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The Return of the Soldier (1918)
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
That day its beauty was an affront to me, because,
like most Englishwomen of my time, I was
"We were all of us in a barn one night, and a shell
came along. My pal sang out, 'Help me, old man;
Well, such are the dreams of Englishwomen today.
I could not complain, but I wished for the
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
I have often seen people grouped like that on the
common outside our gates on Bank holidays. Most
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
"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.
See also:Rebecca West (2 books reviewed)
Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels
Feminista 100 Greatest Works of 20th Century Fiction by Women Writers
-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 (FRANCINE PROSE, Lingua Franca)
-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: Amazon.com 100 Best of the Century
-BOOK LIST: 100 Greatest 20th Century Works of Fiction by Women Writers (Feminista)