Red Hands and Cheap stays: class in the return of the soldier

By Rachel Malik

Rebecca West’s first novel The Return of the Soldier was first published in 1918 and has just been republished for the Virago 40 series. At the beginning of the novel, the soldier of the title is injured and sent back from France.  But Chris Baldry, though an important character, is secondary to the women who must care for him. The novel itself is primarily about the role and labour of women in wartime. Not the nurses, ambulance drivers or munitions workers but all the nurturing, disciplining and symbolic work done by sisters, wives, mothers and lovers, who try to maintain the home fire and the soldiers who defend it.

West’s first novel is a variation on a story familiar from romance and melodrama: two women who have claims on one man. What does each woman promise? What values does each represent? And who will the man eventually choose? Wife Kitty and old sweetheart Margaret are the undeclared rivals for Chris. But this is the scaffold for a far more complex and demanding drama about class and gender pressed to extremes in wartime.

For a start, the narrator Jenny is Chris’s cousin, half in love with Chris herself and alternately jealous of the other two women. Chris is also a man of substance, the owner of Baldry Court with its stables, kennels and views of wet ‘emerald pastureland’ – a home made beautiful by Kitty and Jenny. The novel begins when Jenny and Kitty discover that Chris has been injured. They don’t receive this news through the usual channel though – the dreaded letter or telegram. A woman called Margaret Grey arrives with the message – a stranger to Jenny and Kitty – and this is the first sign that something is wrong.

Chris’s injury isn’t immediately clear: he’s been ‘hurt’, ‘wounded, but not dangerously’; Kitty is soon speculating that Chris may be ‘all broken and queer.’  For Chris has amnesia (a ‘shellburst’, ‘shellshock’ – there isn’t a settled word) and he has lost – or rejected – fifteen years of his life. He is unable to remember his wife, his marriage, his business, or the birth and death of his young son. He is locked in a time before the onset of responsibilities, when he was in love with Margaret, then unmarried. After a disastrous first evening at Baldry Court, Chris declares: ‘If I don’t see Margaret Allington I shall die.’  Kitty reluctantly accedes to his request.

The competition between Kitty and Margaret is unequal – in so many ways. To Kitty and Jenny, Margaret’s class represents a crisis and a terrible disruption to the life of Baldry Court. Jenny’s first description of Margaret fixates on her cheap clothes – the re-dyed feather on her hat, her ‘red, seamed hands’ – with a particularly feminine antagonism. She is described as something dirty, ‘repulsively soiled with poverty and neglect’, likened to a forgotten glove in a hotel room.

Worse is what Margaret says to Kitty by way of an introduction: ‘”My general is sister to your second housemaid”’. Margaret has a maid, Kitty has numerous – Margaret is not working-class but lower middle class. Like the clerk Leonard Bast in Howards End (1910), it is Margaret’s social proximity that renders her repellent and dangerous, not her distance. Initially Kitty refuses to believe that Margaret could even know Chris, accusing her of extortion. Jenny is kinder and unwillingly senses Margaret is telling the truth. Nevertheless, Jenny quickly rewrites honesty from the standpoint of pity, likening Margaret to a ‘clumsy animal’, ‘a draught ox or the big trusted dog.’ The differences between Jenny and Kitty’s understanding of Margaret are central and as the novel progresses the question of who Margaret really is comes to the fore.

When Kitty and Jenny allow Margaret into their lives for the sake of Chris, her social danger multiplies. Jenny must visit Margaret’s house Mariposa in ‘a town of people who could not do as they like’, too close to the railway line and with a sofa upholstered in a ‘sickish green’ velveteen. Margaret greets her with ‘disordered hair’ and ‘floury hands’. The novel is obsessed with hands and Margaret’s red, seamed ones in particular. In contrast, Baldry Court, redesigned by Kitty at enormous expense, is full of shining, shallow luxury and nearly invisible labour.

But whilst one part of Jenny’s narration focuses on the all too palpable social world, a second strand, consciously, sometimes awkwardly, symbolic, introduces another world or dimension. Associated first with Jenny’s anxious dreams about Chris in No Man’s Land and her childhood memories, Jenny’s Chris was the imaginative boy who believed that ‘the birch tree would really stir and shrink and quicken into an enchanted princess.’ Much later, Jenny has a vision of the Front as a literal hell in which Chris must choose between two crystal balls he is offered by a malevolent shopkeeper: one contains Jenny and Kitty, the other Margaret. This hell dreamt by Jenny has an alternative though, which is different from both Baldry Court and Mariposa. This place is Monkey Island, where Chris and Margaret fell in love.

