The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West (1892 to 1983 London, England) was the only book written during WWI which deals with the war as a subject matter that was written by a woman. Rebecca West had a very diversified authorial career writing several novels, a number of political essays, and some highly regarded travel books. She reported on the Nuremberg Trials for The New Yorker. She was very active in political causes and was a strong advocate of the rights of women. She grew up in a very cultured and intellectually stimulating environment. She had a son with H. G. Wells. (There is a detailed article on her here ).
The Return of the Soldier was West's first novel. It tells the story of the return of a shell shocked British Captain, Chris Baldry, from the trenches of France during WWI. It is told from the point of view of one of his female cousins, Jenny.
As the novel opens we are at the country estate of a cousin by marriage of Jenny. They seem in a place very remote from the hardships of war but for the fact that her cousin's husband is serving in the British Army in France. Then they are shocked when a third woman, Margaret, comes to advise them that she has gotten a notice from the war office that Chris has been injured and is coming home. Of course they are wondering why Margaret and not his wife got the notice and they know Chris has a romance with her fifteen years ago. To tell a bit of the plot, Chris has lost fifteen years worth of memories and thinks he is 21 and not 36 and that Margaret is his girlfriend and he has no idea who his wife is supposed to be. The plot unfolds from here.
The story is not told in a straightforward fashion but as typical of a British novel of the period it jumps back and forth in time and mirrors in its structure the fragmented memory of Chris. Even though WWI is hardly mentioned in the novel, it is about its effect on society and the attempts of returning soldiers to fit into society. Back by Henry Green which I posted on last month is a WWII version of the same theme and Ford Madox Ford's great work Parade's End deals with the issues of the returning soldier on a much larger stage.
I am very glad I read this short work and commend it to anyone interested in Modernist Fiction of the Virginia Woolf sort. The prose style is exquisite. This book is for sure worth the time it takes to read it and I would like to read more of her work in the future
I am participating in The War Through the Generations reading challenge which is about books on WWI this year and will be including this book as one of my selections.