The Return of the Soldier

ISBN: 0812971221
ISBN 13: 9780812971224
By: Rebecca West Norman Price Verlyn Klinkenborg

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1001 1001 Books 1001 Books To Read Before You Die 1001 Import Classics Fiction Historical Fiction To Read War Wwi

About this book

Set during World War I on an isolated country estate just outside London, Rebecca West’s haunting novel The Return of the Soldier follows Chris Baldry, a shell-shocked captain suffering from amnesia, as he makes a bittersweet homecoming to the three women who have helped shape his life. Will the devoted wife he can no longer recollect, the favorite cousin he remembers only as a childhood friend, and the poor innkeeper’s daughter he once courted leave Chris to languish in a safe, dreamy past—or will they help him recover his memory so that he can return to the front? The answer is revealed through a heartwrenching, unexpected sacrifice.The text of this Modern Library Paperback Classic was set from the first American edition, published in 1918, and features original illustrations by Norman Price.

Reader's Thoughts

Tommy

I'm waiting for your criticism Tara, I'm guessing something along the lines of too cold and lack the emotional depth to understand this work. I get that it was depressing and Margaret's decision at the end was heartrending. I just wasn't a big fan of the writing style. I guess I just found the prose a bit overblown and sentimental for my liking.One thing I did really enjoy, was Rebecca West skewering the tendency to look down on the poor with superficial disdain based upon position and outward appearance. I thought it interesting the way the story dealt with beauty, happiness, love, obligation and the difference between goodness/value as a person and material wealth/outward appearance. Anyways, from goodreads reviews I'm in the minority, most people seemed to like it much more than I did, so if it interests you, go ahead and give it a read. If you don't like it, it's no big loss either because it's really short.

Chris

Rebecca West was born Cicily Isabel Fairfield. Her father abandoned his family, and his death which followed hard after, left the family poor. West was educated and began a career as an actress before joining the feminist movement under the Pankhursts and writing for feminist magazines and papers. When she was 19, she began what would be a ten year affair with H. G. Wells. H. G. Wells liked the ladies and apparently thought he wore pants made of glass (see various, including Philip Gooden). West apparently liked the men. West and Wells had pet names for each other. He was Jaguar, and she was Panther. She also got pregnant. She didn’t have a wedding, and Wells was married (despite his many affairs, he never divorced). Their child was Anthony Panther also called Anthony West. West delivered the child outside of London, which she had left because of the stigma attached to an unmarried mother. Apparently in later years, Wells and West disagreed about whether the child was planned or not, with West claiming at one point Wells had impregnated her to keep. Their child apparently was quite bitter later in life. I don’t wonder why. West went on to have a very good career, including as a journalist and travel writer, and it is somewhat upsetting that she is not as popular as her one time lover Wells, who might have stolen a woman’s work and passed it off as his own. It is vital that you know the above because it will influence how you see this story which was written after the birth of West’s child and deals with love, lust, and class. And that is the problem with this new policy by GR staff, which slim hope it is, one hopes they change. It is close to impossible to separate an author from a work. It’s true as more than one person pointed out in the feedback thread that many people would want to know if they are reading the work of a pedophile or a rapist. Imagine O.J. Simpson’s proposed book but not being able to mention anything about the spousal abuse or trials. Goodreads was prior this policy change a place for readers to find this information, so they could make an informed buying decision. This policy nulls this. Furthermore, it limits learning and limits any teacher or class who wants to use Goodreads (which many have been). How can a teacher encourage students to leave a critical review if students cannot mention the author’s life or background? How can students discuss, review, or learn in such an environment? They can’t. Goodreads will no longer be a place where you can learn from book reviews. That is why this policy stinks. That is why this review focuses on the author.

Diane

I found this short novel, West's first, haunting. The prose is lush, sometimes overly so and the plot seems simple, but it raises deep questions about illusions that we cling to--about ourselves and others. The narrator, Jenny, tells how her cousin Chris returns from the war with no memory of the last 15 years, including his marriage. At the start of the novel, Jenny believes that she and his wife Kitty have made Chris a contented man, whose life (despite the death of an infant son) has been happy. They believe that his relationship with them is at the "core of his heart." Jenny discovers that most of what she thought she knew about Chris was illusion. The novel suggests that Jenny, too, has not understood herself and her feelings for Chris. But this is a love story with a sad, but almost perfect ending.

