Perhaps the most haunted—and haunting—histories of warfare are those associated with the First World War (1914–18), which has just marked its centenary. A truly dark and tragic episode, World War I continues to be remembered as having been, especially for those who served on the Western Front, “a lamentable experience, with its constant accompaniment of rain, mud, lice, rats, and dismembered bodies, and its perils from shells and snipers” (Prior and Wilson 203). Its dead, moreover, have often refused to remain dead, for its combatants have reappeared often as ghastly apparitions—most famously, in Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway. There, a veteran suffering from what surely would now be diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but what the other characters call madness, sees the ghostly form of his late comrade moving toward him in broad daylight and cries out in horror, “‘For God’s sake, don’t come!’” (Woolf 70). More recently, cinema audiences have shared this uncanny sense of watching the dead rematerialize from the trenches before their eyes—indeed, even seem to regain the original warm tones of their flesh—and march toward them onscreen, thanks to the director Peter Jackson’s meticulous colorizing of black-and-white WWI-era film footage for his 2018 documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old. Seeing these revenants—who are doomed, as the viewer knows, to vanish irrevocably into the past once again, the moment the camera’s lens turns away from them—can be both poignant and distressing.
The centenary of WWI resulted, somewhat predictably, in publishers issuing a variety of new works in a wide array of genres, aimed at many different audiences, during the years 2014 through 2018. These included everything from Harvard University Press’s release of Elizabeth Cobbs’s scholarly study titled The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers (2017) to a Chicago Review Press production, World War I for Kids: A History with 21 Activities (2014). Fiction such as Theresa Breslin’s Ghost Soldier (2014), meant for the young adult market, made explicit the eerie feeling, shared by many at the end of the War, of being in the company of specters—of living amidst both the memories and visions of loved ones who might or might not be dead.
Alongside these new volumes, however, some texts from the previous century have also come back like ghosts, clamoring for our attention today. Among the most important of these is the 1918 novel The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West (1892–1983), which has been in print for several decades (in editions from Penguin, Dial, Barnes and Noble, Broadview Press, etc.), but was newly reissued to much fanfare in 2018 by Virago, the British feminist publisher. In a 5 June 2018 article for the UK newspaper, the Guardian, occasioned by this reissue, Sam Jordison has praised West’s remarkable work. Composed in the middle of the War by a young author who had made a name for herself with socialist and pro-women’s-suffrage journalism, this novel depicted unsparingly the damage inflicted on the mind of a middle-aged, upper-class British man who has returned on medical leave from the battlefield with his memory destroyed, as well as the havoc that his mental wounds create on the home front among the women in his life. For Jordison, The Return of the Soldier is the equivalent of “gelignite,” for it goes about “blasting assumptions old and new,” whether about the British class system, sexist expectations “that women should exist merely to promote men’s happiness,” or the nobility of military service (Jordison). Indeed, though Jordison does not mention this fact, West had already been the contributor of a short story (“Indissoluble Matrimony”) to Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticist magazine, BLAST, in 1914, so she was a practiced hand at literary bomb-throwing.
While The Return of the Soldier has frequently been a mainstay in classrooms where the subject of British modernism is taught—for, as Bonnie Kime Scott notes, it “is a short novel and reliably in print” (Scott 254)—its power comes as much from the emotional impact of its subject matter as from any use of innovative narrative techniques. Its method of narration is, in fact, a relatively straightforward version of first-person storytelling—not at all a pioneering example of stream-of-consciousness of the kind that was being developed by Rebecca West’s contemporaries, such as Virginia Woolf and May Sinclair. What the novel offers readers instead is a truly unforgettable sense of taking place in a haunted space, even though it contains no obvious supernatural elements. Until the end, the ghosts that fill it are not literally those of the dead, but of the characters’ dead selves. Even as the eponymous soldier, Chris Baldry, believes that he is still in his early twenties and still involved in a love affair with a young working-class girl—and not in an unhappy marriage with the woman who has actually been his wife for many years—so the first-person narrator Jenny Baldry, his cousin, must confront the fact that she has wasted her life in devoting herself to someone who has never loved her.
Near the novel’s conclusion, however, the literal shades of the dead do make their presence felt. It is revealed that, five years earlier, Chris and his wife had lost a son at the age of two, the same age at which the son of his working-class lover and her husband had died. This is the domestic trauma that Chris’s shell shock has buried. As his former lover wanders the empty nursery that once housed Chris’s child, “Her arms invoked the life that had been squandered in this room. ‘It’s all gone so wrong!’ she fretted, and her voice dropped to a solemn whisper. ‘They each had only half a life. . . ‘” (West Return, 113). She hands Chris a toy that had belonged to his dead child, restoring his memory and thus his identity as a soldier on temporary leave from the killing fields across the Channel.
The final scene is dark and unnerving. To be declared fit once more for battle means that Chris will be sent back to the Western Front. This has been the site of Jenny’s recurring nightmares: “By night I saw Chris running across the brown rottenness of No Man’s Land, starting back here because he trod upon a hand, not even looking there because of the awfulness of an unburied head . . . till my dream was packed full of horror” (West Return, 48–49). As the novel concludes, Jenny’s last view of Chris, now “cured,” is of him striding once again “not loose limbed like a boy, as he had done that very afternoon, but with the soldier’s hard tread upon the heel”; she knows that he now must “go back to that flooded trench in Flanders under that sky more full of flying death than clouds . . . where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead” (West Return, 117–18). Through her eyes, readers see him quite literally as a dead man walking—as already his own ghost. This soldier will never return, except in the form of a wraith haunting Jenny’s memory.
