Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West


Recently I made the mistake of reading three really long books at the same time (well, technically, two very long books, and a very long audiobook).  I'm currently in the midst of an audio version of Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser (17 discs); Few Eggs and No Oranges: the Diaries of Vere Hodgson, 1940 -1945 (590 pp) and I just finished Miss Marjoribanks, which clocked in at 512 pages.  The WWII diaries are good, but hard to read -- I'm only midway through 1941 and pretty much every entry is about surviving the Blitz one more night.

Needless to say, I wanted a short read for my next pick.  Originally, I thought I'd use The Return of the Soldier to fulfill the Classic Novel About War category in the Back to the Classics Challenge.  However, I'm not really sure if it's a book about war after all.  

Here's the setup:  in the midst of The Great War, the narrator, Jenny Baldry, is living with her wealthy cousin's wife, Kitty, while he is off fighting. They haven't heard anything from Kitty's husband, Captain Chris Baldry, for some time.  Out of the blue, a strange woman arrives and says that she has news about Chris.  She's rather frumpy, middle-aged, and lower-class, and Kitty is suspicious.  It turns out that Chris has had a concussion, and has lost all memory of the last fifteen years, and this woman, Margaret Allingham, is the long-lost love of his youth.  Having no memory of Kitty whatsoever, Chris has managed to contact Margaret.

What follows is the struggle of love triangle, and between Chris's distant past and the traumatic memories of the war, and a far more recent tragedy.  Margaret tells Jenny the story of her ill-fated romance with Chris, and Jenny is torn between wanting Chris to regain his memories and her reluctance to cause him any more pain. 

I suppose this is a book about war because if it weren't for the concussion, Chris wouldn't have lost his memories, but the story only mentions the WWI peripherally.  I really think the book is more about the struggle between classes and the inevitable changes that are about to take place in the social structure of England.  It's also about lost loves and memories.

The book also takes on a different perspective if the reader knows anything about Rebecca West, who was the mistress of H. G. Wells for ten years, and had an illegitimate child by him.  He never divorced his second wife for her, and had affairs with a lot of other women as well.  The Return of the Soldier was published in 1918 before the end of the war, just a few years after the birth of her son, so I'm sure the book reflects a lot of her own life.  

This was a really good, quick read, though not exactly uplifting.  It gave me a lot to think about for such a short novel, just about 150 pages.  And Rebecca West was an absolutely beautiful writer -- I could turn to almost any page and find a beautiful passage to use as an example for a quote.  I opened a page at random and here's one from p. 67:

Before I started I went to the pond on the hill's edge.  It is a place where autumn lives half the year, for even when the spring lights tongues of green fire in the undergrowth and the valley shows sunlit between the tree trunks, here the pond is fringed with yellow bracken and tinged bramble, and the water flows amber over last winter's leaves.

The whole book is full of passages like that -- just beautiful.  So I've decided not to count this as my Book about War selection -- instead I'm going to count it for my 20th Century Classic.  Anyway, it's a really great read if you're looking for a short classic.

6 comments:

  1. I've seen this book around, but really had no idea what it was about. Interesting that it is only peripherally about the war. It is one of the choices for the Library Reads Great War Theme Read for September & October and I think I will read it just for the writing. The passage you quoted is exquisite!

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    1. The writing in it is really beautiful, but the war aspects were really pretty minimal. I've been looking at the Library Reads list and there are several books I want to read -- I may end up reading One of Ours by Willa Cather for my Classic About War instead.

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  2. I love this book, it's one of my favourites. Did you notice that the boy that Chris is jealous of when Margaret talks to him is Bert Wells (H G's first name was Herbert)? There's an excellent movie of it, too with Glenda Jackson as Margaret, Julie Christie as Kitty, Ann-Margret as Jenny & Alan Bates as Chris.

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    1. I did not catch the Bert Wells connection! And also did not know about the film version -- maybe I should have chosen this for my Classic Adapted into a Movie. Must look for it.

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  3. I didn't read it yet. I will read it soon. Thanks for this interesting post :)

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  4. Thanks! It's a good read if you're looking for a classic you can finish quickly.

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