Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West published in 1918 is an extraordinary work of fiction for a 25 year old. It was her second published book, the previous one being a monograph on Henry James. The novel has a brisk narrative flow and a setting that is restricted to the confines of the large Baldry residence where Kitty Baldry and her husband's cousin Jenny await his return from the war. The perfectly observed setting is disturbed by a caller, a creature of the lower orders who arrives with the most extraordinary news. Chris it seems has been shell shocked and is at present in a hospital in Boulogne. It emerges that he has fallen into a state of partial amnesia in which the last 15 years of his life have been expunged and he has only the memories that he had when he was 21. The woman who has brought the message is the one that he was in love with at that time. ‘For it is she’ we are tempted to add but in fact such states were well known at that time. He has forgotten that he is a married man and has no recollection of his wife and remembers Jenny who is the narrator only from 15 years before.

Through an unfortunate twist of fate the early love of his life has never received the letters that Chris wrote to her at the old address which is a pub run by her father on Monkey Island on the Thames near Windsor. Margaret Grey is now married herself to a valetudinarian. They are both depicted with formidable condescension which alters as the story goes on to envy of the innate nobility of Margaret and the fact that she is loved with the abandon of first love by Chris Baldry. Now she presents the picture of a middle aged woman somewhat eroded by life. Jenny thus describes her:

The bones of her cheap stays clicked as she moved. Well, she was not so bad. Her body was long and round and shapely and with a noble squareness of the shoulders; her fair hair curled diffidently about a good brow; her grey eyes, though they were remote, as if anything worth looking at in her life had kept a long way off, were full of tenderness; and though she was slender there was something about her of the draught-ox or the big trusted dog. Yet she was bad enough. She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty; as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.

The precise notation of the gradation of the social order; which West keenly felt as one reared in genteel poverty, is depicted beautifully. There are tiny indications of this. Jenny notices that some plume elements in Margaret's hat have gone astray and have been mended with adhesive. She deprecates with a refined contempt this device. A woman of that class would have no knowledge of the ways of Seccotine but a young West fearful that her gallant feathers were bedraggled might. The fiction within a fiction, the abolishing of history, the recovery of a lost love and the claims of real life are treated with mature clarity. As a writer she has that indefinable gift of narrative flow and the creation of character. It is a very short novel, 187 pages long, a novella really. Her mature work the Aubrey trilogy which begins with The Fountain Overflows published in 1957 surpasses that very high standard. If second hand prices are anything to go by it seems that she has fallen into neglect. I got my hardback copy of 'Fountain’ in an original dust jacket for €1.

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