Indeed, 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 the sand; one snarls at one’s company; thoughts prick one through sleep like mosquitoes.” – The Return of the Soldier, Rebecca West
Initial thoughts: I had to read this book for a course on modern British literature. I was extremely happy when I received the book because it was only 80 pages long! I was elated since I also had to read Ulysses by: James Joyce in the same time frame. This novel provides a very different perspective about the nature of war, one that is so rarely explored in literature, but is extremely realistic and profound.
Set during World War I on an isolated country estate just outside London, Rebecca West’s haunting novel The Return of the Soldier follows Chris Baldry, a shell-shocked captain suffering from amnesia, as he makes a bittersweet homecoming to the three women who have helped shape his life. Will the devoted wife he can no longer recollect, the favorite cousin he remembers only as a childhood friend, and the poor innkeeper’s daughter he once courted leave Chris to languish in a safe, dreamy past—or will they help him recover his memory so that he can return to the front?” – Goodreads
How do you write about war if you have never gone to war? For most writers, their experience of war is a result of their own fantastic imaginations and research. They concoct stories of heroism and bravery with idealized images and one triumphant victor at the end. Rebecca West’s novel The Return of the Soldier provides a completely new and fresh image of the impacts of the first world war through her own experiences.
It is often that we imagine the first world war as trench warfare where soldiers risked their lives to fight for their countries. The men and women at home, however, are quietly omitted and placed in the background. In The Return of the Soldier, Rebecca West explores war through her protagonist Jenny Baldry who is awaiting news from her cousin Chris at the frontlines. Every night she is haunted by nightmares of her cousin in combat. Meanwhile, Chris’ elitist wife, Kitty Baldry, disconnectedly pretends as if there is nothing wrong.
One day, a shabby middle class woman named Margaret arrives at Jenny and Kitty’s home claiming that she recently received a letter from Chris. She reveals that she used to know Chris when she was young. Outraged by the idea of Chris knowing a lower-class woman, Kitty dismissed Margaret’s claims until it is revealed that Chris has been injured in the war and now has amnesia. Suddenly, Margaret and Chris rekindle their relationship while Jenny contemplates the consequences of Chris’ memory being lost forever.
Although there are no battle scenes described as epically or as tragically as Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, it seems that West covers a rarely exposed topic of the nature of war, the psychological implications. Today, we seem to be more aware of the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder than we were one hundred years ago. At the same time, our lack of progress in treating PTSD makes West’s novel feel very current and relatable.
Rebecca West wrote The Return of the Soldier right in the midst of the end of the first world war. Freudian psychology of repression and of the unconscious were being investigated in society. Chris’ amnesia is an interesting insight into the interpretation of early psychological practices. At the time of its publication, Rebecca West was a well-known author, though has been mostly forgotten in recent years.
I would definitely recommend this book for its insight into England at the end of the first world war, and for its exploration of early psychological theory.
About the Book
Title: The Return of the Soldier Author: Rebecca West Series: N/AYear Published: 1918Pages: 80Genres & Subjects: World War I, fiction, realism, war, psychology, classics,
Until Next Time,