“Ah, don’t begin to fuss!” wailed Kitty; “if a woman began to worry in these days because her husband hadn’t written to her for a fortnight—!”
In the French silent film called J’accuse, released in 1919 and set during the First World War, a young Frenchman returns to his home village after fighting on the Front. He is shell-shocked, and warns a gathering that he has seen the dead rise from the battlefield. These ghosts, he says, are now marching towards the village to find out if their deaths were meaningful. We then see them parading down the road to the village. They are young men, haggard and bandaged, some limping and some missing limbs. Their appearance is even more striking when you consider that it was filmed in 1918, and the ghosts were played by real French soldiers home from the Front. They were on leave, and many of them knew they were about to return to the fighting. And they did: eighty percent of them were dead in the trenches just a few weeks after playing themselves as ghosts in an anti-war film.
Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, set in 1916, is about a lone soldier named Chris. He is not one of these ghosts yet, but his return to Baldry Court, the English country house in which he lived with his wife and sister, replays the past and disturbs his family as much as any such haunting would.
As the story opens, the waning manor is occupied by Jenny, our narrator who is Chris’s sister, and Kitty, who is Chris’s wife. They are awaiting the return of their soldier. Yet no sooner do we meet these ladies are they oppressed by a visit from a horrible, crabbed, impoverished stranger named Margaret, who hails from a brick-lane slum nearby—at least that’s how Jenny sees it, who along with Kitty is a snob by upbringing. The lowly Margaret commits a series of class blunders that mark her to the pair immediately as “repulsively furred by neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.” Jenny can be inventive in her contempt.
Margaret brings news: fifteen years ago, at a misty dreamlike place called Monkey Island, she and Chris had loved each other. It was brief and they have not spoken since. Except just now she has received a letter from him. This is a problem, she says, because he writes as though those fifteen years hadn’t passed. “He thinks he still knows me,” she says, when it’s obvious to all three women that he, in fact, no longer does.
Thus begins the story about the mentally injured soldier who, oblivious to the intervening fifteen years (during which he’s been married to Kitty, has aged into his thirties, and had a son who died in infancy), is back in love with his former girl, Margaret. Margaret has in the meantime also married, aged into an exhausted working-class woman, and lost a baby of her own. Their separation all those years ago was the result of jealousy and confusion, and left Margaret with enough yearning to allow the two a tender reconnection when he comes home to Baldry Court early in the story. The drama of the three women and their bewildered soldier is not only about the war and its evils, but also of love, memory, and class.
Countless novels were written about the First World War, almost all of which I haven’t read, but I would bet none are quite like this one. It’s isolated, small, and the setting is as peaceful as the psychology is tumultuous. All three women know that Chris is ill, wounded mentally instead of physically. But all three react differently to his new condition. Kitty, naturally, has no patience for it. She is churlish and patronizing, and takes it all as an affront to herself. For a moment she even believes that Chris is making everything up as an excuse to betray her with an old lover.
But Margaret’s poverty and her physical appearance, so unforgivingly described by Jenny, is perhaps what dispels this possibility and has deeper implications for Kitty. Before she reintroduces them, Jenny warns Chris that Margaret isn’t how he remembers her. She’s aged, she’s older now and worn down. But Chris is defiant: “theirs is a changeless love which would persist if [Margaret] were old or maimed or disfigured.” And he’s right: the two of them fall back in love the moment they reunite. Her wrinkles, her tough hands, her simple clothes; Chris is blind to all that was grotesque and foul about her to Kitty and Jenny. It’s not a ruse to recover past thrills, but something powerfully real that has resurfaced.
Jenny is the one to see this, and as the short book concludes she has seen something between Margaret and Chris that she can’t dismiss. Kitty by the end is seldom seen, except in the drafty shadows of Baldry Court. And we, along with Jenny, finish by seeing the pearl that has momentarily risen from the mud, a bright pure thing that was never going to last at Baldry Court but that existed none the less. It was, she saysm “the loveliest attitude in all the world.” In a clever way, the soldier really does return at the end of this novella, and like the apparitions in J’accuse, will depart from our pages to an uncertain fate in a war that is still churning just a boat-ride away.
* * * *
So for this first book of the year I chose a slim, bruised black-and-white Penguin I got from a bookseller’s bargain box in I-don’t-know-which-city. Rebecca West was one of the great journalists of the 20th Century, most celebrated when ruminating on the Nuremberg Trials or going in-depth on pre-war Yugoslavia. She would also publish ten other works of fiction.
She wrote this novella when she was 24. She had only published one book before, a monogram on Henry James. It is the only novel written by a woman about the war, during the war.
Other favourite quotes:
You don’t notice how little there is in the Bible really till you go to it for help.
She raised her ringed hand to her necklaces. “It seems so strange that you should not remember me,” she said. “You gave me all these.”
“Help me, old man, I’ve got no legs…”—“I can’t, old man, I’ve got no hands…”
-Sean “Every Inch a Soldier” McB