Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 9, 2019

The Return of the Soldier, by Rebecca West

It really is just a coincidence that I re-read Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918) contemporaneously with Simon Cleary’s The War Artist (2019).  (My review coming soon). West’s slim novella was a ‘handbag-book’ that I’d begun reading on the train last week before beginning The War Artist as bedtime reading a couple of days ago.  Yet here they are, two books a century apart, exploring the cruel impact of post-traumatic stress on soldiers, and their loved ones.

There are important differences between the two books.  West’s Chris Baldry is not a professional soldier, but one of 10 million civilians drafted by popular opinion if not by conscription, into fighting a war that cost 37 million lives.  He comes from a privileged class in England that now no longer exists in the same way.  On the battlefield, he was surrounded by slaughter rather than experiencing it as an aberration, as it is in modern warfare.  (For the military, that is.  Civilian deaths in modern warfare are a different matter altogether).  And at the time that Rebecca West wrote this important little book, post-traumatic stress was just beginning to be recognised, though back then it was called shell-shock.

According to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Rebecca West (real name Cicily Isabel Fairfield) was a journalist who made her name campaigning in support of the English suffragettes.  But Wikipedia tells us that she became much more than that:

Dame Cicily Isabel Fairfield DBE (21 December 1892 – 15 March 1983), known as Rebecca West, or Dame Rebecca West, was a British author, journalist, literary critic and travel writer. An author who wrote in many genres, West reviewed books for The Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Republic, and she was a correspondent for The Bookman. Her major works include Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), on the history and culture of Yugoslavia; A Train of Powder (1955), her coverage of the Nuremberg trials, published originally in The New Yorker; The Meaning of Treason, later The New Meaning of Treason, a study of the trial of the British Fascist William Joyce and others; The Return of the Soldier, a modernist World War I novel; and the “Aubrey trilogy” of autobiographical novels, The Fountain Overflows, This Real Night, and Cousin Rosamund. Time called her “indisputably the world’s number one woman writer” in 1947. She was made CBE in 1949, and DBE in 1959, in each case, the citation reads: “writer and literary critic”. She took the pseudonym “Rebecca West” from the rebellious young heroine in Rosmersholm by Henrik Ibsen.  (Wikipedia, links removed, viewed 9/3/19)

The Return of the Soldier, however, was an early work: it was the first WW1 novel by a woman, and it was published during the war.  It is notable because it was the first to depict a soldier returning home with shell-shock, and perhaps more importantly to show how the war was affecting society.  When Chris Baldry returns from the front with amnesia, and remembers nothing of his beautiful wife Kitty and their privileged life together, it is a working-class dalliance with Margaret that he remembers, signifying the breakdown of the English class system that took place because of the war.  Much to the disdain of Kitty and the narrator, Kitty’s cousin Jenny, Chris finds solace in Margaret’s company, and despite her discomfort and embarrassment at this unexpected entreé into polite society, Margaret takes pleasure in ministering to him.

It is tempting to suggest that it was West’s clandestine relationship with the author H.G. Wells that enabled her to write so convincingly from the perspective of Jenny, who nurtures a private love for Chris.  Wikipedia tells me that West’s first venture into print was a short story called Indissoluble Matrimony (1914), published the same year as the birth of Anthony West, her son by H.G. Wells who could not marry her because he was already married to his second wife.  Jenny, from her lofty position in the English upper class, begins her observations of Margaret with a derisory portrait of her appearance and manners, but has an epiphany when she sees that the love Chris and Margaret share, transcends the artificial barriers of class.

Comparing the sight of Chris asleep under Margaret’s watchful quasi-maternal eye to her observations of people in church in a catholic country (Spain? Italy? Ireland?), Jenny says:

You know when one goes into the damp odorous coolness of a church in a catholic country and sees the kneeling worshippers, their bodies bent stiffly and reluctantly and yet with abandonment as if to a purpose outside the individual, or when under any sky one sees a mother with her child in her arms, 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 if in a crystal sphere, that I knew that 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 part of their personal relationships, but independence is not the occupation of most of us.  (p.87)

The novella moves on to its devastating ending, leaving the reader to consider the way 1001 Books frames it:

[It] is bitterly ironic and yet lyrical, particularly in the lost world in which Chris’s amnesia, the ‘hysterical fugue’ brought about by shell shock, has enabled him to take refuge.  It is a love story of a kind, through which West explores some of the most complex and difficult questions arising out of the war experience. (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, 2006 Edition, ABC Books, p.279)

If I then look forward to West’s compelling books that arose from living through WW2 and its aftermath, it is astonishing to me that my library hasn’t got a single book by this author…

Author: Rebecca West
Title: The Return of the Soldier
Publisher: Fontana Paperbacks, in association with Virago, movie tie-in edition, 1980, first published 1918
ISBN: none
Source: Personal library, $2.75, from an OpShop.