Two long passages from Chris and Margaret’s points of view, look back to this past together (before they meet in the present). Monkey Island is a ‘real’ place, near Bray and the rural, water-bound inn, its garden fringed by chestnuts and walnuts, is where Margaret and her father live and work. Prosaically, Margaret is the innkeeper’s daughter but in Chris’s account she is the spirit of a secret pastoral.  While Margaret’s father chases after his beloved ducks and rabbits and Margaret prepares tea, a Romantic evening settles, transforming everything and everyone. Later in the moonlight, Margaret becomes a goddess when she is lifted by Chris into one of the niches of a Greek-style temple. ‘By its light he could not tell if her hair was white or silver or yellow or gold … His love was changeless.’ And nothing changes when he sees her again. In Chris’s eyes, Margaret isn’t a publican’s daughter or a married woman with cheap, clicking stays and red hands, she is the woman he loves and the ageless and classless essence of the nurturing feminine. Later on, Margaret seems to acquire the powers of a medium when she seems able to conjure the very character of Chris’s dead son by touching the little boy’s things. The novel’s story is as much about Jenny’s learning to see Margaret in these same hallowed terms as it is about the struggle over Chris.

In a letter to The Observer from June 1928, responding to a negative review of a stage adaptation of the novel, West wrote that the idea for the story came:

from two sources … It happened that in 1914 I heard of one of the first cases of amnesia the war produced; this reminded me of a paper I had read in a medical journal before the war in which a factory doctor had recorded without comment the case of an elderly factory hand who fell down a staircase on his head and came to himself under the delusion that he was a boy of twenty; and later gave great pain to his wife by repudiating and demanding a sweetheart from whom he had been separated for many years.

Later she found the character model for Margaret and ‘the whole story slipped into wartime.’ West translated the story she read about the old factory hand who fell down the stairs into an upper middle class setting (probably not surprising) but the war – rather than a fall down the stairs – and Chris’s relative youth steer West’s narrative carefully away from any comic possibility. The phrase ‘slipped into wartime’ suggests both inevitability and chance, and this seems congruent with the peculiar status the war has in the novel. On the one hand there is a familiar juxtaposition between England and the Front.

England is represented as the land itself and a feminine that must be protected at all costs. John Buchan’s South African hero James Hannay, finally ‘gets’ England in Mr Standfast (1919) when he spends a charmed afternoon in the Cotswolds having met the woman – working as a nurse – whom he will later marry. Baldry Hall with its horses and dogs seems to be an emblem of the England that makes the war worth fighting. It certainly is for Kitty and Jenny at the start of the novel. But not it seems for Chris. By refusing to remember, by aligning with the Margaret of Monkey Island, he is also refusing to fight. The wartime horizon also means that this isn’t just Chris’s story but the story of any man who returns from the horrors of the front and finds home means nothing to him. The surplus of women in the novel, the failure of a new generation (Kitty and Margaret have both had children who die very young), the uncanny alienation and disorientation experienced by Chris but also Kitty and Jenny when the soldier returns – these too are the effects of war. There are moments too when the war blasts through the apparent solidity of home, of England (compare Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Repression of War Experience’ or Septimus Warren Smith’s visions of dead soldiers in Regents Park in Mrs Dalloway). Jenny sees Chris in No Man’s Land in her dream, but it is Margaret who finally brings the war home to roost when she goes out to meet Chris for the first time at Baldry Court:

How her near presence had been known by Chris I do not understand, but there he was, running across the lawn as night after night I had seen him in my dreams in No Man’s Land. I knew that so he would close his eyes as he ran; I knew that so he would pitch on his knees, when he reached safety. I assumed that at Margaret’s feet lay safety, even before I saw her arms brace him under the armpits with a gesture that was not passionate, but rather the movement of one carrying a wounded man from under fire.”

Here Margaret becomes the comrade who rescues Chris’s battle-worn body. Her goodness and nurturing strength are what enable Jenny to understand that the world represented by Baldry Court is not worth fighting for. Positioning Margaret in an alternative realm allows the ‘horror’ that Jenny (and Kitty) feel at her class to be side-lined. By turning Margaret into an exceptional figure and giving Chris a kind of preternatural vision, she transcends the ugly stain of class. Goodness and love are not where you always expect to find them, the novel seems to say, but the ugly place from which Margaret comes remains ugly and dangerous.  Part of what makes the novel so compelling is that it can’t quite shut the box of frogs it opens with Margaret’s calling card.

At the end, Margaret is once again the agent of change; she who, with regret, agrees to return Chris to the present, sharing with the psychiatrist brought in to treat Chris, the understanding that normality and happiness rarely align. Neither Chris nor Kitty, can choose their futures. Only Margaret the outsider (old sweetheart, other woman, lower middle class) can make the choice that remakes normality, but this is only possible through a profound act of renunciation. She gives up her own happiness and also any hope that Chris will have a good life. She has knowingly returned the soldier. The novel is also Jenny’s grim Bildungsroman, the story of her education, grim because she must then continue to live amongst what she knows to be ruins. She must conspire in the terrible twist that the ending adds to the novel’s title: remaking Chris as the soldier. This moment too is multiplied by the wartime context and the novel leaves us asking how many other women contributed to making soldiers fit for sacrifice in this way?

You can read more about the role of women in World War One propaganda at the British Library Website

For a very different account of the war, try Mary Borden’s Forbidden Zone, first published in 1929, which offers an extraordinary, nightmarish, and in places, surreal account of the front line and is based on her experience as a nurse.

Read more from Rachel Malik here:

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