Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier

The Return of the Soldier was Rebecca West’s first novel, published in 1918 when she was 24. It’s very different from the Aubrey trilogy, which I’ve written about recently here.

The plot of the novel is simple: Chris returns from the trenches suffering from shell-shock. Its main effect is that he has forgotten everything that happened for the past 15 years – which includes getting married to Kitty, and losing their baby son.

He does remember his youthful love for a lower-class publican’s daughter, Margaret. It’s to her that he writes when he recovers physical health, and he turns to her for comfort and healing when he’s back in his former home – to the grief and consternation of Kitty and his cousin, Jenny.

It’s a short novel – just 140 pages – but carries enormous emotional weight. The tension that builds towards the terrible conclusion is almost unbearable.

It’s not as polished in style as the later novels by Rebecca West, and in places it’s overwritten and cumbersome; but it’s still a poised and subtle work of fiction.

I’ll have to be brief, as I’m going elsewhere soon, so I’ll focus on just one scene. It’s the moment when Margaret arrives at Kitty and Jenny’s beautiful country house to tell the women that Chris has been wounded in action. The gulf in class difference is palpable, and here it’s through clothes that the narrator (the voice is Jenny’s, who is surely in love with Chris herself, hence her animosity towards this woman) conveys her sense of social superiority and disdain:

Just beneath us, in one of Kitty’s prettiest chintz arm-chairs, sat a middle-aged woman. She wore a yellowish raincoat and a black hat with plumes whose sticky straw had but lately been renovated by something out of a little bottle bought at the chemist’s. [How could Jenny possibly know that?!] She had rolled her black thread gloves into a ball on her lap, so that she could turn her grey alpaca skirt well above her muddy boots and adjust its brush braid with a seamed red hand which looked even more horrible when she raised it to touch the glistening flowers of the pink azalea that stood on a table beside her. Kitty shivered and muttered, ‘Let’s get this over,’ and ran down the stairs.

The Return of the Soldier: Virago Modern Classics. Afterword by Sadie Jones

Enmity and marriage: Rebecca West, Cousin Rosamund

Rebecca West, Cousin Rosamund. Virago Modern Classics (1991; first published 1985)

Victoria Glendinning’s Afterword to this Virago edition of Rebecca West’s Cousin Rosamund points out that the author left her continuation of The Fountain Overflows (which I wrote about recently here) in a typescript dating probably from the late 1950s. Part of it was published the year after her death (in 1983, aged 90) as This Real Night. She summarises how West mapped out how the story would have ended, soon after WWII.

The remainder constitutes about two thirds of Cousin Rosamund. After Rebecca West’s death her secretary found manuscripts which developed the story of the Aubrey family beyond the point where the typescript ended.

Rebecca West was a meticulous reviser of her work, and would presumably have edited the last third of this final novel in the Aubrey sequence before its publication. But as Glendinning says, ‘there is such fierceness and freshness in the drafted later section that one cannot regret what she might have considered as its lack of polish’.

he painting on the VMC cover is called 'Glitter', by American artist William Paxton.

The painting on the VMC cover is ‘Glitter’, by American artist William Paxton.

The zest of The Fountain Overflows is much reduced in the two sequels. In Cousin Rosamund the action resumes just after the devastation of WWI. Rose, the narrator, and her twin sister Mary have become famous concert pianists (like their mother before them). Conventional elder sister Cordelia has entered into a mundane, bourgeois marriage, and grown ever more distant and critical of her eccentric family and their bohemian circle. The eponymous cousin has trained as a nurse.

There’s even less plot in this final volume of the sequence than the previous two, but the lack of action rarely causes the narrative to drag. There are several beautifully realised set pieces, but the main interest increasingly resides in Rose’s response to abrasive experience during the decade or so after the first War.

Several of Rose’s family and friends marry men who appear singularly bad choices. Rose becomes increasingly convinced as a consequence that celibacy and solitude are preferable; sister Mary shares that view. But Rose’s convictions become so strong she undergoes a crisis that comes close to mental breakdown.

