The Return of the Soldier

The Return of the Soldier

by Rebecca West


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The story of a stirring love triangle in the aftermath of World War I, Rebecca West's first novel triumphs as a literary classic. It deftly paints the emotional conflicts of a shell-shocked World War I veteran, his wife, and the woman he loved long before. This absorbing work movingly explores love, memory, and spiritual regeneration amid the horrors of war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781976044960
Publisher: CreateSpace Publishing
Publication date: 09/03/2017
Pages: 86
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.18(d)

About the Author

Rebecca West, novelist, biographer, journalist, and critic, was one of the century's most brilliant and forceful writers. Born Cicily Isabel Fairfield on December 21, 1892, she was educated at George Watson's Ladies College. She adopted the nom de plume Rebecca West from Ibsen's Romserholm in which she once appeared. At an early age she threw herself into the suffragette movement and in 1911 joined the staff of the Freewoman and in the following year became a political writer on the socialist newspaper the Clarion. Her love affair with the novelist H.G. Wells began in 1913 and lasted for ten, not always happy, years. Their son, Anthony West, her only child, was born in 1914. After the break with Wells she went to America where she lectured and formed what was to be a long association reviewing for the New York Herlad-Tribune. In 1930 she married Henry Maxwell Andrews, a banker, and they lived in Buckinhamshire until his death in 1968, after which Rebecca West moved to London.

Her first published book was a critical study of Henry James, her second a novel, The Return of the Soldier (1918), which was recently made into a successful film. She published eight novels including The Judge (1922), Harriet Hume (1929), and the largely autobiographical The Fountain Overflows (1957). Her last novel, The Birds Fall Down (1966), was adapted or BBC television in 1978. In the mid-thirties she made several trips to the Balkans in order to gather material for a travel book. But her interest in the subject deepened and she returned to the area many times to collect more material. The result was her masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, published in 1941 in two volumes. In her obituary The Times (London) remarked of this work that it "was immediately recognized as a magnum opus, as astonishing in its range, in its subtlety and power of its judgment, as it is brilliant in expression." As a result of the books' publication, she was invited during the war to superintend the BBC broadcasts to Yugoslavia. After the war she was present at the Nuremberg Trials and her account of these and of other trials which arose out of the relation of the individual to the state, were published in two books, The Meaning of Treason (1949) and A Train of Powder (1955).

Samuel Hynes is Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature Emeritus at Princeton University and the author of several major works of literary criticism, including The Auden Generation, Edwardian Occasions, and The Edwardian Turn of Mind. Hynes's wartime experiences as a Marine Corps pilot were the basis for his highly praised memoir, Flights of Passage. The Soldiers' Tale, his book about soldiers' narratives of the two world wars and Vietnam, won a Robert F. Kennedy Award. He is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter I

"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! Besides, if he'd been anywhere interesting, anywhere where the fighting was really hot, he'd have found some way of telling me instead of just leaving it as 'Somewhere in France.' He'll be all right."

We were sitting in the nursery. I had not meant to enter it again, now that the child was dead; but I had come suddenly on Kitty as she slipped the key into the lock, and I had lingered to look in at the high room, so full of whiteness and clear colors, so unendurably gay and familiar, which is kept in all respects as though there were still a child in the house. It was the first lavish day of spring, and the sunlight was pouring through the tall, arched windows and the flowered curtains so brightly that in the old days a fat fist would certainly have been raised to point out the new, translucent glories of the rosebud. Sunlight was lying in great pools on the blue cork floor and the soft rugs, patterned with strange beasts, and threw dancing beams, which should have been gravely watched for hours, on the white paint and the blue distempered walls. It fell on the rocking-horse, which had been Chris's idea of an appropriate present for his year-old son, and showed what a fine fellow he was and how tremendously dappled; it picked out Mary and her little lamb on the chintz ottoman. And along the mantelpiece, under the loved print of the snarling tiger, in attitudes that were at once angular and relaxed, as though they were ready for play at their master's pleasure, but found it hard to keep from drowsing in this warm weather,sat the Teddy Bear and the chimpanzee and the woolly white dog and the black cat with eyes that roll. Everything was there except Oliver. I turned away so that I might not spy on Kitty revisiting her dead. But she called after me:

"Come here, Jenny. I'm going to dry my hair." And when I looked again I saw that her golden hair was all about her shoulders and that she wore over her frock a little silken jacket trimmed with rosebuds. She looked so like a girl on a magazine cover that one expected to find a large "15 cents" somewhere attached to her person. She had taken Nanny's big basket-chair from its place by the highchair, and was pushing it over to the middle window. "I always come in here when Emery has washed my hair. It's the sunniest room in the house. I wish Chris wouldn't have it kept as a nursery when there's no chance-" She sat down, swept her hair over the back of the chair into the sunlight, and held out to me her tortoiseshell hair-brush. "Give it a brush now and then, like a good soul; but be careful. Tortoise snaps so!"

