The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

“[S]he had forgotten that it is the first concern of love to safeguard the dignity of the beloved, so that neither God in his skies nor the boy peering through the hedge should find in all time one possibility for contempt . . .”

I’m not sure what that statement means, to guard someone else’s dignity before God and man(?), but it is interesting to think about, as is this little story by Rebecca West, her first novel, published just as the First World War was ending in 1918. In 1914, The Soldier, Captain Christopher Baldry, is a sort of a hero, returning from the war, but the book is really about the women that Captain Baldry left behind: his cousin Jenny, his wife, Kitty, and his first love, Margaret.

The Return of the Soldier is another amnesia story, but it has an atmosphere and a poignancy that some of the other stories in the genre lack. Chris Baldry comes back from the war having lost his memory of the past fifteen years. The story is narrated by Jenny, Chris’s cousin, who grew up with Chris and who lives in his house as a companion to his wife, Kitty.

There are lot of questions raised in the story and left to be answered by the reader:

Is Jenny a reliable narrator? Are the thoughts and motivations of the other characters really as Jenny describes them or are we being told a tale that is only true in part from Jenny’s perspective? And who is Jenny? Why is she there, and why is she so interested in telling this story? I tried to read the story carefully, but I was never sure about Jenny’s personality and motivations.

What kind of person is Chris? Was he really happy in his marriage and his home before the war? Would he want to return to the war and “do his duty”, or is his amnesia not only an illness but also a subconscious running away from the horrors of the battlefield?

Who really loves Chris Baldry, the soldier? I would say that the woman who sacrifices herself for him is the one who really loves him. Who is that? Well, you tell me after you’ve read the book.

I recommend that you read this one slowly and carefully, paying attention to the details of time, setting, characterization, and plot. I wonder if watching the 1982 movie version of this novel, starring Alan Bates, Julie Christie, Ian Holm, Glenda Jackson, and Ann-Margret, would help at all in answering any of the questions, at least from the perspective of the screenwriters, the director, and the actors who made the movie.

2 thoughts on “The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

  1. Thanks for participating in the WWI Reading Challenge. A snippet of your review will appear on the main page on June 28. We’ve linked to your review on the book reviews page.

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