It’s the quality of writing that sustains the narrative. The characters’ eccentricity is often the source of wry humour, as in this early discussion by the twins and Rosamund, about their friend Nancy’s fiancé, whom they find dull and arrogant:

“But if he is going to be nice to her, we will do anything to please him,” said Mary. “Though I wonder how we can do it. I do wish there were only the people one can talk to and the other people that one just has to make signs at and offer curries to. It is the cases in between which are difficult.”

“Well, think of the only peaceful moments we have with the men who want to marry us,” I said. “They happen when we talk to them about what they do.”

 

Rosamund’s crucial role as the family’s moral arbiter is strongly indicated in the early part of this novel, as it was throughout the previous two. After this conversation, Rose feels emotionally cleansed, uplifted:

It was always so when Rosamund was with us, she found whatever we had for the moment lost.

Rose and Mary’s struggle to deal with relationships is complicated by Rosamund’s inexplicable marriage to a vulgar, swaggering magnate (he reminded me of a certain US president). Her motives for marrying this monster are never made clear, and her humiliation and embarrassment in his bullying, leering presence, the ‘cruelties and treacheries’ she endures, are painful for the sisters (and reader) to witness. Rosamund had always seemed their moral touchstone and guide; how could she have ‘sold herself to a freak of dubious origins and morals?’ Rose wonders. She and Mary are heartbroken; they feel like ‘deserted children’, and their suspicious view of men is endorsed. Here they discuss Rosamund’s former love interest, a man she was determined not to marry:

“I wonder why. I feel he had not that queer thing about him that all men have who want to marry us.”

“What is that?” I asked.

“Why, enmity, of course,” said Mary.

When she reflects on her parents’ marriage, Rose concludes their Pappa had not ‘protected’ Mamma,

and most of the men we met in our profession and at parties seemed not to have been fitted at birth with any apparatus for cherishing. We could believe that those who were homosexual had become so simply in order to evade any such obligation.

That fastidiously witty choice of words is typical of Rebecca West’s unusual style and capacity for surprise – especially in the amount of erotic content in Cousin Rosamund, both homosexual and heterosexual. Much of the book deals with Rose learning to overcome her revulsion at sex as ‘rank stuff’, ‘such pollution spoils women to the destruction of their essence, they become rubbish.’

Then she has her epiphany – her discovery that she is not so bereft that she cannot love a man. Marriage enables Rose to live again, but she experiences further anguish as well. Life is like that.

 

The possibility of happiness: Rebecca West, This Real Night

Rebecca West, This Real Night (Virago Modern Classics, 2000; first published 1984)

This is volume 2 in the trilogy ‘A Saga of the Century’, about the Aubrey family in early 20C England. The story resumes where The Fountain Overflows (about which I posted here recently) left off. Once again its hallmark is the offbeat perceptions of young narrator, Rose, who can be ‘sometimes savage’ as she’s allowed to grow up with minimal parental intervention, and with some unconventional views on life:

A pretence already existed in those days, and has grown stronger every year since then, that children do not belong to the same species as adults and have different kinds of perception and intelligence, which enable them to live a separate and satisfying life. This seemed to me then, and seems to me now, a great nonsense. A child is an adult temporarily enduring conditions which exclude the possibility of happiness.

She and her twin sister Mary have taken up their places in music academies in London, while beautiful eldest sister Cordelia, now resigned to the fact that she has no musical talent, has abandoned her ill-advised career as a concert violinist.

Rebecca West, This Real Night VMC edition coverIn This Real Night we see the twins maturing into young women, and beginning to recognise the unromantic harshness of life as professional classical pianists. Richard Quin, the adored baby brother of TFO, is slightly less cloying in this novel, as he too grows up. By the close, Mamma says of Rose and Mary that they’ve changed, like Cordelia: ‘Much of the original brutality has gone’, she muses placidly.