I took the brush and turned to the window, leaning my forehead against the glass and staring unobservantly at the view. You probably know the beauty of that view; for when Chris rebuilt Baldry Court after his marriage he handed it over to architects who had not so much the wild eye of the artist as the knowing wink of the manicurist, and between them they massaged the dear old place into matter for innumerable photographs in the illustrated papers. The house lies on the crest of Harrowweald, and from its windows the eye drops to miles of emerald pastureland lying wet and brilliant under a westward line of sleek hills, blue with distance and distant woods, while nearer it range the suave decorum of the lawn and the Lebanon cedar, the branches of which are like darkness made palpable, and the minatory gauntnesses of the topmost pines in the wood that breaks downward, its bare boughs a close texture of browns and purples, from the pond on the edge of the hill.

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. Of late I had had bad dreams about him. 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. For on the war-films I have seen men slip down as softly from the trench-parapet, and none but the grimmer philosophers could say that they had reached safety by their fall. And when I escaped into wakefulness it was only to lie stiff and think of stories I had heard in the boyish voice of the modern subaltern, which rings indomitable, yet has most of its gay notes flattened: "We were all of us in a barn one night, and a shell came along. My pal sang out, 'Help me, old man; I've got no legs!' and I had to answer, 'I can't, old man; I've got no hands!' " Well, such are the dreams of Englishwomen to-day. I could not complain, but I wished for the return of our soldier. So I said:

"I wish we could hear from Chris. It is a fortnight since he wrote."

And then it was that Kitty wailed, "Ah, don't begin to fuss!" and bent over her image in a hand-mirror as one might bend for refreshment over scented flowers.

I tried to build about me such a little globe of ease as always ensphered her, and thought of all that remained good in our lives though Chris was gone. I was sure that we were preserved from the reproach of luxury, because we had made a fine place for Chris, one little part of the world that was, so far as surfaces could make it so, good enough for his amazing goodness. Here we had nourished that surpassing amiability which was so habitual that one took it as one of his physical characteristics, and regarded any lapse into bad temper as a calamity as startling as the breaking of a leg; here we had made happiness inevitable for him. I could shut my eyes and think of innumerable proofs of how well we had succeeded, for there never was so visibly contented a man. And I recalled all that he did one morning just a year ago when he went to the front.

First he had sat in the morning-room and talked and stared out on the lawns that already had the desolation of an empty stage, although he had not yet gone; then broke off suddenly and went about the house, looking into many rooms. He went to the stables and looked at the horses and had the dogs brought out; he refrained from touching them or speaking to them, as though he felt himself already infected with the squalor of war and did not want to contaminate their bright physical well-being. Then he went to the edge of the wood and stood staring down into the clumps of dark-leaved rhododendrons and the yellow tangle of last year's bracken and the cold winter black of the trees. (From this very window I had spied on him.) Then he moved broodingly back to the house to be with his wife until the moment of his going, when Kitty and I stood on the steps to see him motor off to Waterloo. He kissed us both. As he bent over me I noticed once again how his hair was of two colors, brown and gold. Then he got into the car, put on his Tommy air, and said: "So long! I'll write you from Berlin!" and as he spoke his head dropped back, and he set a hard stare on the house. That meant, I knew, that he loved the life he had lived with us and desired to carry with him to the dreary place of death and dirt the complete memory of everything about his home, on which his mind could brush when things were at their worst, as a man might finger an amulet through his shirt. This house, this life with us, was the core of his heart.

"If he could come back!" I said. "He was so happy here!"

And Kitty answered:

"He could not have been happier."

