Novels of the Great War: "The Return of the Soldier" by Rebecca West

When Rebecca West came out with his first novel, The Return of the Soldier, she was only 24 year-old. It was 1918, the last year of what turned to be called the Great War. This simple personal data is somehow shocking. Many times we can encounter the “perfect” debut novel of an author. But with this book we find already displayed in front of us some of the great themes of World War I literature, already before the end of that war. What makes sense today is therefore to identify these themes popping up from the plot and the characters of the novel. The protagonist (although not narrator) is the Captain Chris Baldry. The narrating voice is his cousin Jenny, a woman living with Chris’ wife Kitty. At the beginning of the novel the two women are caught in an empty nursery. The first son of Chris and Kitty has died. The return of Captain Baldry is imminent. What kind of man are they meeting? As the plot of this short novel develops, today readers are able to detect in the story the key points of World War I literature, what still today seems to mark the main streams of war studies. Let’s go through these points with a sort of list. This might be boring, but it is preferable instead of spending new words on the summary of such a beautiful novel.

First we have the clear and important presence of those women living far from the hell of trenches (they are not the totality of women, we know that not all women live the war like Jenny and Kitty do). Secondly we meet the thorny problem of the comeback of shell-shocked soldiers and of their new hard adaptation to society. Chris suffers from a kind of loss of memory (amnesia) and he is obsessed by a summer love adventure with Margaret that goes back to 15 years before. Chris returns to his cosy estate believing of being only 20 year-old. The huge gap between his past and the renewed love obsession for Margaret and the reality of the everyday life he left before his departure to the front lines becomes the engine of Rebecca West’s narrative strategy, all built with strong contrasting couples (tranquility of  Baldry Court vs. echoes of the war in France, the beauty of the estate where the two women live vs. the sloppy look of Margaret, past vs. present, dreaming memories vs. reality). Jenny asks for Margaret’s help in bringing back Chris to his memories and his family reality. This will happen at the end of the story, but only after passing through the acknowledgement of the death of his son. Dr. Anderson, the psychoanalyst, is another “pioneering” presence in this short novel. The way Rebecca West merges the themes of war trauma and of the return of soldiers, of the relation between men and women in the marriage and the one between the “before” and the “after” of the war trauma, and even the experience of being mother/father of a dead child is the real mystery of this novel. The Return of the Soldier is able to surprise and fascinate us that we perhaps wrongly read it as a pure output of the Great War. This novel is most likely one of the first novels able to put together the decadence of bourgeoisie, the first feminist movements and the fragile social conventions that build our societies. You cannot ask more to this very short novel.