This was West's first work of fiction and second published book (her compact critical study of Henry James had come out in 1916). It's a novella rather than a novel, with a flavour somewhere between Conrad and James; and I remain uncertain whether it really works, on its own terms, and equally unsure whether it is or isn't a Roman à clef of the triad of West, Wells and Wells's wife Jane. See what you think.
The story is this: Jenny, the narrator, nurses an unspoken love for her cousin, handsome, wealthy, honourable Chris Baldry, the soldier of the title. Chris is married to the beautiful Kitty, and Jenny helps her keep house for her husband in a luxurious Harrow domicile. From the opening chapter we learn about the slightly odd relationship these two women have, both focused on their devotion to Chris, supporting one another in an intriguingly asymmetric way. We also learn that Chris is away fighting at the Western Front, and we learn one more important datum: that Kitty and Chris's infant son died, aged two, five years earlier. The lad's nursery has been left just as it was. The two women are trapped by their passivity: there is nothing to do but maintain the house, brush one another's hair and wait for Chris to return from the war.
Into this slightly airless, affluent world comes the lower-middle-class Margaret Grey, née Allington. Fifteen years earlier she and Chris had had a summer romance, although they have since lost touch with one another. Margaret is now married, and has become ‘a drab middle-aged woman’: her hands are ‘seamed’ and ‘red’, her face is ‘plain’, ‘there was something about her of the wholesome, endearing heaviness of the ox or the trusted big dog. Yet she was bad enough. She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff’. Ouch!
Margaret comes to visit Jenny and Kitty because Chris has written her a letter from France. Concussed by a shell explosion he has lost all memory of his preceding fifteen years and thinks himself a young man still engaged in his affair with Margaret. At first Kitty believes this a clumsy attempt by Margaret to extort money, but it turns out to be true: official notification comes of Chris's invalid status, and soon enough he is brought home to England.
He accepts what people tell him, that he has lost his memory, and that Kitty is now his wife. But nonetheless he does not recognise her. On his first night back, whilst Jenny plays the piano, and London searchlights outside scan for zeppelins, he asks to see Margaret.
‘Kitty.’Chris relates his memories of his summer of love with younger Margaret, on ‘Monkey Island’ on the Thames at Bray, and we learn how things came to an end when he became jealous she was having an affair with a character interestingly called ‘Bert Wells, nephew to Mr. Wells who keeps the inn at Surly Hall’. This is an over-obvious in-joke, of course—West had surely had enough experience of her lover Wells's surly side by 1918—and it was altered in later editions of the novel: the name was changed to Bert Batchard. Conceivably, after the end of the relationship, West had decided that, after all, Wells was close enough to a bastard as made little odds.
‘Yes, Chris.’ She was sweet and obedient and alert.
‘I know my conduct must seem to you perversely insulting,’—behind him the search-light wheeled while he gripped the sides of the window,—‘but if I do not see Margaret Allington I shall die.’
She raised her hands to her jewels, and pressed the cool globes of her pearls into her flesh. ‘She lives near here,’ she said easily. ‘I will send the car down for her to-morrow. You shall see as much of her as you like.’
His arms fell to his sides. ‘Thank you,’ he muttered; ‘you're all being so kind—’ He disengaged himself into the darkness. ‘That dowd!’ she said, keeping her voice low, so that he might not hear it as he passed to and fro before the window. ‘That dowd!’
This sudden abandonment of beauty and amiability meant so much in our Kitty, whose law of life is grace, that I went over and kissed her. ‘Dear, you're taking things all the wrong way,’ I said. ‘Chris is ill—’ [Return of the Soldier, 64-5]
Back to the novel: the now middle-aged Margaret, complaisant, is brought to the estate, and the two women watch as Chris moons about with her. Jenny's initial hostility switches round to a kind of admiration at the other woman's placid inner-goodness; though she is also driven to dejection and tears by ‘the blankness of those eyes which saw me only as a disregarded playmate and Kitty not at all save as a stranger who had somehow become a decorative presence in his home and the orderer of his meals’ . The house she and Kitty have so carefully curated comes to seem like a rebuke to them both. The final act involves the decision to ‘cure’ Chris by recruiting a psychiatrist, Dr Gilbert Anderson, to the case. Another quasi-Wells, this: ‘a little man with winking blue eyes, a flushed and crumpled forehead, a little gray moustache that gave him the profile of an amiable cat’ who is nonetheless ‘at once more comical and more suggestive of power than any other doctor I had ever seen’ .
Dr Anderson insists that Chris must be shocked out of his amnesia by confronting him with the traumatic proof of his infant son Oliver's death. Jenny shows Margaret Oliver's carefully maintained nursery, and we learn that Margaret's own child died around the same time, and at the same age. Margaret then takes Chris outside and, as Jenny and Kitty watch through a window, compels him to accept the truth of his son's being dead. Jenny recognises that Chris is cured when his posture shifts: he comes back up towards the house ‘not loose-limbed like a boy, as he had done that very afternoon, but with the soldier's hard tread upon the heel ... “He's cured!” [Kitty] whispered slowly. “He's cured!”’  Jenny is glad, but also a little heartbroken, by this, since she knows that it means ‘he would go back to that flooded trench in Flanders, under that sky more full of flying death than clouds, to that No-Man's-Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead.’ Fin, as they say in the French art-houses movies.
The double-meaning of the title comes into focus: the soldier returns from the front, and Chris returns from his amnesiac fugue. The first is a return from war to peace; the second a return from (fantasmic) childhood to (real) adulthood. Which is to say, the two meanings of the title are pulling in different directions, innocence-experience-wise.