It was important that he should have been happy, for, you see, he was not like other city men. When we had played together as children in that wood he had always shown great faith in the imminence of the improbable. He thought that the birch-tree would really stir and shrink and quicken into an enchanted princess, that he really was a red Indian, and that his disguise would suddenly fall from him at the right sundown, that at any moment a tiger might lift red fangs through the bracken, and he expected these things with a stronger motion of the imagination than the ordinary child's make-believe. And from a thousand intimations, from his occasional clear fixity of gaze on good things as though they were about to dissolve into better, from the passionate anticipation with which he went to new countries or met new people, I was aware that this faith had persisted into his adult life. He had exchanged his expectation of becoming a red Indian for the equally wistful aspiration of becoming completely reconciled to life. It was his hopeless hope that some time he would have an experience that would act on his life like alchemy, turning to gold all the dark metals of events, and from that revelation he would go on his way rich with an inextinguishable joy. There had been, of course, no chance of his ever getting it. Literally there wasn't room to swing a revelation in his crowded life. First of all, at his father's death he had been obliged to take over a business that was weighted by the needs of a mob of female relatives who were all useless either in the old way, with antimacassars, or in the new way, with gold-clubs; then Kitty had come along and picked up his conception of normal expenditure, and carelessly stretched it as a woman stretches a new glove on her hand. Then there had been the difficult task of learning to live after the death of his little son. It had lain on us, the responsibility, which gave us dignity, to compensate him for his lack of free adventure by arranging him a gracious life. But now, just because our performance had been so brilliantly adequate, how dreary was the empty stage!

We were not, perhaps, specially contemptible women, because nothing could ever really become a part of our life until it had been referred to Chris's attention. I remember thinking, as the parlor-maid came in with a card on the tray, how little it mattered who had called and what flag of prettiness or wit she flew, since there was no chance that Chris would come in and stand over her, his fairness red in the firelight, and show her that detached attention, such as an unmusical man pays to good music, which men of anchored affections give to attractive women.

Kitty read from the card:

" 'Mrs. William Grey, Mariposa, Ladysmith Road, Wealdstone,' I don't know anybody in Wealdstone." That is the name of the red suburban stain which fouls the fields three miles nearer London than Harrowweald. One cannot now protect one's environment as one once could. "Do I know her, Ward? Has she been here before?"

"Oh, no, ma'am." The parlor-maid smiled superciliously. "She said she had news for you." From her tone one could deduce an over-confiding explanation made by a shabby visitor while using the doormat almost too zealously.

Kitty pondered, then said:

"I'll come down." As the girl went, Kitty took up the amber hair-pins from her lap and began swathing her hair about her head. "Last year's fashion," she commented; "but I fancy it'll do for a person with that sort of address." She stood up, and threw her little silk dressing-jacket over the rocking-horse. "I'm seeing her because she may need something, and I specially want to be kind to people while Chris is away. One wants to deserve well of heaven." For a minute she was aloof in radiance, but as we linked arms and went out into the corridor she became more mortal, with a pout. "The people that come breaking into one's nice, quiet day!" she moaned reproachfully, and as we came to the head of the broad staircase she leaned over the white balustrade to peer down on the hall, and squeezed my arm. "Look!" she whispered.

Just beneath us, in one of Kitty's prettiest chintz arm-chairs, sat a middle-aged woman. She wore a yellowish raincoat and a black hat with plumes. The sticky straw hat had only lately been renovated by something out of a little bottle bought at the chemist's. She had rolled her black thread gloves into a ball on her lap, so that she could turn her gray alpaca skirt well above her muddy boots and adjust its brush-braid with a seamed red hand that looked even more worn when she presently raised it to touch the glistening flowers of the pink azalea that stood on a table beside her. Kitty shivered, then muttered:

"Let's get this over," and ran down the stairs. On the last step she paused and said with conscientious sweetness, "Mrs. Grey?"

"Yes," answered the visitor. She lifted to Kitty a sallow and relaxed face the expression of which gave me a sharp, pitying pang of prepossession in her favor: it was beautiful that so plain a woman should so ardently rejoice in another's loveliness. "Are you Mrs. Baldry?" she asked, almost as if she were glad about it, and stood up. The bones of her bad stays clicked as she moved. Well, she was not so bad. Her body was long and round and shapely, and with a noble squareness of the shoulders; her fair hair curled diffidently about a good brow; her gray eyes, though they were remote, as if anything worth looking at in her life had kept a long way off, were full of tenderness; and though she was slender, there was something about her of the wholesome, endearing heaviness of the ox or the trusted big dog. Yet she was bad enough. 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 is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.