Tony

THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER. (1918). Rebecca West. ****.This was Ms. West’s first novel, and apparently provided her a great introduction to the world of readers at the time. It’s one of many novels of the period that used WW I as the setting or the starting point. Basically, it is about what we, today, call PTSD. Back then, they referred to it as “shell shock,” or “war neurosis.” The effects of trench warfare on the soldiers were horrific. In most cases they would have been better off being killed outright rather than suffer from the physical and mental aftereffects. We meet Kitty Baldry and her husband’s cousin, Jenny, who also acts as the principal narrator. Kitty’s husband is fighting in France and they haven’t heard from him for a while. They receive a visitor, a woman neither had seen before, and one who was obviously of a lower class as evinced by her dress and manners. Her name was Margaret. She tells them that Chris has been hurt and was in a hospital in Boulogne. Who she was and how she knew this was a mystery to the two women. As proof, she shows them a telegram that had been forwarded to her from a very old address, an inn that she had managed years ago. It turns out that she had been Chris’ girlfriend up to about fifteen years ago, but had not heard from him since – until the telegram alerted her to his whereabouts. We soon learn that Chris was suffering from selective amnesia. He could remember all of his past – up to about fifteen years ago – but nothing of anything beyond that. He was still wildly in love with Margaret but remembered nothing about Kitty. During the fifteen years that Chris and Kitty had been married, they had had a son who died at age two. He could not remember that either. The story dwells on the attempts of all parties involved to bring Chris back to the present and jar his memory so that the fifteen lost years would be restored. This was a very well written novel – aside from an over-complexity of sentence structure – and addressed a variety of social issues that were important at the time. Were it not for the schmaltzy ending, this would have scored a five-star rating. Recommended.

Mark white

I started reading Rebecca West because Francine Prose used a superb sentence of hers as an example. Prose was right as usual.The book is written from the perspective of an upper class British woman in WW I. Her cousin is married to a prominent and wealthy fellow who is off in the trenches. Dedicated to creating a world of love and beauty for the husband, the women wait restlessly for him as their entire lives seem dedicated to serving him.One day a drab middle-class dowd shows up on their doorstep with a fantastic tale of the husband injured and shell shocked in a hospital in England. After shooing her away under the assumption the woman was trying to con them out of money, the wife and cousin discover the dowd was right.He returns home, his attitudes changed dramatically, and we discover the dowd was once his lover. The stresses and changes reveal the true nature of each of the characters.Nearly a perfect book.

Katie

Another book I listened to at work. I use the site librivox.org to get audiobooks of books that are in the public domain so they are free. They are read by volunteers so they are not always the best but this book was read by a reader that I've listened to before and she's quite good. I was browsing through the catalog of books on librivox and came across this one. I'd never heard of this book or author before but I thought I'd give it a try.This book was pretty good. It's about an Englishman who is wounded while fighting in WWI. He gets amnesia and can't remember anything about the last 15 years of his life, including his wife or young son that died. He does however remember the woman he was in love with when he was younger who is now married to someone else. It's about all of them dealing with him and his state of mind, etc. It's pretty interesting and is a fairly short book.

Laura

This is actually one of the most engaging books I have read in a while. I think part of that is because it was so short, just six chapters. Things happen quickly and so you get sucked into the story relatively quickly as well. It also really packed an emotional punch for me. World War I has always been the military engagement that affected me the most emotionally. This is mostly likely because even though we always start a war by refighting the last one, in World War I the technology of warfare had advanced so quickly, that our concept of what war was had not caught up to the reality of early 20th century warfare. Victorian concepts of honor and valor in warfare are difficult to keep when your lying in a muddy trench in France for months at a time. Or that's my guess anyway after reading All Quiet on the Western Front. So I was immediately sorry for Chris to begin with before I even met Kitty. That is the second thing that really struck me about this book. I think the author did a lovely job of describing early 20th century aristocratic Britain. Again, if Upstairs Downstairs, Downton Abbey, and Brideshead Revisited are fairly accurate descriptions. Kitty is the epitome of superfluous beauty with nothing but her position in society and her lovely face. Whereas Margaret is common, but burns with an inner beauty, which both Jenny and Chris appreciate. The author makes wonderful comparisons between these two women. My favorite was the difference between light reflected from a mirror versus the light of a careworn and sooty lamp, which glows warmly from within the glass. Finally, the ending....just....brilliant....and horrible....and perfect.

Jessica

In many ways this book is old-fashioned, romantic nearly to the point of being sentimental. It's also great and I breathed it all in in one sitting (it's short). Published in 1918, this novel (novella?) is about a wealthy Englishman who returns from the trenches with an unlikely case of PTSD that's caused him to forget the past fifteen years of his life. It's beautifully written and conveys something of just how much World War I must've really fucked with everyone's head. The first thing I wanted to do once I finished was write an English paper about it, which is strange, and absolutely never happens to me. If you're looking for an early-twentieth-century novel to write a really lovely English paper on, definitely check this one out. Check it out anyway, even though you're not.

Susan Tsiouris

The effects of war, in this case WWI, often go beyond the soldier. What family and friends have to deal with, and how, is often overlooked. In this poignant short novel by Rebecca West the focus is on the three women in the life of a soldier, Chris, who has returned from battle suffering from amnesia. In his mind it is 15 years earlier. He remembers his cousin, Jenny, as she had been, and his former love, Margaret, who has since married. Then there is his wife of 10 years, Kitty. He has no memory of her or their dead child. There is a deep sadness that is pervasive in this story. How the characters deal with trying to help Chris is fascinating. They all love him, but they also have to find ways to cope with their own issues.

