Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Return of the Soldier ~ Rebecca West

But every minute of the day, particularly at those trying times when he strolled about the house and grounds with the doctors, smiling courteously, but without joy, and answering with the crisp politeness of a man shaking off an inquisitive commercial traveler, in a hotel smoking-room, it became plain that if madness means a liability to wild error about the world Chris was not mad. It was our peculiar shame that he had rejected us when he had attained to something saner than sanity. His very loss of memory was the triumph over the limitations of language which prevent the mass of men from making explicit statements about their spiritual relationships. If he had said to Kitty and me, "I do not know you", we would have gaped; if he had expanded his meaning and said, "You are nothing to me; my heart is separate from your hearts", we would have wept at an unkindness he had not intended. But by the blankness of those eyes which saw me only as a disregarded playmate and Kitty not at all save as a stranger who had somehow become a decorative presence in his home and the orderer of his meals, he let us know completely where we were.

Kitty and Jenny Baldry learn from a complete stranger that Chris Baldry, the former's husband and the latter's cousin has been wounded in the Great War. Unable to decipher why the War Office hadn't informed them, and dismissing it and the dowdy woman as a hoax, they go back to the nursery of Kitty and Chris's dead child, only to learn by post from another cousin, that Chris is indeed injured and has suffered partial amnesia, to the effect that he has reverted in his mind only to the person he was fifteen years previously. When Chris returns home, he fails to recognise his wife Kitty, and in refusing to kiss her, Rebecca West reverses the Sleeping Beauty plot. Kitty, who in her beauty resembles "like a girl on a magazine cover that one expected to find a large '15 cents' attached to her person" in turn becomes an Ice Queen with her face and bosom "shining like snow". Chris craves for his lover from fifteen years ago, the dowdy Margaret Grey nee Allingham. When the latter is brought to Baldry Court again, Chris, with his childlike simplicity behaves not like a thirty-six year old. In his daily walks with Margaret, he refuses to identify with reality and the passage of time, oblivious to the war, to his wife, and to the renovated house. During those times, he relives with Margaret their own version of Arcadia. However, several doctors are brought in and attempts are made to show Chris artifacts from the fifteen missing years in a bid to bring him back to "reality", and in a perverse way, to sanity.

The narrator Jenny, is definitely the most interesting character in the novel. Rebecca West was inspired by Ford Madox Ford's unreliable narrator in The Good Soldier, and though toning down his lingering and unreliable narration, in Jenny she provides a brilliant portrayal of a mid-thirty spinster, rather unwelcome in the house of her cousin, and an intimate observer of the events that unfold. Jenny has a dislike for Chris's wife Kitty, but is in love with Chris, so much so that, her passions are displaced to Margaret, to whom the returned Chris professes his love. She succumbs to a hysteria of repression paralleling that of the male, "I was near to bodily collapse: the truth is that I was physically so jealous of Margaret that it was making me ill." In Jenny's and Margaret's kiss towards the end, which precedes Clarissa's and Sally's kiss (Mrs. Dalloway), it is not only an honest emotional moment for them, but is presented as a result of the displaced possession of a man, "I think we each embraced that part of kiss the other had embraced by her love."

Together with Jenny's displacement in the menage a trois, Rebecca West uses psychoanalysis in the use of the idea of repressed memory, and raises the problems of reintegration and shell-shock faced by the returning soldier. For Jenny, Chris's reversion to the pure love of his youth shows him to be "so much saner than the rest of us", but she feels the need to awakening him to the reality of loss and war. She does know that as long as Chris doesn't remember and while Margaret's "spell endured they could not send him back into the hell of war." The analyst, interestingly, is blind to the complex nature of romance and repression in the house (Kitty too, of the loss of her son), and pointedly tells Chris "You . . . are the patient", thus normalising only the soldier's experience of shell-shock.

Jenny's dilemma towards the end of the novel, whether Chris should be cured or not, revolves around the question of enchantment or disenchantment. Enchantment is reflected by the reality principle embodied by Kitty, adulthood and death; disenchantment is represented by Margaret's pure love for Chris, which however, is less like a lover, than that of a mother for her son. In her decision to let enchantment and reality govern Chris, Jenny demonstrates that motherhood cannot last forever, and that a mother must be ready to give up her son to death. Margaret, hence, is rendered childless twice: at the death of her own son, Dick, and at her losing Chris. However, it is up to us to decide whether Margaret's or Kitty's love for Chris represents the reality of love.

I must admit, however, that while reading the novel, in my penchant for denouement, I was constantly reminded of the 1942 film Random Harvest, where Ronald Colman suffers amnesia, but runs away from the mental hospital, and meets Greer Garson. They eventually get married and live in a beautiful cottage until, during a trip to Liverpool, he meets with an accident, and forgets the brief interlude, and reverts back to life before the war. Of course, the James Hilton novel didn't dabble as much in psychoanalysis, or depend on the mood swings of an unreliable narrator as Rebecca West's novel does. The Return of the Soldier is a brilliant little novel, and West's poetic language makes the reading even more of a treat.  


  1. would visit your blog again :)

    1. Oh so wonderful to wake up in the morning and find such a comment. This should motivate me to come here more and blog more regularly. :-)