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The Return of the Soldier 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
katiekrug on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"There were only two real people in the world, Chris and this woman whose personality was sounding through her squalor like a beautiful voice singing in a darkened room."I don¿t know how to do justice to this perfect little gem of a book. An intriguing story, sparely but fully drawn characters, and language that is rich and languid and heartbreakingly beautiful ¿ it is all here in a book that despite the plot is less about war and more about duty and the sublimation of one¿s true character.Chris Baldry is the titular soldier who returns from the front of World War I suffering from shell shock and amnesia which has erased his memory of the past 15 years. He does not recognize his current life, home, or wife; in fact, he is still infatuated with Margaret, his first love from 15 years ago. The story is narrated by Chris¿ cousin, who provides the perfect balance between distance and proximity to the story. As it unfolds, the narrator¿s views slowly evolve as she perceives the truth of Chris¿ life. "I felt, indeed, a cold intellectual pride in his refusal to remember his prosperous maturity and his determined dwelling in the time of his first love, for it showed him so much saner than the rest of us, who take life as it comes, loaded with the unessential and the irritating."How the three women ¿ the wife, cousin, and first love ¿ react to Chris¿ condition and the circumstances in which they find themselves forms the central tension of the story. The resolution is both expected and heart-wrenching.Beyond the plot, however, West imbues the simplest gesture and act with import and grace. Describing a woman sitting beside the sleeping figure of a man, she writes:"It was the most significant, as it was the loveliest, attitude in the world. It means that the woman has gathered the soul of the man into her soul and is keeping it warm in love and peace so that his body can rest quiet for a little time. That is a great thing for a woman to do¿ What we desire is greatness such as this, which had given sleep to the beloved."I had downloaded this onto my Kindle, and at the next opportunity, purchased a copy to add to my permanent library.
hemlokgang on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"Return of the Soldier" is a literary powerhouse in a small package! It is the incredibly moving story of a soldier returning home from war with amnesia, only recalling the love of his youth. However, it is so much more than just a movng story. This is a story about the ravages of war, the ravages of adulthood, the ravages of grief, and the power and responsibility which accompany the gift of loving someone. It is a treatise on womanhood, on social class, on prejudice, and on wisdom. And....this was a debut novel! Read it!
TadAD on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
West's short book (almost a novella, really), was written in 1918. It is the story of a man returning from the war, suffering from shell-shock, and unable to remember the last 15 years of his life. Grappling with this are three women: Kitty, his wife of ten years; Margaret, the woman whom he loved 15 years ago; and Jenny, his cousin, who narrates the story, and whose thoughts provide the discussion of the damage caused by war.Poignant, stark, no less moving or apropos for being set in the war of nearly a century ago rather than today's conflicts¿an almost perfect gem of a book.About the only complaint I could have is with the edition. I wish I had ordered the 198 page Garden City edition instead of the Digireads paperback. The latter caused my eyes to swim from the small font and very closely-set lines of text.
essexgirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What a sad but warm book. This warrants rereading time and again.
wendyrey on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
a young man comes back from the first war with amnesia, he has forgotten his wife and marriage but remembers his first love Margaret. A short, sad, well written book. Excellent read.
pamelad on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The soldier is Chris Baldry, married to the beautiful, polished, empty Kitty. Suffering from shell-shock Guy forgets fifteen years of his life, including the ten years of his marriage to Kitty, and remembers his first love, the kind and generous Margaret. A short, beautifully written novel.
Smiler69 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Our narrator recounts the homecoming of her cousin, Captain Chris Baldry who, while fighting in the First World War, has been sent home due to shell shock. Chris, who is suffering from amnesia, has had a good portion of his memory wiped out and believes he is sixteen years younger. He doesn't understand his cousin Jenny's older appearance, doesn't recognize his beautiful young wife Kitty, and instead demands to see his first love, Margaret. While Kitty believes that her husband is just playing a clever trick on everyone, she still agrees to have Margaret brought over to him, but she becomes furious that Chris treats her like a stranger and instead prefers to spend his time with Margaret, a lower-class, physically unappealing woman, who nevertheless makes him very happy. A specialist is brought in who proposes a radical approach that is sure to cure the Captain so that he can return to the front. There is a strong divergence of opinions as to whether that is the best option for his wellbeing, but Kitty is adamant that she wants her husband back to his normal self. Highly recommended.I absolutely loved this story and it was of special interest to me since I started the Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker recently, which is set during WWI, with a psychiatrist who specializes in treating shell shock as one of the principal characters. One of the central issues there is the question of what actually constitutes mental health when men are only considered 'normal' if they are willing to put their lives on the line to fight in a brutal war with countless casualties.
lisasil27 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Written during the war, the novel gives an insight into how the War affected the civilian society during and after the war. West's use of unchanging setting sets a claustrophobic mood which illustrates the "domestic bubbles" the three women are caught in and the shell-shock that "imprisons" Chris in his blissful past.
