Great Novels: The Return of the Soldier, by Rebecca West

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The Return of the Solider may seem an odd choice for this series of reviews. It is not an archetypal ‘great novel’. According to the critic and author Samuel Hynes, although it is a ‘small masterpiece’ it ‘comes too close to being merely a woman’s novel’, allegedly even to the extent of undermining Rebecca West’s radical feminist views. Yet the apparently precipitous nature of the exploration of the experiences and psychology of women during World War One is the reason for its appeal, at least for this reader. The novel is never as straightforward as it superficially appears; indeed, one might ask what a ‘woman’s novel’ would be anyway. The psychology of the shell-shocked soldier of the title is largely ignored, true, but instead the focus is more universal: an attempt by West to identify the impact of social conventions on a person’s desires, self-perception and honesty.
We are introduced by the narrator Jenny to the setting of an isolated pocket of idyllic England during 1916: ‘Disregarding the national interest and everything except the keen prehensile gesture of our hearts towards him, I wanted to snatch my cousin Christopher from the wars and seal him in this green pleasantness.’ This desire, although understandable, uses violently possessive lexis, in a typical, unconscious moment of irony. Even more ironic is the fulfilment of this desire, the first ‘return of the soldier’ occurring under the unwelcome auspices of mental problems arising from repression. We realise that Chris’s selective memory is a universal phenomenon; social conventions forcing affluent women into a ‘pretence that by wearing costly clothes and organising a costly life’ they are emotionally fulfilled. All the characters are entrapped, and therefore readers are even encouraged to sympathise with Chris’s wife, Kitty, a vainglorious and selfish woman, forced into a role of ‘controlled beauty’. Similarly, the honesty with which Jenny admits she was ‘physically so jealous’ of Chris’s old love, Margaret, ‘that it was making me ill’, is perhaps not impressive of itself, but when, by the end of the novel, she never explicitly admits her love for him, this is astonishingly realistic.
Part of the novel’s literary brilliance derives from its varying but consistently illuminating tone. The Return of the Soldier forces its audience into active reading, and out of apathy; gaps in meaning arise everywhere in what is told to the reader and what is never said. Within such an intimate psychological study, there are also depictions of scenes both lyrical and coarse in occasions of obviously moralistic passages, in which West’s political agenda emerges. There are ‘a score of houses, each hideous with patches of bare bricks…A slut sits at the door of a filthy cottage’ in Margaret’s working class district, which is explicitly shunned by Jenny, whereas her home is a scene filled with innocent vitality: ‘sunlight pouring through the tall arched windows and the flowered curtains so brightly…[light] lying in great pools on the floor…it threw dancing beams’. Nonetheless, these do not undermine the fundamental complexity and innovative style of the text, which for me make it a ‘great novel’.
by Leanne Price

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