The Return of the Soldier was Rebecca West‘s (later, Dame Rebecca West) first novel.  Though considered slight against her later work, most famously a travel-history-political analysis of the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), which at the time of the 1990-91 breakup of Yugoslavia was still one of the best books available on that area, it has recently come into higher regard.

As with Virginia Woolf’s later Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and Dorothy L Sayers The Unpleasantness of the Bellona Club (1928), The Return of the Soldier, is about a returning, shell-shocked victim of World War I.  None are about the causes, or pathologies, of what we now call PTSD, but are about the women’s reactions and actions when faced with the injured man.

Mrs. Dalloway, herself, does not meet, or know, Septimus Warren Smith.  Though the reader knows of his continuing terrors, flashbacks and thoughts of suicide, and of his wife’s desperate attempts to understand and urge him towards stability, Clarissa does not. She only hears of his suicide from a guest at her party.

“Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.”

Her response is not of sorrow, or from understanding him or, in fact, anyone like him, but of her self.

“She felt somehow very like him –the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it all away. … Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.”

Praised as one of the great novels of the early modernist writers, and cited in conjunction with the World War from which these writers had formed their judgments and outlooks, it is not a war-novel as is typically understood. Septimus Smith could have been mad and jumped out of a window for many other reasons and Clarissa’s thoughts need not have changed.

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In The Return of the Soldier, West’s three female characters have a much closer connection to the returning man and what the war brought them all.

Jenny, the injured man’s cousin, confides,

“…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.

Her imaginative re-creation of his life is specific and visceral:

By nights I saw Chris running across the brown rottenness of No-Man’s-Land, starting back here because he trod upon a hand, not even looking there because of the awfulness of an unburied head, and not till my dream was packed full of horror did I see him pitch forward on his knees as he reached safety, if it was that…

Jenny is living with Kitty, Christopher’s  and his wife Kitty had lived in prior to the war. One afternoon, a strange visitor brings them unsettling news: Christopher is in hospital, still in France, and “He isn’t well!”

How would she know, and cousin and wife know nothing?

She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two.

A letter to Jenny confirms that Christopher is indeed as she described him. According to a male cousin who visited him in Boulogne, he has lost all memory since 1901. He does not recognize the name of his wife, Kitty, and only talks of a young woman, Margaret, the daughter of an inn keeper on a rural river island.

Christopher is sent home and cousin and wife try to understand and bring him back into the world he has left.  Only those things of his childhood are familiar — chairs, lawns, windows, Jenny. But of those fifteen years, nothing.  He is amazed at transformations in the house which he, himself, oversaw. He understands that Kitty is his wife, but has no recognition or attachment to her.

With the advice of a doctor and the latest in Freudian insights into the brain they accede to his wish to see Margaret; surely her age and condition will jar him back to reality. It does not. And though Margaret is touched and thrilled at the resuscitation of an all but forgotten love, she is married, and will not injure the happiness of her husband.  Indeed, she argues to leave Christopher in his happiness, of not remembering the war.

“Just let him be!”

They do not. Jenny, as narrator tells us even as she agrees with Margaret, that

“…there is a draft which we must drink, or not be fully human.  I knew that one must know the truth.”

And so Margaret, as the one closest to him, carries to the garden where he waits, the one proof of a life forgotten, sure to shatter the protective barrier of amnesia.

Just as Mrs Dalloway is not really about the war, or the damage to those who were there, neither is The Return of the Soldier, though it comes closer. Had Christopher lost his memory from a polo accident the story could have played out the same: memory loss, the immediacy of affection for a long-ago love; the sorrow and disruption brought upon those whose own history and belonging have been erased by the memory loss.  The interesting question for West, is not that the war damaged him, but whether to leave him in the innocence of his amnesia or to ‘cure him,’ to bring him back to his wife and dead child and by implication, the horrors of the fighting now did not remember.  As one of West’s great niece’s, Helen Atkinson, says in a preface to the re-issue in 2011, of the work:

It asks a fundamental question that will never be resolved but must be asked continually if we are to remain better than beasts: How do we balance the demands of a civilized world with our desire for individual happiness, pleasure, peace, and ease? 

The decision of the women is, shall we say, the opposite of Clarissa’s view, that death, removal from the world, is the admirable thing.

The story is a serious one and well worth visiting, for the first or perhaps a repeated time.  We get the privileged life of the women, the fear of losing a comfortable, habitual life,  the tension of letting a loved relation live in happiness, even if false, even if those who love him will be unhappy, or of insisting that he come to live in the world as it has now become, even though the happiness of his loved ones may not improve. Though emerging from the war, and using one of its issue as material for story telling, this is not, in a narrow sense, a war novel.  In the larger sense, in the far ripples of the thrown stone, it is of course about the waste that comes as war satisfies its appetite.  Reading about women, in this climate of war, by an observant and incisive woman adds importantly to our knowledge of the widest results of war – not simply those in the mud and the jungle, the desert and the oceans.

For a serious woman’s look at the close up and particular of war itself, you’ll have to turn Helen Zeena Smith, also a Brit,  in her 1930 Not So Quiet … Stepdaughters of War.  (My review here)

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Though Return of the Soldier was West’s first novel, she had written and published an earlier short story, Indissoluble Matrimony (1914), in Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis’s flame throwing Blast.  It raised much controversy, challenging what was then being said about feminism and women’s involvement in politics.

A couple of links to Indissoluble Matrimony appreciations, here and here.