It's a strange novel, and though some contemporaries praised it very highly I'm not sure it really works. One rather elephant-in-the-room problem is the whole 1980s-daytime-soap-opera naffness of its central premise: a character loses his wits but in the super-specific way that he forgets just the last fifteen years of his life. This is not really how amnesia works, and certainly not how PTSD works. It might be possible to accept this as a literary conceit, the coup de l'auteur needful to set-up the dynamic of the rest, if The Return of the Soldier didn't work so hard to give the impression of psychological verisimilitude. There's a detailed elaboration of the mental and moral inwardnesses of the three main women (not, I think, of the main man, or the minor characters), but this butts awkwardly against the melodrama of the main story. West often strains for intensity of effect in a way that tramples on the more nuanced and subtle possibilities of the whole.
Other aspects of this novel mark it, rather, as apprentice work. It is, for instance, rather garishly overwritten throughout: prose drips and clots with a strenuous striving after vividness that, I'm sorry to say, often backfires: ‘the jewel-bright buds on the soot-black boughs, the blue valley distances, smudged here and there with the pink enamel of villa-roofs, and seen between the black-and-white intricacies of the birch-trunks and the luminous grey pillars of the beeches’; ‘the rose and amber glories of the sunset smoldering behind the elms’; ‘the spring lights tongues of green fire in the undergrowth, and the valley shows sunlit between the tree-trunks, here the pond is fringed with yellow bracken and tinted bramble, and the water flows amber over last winter's leaves’. There is such a thing as trying to hard in descriptive prose.
The novel presents a schema of three women arrayed around the central man (or empty-space-where-a-man-might-be), each figuring in differently paradoxical ways. So, Kitty is the wife, and therefore the man's sexual partner—and actually the mother of their (dead) child—although she presents herself virginally.
She moved past me, remote in preoccupation, and I was silent when I saw that she was dressed in all respects like a bride. The gown she wore on her wedding-day ten years ago had been cut and embroidered as this white satin was; her hair had been coiled low on her neck, as it was now. Around her throat were her pearls, and her longer chain of diamonds dropped, looking cruelly bright, to her white, small breasts; because she held some needlework to her bosom, I saw that her right hand was stiff with rings and her left hand bare save for her wedding-ring ... She frowned to see that the high lights on the satin shone scarlet from the fire, that her flesh glowed like a rose, and she changed her seat for a high-backed chair beneath the farthest candle-sconce. There were green curtains close by, and now the lights on her satin gown were green like cleft ice. She looked as cold as moonlight, as virginity, but precious; the falling candle-light struck her hair to bright, pure gold. In this case, I think the rather over-worked Whistleresque composition does more-or-less work, actually: the, once again, over-emphatic colours are carefully placed in that description. Because this is Kitty deliberately presenting herself this way. By presenting herself as Chris's bride-to-be rather than his wife she hopes to restart his memory along the lines of their actual wedded life.
Then there is Jenny, who is the narrator, and therefore who ‘tells’ us everything, although she does not tell Chris, or us, what is obvious: that she is in love with him. And finally there is Margaret who, though old, plain and poor, is styled by the text as the most heterosexually-desirable woman in the trio. Chris's desire for Margaret, and his obliviousness to the other two, is the unbalance that the novel restores to balance via the intervention of the doctor. Yet another thing The Return of the Soldier unsettles in my head is whether, or to what extent, we might want to read Kitty and Jenny as a queer couple.
I think the bottom line is: I'm not sure I'm convinced of the truth of all this, artistically or psychologically: but perhaps all I mean is that I'm not sure it is saying anything very cogent about war. But maybe it's a mistake to read it that way. Take it, rather, and against its own grain, as a symbolist drama of love as truth and truth as a radical unforgetting. There's something quite intriguing about the possibilities of that (and, as it happens, I elaborate some of those possibilities at some length, here).
Gordon N Ray's H G Wells and Rebecca West (Yale University Press 1974), a biographical study written with the assistance of West herself, proposes a straightforward biographical reading of The Return of the Soldier. According to Ray, Kitty is West's version of Jane Wells, ‘that false goddess, the Virgin Mother, the nonsexual woman to whom she as the sexual woman was being sacrificed. She felt that Wells, all unknowingly, was being split and destroyed by his divided allegiance to two women and two families’—that is to Jane Wells and her two sons on the one hand, and to Rebecca West and her one on the other. [Ray, 86] West made no secret of the fact that she wanted Wells to divorce his wife and marry her.
In this reading, the story loses contact with the war altogether, and the decision taken by its two main female characters ‘that Chris must be cured’—because (in Ray's words) ‘a mature man cannot live perpetually in a fantasy world without becoming a pathetic oddball’ [Ray, 91]—becomes about Wells's infantile personality, or adolescent attachment to sex as such, or perhaps says something about his writing. Ray scrupulously adds a footnote in which Rebecca West herself pooh-poohs his theorising:
I should note that Dame Rebecca explicitly disavows [this] interpretation of her novel. She wrote to me on 14 July 1971: ... ‘Kitty is not at all my idea of Jane, who was remarkably pretty even in to her middle years, but she was much more of the Establishment. Jane had no look of accustomed luxury, though she had another kind of charm, and she had also a look of determination which was amusing on some one who was so faint in colour and so immobile. The original of Kitty was a woman I met only once, when someone took me to a house said to be the original of the house Galsworthy describes as being built by Bosinney for Soames in the Forsyte Saga.’ [Ray, 201-02]Ray doesn't say so, but presumably this means Kitty was based on Galsworthy's Irene Soames, who in turn was based on Ada Nemesis Pearson Cooper (1864–1956).