Rebecca West The Return of the Soldier (1918)
That day its beauty was an affront to me, because, like most Englishwomen of my time, I was wishing for the return of a soldier. Disregarding the national interest and everything else except the keen prehensile gesture of our hearts toward him, I wanted to snatch my Cousin Christopher from the wars and seal him in this green pleasantness his wife and I now looked upon.
I've read hardly any Rebecca West - apart from bits of her The Meaning of Treason (1949: specifically, on Lord Haw-Haw) - and I approached The Return of the Soldier with some [fear of politics-disguised-as-literature-inspired] trepidation. Could I have been more wrong? Yes, we are not allowed to forget class difference, but what a wonderful, beautifully written book.
Published in 1918, The Return of the Soldier is the story of Chris - the beloved but stifled head of a family of adoring women - who returns from the Great War shellshocked and amnesiac. He has lost fifteen years of his life and believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he is the carefree 22 year old who had yet to assume the mantle of responsibility for caring for his family and the family home. Worse still - for his wife Kitty and doting cousin Jenny [the narrator] - he remembers only his first, great love. But nowadays Margaret is a seemingly broken housewife struggling with borderline poverty and a husband unable to work.
The star of the book is Chris' family home which has remained a sort of pre-war Edwardian sanctuary for the women who have devoted themselves to Chris' comfort. The women's world has not been "infected with the squalor of war". So, how shocking not to be recognised.
The women respond differently: Jenny, who has always carried a torch for her cousin (and would, to paraphrase The Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviewer, benefit from the Hitachi magic wand: "We kissed not as women, but as lovers do; I think we each embraced that part of Chris the other had absorbed by her love."), realises that he has never seen her as anything other than friend and cousin. However, because she loves him, she is willing to do anything to restore his memory, even if it means that she loses any chance to begin over with him. Kitty, the wife, is horrified at how Chris' loss of memory, which she believes is just a trick, affects her as his wife: what will society think of her with a mad husband in an asylum? What will become of their lavish Edwardian lifestyle? Will - horror! - he leave her for his old, first love? Kitty's responses to these worries demonstrate that she is, indeed, well-named, with "[h]er irony... as faintly acrid as a caraway-seed".
There came suddenly a thud at the door. We heard Chris swear and stumble to his feet, while one of the servants spoke helpfully. Kitty knitted her brows, for she hates gracelessness, and a failure of physical adjustment is the worst indignity she can conceive. "He’s fallen down those three steps from the hall," I whispered. "They’re new."…His fall had ruffled him and made him look very large and red, and he breathed hard, like an animal pursued into a strange place by night, and to his hot consciousness of his disorder the sight of Kitty, her face and hands and bosom shining like the snow, her gown enfolding her, and her gold hair crowning her with radiance, and the white fire of jewels giving passion to the spectacle, was a deep refreshment. She sat still for a time, so that he might feel this well, then raised her ringed hand to her necklaces. "It seems so strange that you should not remember me," she said. "You gave me all these." He answered kindly: "I am glad I did that. You look very beautiful in them." But as he spoke his gaze shifted to the shadows in the corners of the room, and the blood ran hot under his skin. He was thinking of another woman, of another beauty. Kitty put up her hands as if to defend her jewels.
And what of Margaret, the old lover: could she dare to snatch back her lost love, life and happiness? Or will she make a supreme sacrifice for Chris and his womenfolk and return to her common life (with her umbrella with an "unveracious tortoiseshell handle"!)?
The characterisation is wonderful, particularly that of Chris whom we see only through the different viewpoints of his family as they discover that he was not at all the man they thought they know. As the safe, luxurious sanctuary of the house disintegrates, the inhabitants become aware that their perfect little world is over forever, regardless of whether Chris' memory can be restored.
"Kitty! Kitty! How can you!" But her little pink mouth went on manufacturing malice. "This is all a blind," she said at the end of an unpardonable sentence. "He’s pretending." I, who had felt his agony all the evening like a wound in my own body, was past speech then, and I did not care what I did to stop her. I gripped her small shoulders with my large hands, and shook her till her jewels rattled and she scratched my fingers and gasped for breath. But I did not mind so long as she was silent.
The narrator, Jenny, stays in one's mind long after the narrative has ended. She is such a sad figure ("a lonely life gives one opportunities of thinking these things out"), living with her dreams of Chris as putative lover, the realisation of the loss of her youth, and the new awareness that her constant companion Kitty has never liked her and that, contrary to her first impression, Margaret cuts the best figure of them all, despite her social commonness:
I pushed the purse away from me with my toe, and hated her as the rich hate the poor as insect things that will struggle out of the crannies which are their decent home and introduce ugliness to the light of day.
Even the house cannot save its occupants, as they become aware that it is "not so much a house as a vast piece of space partitioned off from the universe and decorated partly for beauty and partly to make our privacy more insolent". War has changed things forever and the bitter irony of their trying to save Chris only to send him back "to that flooded trench in Flanders, under that sky more full of flying death than clouds, to that No-Man's-Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead" is never far from the surface of this extraordinary book.
BTW, I read this as a free book from girlebooks (although I have the Virago classic too). I think girlebooks is marvellous.
If you liked this... the evocation of the 'perfect summer' in The Return of the Soldier is somewhat earlier than the norm, but reminded me that I have - still - yet to finish The Perfect Summer.