As I read Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier over the summer, I found it to be a short and quaint novella with some rather unlikable characters; however, I soon learned that I received an edition that did not contain the introduction or appendices. As such, I was unable to capture how the subtle nuances of West’s life such as her relationship with H.G. Wells and his wife, and her convoluted relationship with her illegitimate son, and how much of her own life is reflected throughout the pages of this novel as presented through the introduction. Through the additional materials, I also learned about the prevalence of repression training for soldiers and the social class dichotomy of the lady and the woman presented through Kitty and Margaret and how that distinction affected women’s roles. As I had already formed an opinion of the story without the extra information conveyed through the appendices and introduction, I wondered if my opinion would be changed with the addition of this new knowledge.
When Kitty is first presented to the reader, one can see that she is a woman of importance, one who has been accustomed to being obeyed and catered to. I originally felt resentment for Kitty as the way she chose to present herself is infinitely better than the lowly Margaret and the sad and lonely Jenny; however, in comparison to the other characters, Kitty is merely presenting herself as the picture of the proper lady. Throughout the novel, Kitty continues to show disdain at the overall sense of shabbiness exhibited by Margaret as well as a desire toward keeping the Baldry home and its material objects safe and tidy. However, Kitty’s materialistic attitude can be read differently in that she is being a good steward of that which has been given to her. This alternate reading may also show that she cares for those under her charge as she explains to Chris that her mending basket is full of “Clothes for one of the cottagers […] With all the land you’ve bought there’s ever so many people to look after…” (68). Kitty is merely fulfilling her role as lady of the house in a more materialistic manner by protecting the household goods including those of the cottagers on the estate.
In the role of the lady of the house, Kitty can be likened to a soldier on the home front. To fulfill her duty as a soldier, Kitty practices the repression of her grief over her son and the sadness of watching her husband leave for war in order to maintain the responsibilities she has taken over for Chris during his absence. By viewing Kitty in this role of the soldier of the house, one can see that she is merely completing her duty by turning away Mrs. Grey when she arrives with news of Chris’ failing health. Kitty’s aloofness may appear that she is more about concerned about protecting the house’s best interest against the possibility of being caught in a costly scam than in news of her husband; however, like a good soldier, Kitty trusts the government to inform her of issues concerning the state of her husband and continues to repress any grief over his unknown condition.
Though Kitty may not express outward concern for those under her care, as she exhibits when she tells Jenny “don’t begin to fuss” (49) over lack of word from Chris, this does not mean that she does not care for the wellbeing of her husband and those around her. Upon my initial reading, I took Kitty’s statement to mean she was not concerned about her husband and seemed almost glad he was gone. However, by learning the importance of the lady of the house and the repression training experienced by soldiers, one can see that acting aloof and distancing oneself from the goings on of war shows that Kitty is practicing this same repression. As Kitty is filled with a happy relief when Chris is cured and returns “Every inch a soldier” (118), one can read Kitty’s actions as not those of a jealous woman attempting to win back her husband, but rather are the actions of a lady of the house returning her lost soldier to the home front in order to earn a reprieve for her efforts.
- At the beginning of the story, Jenny expresses a desire to keep Chris safe and “seal[ed] in this green pleasantness of his wife” (48). Is it simply that Chris is stuck in time with Margaret that upsets Jenny at the revelation of Chris’ illness? Would Jenny have been a champion for Chris to come back to the present time had he been sealed in a happy past with Kitty?
- At the end of the story, Jenny claims Chris looks “Every inch a soldier” to which Kitty replies with satisfaction “He’s cured!” (118). Do you take this to mean Chris had always appeared to have repressed his feelings regarding a dissatisfying home life prior to the war and losing his memory was an opportunity to bury those feelings he repressed? Or do you feel that this return to the “every inch a soldier” persona is Chris now repressing the disappointment he feels about regaining his lost memories and grief?
- Is Jenny’s change of allegiance from Team Kitty to Team Margaret due to Jenny’s misunderstanding of Kitty’s detachment to Chris after his return? Or has Margaret genuinely won Jenny over? Or do you feel that Jenny recognizes how Chris would have been a different person had he been coupled with Margaret?
- After a second reading, I still found Kitty an unlikable character. Although I feel I better understood her motives, I found the repression of her grief for the losses of her husband and son to make her distinctly difficult to relate to. Do you feel Kitty’s repression is what makes her unlikable?
West, Rebecca, Bernard Schweizer, and Charles Thorne. The Return of the Soldier. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview, 2010. Print.