Category: Fiction/WWI – Paperback: 248 pages – Publisher: Virago (VMC) – Source: Secondhand bookshop
First Published: 1918
A classic of war fiction, The Return of the Soldier centres on the return of Captain Chris Baldry from the trenches of World War One. Suffering from shellshock, he’s forgotten the last fifteen years of his life – the house he’s turned into a glittering show home, his beautiful wife Kitty and even the child they lost and grieved over together. Instead he believes he is a young man in love with Margaret, an innkeeper’s daughter who he can’t wait to see again. The whole tale is narrated not by Chris or Kitty but by Jenny, his loving (if slightly obsessive) cousin, who understands the real tragedy – Chris must be forced to acknowledge reality but doing so and being declared sane will catapult him straight back into the trenches…
Unintentionally I seem to be drifting back to reading more VMCs than I have done for a while, it’s been a stimulating experience since I never quite know what to expect beyond brilliance and fine detailing. This one I picked up to count for my Century of Books reading challenge.
Having finished the book and mulled it over I believe I like the idea of the book much more than the reality.
Partly it’s because I don’t care for the style of the writing and partly it’s the decision to have passionless Jenny narrate the story that left me feeling rather indifferent by the final scenes.
Stylistically this is a confusing combination of two authors I’ve struggled with in the past – Henry James and D H Lawrence. The Jamesian quirks are not so surprising, West had written a non-fiction work examining James’ works in 1916 (her first published book) and she clearly admired his dreamy, golden-tinged approach to scene-setting. He’s embedded in every line describing the luxurious Baldry estate, its beautiful surroundings and its pretty antiques. It’s there too when West describes the privileged but unhappy Kitty who accepts the house and its pleasures as her birthright and resents Chris for being ‘difficult’ and sick.
The passages that reminded me of Lawrence were limited only to those that focused on the arrival of Margaret and the contrast she offers when set alongside the refined elegance of Kitty. While Kitty has lived in a bubble that has protected her beauty and kept her manners gentile despite the death of her child, Chris’s first love Margaret was beautiful and poor and has lived a disappointing life that has left its mark on her. Every appearance of Margaret results in comments on how hideous, old and wretchedly poor she is and how terrible she looks compared to Kitty. She’s compared to various animals, the ‘draught-ox or big trusted dog’ image sticks in my mind, and called an insect, animalistic, unlovely and base. Considering that Margaret must be in her thirties at most and Jenny is horrified that she doesn’t even have an almond tree in her garden(!) at one point I suspect West is here skewering the class prejudices of the time… but I’m not wholly convinced she is. If it’s intended as sarcastic commentary on the ivory tower snobbery of the Kitties and Jennies of the world it was never explicit enough for me to separate the snobbery as theirs and not West’s.
Style issues aside, my main frustration with the book was the angle of the narration. I know West from her no-nonsense non-fiction works and for her sharp, biting presence on the literary scene. I know her as the woman who said, aged just 20 in 1912, ‘I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.’ And yet here we see every detail of a controversial and tragic story from the perspective of Jenny… and Jenny is a simpering, hand-wringing doormat through and through.
What am I to make of Jenny?
She’s spent her life making Chris’s life perfect. A constant presence in Chris and Kitty’s home, she’s smoothed over every wrinkle in their relationship, made friends with Kitty (though they have nothing in common except Chris) and acted as an unacknowledged housekeeper. So in love with Chris that no other man has ever caught her attention, she’s now a spinster who cares only that he has everything he could ever want.
Am I supposed to feel sympathy or pity for her role of unrequited lover in the background? I don’t simply because I resent her so much.
I dislike her as a narrator because her heart is sealed in aspic but, more than that, I resent being forced to spend time in her weak, vacuous company when I could instead be experiencing the emotional rollercoaster Chris is on or rediscovering the glow and joy of rekindled first love I know I will have to give up with Margaret and reassessing my life. Even poor, grieving and angry Kitty would be better company than this milksop.
I can appreciate the way its original, confrontational inclusion of mental health issues acted as a rare catalyst for public debate of the socially taboo but I just can’t imagine how that felt for contemporary readers in 1918. With the shock of the topic being lost I’m left with prose I felt mimicked others more than I was comfortable with and a plot I found slight and unsatisfying for a too-easy ending and pulling its punches.
Back to West’s non-fiction for me!
Buy the book: Book Depository