 


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa, you have piked my interest, and I have reserved Return of the Soldier and her biography from my library. Interestingly Rebecca West books are all in ‘stack’ and not on the shelves at the library..

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    • But you can order them? I haven’t done a proper search of all my libraries yet, nor had a hunt at my favourite bookshops, but if I fail at that, I might have a chat with my library’s staff and see if they have anything in ‘stack’, thanks for the tip:)

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      • PS, Meg, I had no luck at all with a search at ZPortal except for libraries far away which involve a postage cost for a book I then have to give back, which I probably won’t want to do, because The Spouse will want to read some of them.
        I tried Brotherhood Books and oh dear, their new website, what a pain… it takes ages and two out of three results weren’t by Rebecca West at all.
        So then I tried commercial suppliers, and I have been able happily to succumb to spendyitis! AbeBooks came up with three I couldn’t resist: A Train of Powder and The Meaning of Treason and The Birds Fall Down, and I found The Thinking Reed at Amazon AU for the kindle:)

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        • Lisa, Sam Merrifield library (Essendon), is not too far away and they have several Rebecca West novels. Inter library loans allow a borrowing time of weeks!

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          • Thanks, Meg, I’ll bear that in mind for when I’ve read the ones I’ve been able to buy.
            But – I admit it! what I really want is a nice shelf of RW Viragos, joining my collections of feisty feminist authors (Mary Wesley, Fay Weldon, Nina Bawden, Elizabeth Jolley).
            I am baffled as to why I never pursued her work before…

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  2. Lovely review, Lisa. This is such a good book, very assured for a debut novel. The insights into perceptions around class are very revealing.

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    • Hi Jacqui, yes, and the class distinction seems totally bizarre from an Australian PoV. Not to say that Australians aren’t snobs, because of course some are, but Jenny’s blatant criticism of Margaret’s clothes, appearance and ways of speaking and behaviour are astonishing from our perspective.

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  3. I’ve this on my shelves I brought a virago edition a number of years ago as I like World War One related novel must get to it some time sounds very good Lisa

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    • It’s very short, Stu, you could read it in one night. I’d love to know what you think of it because you so often have really interesting insights about classic books.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Read this earlier in the year but haven’t got around to reviewing it. The ending left me with a big question about whether the women were right to try to ‘cure’ him

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    • Their motives are worth thinking about too…

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  5. Lovely post Lisa. I was knocked out by this when I read it -such a wonderful book. It shocks me still that West isn’t better read nowadays – I doubt my library has much in the way of her work, but fortunately I’ve picked up a good number of her Viragos on my travels.

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    • Thank you!
      I’m hoping to find some of those novels in the charity shops that I haunt. (There are two on my walk to French classes each week!)
      The good thing about Viragos with their distinctive green spines is the same as the good thing about the old Penguins with distinctive orange spines: they stand out among the dross on the shelves, so they’re easy to find if they are there:)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] by coincidence, I read this novel contemporaneously with Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier which is also about a soldier with what we now call post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both […]

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  7. I loved this book when I read it.
    Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great that you’ve come upon a WWI novel of the time, and not some later reconstruction. It seems ‘everybody’ has read it except me, a failing I should rectify. But the world’s premier woman writer in 1947? That would be an interesting discussion but I’m not sure the answer would be Rebecca West.

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    • LOL That’s the way I feel about a whole lot of books… everyone but me.
      BTW This week I finally got my copy of An Australian Girl in London by Louise Mack (1902). I’d ordered it in September.

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  9. So sad she’s not more widely read. I posted a while back on this moving PTSD novel – interesting to see WWI impact from the perspective of the home front and women. Also on the wonderful Aubrey trilogy. Bought Black Lamb recently but daunted by its size so far…

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    • I think it was your review that made me move it up the TBR – thank you!

      Liked by 1 person


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