of 1901, a melancholy fact which West captures perfectly in the novel's final scene, after Margaret has shocked him back to reality:

    There had fallen a twilight which was a wistfulness of the earth. Under the cedar-boughs I dimly
    saw a figure mothering something in her arms. Almost had she dissolved into the shadows; in
    another moment the night would have her. With his back turned on this fading unhappiness Chris
    walked across the lawn. He was looking up under his brows at the over-arching house as though it
    were a hated place to which, against all his hopes, business had forced him to return. He
    stepped aside to avoid a patch of brightness cast by a lighted window on the grass; lights in our
    house were worse than darkness, affection worse than hate elsewhere. He wore a dreadful, decent
    smile; I knew how his voice would resolutely lift in greeting us. He walked not loose-limbed like a
    boy, as he had done that very afternoon, but with the soldier's hard tread upon the heel. It recalled to
    me that, bad as we were, we were yet not the worst circumstance of his return. When we had 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. . . .

    "Jenny, aren't they there?" Kitty asked again.

    "They 're both there."

    "Is he coming back ?"

    "He 's coming back."

    "Jenny ! Jenny ! How does he look?"

    "Oh. . . ." How could I say it? "Every inch a soldier."

    She crept behind me to the window, peered over my shoulder and saw.

    I heard her suck in her breath with satisfaction.   "He 's cured!" she whispered slowly. "He 's

The power of the novel lies in that final notion, that Chris is "cured," is returned to normal, when he is once again a soldier, who has experienced the War.  For his suffering wife, this sentiment is understandable.  To the reader, the situation is much more ambiguous : the truth may be preferable to the illusion he was living, but Chris (Europe) was surely happier in that pre-War state.

This is the best novel of WWI that I've read.  Where most of the Literature to emerge from the War treated it as an exceptional kind of warfare and dwelt on it's effect on the men fighting it, West understood that the real tragedy of the War was the changes that it was wrought throughout society.  The story she tells is profoundly conservative, lamenting the wholesale change that had destroyed the pre-War way of life and hoping to retrieve the best of what has been lost.


Grade: (A+)


Rebecca West Links:

    -REVIEW: of "Survivors in Mexico" by Rebecca West (Jorge G. Castaneda, NY Times Book Review)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Rebecca West (1892-1983)(kirjasto)
    -FEATURED AUTHOR : Rebecca West (NY Times Book Review)
    -Rebecca West 1892-1983 Writer (Women's History, Gale Group)
    -ESSAY: St. Augustine by Rebecca West (Lives of the Saints, Catholic Information Network)
    -EXCERPT: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in 6 parts (The Atlantic, January 1941)
    -ETEXT: The Return of the Soldier (A Celebration of Women Writers)
    -ESSAY: REBECCA WEST (Leslie Garis, NY Times Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Rebecca West & the FBI (Carl Rollyson, New Criterion)
    -LETTERS: The Rebecca WestóDoris Stevens file, 1947?1959 (New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: The Duty of Harsh Criticism by Rebecca West  An argument in favor of the criticism that allows art to save people's souls--and an example of the same. (1914, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: Rebecca West &  the tragedy of Yugoslavia (Richard Tillinghast, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: Deprivation and Revelation:  The Quest for the Father in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
(Michael S. Slevin)
    -ESSAY: Aesthetic Awareness in the Work of Rebecca West (James Roy King, Art Criticism)
    -ESSAY: Dame Rebecca West and the fiasco of her failed affair with Beaverbrook  (Victoria Glendinning, Daily Express)
    -EXCERPT: Living My Life by Emma Goldman Volume 2, Chapter 55
    -ESSAY:  'Heterosexuality, Feminism and The Freewoman Journal in Early Twentieth-century England' (Lucy Bland, Women's History Review)
    -REVIEW: Rosemary Dinnage: Staying the Course
        The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
        Harriet Hume: A London Fantasy by Rebecca West
        The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West, 1911-1917
        1900 by Rebecca West
    -REVIEW: of Rebecca West Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: ÝA Journey Through Yugoslavia (1941) (Alan Jacobs, First Things)
   -REVIEW: John Gross: Un-English Activities
        Lord Haw-Haw by J.A. Cole
        The New Meaning of Treason by Rebecca West
    -REVIEW: Denis Donoghue: Magic Defeated
        The Time of the Angels by Iris Murdoch
        The Birds Fall Down by Rebecca West
        The Animal Hotel by Jean Garrigue
    -REVIEW: V.S. Pritchett: Invader
        Rebecca West: A Celebration selected from her writings by her publishers with her help, with a critical introduction by Samuel Hynes
    -REVIEW : of Selected Letters of Rebecca West (Sarah Kerr, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  Selected Letters of Rebecca West Edited, Annotated, and Introduced by Bonnie Kime Scott The Extremist  (FRANK KERMODE, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of Selected Letters of Rebecca West  Her Own Lambs and Falcons  (GEORGETTE FLEISCHER, The Nation)
    -REVIEW: of Selected Letters  (Michael Foot, Book Unlimited)
    -REVIEW: of Selected Letters  Under Western Eyes (Adam Kirsch, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of THE YOUNG REBECCA Writings of Rebecca West, 1911-17 (John Leonard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of  FAMILY MEMORIES An Autobiographical Journey By Rebecca West (Humphrey Carpenter, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of REBECCA WEST A Life By Victoria Glendinning (Justin Kaplan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of REBECCA WEST A Life By Carl Rollyson (Walter Kendrick, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of REBECCA WEST A Life By Victoria Glendinning (John Gross, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of H. G. WELLS Aspects of a Life. By Anthony West (John Gross, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Brigid Brophy: Sons and Lovers
        H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life by Anthony West
    -REVIEW: Noel Annan: The Charms of H.G. Wells
        H.G. Wells by Norman MacKenzie and Jeanne MacKenzie
    -REVIEW: Michael Ignatieff: The Balkan Tragedy
        The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War by Misha Glenny
        The Destruction of Yugoslavia: Tracking the Break-up, 1980-92 by Branka Magas
        The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War by Slavenka Drakulic1
    -ESSAY: Aesthetic Awareness in the Work of Rebecca West (James Roy King)
    -REVIEW: of  SELECTED LETTERS OF REBECCA WEST Edited by Bonnie Kime Scott  Under Western Eyes (Adam Kirsch, Washington Post Book World)
    -BOOK LIST: 100 Best of the Century
    -BOOK LIST: 100 Greatest 20th Century Works of Fiction by Women Writers (Feminista)

    -Europe: a 20th Century Journey
    -ESSAY: "The Politics of Sexual Difference: World War I and the Demise of British Feminism" (Susan Kingsley Kent, Journal of British Studies)
    -REVIEW: of Tate, Trudi. Modernism, History and the First World War (Damon Franke, University of Iowa, SubStance)