Rebecca West never received the same acclaim for her novels as she did for her critical and journalistic work. While her novels were praised for their complexity, West was often criticized for overintellectualizing her stories. Critics have frequently asserted that her novels lack action. In fact, all her novels are characterized by extended internal monologues. In addition, West uses long, complex sentences; she has frequently been compared to Henry James in both subject matter and style. A West novel demands the reader’s close attention. Most of her novels take place during the Edwardian era or explore the values and social behaviors of that period. Within this background, her fiction examines the relationships between men and women, most of which seem doomed to failure. Her stories are presented through a feminine perspective; West’s usual narrator is a young woman who is intelligent, sensitive, and clever.
The Return of the Soldier
The title character of her first short novel, The Return of the Soldier, is Chris Baldry, a shell-shocked soldier who is suffering from amnesia. This is a story about love rather than war, however. The novel opens as Chris’s wife, Kitty, and his cousin Jenny, the narrator, wait to receive a letter from the war front. Instead they are visited by Margaret Grey, a shabbily dressed woman, who tells them that she has received a message from Chris. As a result of his injuries, Chris has forgotten the last fifteen years of his life, including his marriage, the death of his child, and his comfortable life in Baldry Hall. He remembers only Margaret, whom he had loved passionately fifteen years earlier, despite the difference in their social classes.
When Chris returns, he fails to recognize his wife, and he is desperately unhappy; the present has become a prison, keeping him from the person he loves—Margaret. Eventually he arranges to see her, finding that in spite of the ravages that years of poverty have caused, he is truly at ease only with her. Margaret, however, recognizes that because of their obvious class differences the two of them cannot hope for a life together, and she helps him regain his memory. Ironically, this allows him to resume his former life, and he realizes that he was never content. In addition, since he is now cured, he can return to his life as a soldier. The recovery of memory proves to be more tragic than its loss. The Return of the Soldier has the strengths common to West’s novels: insight into the nature of romantic relationships, vivid descriptions of the influence of social background, and insightful examination of human nature.
West’s second novel, The Judge, a longer, more complex work than The Return of the Soldier, is divided into two sections: The first explores a young woman’s coming-of-age, and the second centers on the tortured relationships in her fiancé’s family. Several critics have complained that these sections differ so much in style and content that they do not form a satisfactory whole. The first part of the novel, set in Edinburgh, contains many autobiographical elements. The main character, Ellen Melville, a secretary for a law firm, is clever, independent, and involved in the woman suffrage movement. She emerges from youth into womanhood, dealing with problem employers and becoming involved with Richard Yaverland, whom she sees as a romantic hero. Ellen is both charming and intriguing as she learns somewhat bitter lessons about a woman’s role in society. The engagement between Ellen and Richard leads to the second section of the novel, where the subject and mood shift dramatically.
The focus moves from Ellen to Richard’s mother, Marion, as West concentrates on Richard’s illegitimate birth and its consequences. During her pregnancy, Marion is attacked by a group of villagers. In desperation, she allows herself to be married to Peacey, the butler of the man she loves. He eventually rapes her, and she bears a second child, Roger, a pale and pathetic figure beside his more vigorous brother. Marion, whose relationship with Richard contains strong sexual overtones, commits suicide in order to allow Richard and Ellen to be free of his ties to her and to his past. Roger blames his brother for the death. The two fight, and Richard kills his brother. In spite of this novel’s dramatic content, it has been criticized for its lack of action as well as for its length.
West’s previous novels utilized the Freudian psychological realism of many twentieth century novels. In her third novel, Harriet Hume, she changed her style, creating a fantasy. The two main characters, Harriet, a pianist, and Arnold Condorex, a politician, both have...
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