Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier was written during the first world war. Perhaps understandably it is not especially cheerful but it is an astute slice of life story. It offers what I thought was a wonderful insight into human behaviour and the effects of war.
The story is narrated by Jenny who shares a home with her cousin Chris and his wife Kitty. It is obvious from the beginning that Jenny is devoted to her cousin. Her purpose in life seems to be to work alongside Kitty to make his life as comfortable and happy as possible. This is a job they both take seriously, the furnishings in the house, even the layout of the garden designed to be comforting and peaceful.
Chris returns early from the war, shellshocked, the past 15 years of his life and the turmoil in the world erased from his memory. He doesn’t remember his wife at all and only remembers his cousin as a young playmate, not the woman she now is. This is something that bothers Jenny. He believes himself to still be in love with Margaret, his girlfriend from that period who is now married herself.
Margaret is central to the story. Kitty and Jenny consider her to be poor, unattractive and badly groomed, to the extent that they are embarrassed for her and to be around her. They don’t consider her a threat at all but soon realise that Chris in his regressed state is besotted with her. She comes to their house to see Chris, to aid in his recovery. Initially hostile, Jenny warms to her, begins to appreciate her genuine and simple character, feels nourished by her company. We don’t learn much about Kitty, she is portrayed as being beautiful and shallow, clothed in silks and struggling to believe that her husband could prefer this undesirable woman over her.
The outer beauty of Kitty contrasted against the inner beauty of Margaret.
The women’s actions will be crucial to the outcome. Especially those of Margaret. Does she follow her heart and in doing so protect her former love – as long as he is “ill”, Chris will be kept away from the front. Or does she do the right thing, honour their respective marriages and help him to recover is memory.
This was one of Rebecca West’s earlier novels, written when she was 24. It is short and I didn’t get to engage with the characters but it introduced all sorts of issues begging to be explored further. Rebecca West sounded like a fascinating woman and I’m looking forward to learning more about her. I would also like to read her non fiction/travel memoir, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia which was written later in her life.
1918, 112 pages