Money troubles are over now that profligate father Piers has deserted them. Mr Morpurgo, their kindly benefactor, plays a larger role in this novel, but his geniality is soured by his catty wife, who presides over an awkward lunch party with the Aubreys with vindictive, graceless spite.

There are more charming, heartwarming scenes as the girls develop slightly more sophisticated insights into the turbulent world of mysterious adults. Their idyllic visits to Aunt Lily, now established in a friendly Thameside pub, enable a measure of stability and peace to enter their lives after the heartache of their father’s disappearance. There is a dramatically violent scene there involving Lily’s genial landlord friend, Uncle Len, and a gang of desperado gipsies, which profoundly shocks the girls and teaches them yet another harsh life lesson.

Along with the often unreliable insights of Rose, this novel’s main strengths lie in the portrait of her Mamma, a saintly, eccentric and hugely gifted woman. She has taught her children to play and appreciate music with rare sensitivity, but has failed to show such insight into her feckless husband – who she continues to adore even when he’s abandoned her and the children.

Rose’s view of this marriage is characteristically skewed and partial, but it provides another opportunity to learn about life’s vicissitudes, especially for girls and women:

Indeed, marriage was to us a descent into a crypt where, by the tremulous light of smoking torches, there was celebrated a glorious rite of a sacrificial nature. Of course it was beautiful, we saw that. But we meant to stay in the sunlight, and we knew no end which we could serve by offering ourselves up as a sacrifice.

The tone of this novel is darker and more melancholy in some ways than TFO, published nearly thirty years earlier. Mamma’s frail hold on life becomes increasingly tenuous. Death’s shadow lengthens over the family, darkened ever more ominously by the onset of World War I.

It reads very like a spirited, unconventional autobiography, and perhaps reveals the author’s unfinished editing process. Rebecca West died in 1983, and This Real Night (like the final volume, Cousin Rosamund) was published posthumously. It would have benefited from some judicious pruning – but still contains delights.

Once again there are some dazzling descriptions of music and art, and serious reflections on the nature of creativity and its redemptive place in a secular, commercial, largely artless and dull modern world.

It’s not a great novel, but it is seriously good. Rose’s increasing awareness of the importance of moral rectitude and decency in human relations is developed without too much tub-thumping or piety, and is offset by the sometimes spiky humour and bizarre incongruities, especially about Cordelia, who lacks the other siblings’ artistic sensibility and zany imagination. Her desperate need for normality and urge to escape this (to her mind) crazy family is finally realised when she marries an equally uninspired man. His wealthy family views the Aubreys as quaintly plebeian and ‘humble’, while they, viewing his family,

were feeling towards them like unscrupulous horse-dealers who have sold a dangerous horse to an urban simpleton.

Rohan Maitzen wrote a detailed, perceptive review of this novel at Open Letters Monthly in Dec. 2013

 

What is music about? Rebecca West, ‘The Fountain Overflows’

Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows (Virago Modern Classics, 2011) First published 1956

A while ago I wrote about the spiky charm of Barbara Comyns’ novel Sisters by a River; The Fountain Overflows is also narrated largely from the point of view of a child. Rose seems to be about six at the start of the novel, and is in her early teens by the end. It’s her ingenuously penetrating (and often disarmingly warped) insights into the lives of the adults around her, and sporadically sharp-eyed analysis of her three siblings and other children (‘We were quite little but we were already cunning as foxes’), that lend this narrative its pungency, acerbity and lopsided humour. Its stylistic and psychological naiveté are tempered by the maturer reflections of the narrator at the time of writing, fifty years later.

Rebecca West The Fountain Overflows cover VMC editionHere’s how we first see Clare Aubrey, Rose’s mother, once a brilliant concert pianist, now a shabby-genteel Edwardian housewife:

Mamma was not good-looking. She was too thin, her nose and forehead were shiny like bone, and her features were disordered because her tortured nerves were always drawing a rake over her face.

