Friday, 21 February 2014

'The Return of the Soldier' by Rebecca West - Literature of the First World War

This "series" of posts focuses on the Literature written before, after, during or because of the First World War. I will do so until the 28th of June, the anniversary of the assassination on Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for many marking the beginning of the First World War. So far I have only discussed the work of male authors, such as Barbusse's Under Fire or Sassoon's Hero. Now it is time for a female author to take the stage.

Rebecca West is the pseudonym for Cicely Isabelle Fairfield, who was born in 1892 in London. She grew up in a very intellectual household until the age of 8 when her father abandoned the family and they moved to Edingburgh. Her official education stopped when she was 16. She trained as an actress in London but worked as a journalist for a variety of publications to support the Suffragette cause. After insulting H.G. Wells in a review, he invited her to his house and they became lovers. She built a lucrative career out of her writing and died in 1983. The Return of the Soldier was her debut novel and is often overlooked, yet it was the only novel on the First World War  that was written by a woman during wartime. 
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.
On a first note, the synopsis above is surprisingly misleading when it comes to the structure of the novel. Rather than following Chris Baldry, the reader follows his cousin Jenny as she prepares for and is disappointed by Chris' return. Her outlook on things is at once dramatic and emotional but also cool and analytical. She gives the reader a stereotypically female view of England, musing over 'the first lavish day of spring' or 'the flowered curtains', but also the stark reality in beautiful prose:
'No one weeps for this shattering of our world.'
Being the first female author I was reading for this "series", I wasn't sure what to expect. Whereas the male authors "benefit" from the action at the front and the very obvious strong emotions, the women had to deal with the waiting and suffering at home, in apparent comfort and splendor. The fact that both Kitty (Chris' wife) and Jenny have built their entire existence around Chris and his happiness shows how empty their lives are, especially if one remembers how impossible a return to the "normal world" was for Remarque's protagonist in All's Quiet on the Western Front. Rebecca West presents the Homefront as exactly that, a front. What you see is the supportive family, waiting patiently and supportive, but in truth both women are hiding their emotions and are stuck in a past that can never become present again, quite similarly to Chris.

Besides dealing with the War, West also brings the class-divide to the forefront. Knowing she got her penname from a George Bernard Shaw, famous for Pygmalion, it is hard not to draw comparisons to the play. Eliza Doolittle is, despite her lower class origin, the most sensitive person in the play, both capable of change and seeing through the facades put up by others. Her leaving at the end of the play is as much a gift to herself as to Dr. Higgins. Comparing Eliza to the dowdy Margaret may seem absurd to others but makes a lot of sense when one considers the dedication with which Margaret cares for Chris. The lower classes were severely hit by the War, are so by any War, yet carried the country through. Margaret represents the suffering and charity that allowed this survival and the relationship that slowly grows between her and Jenny could be interpreted as the subconscious coming together of the lower and middle classes during the War.

Psychoanalysis is a major part of the novel, despite not featuring in the foreground. It is mentioned in passing that several Freudian doctors are trying their hardest to get Chris' memory back and the final psychological push is not described at all, only its effects. The critic Cristina Pividori argues that similarly to Freud, West realized the destructive effect of war upon the soldier's psyche. Chris' search for love is his attempt at finding a safe place where he can talk about his experiences. In order to keep this post spoiler-free, I can't discuss the way West resolves the problem, but the title itself gives a clue to the end. What Kitty and Jenny want is the return of the Soldier, of a man who has been affected by the War and has grown from it. What they get is a reminder of how their lives used to be before the War, and the realization that they, in their current state, will never fit into that world again. 

I give this novel...

4 Universes.

West manages to show how big of an impact the War had on the homefront and on people without having to show any fighting. As such, her novel forms a great addition to the other ones I have read in the last few weeks because it shows the alienation that took place for the soldiers from a different point of view.

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