Ali

Although I have a lovely green Virago copy of this book, I chose to read the free version which I have on my kindle as I am away this week and I generally take my kindle away with me for ease. This is really a novella, but despite it's size it does pack quite an emotional punch. The writing is quite perfect, rather poetic at times. Apparently written when the author was very young and I believe it was her first published novel, it really was quite an achievement. The Return of the Soldier takes place in England, mainly in a large home near Harrow, yet it concerns itself with war, the consequences and realities of that experience upon people and their relationships. The soldier of the title is Chris Baldry, away at the war, his devoted cousin Jenny and his wife Kitty are united in their wish to have him home with them where they feel he belongs. However Chris's return to them is bittersweet, for he is suffering amnesia. His mind is stuck, fifteen years in the past, before he knew Kitty, but when he did know another woman. Of a lower social standing, Margaret is now a sad, worn middle aged woman, not the beautiful girl Chris knew so briefly, yet to him she is still that girl, and Kitty a stranger As the novel progresses Jenny, who is the narrator of the story, is gradually separated from her original alliance with Kitty. She is devoted to her cousin, with what appears to be an unacknowledged love, Jenny seeks to protect him. Kitty's pain is like a terrible grief which often manifests itself in her harshness towards Margaret, who is allowed to visit Chris in an effort to heal him. That in such a slight novel, Rebecca West was able to so deftly explore themes of war, family, love, memory and class is surely testament to a truly gifted writer. The writing as I have said is lovely, The characters are seen at a slight distance, Kitty in particular is a cool remote figure, she's hard, and thus it is difficult to feel for her, while at the same time the reader does feel her pain. I found this a very enjoyable little book, sad and quietly devastating it is the sort of book I suspect will stay in my mind for some time.

Laura

If there is such a thing as a “perfect” book, this is it. Rebecca West’s prose is like poetry — each word perfectly chosen, each phrase perfectly turned. It’s short enough to read during a pedicure, but the emotional wallop it packs demands a better setting — perhaps a conservatory . . . or a summerhouse?? (if only!) At any rate, I wouldn’t suggest the nail salon, where I just read it, or Highway 5, where I first listened to it on tape. Regardless of where you read it, though, it’s an absolutely haunting story. Don’t read the back cover; it gives too much away. The basic premise is gripping enough: Captain Chris Baldry, serving somewhere in France, hasn’t written home in two weeks. Chris’s wife Kitty and his cousin Jenny receive an unusual visitor — Mrs. William Grey, a woman "repulsively furred with neglect and poverty". This unknown person, with her “unforgivable” raincoat, has come to inform them that Chris has been wounded and must be suffering from shell-shock. Inexplicably, he has cabled her, not his wife and cousin. This indignity causes Kitty more pain than the fact that her husband may be injured. A letter to cousin Jenny the following day confirms that Chris has indeed been wounded and is coming home to recover; the kicker is he’s suffering from amnesia and thinks it’s 15 years earlier. You can imagine the implications — he remembers neither his glamorous wife nor the extensive changes to his house. But who is this woman, Mrs. Grey? And how is Chris to recover from such a strange ailment? And should he recover, when recovery means returning to the front?? Rarely have I read such a poignant exploration of love and sacrifice and a completely unexpected cost of war. Published in 1918, it was the only significant novel about the Great War written by a woman, and written while the end of the war still wasn’t in sight.

Wally

This book quietly but persistently destroys a common idea about the relative value of reality and its ministers (pscyhologists, psychiatrists, etc) in the course of its lovely pages. Along the way it has some harsh ideas about bourgeois aesthetics as well.

Elizabeth

Rebecca West is my new modernist crush. Can she displace, at the core of my heart, Djuna Barnes? Probably not. Mina Loy? Maybe.But actually it's a different kind of love one feels for each of one's beloveds. West makes me laugh, but she is also extremely psychologically incisive.The Return of the Soldier was apparently her first novel. It's short and brutal, the way honesty can at times be cruel. It is also tender. Written in response to the first world war, it's worn well and is still sharply relevant.

Dan

this is an odd little book. for the majority of its pages, it reminded me a bit of marguerite duras. the prose is lush, lavish and, like duras, occasionally overwrought. it's also remarkably elusive - it's difficult to see why the three women it chronicles are so enthralled with the returning, amnesiac soldier of the title. his character seems deliberately under-written, which gives the reading experience the quality of a ghost story and keeps the masochistic affections of its three female characters at an intriguing distance.the novel's uncanny quality - my favorite thing about it - falls apart a bit at the conclusion, which is diagnostic, allegorical and disappointing. the issues it ultimately raises about the nature of truth and happiness are far less interesting than the ones at its periphery (particularly its disturbing observations about class). the more i understood the novel, the less i enjoyed it. still, west's prose is occasionally very impressive, and it's nice to read a narrative about war that doesn't follow the usual path of bravado and macho disillusionment.

Bette

For a story that's only about eighty pages long, this book really packs an emotional punch. Usually I know how I want a story to end, but with this one, I felt torn. Either way, lives would be ruined. Very poignant and gorgeously written--hard to believe this was West's first novel.

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