Rebecca West was only 24 in 1918, when The Return of the Soldier was published, but she was already well-established as a journalist, and this was her second book. It’s a short novel, turning on the war injury and memory loss of Chris Baldry. This injury makes him forget his wife Kitty and their ten years of marriage, and he returns to an earlier love.
Memory loss may seem at first to be a cliched excuse for a plot device. But of course after World War I, it happened all the time: shell-shocked soldiers lost memories about the war, about what they had seen, about their lives before the war. In Parade’s End, Christopher Tietjens is injured and, significantly, loses his encyclopedic memory for place-names and numbers. In The Return of the Soldier, Rebecca West is reporting, not inventing; it’s the way she uses these undeniable facts that makes the tension and the grief.
The novel is not really about Chris and his memory loss, however. The interest of the book lies in the three women at home: Kitty, his pretty, superficial wife, of whom he has no memory; Jenny, his cousin and the narrator, whom he remembers only as a much younger woman; and Margaret, the woman he loved long ago.
Kitty is the representative of perfect beauty, good taste, and order, always associated with silk and rosebuds. West introduces a note of satire into the description:
And when I looked again I saw that her golden hair was all about her shoulders and that she wore over her frock a little silken jacket trimmed with rosebuds. She looked so like a girl on a magazine cover that one expected to find a large “7d.” somewhere attached to her person.
Later, too, it is clear that the house Kitty and Jenny have made for Chris has not been of Chris’s choosing. West’s narrative voice, through the mediating person of Jenny, is not unbiased. It is sometimes ironic, and interestingly humane. She shows that Kitty, vain and false though she may be, has created something beautiful.
Margaret breaks into this beauty with the news of Chris’s illness. At first, Kitty and Jenny think her story is fraudulent, and there’s a painful little scene where they wait for her to ask for money. Gradually, it becomes clear that even though
[s]he was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped down 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,
Margaret is honest, sane, and kind. She gives Christ what neither Kitty nor Jenny can give: love and rest. The two other women are driven half-mad with jealousy. Gradually, Jenny comes to see the rightness of Margaret’s love for Chris, but Kitty’s genuine claim on him takes precedence, and though the denouement of the book seems almost inevitable, it is nonetheless heartbreaking.
West is playing here with some interesting ideas about psychology. Chris isn’t badly wounded, and he’s not repressing memories of battle. He’s repressing his marriage, because he was unhappy in it, and returning to an older, humbler, easier love. What brings him back to reality is a memory from that marriage that he must face or be untrue to something profoundly important to him, to his own identity. This is truly the return of the soldier: the ability to face the truth, no matter how dreadful. This private drama bears obvious parallels to the state of the country in 1918. There could be no return to the idyllic, but false ideals of pre-war England. It was necessary to face the realities of what was happening during that time — poverty, industrialization, the Boer War, the political situation in Europe and Africa — in order to forge any kind of new society. “The truth’s the truth,” says Margaret, “and he must know it.” This is a novel that is at the same time ruthless and gentle, lyrical and probing. I will be reading more Rebecca West in future.
You can see that I’ve been reading a lot of war novels lately, what with one thing and another, keeping myself in fits of giggles, as Other Jenny would say. Time to read something different for a while. On to the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance!