The Return of the Soldier

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

Check Price Now


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


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.

Willy Williams

This novel had been sitting unread on my shelves for years, but its portability attracted my attention. And I was so glad I picked it up. At a mere 90 pages, West’s profound and moving first novel, published in 1918, packs in more wisdom and insights into the human heart than any 1,000-page tome.Set in an isolated English country house, the story revolves around the relationships among three women and a soldier suffering from shell shock. Chris has returned from the battlefields of France, his body physically intact, but the memory of his recent past wiped clean. Kitty, his beautiful, socially prominent wife, is a stranger to him; he is shocked by his spinster cousin Jenny’s aging appearance, and he longs for his first love, Margaret, an innkeeper’s daughter who is now a frumpy suburban housewife. Through her beautifully drawn characters and elegantly succinct prose West examines England’s shifting class structures and the tension between remaining in the romantic past or returning to the awful reality of the present. By the time I finished the book, I understood the double-edged meaning of her haunting title.

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.


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.

Mike Robbins

Before I read this, I had known of Rebecca West only through her famous book on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Born in London in 1892, she had little formal education, her family being in genteel poverty. She trained as an actress, but seems to have acted little, becoming a sufragette and then the lover of H.G. Wells. She turned to writing and had a distinguished career in serious journalism. She also wrote a number of novels, but it seems unlikely that most are widely read now. The Return of the Soldier, however, has never quite been forgotten and was filmed, with a stellar cast, in 1982. Her first book, it was published in 1918.As the book opens, two women are in a country house just outside London on a bright day in the early spring of 1916. They are well-to-do; Kitty is the attractive wife of Baldry, the master of the house, and Jenny, less pretty, is his cousin. Jenny has started to worry that they have heard nothing of Baldry, a serving soldier, for several weeks. Kitty assures her that the War Office would have informed her if there were anything amiss. They are interrupted by the arrival of Margaret, a dowdy woman of limited means from a bleak suburb nearby. She informs them that Baldry is, in fact, in hospital in Boulogne, that he has lost his memory after an explosion, and that he has regressed some 15 years to the time when, as a young man, he loved her. That is why the War Office has not been in touch; it is Margaret to whom Baldry has written, and it is her that he wishes to see. Baldry is brought home, and is indifferent to his wife; a little less so to his cousin, who he does remember, albeit as a young woman – but he spends his time with Margaret. He is unconcerned that she is now a middle-aged, married, suburban dowd. It becomes clear that he still loves her. Meanwhile his wife, Kitty, desperately wants him restored to normality.There is an understated lyricism in West’s writing that makes the book poignant and vivid. The sequences in which Baldry remembers his early courtship of Margaret 15 years earlier are set on Monkey Island at Bray, in a curve of the Thames, where Margaret’s father is landlord of the Monkey Island Inn. The place is real enough; today it is an hotel and conference centre just a mile or so from the M4 motorway. West and Wells had frequented Monkey Island immediately before the First World War. In the book, it is a quiet country pub catering to the odd passing boatman. Baldry describes how it was reached:...a private road... followed a line of noble poplars down to the ferry. Between two of them... there stood a white hawthorn. In front were the dark-green, glassy waters of an unvisited backwater, and beyond them a bright lawn set with many walnut-trees and a few great chestnuts, well lighted with their candles... To anyone who knows the countryside in the south of England, this is evocative. In April, May and June the sky turns a deeper blue and the trees and hedgerows come alive; the white and pink chestnut candles are a delight, as are the white patches of hawthorn. Underneath this lyricism, however, this book has some hard themes, some of which must have raised eyebrows at the time. Some have seen the book as a clinical description of combat trauma. Others will see a feminist message here – that the dependence of women on men distorts the behaviour of both, and is even a driver for war. There is plenty of evidence in the book for this interpretation and besides, West was a strong proponent of women’s rights. But perhaps we shouldn’t apply modern labels to people who pre-date them. Class is another theme. Margaret, the woman to whose affections Baldry has returned, is a woman of a lower station. Jenny and Kitty meet Margaret for the first time, when she first calls at the Baldry house: She wore a yellowish raincoat and a black hat with plumes. The sticky straw hat had only lately been renovated by something out of a little bottle bought at the chemist’s. ...Margaret starts to explain that Baldry is wounded, in Boulogne, and that it seems they do not know. Her words are not taken at face value: This was such a fraud as one sees recorded in the papers ...Presently she would say that she had gone to some expense to come here with her news and that she was poor... These class tensions have still not been excised from British life. However, West makes an even more important point that is made much more explicitly, and in my view less well, by a more famous book, Heller’s Catch-22. That is the whole question of the logic of war. Kitty, the spurned wife, calls in a series of doctors to try to bring back his memory and restore him to normal. If she succeeds, he will of course return to the front. Cousin Jenny understands this, and feels growing sympathy for Margaret. It slowly becomes clear that, by trying to restore him to “normal” and send him back to war, Kitty is being monstrously selfish. The lover is right; the wife is wrong; restoration to “normal” means death. This was a brave message for 1918. An expensive specialist has arrived to “cure” Baldry – that is to say, restore his memory. Margaret, the working-class woman that he loves, protests to the doctor: “What’s the use of talking? You can’t cure him,” – she caught her lower lip with her teeth and fought back from the brink of tears, – “make him happy, I mean. All you can do is to make him ordinary.”“I grant you that’s all I do,” he said. ..”It’s my profession to bring people... to the normal. There seems to be a general feeling it’s the place where they ought to be. Sometimes I don’t see the urgency myself.”In Catch-22, the American airman, Yossarian, finds that there is a twisted logic: if you request relief from combat duty on the grounds of insanity, you must be wrong, because to do so is sane. West is subtler but the message is the same; by being “cured”, Baldry will be made to go back to the front, which is mad. Being restored to sanity would make Baldry do something insane. The Return of the Soldier is a beautiful book, but it is also a very subversive one; it questions not only the definition of normality, but, in so doing, the very nature and legitimacy of the authority of one human over another.