whitewavedarling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a beautiful and brilliant book. It made me remember how in love with reading I was after reading Romeo and Juliet in seventh grade. The stories aren't similar, but I had that same reaction. The story sweeps you in with beauty and brilliance, and tears you apart with the same. If Shakespeare and Henry James had come together to form their perfect idea of a writer, and to combine their styles into one which could strike at readers long after a book was closed, the result would have been Rebecca West. I'll be reading it again before long, once I recover from all the thoughts encased here, and in mind, after reading only once.
worrellw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a tragedy chock full of lovely prose. Her comment that "Not a sentence should be wasted." is a standard she holds herself to in this lovely short novel.
lauralkeet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This short novel describes one of the tragedies of war from a woman's perspective. Chris Baldry returns from WW I with shell-shock amnesia, and does not remember the last 15 years of his life. He thinks of his cousin Jenny as a playmate, and doesn't recognize his wife Kitty at all. Worse still, the person he most wants to see is an old girlfriend, Margaret, who is now married to another man. The story is narrated by Jenny, who clearly doesn't think much of the other women: Kitty, because she is spoiled and self-centered, and Margaret because she is of a lower class. While Kitty wallows in grief over her "lost" husband, Jenny learns more about Margaret and Chris' relationship and, together with a doctor, they determine how to use his past to "cure" him. The result is quite poignant and moving.Rebecca West was 24 years old in 1918, when this book was published. Her writing is wonderful, full of beautiful, descriptive phrases of characters and setting. She also brings a bit of humor with phrases such as, "He was a lank man with curly gray hairs growing from every place where it is inadvisable that hairs should grow..." and "so many of them ... had stood round Chris and looked at him with the consequenceless deliberation of a plumber."This is an engaging novel by a talented woman writer.
labfs39 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In less than 100 pages, Rebecca West creates a microcosm of British society in 1916 and a love triangle centered around an upper class WWI soldier. In the novel there are many dichotomies of wealth, class, and physical beauty, but the most important is the moral dilemma at the heart of the story: is it better to preserve life and love or reality and truth?The story begins with Kitty, the beautiful and cold wife of Chris Baldry, lamenting that she has not heard from her soldier husband for a fortnight. Attending her is Chris's cousin Jenny, who is the narrator of the story. Jenny is brushing Kitty's damp hair and remembering the days when Chris was home and so happy (he was happy right?), when a woman requests to see Kitty. Margaret Grey is dumpy, unfashionable, poor, and uncultured, barely respectable in the eyes of the two ladies, but she has important and delicate news to impart. Chris is coming home. The catch is that he has amnesia and remembers Margaret, with whom he was passionately in love fifteen years ago, but not his wife, Kitty. Thus the stage is set for the drama which unfolds in this small setting. In my mind, the most interesting and complex character is Jenny, the story's narrator. As a cousin of Chris's, she is a member of the upper class, yet she is in some sort of dependent position within the household. She is also in love with her cousin. Unmarried, gentile, and sympathetic to the plight of the lower class Margaret, Jenny is reflective amid the stark contrasts surrounding her. She is the one who struggles most with the moral question of Chris's return. I wish I could pull her from the shadows and hear her story in full.I enjoyed this quick read for the descriptions of British society in the midst of change; change which Rebecca West was personally eager to see come. I also wrestled a bit with the moral question she poses. But what made this a memorable read for me was the enigma of Jenny.
jwhenderson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This first novel by Rebecca West was published in 1918. It is short but holds tremendous rewards for the attentive reader. Focusing on the return of a shell-shocked soldier suffering from amnesia, the novel presents a world turned upside down by the effect of the soldier's illness on his internal life as well as his relationships with his wife, sister, and former lover (from before his marriage). The author highlights the impact of class differences while she weaves some beautiful prose in descriptions both of the countryside and the characters' feelings. It is an elegant small novel and was a strong start for the career of Dame Rebecca. This is a great introduction to one of the best writers of the 20th century.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Typical overworded the new freudian psych is introduced which still can apply to todays war trama why do some come thru less harmed than others? Perfect mental health is the ability to function well and adjust to where ever you are this unfortunately does not set well with moralists once called go native neither wife or cousin manage this
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Though i would call it short story. This utter lack of understanding on part of the wife and not mentioning a child right away plus no record of next of kin on his officer papers is beyond belief. His mental condition though cured would be thought only temp and occur agai under stress stress of war and stress of his home responsibilities her banning her dog again is the opposite the wife is almost as disturbed as having the cousin hus cousin living with them as a second wife
cb_wordsmith More than 1 year ago
I highly recommend that you do NOT read this.  Don't waste your time.  The prose is heavy and tiresome, and the characterization is loose and ever changing.  The main characters don't grow or evolve, they simply are changed into different people at the end of the book.  And they are all uninteresting and self-absorbed people .  
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