Novella * Rebecca West * World War I, For the Ladies * 1918
The literature of the early 20th century is dominated by the events of World War I. We see this time and again, whether the war is specifically referenced or not. The apocalyptic conflict is everywhere, affects everything, and in one way or another, changes the life of everyone living at the time. I would specify “living in the West,” but of course such a convulsive, large-scale conflict has unintended consequences across the world. That said, these effects begin in the trenches and work their way out into the world at large. The most horrific and traumatic effects of the war were those suffered by the actual soldiers. Obviously if you’re sawed in half by machine gun fire or blown out of your mud-hole to hang by your entrails in some barbed wire, your experience is about as bad as it can get. The trauma works its way out; that poor bastard likely has a family, who of course are suffering loss as well. Magnify this tragedy by many millions and the sense of apocalypse truly begins to set in.
Since the soldier experience is the most dramatic, it usually gets written about the most. This is not always a direct account, of course, for every All Quiet on the Western Front we get a book that skirts the aftermath like The Sun Also Rises. Both those examples, and the many other novels like them, are of course written by men with direct contact with actual combat. World War I did most of its direct damage to young men; many millions never made it home and many millions more came home grievously wounded. It makes sense for most of the literature about the war to be about these men. Yet literature casts a wide net and is more than capable of presenting different perspectives on the same thing. The war did direct damage to young men, but it also dealt a massive amount of collateral damage to the women who waited back home for them to return. Or not.
The Return of the Soldier is a slight work which speaks to the experience of the millions of women waiting in their quiet homes for news of the war. The entire story takes place over a short amount of time, in a peaceful home, where absolutely nothing dramatic happens. Every action is understated, and all of the conflict is expressed as a building, unavoidable dread as we wait for the only thing that can happen to actually happen. This book, in its 90 fleeting pages, manages to tackle an entire suite of issues of the day. Written in the midst of the war, there is no closure here. Until Armistice Day itself, there was no clear indication that the war would ever end. Rebecca West (who was a badass, by the way) was writing from a place of deep uncertainty and was expressing a viewpoint we don’t often see in war literature.
The story itself is fairly straightforward. It’s a tale about three women and one man. The narrator is Jenny, Christopher’s cousin. They’ve been friends since childhood, although the conspiratorial intimacy of childhood has since been lost and Jenny is a little sad about that. Meanwhile, Christopher has married a fancy lady named – ugh – Kitty. Then the war happened and Christopher set off to the Front. The story picks up with Kitty lamenting the fact that Christopher hasn’t written for a fortnight and is obviously worried that her husband is dead. As it happens, he’s not. He is, however, suffering from shell shock. In this instance it has caused a weird form of amnesia, and now Chris thinks that the year is 1901 and that not only is he not married, he’s in love with some girl neither Jenny nor Kitty have ever heard of named Margaret. Now Christopher has returned from the war, but he’s living in the past and doesn’t recognize his wife, and still pines for a girl of his youth.
The Return of the Soldier does a lot of heavy lifting for such a short book. West’s attention moves from issues with social class, to the torment of waiting for a loved one to return from war, to a weird love triangle, to the very concept of reality. Kitty, Jenny, and Chris are all very upper class while Margaret is very much not. Although – and this is still an alien concept to me – Margaret is lower class, but like, upper-lower class, so she totally has a servant but not a fancy servant. And only one. When we first meet her, Jenny and Kitty have nothing but disdain for this poor lady, and West portrays both women as insufferable arrogant bitches. Seriously, Kitty and Jenny’s depictions and treatment of Margaret are gross. This is intentional, of course. Rebecca West, feminist and socialist in the early 20th century, is definitely not on the side of the landed aristocracy.
No, really, you need to see this. The book begins with Margaret bringing news of Christopher’s affliction to Jenny and Kitty in their fancy home. The entire time Jenny is narrating, it’s filled with faux-pity and derisive asides, and disgusting assumptions about the (not really poor, but upper-middle-lower-class, you know) lower classes of society. In this instance, both Jenny and Kitty have the unspoken assumption that Margaret is there to scam them. Margaret claims to have news of Christopher’s shell shock, which Jenny and Kitty think she cannot have because why would this random lady have such information? That’s a fair thing to think, because obviously such news should go directly to the wife and family and not some middle-aged lady apparently unconnected to the man. I’m not sure that excuses the following passage, however:
“I hoped that Kitty would let her go without scaring her too much with words and would not mind if I gave her a little money. There was no doubt in my mind but that this was a queer ugly episode, in which this woman butted like a clumsy animal at a gate she was not intelligent enough to open, would dissolve and be replaced by some more pleasing composition in which we would take our proper parts; in which, that is, she should turn from our rightness ashamed.”
