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

The magic fades: DH Lawrence’s response to Cornwall, pt 3

DH Lawrence’s response to Cornwall, continued: the idyll fades, disillusion and desertion sets in. Extracts from the Collected Letters, ed. Harry T. Moore, Heinemann, London, 1970, vol. 1

[To Barbara Low, from Higher Tregerthen, nr Zennor (all the following letters were written from there), 1 May 1916] It is very lovely here, with the gorse all gone yellow and the sea a misty, periwinkle blue, and the flowers coming out on the common. The sense of jeopardy spoils it all – the feeling that one may be flung out into the cess-pool of a world, the danger of being dragged into the foul conglomerate mess, the utter disgust and nausea one feels for humanity, people smelling like bugs, endless masses of them, and no relief: it is so difficult to bear.

[As my last set of extracts showed, the military and other state authorities had started to show an unsettling interest in this ménage of the Lawrences: Frieda striding around W. Cornwall in brightly coloured mismatched stockings, speaking English in her heavy German accent, their cottage curtains similarly mismatched. Locals suspected this suspiciously unconventional couple were signalling to the enemy submarines which patrolled the waters off the peninsula. Nevertheless, DHL’s outbursts in letters of this time are disquieting, Nietzschean in their contempt – even if it’s understandable he’s so upset.]

Ottoline Morrell

Lady Ottoline Morrell, society and literary hostess, by Baron Adolf de Meyer, platinum print, 1912. Wikimedia Commons

[To Ottoline Morrell, ?4 May 1916] The country is very beautiful, with tangles of blackthorn and solid mounds of gorse blossom, and bluebells beneath, and myriads of violets, and so many ferns unrolling finely and delicately. I have begun a new novel [this would become Women in Love]

[To OM, 24 May] The country is simply wonderful, blue, graceful little companies of bluebells everywhere on the moors, the gorse in flame, and on the cliffs and by the sea, a host of primroses, like settling butterflies, and sea-pinks like a hover of pink bees, near the water.

[To Catherine Carswell, 19 June] I have nearly done my new novel. It has come rushing out, and I feel very triumphant in it.
The Murrys have gone over to the south side, about thirty miles away. The north side was too rugged for them. And Murry and I are not really associates. How I deceive myself. I am a liar to myself, about people. I was angry when you ran over a a list of my ‘friends’ – whom you did not think much of. But it is true, they are not much, any of them.
I give up having intimate friends at all. It is a self-deception. [He goes on to invite the Carswells to stay in the Murrys’ vacated rooms next door!]
It is very fine here, foxgloves now everywhere between the rocks and ferns. There is some magic in the country. It gives me a strange satisfaction.

[Lack of money – L calls it ‘penuriousness’ – is still a problem, and he smarts at the sense of living off the charity of others – but at least he has been exempted from military service.]

[To Barbara Low, 8 July] I should have died if they had made me a soldier… It is the most terrible madness. And the worst of it all is, that it is a madness of righteousness. These Cornish are most, most unwarlike, soft, peaceable, ancient. No men could suffer more than they, at being conscripted…they believe in their duty to their fellow man. And what duty is this, which makes us forfeit everything, because Germany invaded Belgium? Is there nothing beyond my fellow man? If not, there is nothing beyond myself…because I am the fellow-man of all the world, my neighbour is but myself in a mirror. So we toil in a circle of pure egoism…I know that, for me, the war is wrong…To fight for possessions, goods, is what my soul will not do…All this war, this talk of nationality, to me is false. I feel no nationality, not fundamentally…one fights too hard already, for the real integrity of one’s being.

[L is forced to type up the MS of his new novel, and revisions of The Rainbow, himself; he has only £6 in the world, he writes on 12 July. Next day he writes to thank J.B. Pinker for the cheque for £50 he’d received from him.]

[To K. Mansfield, 16 July; she has returned to Mylor, nr Falmouth, on the ‘soft’ south coast. L is benign and adopts a cheerful tone, gossiping about visitors and repairs and improvements being made to the leaking, damp house she and Middleton Murry had so precipitously abandoned. L generously hides his disappointment at this perceived desertion.] The corn is very high, the hay is out…the Tremeada [nearby farm] corn full of the most beautiful corn-marigolds…The foxgloves are really wonderful…full like honeycombs, with purple wells.
[Then his tone shifts:] Really, one should find a place one can live in, and stay there. Geographical change doesn’t help one much. And people go from bad to worse. I think I shall be staring out from Higher Tregerthen when I am a nice old man of seventy.
[He doesn’t try to disguise the rebuke.]

