Harriet Devine has written and edited a number of academic works, including Mary Wollstonecraft: Writer. Last year she published Looking Back: Playwrights at the Royal Court, 1956-2006 and her childhood memoir, Being George Devine's Daughter. She is now working on a book to be called Bad Women: Sex, Scandal, and Victorian Writers. In this post, Harriet discusses Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier.
Harriet Devine on The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
Norm's brief for this - write about a book you like or admire - is all very well, but I like and admire so many books. I made up my mind to write about Clarissa, Samuel Richardson's great classic doorstop of a book (1534 pages in my large-size Penguin edition), but though it has to be one of the greatest novels of all time and one I have always loved, I found I couldn't make it sound as wonderful as it actually is. So here, instead, is a very recent read indeed - actually the last book I have read. This is The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West, and I have been absolutely bowled over by it. I discovered Rebecca West a few years ago when I read The Fountain Overflows and then the other two volumes - This Real Night and Cousin Rosamund - in her trilogy. West is a superb writer, and these were some of the most memorable books I have ever read.
The Return of the Soldier, published in 1918, was actually her first novel, though she had written a biography of Henry James two years earlier. It is quite short - 188 pages in the Virago edition - but is, I would say, dense with meaning and implications. Set at the time it was written, just at the end of the First World War, it begins with two women, Kitty and Jenny, waiting for news of Chris Baldry, Kitty's husband and Jenny's cousin, who is away fighting in France. These are wealthy and privileged women, living in a lovely, elegant house just outside London - Chris's ancient family home, in fact, though the modern and stylish Kitty has had it extensively and exquisitely redecorated. Kitty is a beauty. When we first meet her she is sitting 'with her golden hair... all about her shoulders' and wearing 'over her frock a little silken jacket trimmed with rosebuds'. As Jenny, the narrator, rather tellingly says, 'she looked so like a girl on a magazine cover that one expected to find a large "7d." somewhere attached to her person'. It is two weeks since Chris's last letter, and Jenny, at least, is starting to worry - we gather, almost at once, that she has secretly been in love with her cousin all her life, though she never completely admits it.
Their waiting comes to a sudden and shocking end when a visitor arrives at the door. Mrs Margaret Grey comes from a world these women know little of, though they certainly are full of prejudiced opinions about it. Cheaply and hideously dressed, with muddy boots, she sits meekly in a chair looking round with open admiration at her lovely surroundings. The news she brings is so shocking and unexpected that Kitty, at least, is unable to believe it, and thinks Margaret is trying to con her out of money. Chris has written to her, Margaret says, from a military hospital in Boulogne, where he is suffering from severe shell shock. He has forgotten everything that has happened in the past 15 years, and thinks he is still twenty years old - at which age, it transpires, he spent an idyllic summer in love with Margaret, whose father ran an inn by the river. Soon a telegram arrives proving the news of his illness to be true, and Chris is brought back home. But, though fit and well in body, he has no recollection of Kitty, or their marriage, and is puzzled and confused by the changes she has made to the house. In the evening he turns to her and says, rather humbly, 'I know my conduct must seem to you perversely insulting... but if I do not see Margaret Allington I will die.' Angry and uncomprehending, Kitty is forced to agree ('That dowd!', she mutters privately to Jenny), and Jenny goes to fetch Margaret the next day. She is certain that Chris will look at her and realize she has lost her youth and beauty, and is amazed and moved when she sees them together, locked in an embrace, to understand that none of these things matters - he does not even see them.
Soon, despite her jealousy, Jenny comes to see the great value and beauty of this relationship. Margaret comes every day and she and Chris spend many happy hours together in the garden and the woods, while Kitty lies about 'like a broken doll, face downward on a sofa, or protruding stiff feet in fantastic slippers from the end of her curtained bed'. For Jenny, Margaret seems more and more real, while Kitty has become 'a faceless figure with flounces'. Clearly she is suffering - Jenny finds her one day on her bed, 'holding a review of her underclothing', and looking 'wanly at the frail, luminous silks her maid brought her, as a speculator who had cornered the article for which there had been no demand might look at his damnably numerous, damnably unprofitable freights'. Kitty's only concern is to get Chris back to what she sees as normal, but despite endless doctors' visits, his memory shows no sign of returning. Finally, it is Margaret who thinks of the one thing that will bring his memory back, though she knows that if she allows this to happen, she will lose the 'magic circle' which is the happiness of their time together. But Margaret is good, and true, and she knows she must make this ultimate sacrifice.
So yes, this book is about love, and goodness, and truth. In rejecting Kitty, who by the end has come to seem 'the falsest thing on earth, in tune with every kind of falsity', and turning instead to the great, peaceful, nurturing, honest Margaret, Chris is affirming what West seems to be telling us really is important in life. Here is Jenny's final verdict:
I suppose that the subject of our tragedy, written in spiritual terms, was that in Kitty he had turned from the type of woman that makes the body conqueror of the soul and in me the type that mediates between the soul and the body... and had given himself to a woman whose bleak habit it was to champion the soul against the body.What more can I say? This is a remarkable book, and deserves to be better known.