(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Return of the Soldier, Rebecca West’s first novel, concerns a tension-filled love triangle formed by Chris Baldry, the young, wealthy soldier, whose mind has been affected by shellburst in the French trenches during World War I; his wife, Kitty, whom he cannot recall ever having had as either wife or lover; and Margaret Grey, who loved Chris in his youth and prior to his marriage to Kitty.

This short novel chronicles the reactions of Kitty, Margaret, and the narrator, Jenny, to Chris’s return from war and his reaction to them. From the outset, the book’s atmosphere is one of foreboding, of an uneasy calm before the storm. Baldry Court, Chris’s stately house, so aloof from the common realm, is a mirror of Kitty, a woman of delicacy and refinement removed from the world and the war that had rocked it. The reader gradually learns that Margaret Grey, who inhabits a squalid redbrick row house, has received a letter from Chris in France instructing her to meet him on his return.

Kitty, on the other hand, receives no such message about her husband’s imminent return, hearing about it secondhand from Chris’s cousin and her friend, Jenny, the novel’s narrator. Not receiving a letter, combined with Kitty’s discovery that Chris has experienced a partial memory loss, causes her great psychological stress and pain. West first makes it appear inconceivable that Chris should have forgotten about his lovely, clever wife, recalling instead the time he spent with Margaret, a woman now faded and wrinkled by the passing years.

Margaret, an uncomplicated person, has lived her simple, quiet, almost saintly existence as the wife of an older, failed man. Yet despite her husband’s failure in life and the shabby existence his meager income allowed, Margaret has cheerfully, resolutely stayed with him and has given him comfort when it was she who most needed comforting. In spite of her lowly social status and her wrinkled features, Margaret...

(The entire section is 810 words.)