DH Lawrence in Cornwall, pt 2: I feel fundamentally happy and free

So, Lawrence has established himself in his ‘Promised Land’ of Cornwall. He’s aware it’s not Florida, where he’d hoped to establish his Utopian ‘colony’ of artist-philosophers, Rananim, with disciple-friends like John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield (‘truly blood kin’, he calls them in a letter to them of 11 March 1916), but it might be just as good. His longing for a peaceful life is almost palpable. [The name Rananim is taken from his Ukrainian-Russian friend the literary patron and translator Samuel Koteliansky’s Hebrew songs.]

He’s found the cheap rented cottage he was looking for: in Higher Tregerthen, a cluster of houses near Zennor, on the coast between St Ives and Penzance. Temporarily he and Frieda stay in the village inn, The Tinner’s Arms – its name reflects the mining heritage that was the subject of my recent posts on the Man Engine in Cornwall.

His flow of almost daily letters continues. Here’s a further selection; I’ve picked out his revealing descriptions to the local scene, which tell as much about his own state of mind, his hopes and feelings, as they do in evoking the sense of place…

Fields near Zennor:

Fields near Zennor

 [5 March 1916, from Tinner’s Arms, Zennor, to Middleton Murry and K. Mansfield] We have been here nearly a week now. It is a most beautiful place: a tiny granite village nestling under high, shaggy moor-hills, and a big sweep of lovely sea beyond, such a lovely sea, lovelier even than the Mediterranean… To Penzance one goes over the moors, high, then down into Mount’s Bay, looking at St Michael’s Mount, like a dark little jewel. It is all gorse now, flickering with flower: and then it will be heather; and then, hundreds of foxgloves. It is the best place I have been in, I think.
…The place is rather splendid. It is just under the moors, on the edge of the few rough stony fields that go to the sea. It is quite alone, as a little colony.

[He goes on to plead with this letter’s recipients to rent the adjoining house to his, ‘the long house with the tower’, establishing two more friends with them, Heseltine and someone else, it will be like ‘a little monastery’. He even tells them who will occupy which rooms. ‘It would be so splendid if it could but come off: such a lovely place: our Rananim.’ There they could ‘strike some sort of root’ because ‘we must buckle to work.’ There must be no more ‘follies and removals and uneasinesses.’ I find his words here redolent of ‘uneasiness’. He concludes:]
…This country is pale grey granite, and gorse: there is something uralt and clean about it.
[His cottage, he proudly confides, ‘is only £5 a year.’ The larger house next door has a rent of £16 p.a. – chickenfeed, even then. Subsequent letters reveal why they were so cheap.]

[11 March? 1916, Tinner’s Arms, to JMM and KM] I told you all about the house: the great grey granite boulders, you will love them, the rough primeval hill behind us, the sea beyond the few hills, that have great boulders half submerged in the grass, and stone grey walls. There are many lambs under your house. They are quite tame. They stand and cock their heads at one, then skip into the air like little explosions…I’m sure we shall live on at Tregerthen a long while, years, a tiny settlement to ourselves. And the war will end before next summer…
[Yeah, right. More wishful thinking all round here. Even the lambs he later revises his opinion about, as we shall see.]

[Letters at this time relate how he’s been making furniture, cupboards, shelves, etc. He loved throwing himself into physical, manual labour; later he helped his farmer neighbours with harvesting and other farm work. This is all about the ‘freedom’ he seeks, not scenery per se. The first letter L. writes from the two-room cottage at Higher Tregerthen is dated 7 April, to Ottoline Morrell, when he says the JMMs have moved in, too, and they were busy decorating and putting things in order. ‘The Murrys like it also’, he claims – prematurely as it turned out.]

Lower Tregerthen farm, their neighbours

Lower Tregerthen farm, their neighbours

[16 April 1916, Higher Tregerthen, to Catherine Carswell] Here, doing one’s own things, in this queer outlandish Celtic country, I feel fundamentally happy and free, beyond.

[Letters now refer to the ominous wartime threats to this Cornish idyll; JMM is arrested by the police for evading conscription; he’s released when he shows rejection certificate. But General Conscription seems increasingly likely; L ruefully suggests he’d be used as a clerk, and often vents his spleen on jingoists and ‘patriotism’]

[18 April 1916, Higher Tregerthen, to O. Morrell] But one is impotent, and there is nothing left but to curse. Only, how one hates one’s King and Country: what a sickening false monster it is! How one feels nauseated with the bloody life, one stodge of lies, and falsehood. I don’t care a straw what the Germans do. Everything that is done nationally, in any sense, is now vile and stinking, whether it is England or Germany. One wants only to be left alone, only that…I hate the whole concern of the nation. Bloody false fools, I don’t care what they do, so long as I can avoid them, the mass of my countrymen: or any other countrymen.
I feel the war must end this year. But in one form or another war will never end now…It is very beautiful, all the gorse coming out on the hillsides. But one feels behind it all the dirty great paw of authority grasping nearer and nearer of jeopardy…the unspoken question all the time is how long do we hold out.