A slim novel from 1918, The Return of the Soldier is the first work of fiction by Dame Rebecca West, the most celebrated woman writer of her day who now drifts semi-forgotten in the shadow of Virginia Woolf. She was too great a contrarian, too independent a thinker for our politicized era and in consequence she is rarely read or talked about anymore. She was the first woman to write a novel about the First World War (for comparison, even Vera Brittain’s famous memoir Testament of Youth came out in 1933, while Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room was published in 1922, since Woolf only wrote about the Edwardians while the war was on). The premise is really quite simple: Chris Baldry returns from the Western Front shell-shocked and unable to remember the last fifteen years of his life, including his marriage to the beautiful Kitty. He believes he is still twenty and in love with an innkeeper’s daughter called Margaret. Kitty and Jenny, Chris’s unmarried cousin, have to endure the pain of being forgotten by this man whom they adored, while wondering what will bring him back to the present.
Jenny is the narrator, although she has very little to do with the unfolding drama besides providing a sympathetic ear. She is an eyewitness to the quiet tragedy in its final act, as the past comes back to haunt the people who believed they had moved on. There is a strong class element to the interactions. Kitty and Jenny are so well ensconced in their orderly home at Baldry Court that they cannot stand the sight of Margaret, “seamed and scored and ravaged by squalid circumstances.” Margaret and Chris broke up in the past because of mutual distrust: “it struck me he wasn’t trusting me as he would trust a girl of his own class, and I told him so.” He then ends by marrying a woman of his own set, who picked up his conception of normal expenditure, and carelessly stretched it as a woman stretches a new glove on her hand. Yet as Jenny gets to know Margaret she begins to romanticize the woman’s hard life, constructing in her a visiting saint, spiritually greater than any of them. The psychological quality of this novel has little to do with Chris’s actual condition or its cure, being instead rooted in Jenny’s evolving consciousness.
The Return of the Soldier is primarily focused on the subject of beauty, treating it as a sustaining illusion, something needed and described in the most delicately moving terms as it contrasts with the nightmare that is the First World War – at the time of the novel’s publication still ongoing. Chris remembers his courtship of Margaret:
When there had descended on them a night as brilliant as the day he drew her out into the darkness, which was sweet with the scent of walnut-leaves, and they went across the lawn, bending beneath the chestnut-boughs, not to the wild part of the island, but to a circle of smooth turf divided from it by a railing of wrought iron. On this stood a small Greek temple, looking very lovely in the moonlight. … tonight there was nothing anywhere but beauty. He lifted her in his arms and carried her within the columns, and made her stand in a niche above the altar. A strong stream of moonlight rushed upon her there; by its light he could not tell if her hair was white as silver or yellow as gold, and again he was filled with exaltation because he knew that it would not have mattered if it had been white. His love was changeless. Lifting her down from the niche, he told her so.
And as he spoke, her warm body melted to nothingness in his arms. The columns that had stood so hard and black against the quivering tide of moonlight and starlight seemed to totter and dissolve. He was lying in a hateful world where barbed-wire entanglements showed impish knots against a livid sky full of blooming noise and splashes of fire and wails for water, and his back was hurting intolerably.
Chris’s women, Kitty and cousin Jenny, understand the importance of beauty and devote their time to arranging splendour for his eyes, meaning to soothe him and show their affection and give him something to fight for in France. It had lain on us, the responsibility, which gave us dignity, to compensate him for his lack of free adventure by arranging him a gracious life. But now, just because our performance had been so brilliantly adequate, how dreary was the empty stage! West clearly held a rational understanding of what is expected of men and what their role in civilization actually entails. For men, “privilege” is a temporary thing that must be sacrificed, as millions were sacrificing it one hundred years ago by their descent into the trenches. In truth, Chris’s life of leisure ended the moment he inherited Baldry Court, for nothing of value can long exist in a state of idleness and being the ideal Englishman is a role that has to be upheld, a job that must be performed.
Jenny insists that it is only beauty, only grace, that she and Kitty supply for their soldier, that I was sure that we were preserved from the reproach of luxury, because we had made a fine place for Chris, one little part of the world that was, so far as surfaces could make it so, good enough for his amazing goodness. But Jenny is deluding herself. As is revealed on the very first page, which takes place in Baldry Court’s empty nursery, there is a deep unhappiness in Chris’s life and Jenny’s use of the words luxury and surfaces betray the limitations of what she and Kitty bring to the table. When Margaret appears on the scene, without style, without riches, she reveals the paucity of their fabrication by the simplest of phrases, among them: “It’s a big place. Chris must have worked hard to keep all this up.” She is a poor woman yet she pities a rich man. She nurses whatever nice things come her way in the business of life while Jenny and Kitty try to staunch spiritual wounds with material acquisitions. And so Chris loses his memory and is drawn back to hopeful days, long before the horrors of war and the loss of his progeny left him working to support a grand yet empty house while Kitty remains baffled by his discontent to the end.
West treats this entire scenario with marvelous calm, weighing and balancing the scales without ever falling prey to polemic. The Return of the Soldier does not come down for or against the upper or lower classes, men or women, Chris forgetting or Chris remembering. Throughout she shows that beauty, though it can become the trap of luxury, is not a false concept in itself (a particularly noxious conclusion that many others would come to after first one, then two world wars). This slender novel thus acquires a remarkable poise and gravitas that cannot be faulted.
The return of the “soldier” can only bring with it self-awareness and its attendant sorrows. It is a return that has to happen for the sake of reality, but there is no cure for Chris’s troubles because he has lost the future, for himself and for the world that he has worked for; his retreat to the past is a tacit admission of that. It is a tragic story, enhanced by West’s precision of language reflected in the wealth of quotes I have lifted, and so I must conclude this review with a final passage as the troubled family sits down to an evening’s entertainment and the twentieth century settles in to stay:
I went to the piano. Through this evening of sentences cut short because their completed meaning was always sorrow, of normal life dissolved to tears, the chords of Beethoven sounded serenely.
“So like you Jenny,” said Kitty, suddenly, “to play Beethoven when it’s the war that’s caused all this. I could have told that you would have chosen to play German music this night of all nights.”
So I began a saraband by Purcell, a jolly thing that makes one see a plump, sound woman dancing on a sanded floor in some old inn, with casks of good ale all about her and a world of sunshine and May lanes without. As I played I wondered if things like this happened when Purcell wrote such music, empty of everything except laughter and simple greeds and satisfactions and at worst the wail of unrequited love. Why had modern life brought forth these horrors, which made the old tragedies seem no more than nursery-shows? And the sky also is different. Behind Chris’s head, as he halted at the open window, a search-light turned all ways in the night, like a sword brandished among the stars.