Author: Rebecca West
Published: Virago, 1984, pp. 188. Originally published 1918
Blurb: When the soldier returns from the front, he returns to three women who love him. His wife, Kitty, with her cold, moonlight beauty, and his devoted cousin Jenny wait in their exquisite home on the crest of the Harrow-weald. Margaret Allington, his first and long-forgotten love, is nearby in the dreary suburb of Wealdstone. But the soldier is shellshocked and can only remember the Margaret he loved fifteen years before, when he was a young man and she an inn keeper’s daughter on the magical Monkey Island. His cousin he remembers only as a childhood playmate, and his wife he remembers not at all. The three women have a choice — to leave him where he wishes to be, or to ‘cure’ him. It is Margaret whose beauty of soul reveals a love so great that she can make the final sacrifice…
When, where and why: After noticing that most of my favourite recent books have been published by Virago I developed an interest in their Virago Modern Classics series, which publishes often neglected works celebrating the lives and literature of women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I managed to pick up a box of eleven of these books, all by authors I’d never read and most by authors I’d never even heard of. The Return of the Soldier happened to be the first book out of the box.
What I thought: It’s taken me an unusually long time to write this review, since every time I go to try to put what I think about The Return of the Soldier into words I’m tongue tied because I loved it so much. This bittersweet novel has a deceptively simple story which is brought to life through prose which is more like poetry at times; rich and full and evocative without ever being purple or pompous. It is charged with emotion, both amusing and heartbreaking, and I’m green with envy that Rebecca West wrote this when she was only my age (that’s 24, if you must know). It may be a quick read, but it’s a very intense one.
It’s not a word I use often, but the writing is just perfect. The snobbery with which Kitty and Jenny greet Margaret is sometimes cruel:
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. (p. 25)
However, it is also funny, reflecting on Kitty and Jenny rather than Margaret. I couldn’t help but laugh when Jenny remarks on ‘her deplorable umbrella, her unpardonable raincoat‘ (p. 33). Her writing is equally insightful and direct when emotional matters are in focus:
There was to be a finality about his happiness which usually belongs only to loss and calamity; he was to be as happy as a ring cast into the sea is lost, as a man whose coffin has lain for centuries beneath the sod is dead. (p. 180)
Rebecca West’s use of pronouns is masterful: before Chris returns home having lost all memory of the past fifteen years, Jenny always uses ‘we’ to refer to Kitty and herself. Even though Kitty is his wife and Jenny his cousin, both women seem to occupy the same role in making life happy and comfortable and beautiful for Chris, as they are united in their love for him. After Chris returns, Jenny talks about herself separately from Kitty, so not only is the bond between Kitty and her husband severed but also that between Kitty and Jenny. This cleverly emphasises the loneliness and isolation of Chris’ erstwhile wife as, without the narrator’s ‘we’, she almost disappears from the novel, leaving the reader feeling as guilty and compassionate as Margaret does when we see her standing mournfully outside the nursery clutching her little dog, looking in at the woman her husband loves. In fact, I started out wanting to see more of Kitty and wishing her character would develop, but I very quickly realised that I wasn’t supposed to know her and her absence and immaturity were deliberate and perfectly calculated.
The Return of the Soldier represents everything that I’m coming to love about Virago Modern Classics: it’s a book that I would never have picked up if it hadn’t been for the publisher and because I did I’ve discovered a gem of a book which is possibly one of the best I’ve read this year. I’m looking forward to my next selection from the lucky dip box of Viragos.
Where this book goes: This book is most definitely staying with me, and will no doubt be joined by many other books by Rebecca West if the quality of this one is anything to go by. It was a beautiful read and I hope the rest are just as good. It looks as though I have ten other books by her to look forward to discovering.
Tea talk: This was yet another train book (although it nearly made me miss my stop I was so engrossed) so no tea was had, alas. Recently though I’ve been back on the Milk Oolong, now that the weather is behaving again for a little while. I’m enjoying its sweet milky taste and it would have been a great accompaniment to this book.