Yet she cried, “But Chris is ill!”
It took a second for the compact insolence of the moment to penetrate: the amazing impertinence of the use of his name, the accusation of callousness she brought against us, whose passion for Chris was our point of honour, because we would not shriek at her false news, the impudently bright indignant gaze she flung at us, the lift of her voice that pretended she could not understand our coolness and irrelevance.
I pushed the purse away from me with my toe and hated her as the rich hate the poor, as insect things that will struggle out of the crannies which are their decent home, and introduce ugliness to the light of day.”
Holy shit lady, maybe lay off a little bit! In just a short time, Jenny thinks of Margaret as both a clumsy idiot animal and a gross bug. And when it turns out that Margaret is genuine and not trying to scam anyone? Pff, whatever, she’s still a peasant with disgusting, calloused hands. This little episode, and the cool, casual condescension Jenny emits here is of course Rebecca West venting her spleen at the upper classes. It’s yet another reminder in Modern literature as to how completely reified European (and specifically British) society is collapsing in slow motion. As the trauma of the war grows and spreads, the social structures of the era simply cannot keep up. Here are two women – Jenny and Kitty – who are suffering the absence of this dude they claim to love so much, but spend way more effort being disgusted at the mere presence of a shabby poor than exhibiting concern for their loved one.
Soon after the above episode, Christopher returns and yep, he thinks it’s 1901 and everyone is crazy except for him. Well, that’s not completely fair. Intellectually Chris knows that it’s much later and that he’s a soldier in a war he can’t remember and that this presumably adult human woman who calls herself ‘Kitty’ is his wife, but none of that makes any difference because his heart keeps telling him that he’s a young man in love with a pretty young woman he met while visiting a quaint little inn. This, of course, sucks quite a bit for Kitty, although it’s hard to feel sorry for her because of how terrible a person she is. This is also the aspect of the story where all these themes start to blend.
Christopher and Margaret’s love affair is representative of the erosion of social strata which is beginning to happen even before the war breaks out. Unfortunately, it’s also not real. Chris returns home from the war physically undamaged, which should be a moment of triumph for the women waiting upon his return. However, Chris is still fundamentally damaged by the apocalyptic conflict and his mind has retreated to an idyllic past which, by its very nature, is still a symptom of a rapidly changing society. Even in his shell shock induced fantasy, he cannot possibly ever be happy. Yes, middle-aged Margaret shows up and they’re both clearly still into it, but their cross-class love cannot last. Not because the classes can’t mix – obviously the war is forever changing that – but because what they have isn’t a true thing.
Since Christopher and Margaret can’t actually hold onto their happiness, because reality is war and struggle and strife, they must eventually embrace what is real. Margaret is the one who makes this happen. This is the early 20th century and so a psychologist shows up because that’s the new hotness, and he decides he can cure Christopher’s amnesia with a sufficient shock. Chris is then forcibly reminded that before he went off to war he had a son who died. Bummer. This of course snaps Christopher back to reality, which is terrible. For him, for Margaret, even for Jenny. It’s bad for everyone except, of course, Kitty, who is the worst.
Kitty is barely a real character and reads most of the time as an insufferable caricature that Rebecca West invented so she could make fun of rich people. I’m fine with that because I love Rebecca West and rich people are gross. Kitty’s entire source of sadness throughout The Return of the Soldier is not the thought of her husband dying a horrible death, it’s the thought of losing her husband to a woman of the unspeakable lower classes. When Chris is cured, she’s ecstatic. Never mind the fact that Christopher’s recovery means that he must return to the Front and probably die or get wounded. Who cares?! He may leave, he may die, but at least when he does Chris will belong to his proper class and his proper wife. Jenny, watching from a distance, at least seems to understand the gravity of the situation. She has come to her senses regarding Margaret, and appears to be saddened by the loss of the idyllic dream in which Chris could be a happy young man and not a grim solider.
The Return of the Soldier ends on this note of final uncertainty, in which the soldier must return to a war still in progress. Kitty, the rather obvious impersonation of a failing aristocratic society (not at all unlike Sylvia from Parade’s End), is joyous at the return of the status quo. Jenny, who seems able to shift with the times, is devastated. Despite not knowing the outcome of the war (because the book was written and published before the war was over), Jenny can see where things are going. Not only is Christopher lost – even if he isn’t killed he’s been through a trauma that will forever mark him), but what the young Christopher represented will be lost as well. World War I. It was a hell of a thing.