The metaphor there is typical of the flashes of menace and cruelty that serve as counterpoint to the surface childlike tranquillity of this dark domestic tragic-comedy. Rose never loses track of the family’s precarious situation, and the always imminent proximity of disaster.

A fleeting reference is made early on to the mother’s having ‘second sight’. When Rose first visits cousin Rosamund and Aunt Constance’s house, she and her mother calmly banish malevolent poltergeists by their very presence. Later, Rose is chastised by her mother for using her mind-reading and fortune-telling ability as a party trick. I found this supernatural aspect of the novel rather incongruous and grating.

Her improvident, handsome rogue of a father, who engages in a ‘lifelong wrestling match with money’, gambles and loses what little he earns as a writer. With his scornful manner he alienates the patrons who are impressed by his polemical articles, and dallies with women flagrantly. Yet Rose adores him; all the family do. That’s their problem:

My father, though very cruel, was very kind. [Two pages later:] He was often kind, but he was also ungrateful.

Rose is infatuated with him, but not blind to his selfishness and egregious faults: ‘Human relations are essentially imperfect,’ she muses on seeing a photo of him as a young man. Even his brave intervention to save a murderess, mother of one of Rose’s school friends, shows a thoughtless disregard for the possibly disastrous effect on his family this might have if he fails and goes to prison.

The father’s serial recklessness worsens the already tense marital/familial atmosphere:

We were at first puzzled by the nature of the calamity that had struck our household. We had read a great part of Shakespeare and a good many novels but nothing in them had modified our conviction that Papa and Mamma could not have any very strong interest in each other, as they were not related by blood.

Precocity and childishness combine like this throughout the narrative, but somehow usually managing to avoid cloying (though I found Rose’s attempts to portray little brother Richard Quin as an angelic pet tiresome).

This is Rose on big sister Cordelia, towards whom she tends to harbour murderous thoughts:

At school, we noticed, she got on discreditably well. The wrong sort of teacher liked her in the wrong sort of way, and they were constantly giving her what they called ‘little tasks’ and mentioning her as an example of esprit de corps; and she spoke to them with an air of professed insipidity which we took seriously as a betrayal of childhood. Of course grown-ups wanted children to be blanks, but no decent child, with parents like ours, would encourage them. We saw her paying too high a price for the approval of people who were not Papa and Mamma, and we felt about her as a soldier in a besieged citadel might feel about a comrade who is meditating desertion. Quite often we hated her. But the love of the flesh which binds a family together in its infancy was still strong…Often we loved her.

Poor Cordelia is the only non-musical child, but mistakenly believes her equally talentless music teacher, the faux-bohemian, pretentious Miss Beevor, when she tells her she is a genius violin player. ‘Cordelia is such rubbish’, complains Rose to her Mamma. Cordelia smarts with indignation at the eccentricity and profligacy of the household, longing for normality and to escape: “We are being so badly brought up,” she shrieks at one particularly exasperated moment.

More than a saga about a wildly eccentric family, TFO is really about art, and in particular, music. All four children are trained as musicians by their mother as a means ultimately of earning a living – except for Cordelia, whose beauty they hope will net her a rich husband before she can make too much of a spectacle of herself attempting to perform in public.

This is Rose and twin sister Mary, near the end, discussing their enigmatic, much-loved cousin Rosamund, a beautiful but strangely passive, apparently unmusical girl:

‘…I say, Mary, do you understand Rosamund?’

‘Quite often, no,’ said Mary.

‘Of course, we would find it easier to understand her if she were a musician too,’ I said.

‘Well, she may not be a musician, but she is what music is about,’ said Mary.

‘What is music about?’ I asked.

‘Oh, it is about life, I suppose, and specially about the parts of life we don’t understand, otherwise people would not have to worry about it by explaining it by music.’

This is the first volume in an unfinished trilogy of novels about the Aubrey family. I’ve ordered the next two.