by Pericles Lewis
Rebecca West’s novel The Return of the Soldier was published in the last year of the first world war (1918). In the novel, a young war hero returns to his family estate having lost his memory of the war and the immediate pre-war years. Although he has married a woman of his own class, Captain Christopher Baldry is still in love with an innkeeper’s daughter, who has herself been married for almost a decade. He does not recognize his own wife and longs to return to Monkey Island, the site of his youthful love. The spurned wife at first believes that her husband is only pretending not to remember her; later, however, she brings in a psychiatrist who diagnoses his shell shock. She tells the doctor that she knows he can’t cure Chris—“[can’t] make him happy, I mean. All you can do is to make him ordinary.” At the end of the novel, Chris Baldry is “cured”—or at least made ordinary—and returned to battle, like Owen and Sassoon. The novel is narrated by his cousin, Jenny, who, while recognizing that he must be cured, regrets his loss of an idyllic past, which seems to symbolize the entire nation’s loss of innocence in the war: “Chris was not mad. It was our peculiar shame that he had rejected us when he had attained to something saner than sanity. His very loss of memory was a triumph over the limitations of language which prevent the mass of men from making explicit statements about their spiritual relationships.” Despite the reference to the limitations of language, The Return of the Soldier uses mainly traditional novelistic techniques, but it does bring the impressionist or post-impressionist concern with the multiple perspectives from which characters view reality to bear on a specifically post-war problem: the difficulties faced by those on the home front—especially women—in trying to understand the experiences of the returning soldiers.
- ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 111-112.