As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to World War I as the centenary of the armistice approaches. So I put aside Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, which is excellent but pre-war and also loooooong*, and picked up Rebecca West’s 1918 novel The Return of the Soldier, which is war-related (well, sort of, see below) and short (90 pages).
Rebecca West (real name Cicely Isabel Fairfield) was already a fixture on London’s cultural scene when she published The Return of the Soldier, her first novel, at the age of 25. Born into an intellectual but financially struggling Anglo-Irish family, she had a brief career as an actress (her pseudonym came from an Ibsen play) before turning to literary criticism. She and H.G. Wells met like characters in a romantic comedy—she panned a book of his, calling him “the Old Maid among novelists,” and he requested a meeting. This led to a long affair with Wells, who was married and 27 years older. They had a son, Anthony, born in 1914. To disguise his illegitimacy, West made him call her “Auntie” and Wells “Wellesie” during his early years, and she sent him to boarding school at the age of three. Perhaps not surprisingly, he and West ended up estranged. West went on to have a highly successful career as a journalist and writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her best-known work today is her monumental book on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
The Return of the Soldier tells the story of Chris, who is sent home from the war when a shell explodes and wipes out his memory of the last 15 years, during which he married and lost his only child. It’s narrated by Jenny, Chris’s cousin and ardent admirer, who for unexplained reasons lives with him and Kitty, his wife, on their vast estate. Chris, in his damaged mind, is living in the happiest period of his life, when he was in love with Margaret, the daughter of the proprietor of a charmingly ramshackle inn. He insists that he must see her or die. Jenny is afraid he’ll be shattered when he encounters present-day Margaret,
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 is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.
But he loves her as much as ever and spends his days wandering around his estate with her, lost in his happy youth, while Jenny and Kitty agonize about how to bring him to his senses.
As I read the first few chapters, I marveled that The Return of the Soldier, which received generally ecstatic reviews at the time of publication, is not better known today.*** Jenny’s initial visceral dislike of Margaret, she of the creaking stays and cheap plumes, says as much about the British class system as a Dickens novel. Speaking of her and Kitty’s sadness about Chris’s affliction, Jenny says that
grief is not the clear melancholy the young believe it. It is like a siege in a tropical city. The skin dries and the throat parches as though one were living in the heat of the desert; water and wine taste warm in the mouth and food is of the substance of sand; one snarls at one’s company; thoughts prick through one’s sleep like mosquitos.
As I continued reading, though, the book’s flaws emerged. West was attempting to incorporate recent psychological discoveries into the story, but her account of Chris’s mental state rings false to the modern reader. His recent memory is completely wiped out, but beyond the 15-year gap it’s intact—he’s exactly the happy lad he once was. Later critics pointed out that this condition, however common it may be in the movies, doesn’t exist in real life.**** The way his amnesia is resolved (I won’t give spoilers, but you can look it up in the book’s Wikipedia entry if you’re curious) is equally dubious. This is the problem with novels that are based on psychological theories: psychology moves on and the novel remains full of discarded ideas about how the mind works.
Also, The Return of the Soldier isn’t really about the war at all. With Chris’s memory of his time at the front wiped clean and Jenny and Kitty living in sheltered luxury, the conflict doesn’t directly enter their lives. Aside from the implication that trauma might have played a role in Chris’s amnesia, and Kitty and Jenny’s anxiety about him being sent back to France if cured, the book could as easily have been called The Return of the Guy Who Fell off a Horse and Hit His Head.
In spite of these flaws, The Return of the Soldier is worth reading for its excoriating depiction of the British class system, its evocation of a lost world, and, above all, West’s wonderful writing.
(I read the Penguin Classics edition, which is pricey for a 90-page paperback but otherwise recommended.)
*422 pages, which might not strike you as exceptionally long, but the median length of the books I’ve read for this project is about 100 pages, so I’ve developed a short attention span.
**In that early 20th century British sense of having only one servant.
***Not that it’s forgotten, exactly. After fading into obscurity even as West’s career took off, it gained a new readership when it was made into a film in 1982. It has fared much better than May Sinclair’s equally well-received 1917 war novel The Tree of Heaven, which is out of print today. (Both were named Book of the Month by the North American Review, a prominent literary journal.) Still, it’s hardly a fixture in the modernist canon.
****At least one critic at the time did as well—Dora Marsden of The Egoist. “As a tale of human emotion it is altogether quite indecently unjust,” she wrote in the magazine’s October 1918 issue. Marsden was preoccupied with the nature of consciousness, about which she wrote long, incoherent articles for the Egoist, which she founded and where T.S. Eliot served as literary editor.