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.


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.


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.

Stephanie "Jedigal"

A soldier is retrieved from a hospital with amnesia when his family discovers what has happened to him. In spite of the detachment one feels with many books of the period, this is nevertheless an intimate portrayal of the experience of those who love him, first as he fails to remember them, and considers his former lover as more present and real to him, and then as he "returns" to his "soldier" self. Quietly sad.West's got some beautiful old-fashioned "flowery" language here. If you're in the right mood, its a pleasure, if not, its a TAD bit tedious. This is a pretty short book, and I love her abrupt ending - just like Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, West leaves you to imagine the future for yourself. She's excellent at providing an almost physical vision of a scene to compliment the mental processes of her narrator.


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.


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.


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.

Viji Sarath (Bookish endeavors)

"If this be the truth,Let me remain in the blissful ignorance.."It was a story that made me remember all the sad songs that I've heard.. So touching.. Heartbreaking.. True lovers getting separated is something no one is happy with.. But sure has it created many a masterpiece in literature. This is a 'truth is bitter,but you've got to accept it' type of story.. There is a beautiful romance going on.. And there is a scorn woman.. A lost child.. Sense of betrayal,though in a different shade.. Sounds the ingredients of a soap opera,doesn't it.? When the story began with description of Kitty and the interaction between her and Jenny,I thought 'so what.?' But as the story progressed,it turned pretty interesting.. Love and coffeeI guess both are alike.. Stimulates brain,makes us energetic but after a while we lose all our energy.. Those who are used to having it need it every morning but most of the time they don't even smell or taste it,they just drink it like a cup of water,just like husbands used to their old wives.. We all know we shouldn't use coffee in excess,but we can't stop once we start drinking it.. Some take it the way it is,pure,unadulterated.. Others like it sugared,with cream.. And both are called by the name 'slow poison'.. I've got nothing against love or coffee.. I'm an avid drinker of both.. The story here is about black coffee,sorry,true love.. That we become blind when we fall in love is described by the author as,"“I reflected, while Kitty shrilly wept, how entirely right Chris had been in his assertion that to lovers innumerable things do not matter.”His picture of love between Chris and Margaret is so beautiful.. The image of him trying to touch her just to confirm she is nearby is something a lover would do in that time or this. And what beautiful pictures he draw with this words.!! Never had I been taken in by the beauty of words creating lively images.. Whatever the surroundings be,he describes every single leaf with all its beauty.. And not only images of beauty,but images of raw emotion too.. Like in these words,“She held in her arms her Chinese sleeve dog, a once-prized pet that had fallen from favor and was now only to be met whining upward for a little love at every passer in the corridors, and it sprawled leaf-brown across her white frock, wriggling for joy at the unaccustomed embrace. That she should at last have stooped to lift the lonely little dog was a sign of her deep unhappiness.”Kitty's pain is described not in terms of her facial expressions,but through the way she acts.. Throughout the book,one can find beautiful examples like this.. This book was just perfect.. The perfect ending.. Had it ended otherwise,it would have been injustice in earthly terms.. But this way,the beauty of their love shines more.. It is in unfulfilled loves that we always seek our heroes.. Happily ever after is nice,but love is glorified in separations of heart..


Available at: is not an easy reading but the writer's style is quite interesting.

Wendy Bertsch

This is a most intriguing study of what it meant to be a feminist in the early 1900's. We are given a hint - the merest intimation - that a woman might be able to live a sort of fulfilling life without a man. But the doting attention at least two out of the three women in this story lavish on the rather ordinary, albeit inoffensive, returning soldier can be a bit hard to take. And the stereotypes of the British class system, which purport to be challenged here, are actually reinforced with every successive vivid word of description.What kept me reading was the intriguing study of a damaged mind and the dilemma presented to those trying to cope with a very difficult situation. This is not a book you'll be likely to put down before the last page.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *