This slow-paced tale recounts the mysterious possession of the mind and body of Arthur Lawford, a conventional man who has long lived passively, without inner reflection and deadened to the needs of those around him. There is very little action in the novel. The entire story takes place within a few weeks, much of it within the mind of the main character.
The Return begins as Arthur, a conventional British man, is recovering from the most recent of many illnesses. During a walk in his rural English village, Arthur sits down to rest in a churchyard cemetery, where he is fascinated by the inscription on a badly weathered and broken headstone, noticeably set apart from the rest. Suddenly overcome by weakness, he falls asleep and wakes up feeling uneasy. Returning home, he is astonished to find that he does not recognize his reflection in the mirror. Worse still, Arthur’s wife, Sheila; Ada, the maid; and Mr. Bethany, the vicar, see the change in him but fear that he is actually an impostor or that he has somehow gone mad.
The Lawfords’ young daughter, Alice, is never allowed to see her father in his changed state, but she has several conversations with him in the dark of her room. Her sweetness and unwavering love for him while he is “ill” help sustain him. Arthur’s wife is unsympathetic and so scandalized by the changes in her formerly respectable husband that she goes to stay for a while with a friend, leaving Arthur alone.
Faced with the terrifying possibility of remaining in this state, Arthur takes a dramatic inner journey following another visit to the cemetery, where in his distress he is befriended by the mysterious Mr. Herbert, and later, Herbert’s gentle sister, Grisel. Herbert confides to Arthur that he has a very old French book that has in it a drawing of Nicholas Sabathier, a man who had taken his own life a century earlier and who was buried beneath the headstone that had so interested Arthur.
Herbert and Grisel take pity on Arthur in his distress and invite him to stay with them for a few days of rest. Arthur has never seen or met them before, nor noticed the house they live in, though it is not far from his home. These eccentric characters are described in such a way that the reader is left to wonder if they exist at all outside Arthur’s imagination.
Arthur remains in his changed state for several days. He talks at length with Herbert and Grisel about his fears, but he is aware that he must battle his inner demons alone. He is agonized, reflective, and remorseful about the way he has lived up until now. He accepts that he must learn to go his own way, and through this acceptance, he finally is released from the grip of the ghost of Sabathier. The story ends as his old friend, Bethany, enters a room in the Lawford home and recognizes the old Arthur asleep in a chair.
Herbert home. Ramshackle house in the English countryside, home to Herbert Herbert and his sister Grisel. Herbert describes the residence as a “queer old shanty,” but Arthur Lawford finds it a pleasing refuge from the problems his psychic possession causes at home. Peculiarities of the house mirror Arthur’s predicament. The house is situated at a point where the rushing River Widder washes against its lower walls. Similarly, it is purportedly haunted by a ghost which insinuates itself into living beings, and this is how Arthur becomes possessed. The spirit of Nicholas...
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Sabathier has come rushing from the past to fill the susceptible vessel that the convalescing Arthur represents.
Herbert describes the ghost in the house as one who looks into shelves and drawers that no longer exist. Like the ghost, Arthur is someone searching for a past that no longer exists. When he returns to his own home physically transformed by the spirit of Sabathier after his sojourn in the Widderstone churchyard, he discovers that the domestic values that have kept his household and marriage together for seventeen years are a fragile illusion that become strained and eventually broken.
Inevitably, Arthur comes to realize that the spirit of Sabathier, which, though out of place in the modern age, hungers for life as he himself hungered for life while a young man. Sabathier haunts Arthur much the way the ghost haunts the Herbert residence, and both represent incarnations of the past trying to reassert themselves.
The Herbert residence is imbued with a strong sense of the past. It seems much older than the nearby Widderstone churchyard, arising from its surroundings like a natural part of the landscape, and it is filled with antiquarian books on all manner of subjects. Herbert is a scholarly man knowledgeable about history, including the history of Sabathier. Grisel offers Arthur a type of consolation that he compares to the love his mother showed him as a child. It is no wonder that Arthur comes to a sense of the man he once was during his stay there.
Widderstone. Centuries-old churchyard, a short walk from the Lawford residence. Its unconsecrated ground is the site of Nicholas Sabathier’s grave, where Arthur Lawford’s possession occurs. Though the vicar of the parish describes it as a beautiful spot, Lawford’s family and friends consider it an improper place for Arthur to take a walk; they view his decline following his experience in the churchyard as his just deserts for this transgression. Arthur’s attraction to the site is solid evidence of his difference from those around him.
Lawford home. Comfortable middle-class home in suburban England. Arthur Lawford, his wife Sheila, and his daughter Alice have lived unremarkable lives in the house until Arthur’s takeover by the spirit of Sabathier, after which Arthur feels himself an intruder and an outsider. The house represents a past from which Arthur becomes an outcast, never to return. Eventually, he refers to it as a “great barn of faded interests.”
Briggs, Julia. “On the Edge: Walter de la Mare.” In Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story. Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, 1977. Offers a reverent account of de la Mare’s ghost stories, drawing various comparisons between The Return and his short fiction.
Clute, John. “Walter de la Mare.” In Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror, edited by Everett F. Bleiler. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985. A sensitive discussion of de la Mare’s ambiguous use of the supernatural. Gives more attention to The Return than most such essays, which often concentrate entirely on his short fiction.
McCrosson, Doris Ross. Walter de la Mare. New York: Twayne, 1966. A compact but thorough account of de la Mare and his work. Chapter 8 is devoted to The Return.
Reid, Forrest. Walter de la Mare: A Critical Study. Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, 1929. An early study of de la Mare’s work, written when his reputation was at its height. Chapter 8 is a detailed critique of The Return, relatively uncolored by comparisons with the later ghost stories.
Whistler, Theresa. Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare. London: Duckworth, 1993. A recent biography of de la Mare, much more detailed than earlier ones. The Return is set in its biographical context in chapter 8, which deals with the author’s relationship with the poet Henry Newbolt, who was the prime mover in procuring de la Mare’s Civil List pension.