But that is far from the only return connected with this narrative. Since its publication in 1918, Rebecca West’s novel has had an ongoing afterlife and has become a template for a variety of later literary (and eventually cinematic) works. Planting itself in the imaginations of other writers, it is part of the stock on which they have drawn, consciously or unconsciously, whether for situations, plots, settings, themes, or character types. The Return of the Soldier established a literary framework through which to consider the significance of the First World War by means of the English home front—a framework that involves casting a critical eye on a great house, usually in the country, and observing a group of aristocrats, cross-class encounters, adultery, and a love affair in the realm of the spirit that transcends the physical.
We can see the early use of this new set of tropes by George Bernard Shaw, who admired West as an author, in his play Heartbreak House, which was published in 1919—a year after The Return of the Soldier. As Michael Holroyd notes, Shaw began work on his play in 1916 (Holroyd 382). This was the same moment that West was writing her novel and a time, too, when she and Shaw were meeting socially. It is possible that there was some exchange of creative ideas between them, though it is difficult to prove in which direction the influence moved. Nevertheless, West’s novel reached the public first, and it deserves credit for introducing a set of conventions that became standard for any writer seeking to represent both the disillusionment and the dissolution that accompanied the First World War and that signaled a turning-point in British social history. Echoes of West’s images, at once nostalgic and excoriating, of the lost beauty—and, simultaneously, of the vacuity, cruelty, and destructive class and gender hierarchies—of life in the pre-WWI English country house appear in modernist texts as diverse as Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (1924–28) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925).
West’s influence was still active some six decades later, as the ghostly force behind Isabel Colegate’s 1980 novel, The Shooting Party, which is set during a weekend party on an English estate in the year before war was declared. The echoes ringing in that latter work, however, which includes an Eastern European character along with transnational attractions and tensions, attest not only to Colegate’s awareness of The Return of the Soldier, but to her acquaintance with West’s more famous travel narrative, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), as well as with the final novel that West published during her lifetime, The Birds Fall Down (1966). By an interesting coincidence, moreover, when it came time to film Colegate’s novel in 1984, the producers chose as director Alan Bridges. Two years earlier, Bridges had also directed the 1982 cinematic adaptation of The Return of the Soldier. Thus, we can identify a chain of references and allusions, as Colegate draws upon Rebecca West to create her own vision of the hypocrisy and futility underlying (and undermining) pre-war life among the British upper classes—who were soon to supply the military with its officer classes—while Alan Bridges, in turn, films Colegate’s narrative through the lens, so to speak, both of West’s text and of his own recent cinematic version of that text.
This issue of doubling and layering is crucial, of course, to the emotional force and to the moral argument of West’s original 1918 narrative. It is, moreover, perhaps the novel’s chief legacy for later representations of World War I that also evoke the battlefield while using the home-front imagery of the country house. The Return of the Soldier is a palimpsest. The power of the novel’s conclusion rests upon a palimpsestic reading, both of the figure of the English male aristocrat, who is simultaneously the specter of a doomed soldier, and of the English country house lawn, which reflects the blasted emptiness of No Man’s Land.
Just as, through Jenny’s eyes, the audience repeatedly views Chris Baldry and his Baldry Court manor as ghostly figurations of the soldier and the battlefield, so Isabel Colegate constructs her 1980 novel, set in autumn 1913 during a murderously competitive “shoot” at an English country house, as a palimpsest, in which the audience will be reminded continually of the mass slaughter and waste of World War I, as well as of the destructiveness of upper-class masculine notions of so-called gallant sacrifice that enabled it. Colegate revives West’s trope of the male figure moving across the landscape that surrounds the great house and, like West, transforms it into a dual signifier. So, too, she turns to the consciousness of a female observer to make the allegorical nature of this “shoot” explicit and to reveal the guilt of aristocratic women—the class represented by Chris’s wife, in The Return of the Soldier— in supporting and perpetuating a way of life and an ideological system that eroticized the warrior and rendered war inevitable. In Colegate’s novel, Olivia Lilburn, who has married up in becoming the young wife of Lord Lilburn, but who has developed an adulterous yet largely spiritual passion for one of the country’s best shots, Lionel Stephen, watches the shooting party in motion:
The beaters moved off first, the others followed. It’s like an army, Olivia thought, we might have bivouacked and are moving off now to the front line. War might be like this, casual, friendly and frightening. Like before a cricket match . . . Olivia was excited. She was not sure why, though she knew it was something to do with the sunlight through the trees, and the groups of men moving through the trees and converging on to the wide green ride by the river . . . It was even, although she did not much like her, to do with Aline’s hat, which was a dark velvet thing with a sweeping feather on it and above her tense acutely beautiful face looked romantic, and with the keen expectation shining in Cicely’s eyes . . . and with those fine broad-shouldered sportsmen whom she followed, and with their air of assurance, their common assumptions, their absolute authority. Are we really so beautiful and brave, she thought, or do we just think we are? (Colegate 131)
The revelation behind her final question mirrors Jenny’s painful recognition, in The Return of the Soldier, of the life-denying, even immoral nature of the values, hierarchies, and practices associated with the English country manor, that “splendid house which was not so much a house as a vast piece of space partitioned off from the universe and decorated partly for beauty and partly to make our privacy more insolent” (West 101). It also underlines the complicity of women.
Alan Bridges’s cinematic versions of West’s and of Colegate’s novels (released, respectively, in 1982 and 1985) both employ the key visual image of masculine bodies in motion, traversing the landscape that belongs to the English country house, just as Rebecca West used it first: to create in the viewer an awareness of a dual reality. Again, in both films, the moving figure is at once that of an Englishman in an idyllic domestic setting and of a soldier fated to be killed on the battlefront of World War I. These are ghostly images of a procession towards oblivion. