“The Return of the Soldier” – When ignorance is bliss?

This is my review of the The Return of the Soldier   by Rebecca West.

First published in 1918, this novella is narrated by Jenny whose cousin and childhood playmate Chris is fighting in the trenches of WW1. Even if fully aware of the sexual nature of her love for him, she accepts that it will never be returned as she spends her days living in the family home with Chris’s beautiful but apparently shallow and materialistic wife Kitty. This may also be an assessment distorted by unconscious jealousy. Kitty has spent a fortune refurbishing the house and garden along tasteful modern lines, perhaps at least in part as a distraction from her husband’s absence and the recent tragic death of their three-year-old son.

The two women are appalled to learn not only that Chris has been invalided out of active service with amnesia, but that he remembers nothing of the last fifteen years of his adult life, including his marriage, being fixated instead on a youthful love affair with Margaret Allington, of whose existence both Kitty and Jenny are totally unaware. When Margaret proves to be a frumpy married women, with no dress sense and “horrible” hands seamed and reddened with housework, the two products of a genteel, snobbish Edwardian world imagine that it will not be difficult to wean Chris away from her. The more perceptive and empathic Jenny soon realises that it may have been Margaret’s inner, mental qualities which so attracted Chris.

Beneath the ensuing envy and resentment lies the essential dilemma. Is it better to humour Chris, and let him live happily in a false situation, free from adult responsibility, or must a way be found to “cure him”, which means bringing him to face the truth, with all which that entails.

The celebrated feminist novelist and journalist Rebecca West was neither deluding herself, nor being unduly immodest, in describing this her first novel, written in her early twenties as “rather good”. Well-written and skilfully constructed, down to the ambiguous title, it has a strong sense of place and unflinching dissection of human nature, particularly of women. A C21 reader may find it dated, and feel uneasy about the snobbery which may at times be unconscious on the author’s part, although her family knew financial hardship so she understood what it was like to be poor.

However, it is gives an interesting insight with an authentic ring as to how people thought a hundred years ago, and the different social constraints of the day imposed on them. Some of the descriptions of the area round Monkey Island near Bray on the Thames are very vivid and evocative of an area before it was engulfed by urban sprawl, and the pollution from mass car ownership and Heathrow Airport.

This is the kind of book one reads quickly to see what happens, then again more slowly to appreciate the quality of the descriptions, and the deeper layers of the story, such as the author’s anger over the futile damage caused by war and the complacency of those who expect others to fight it.

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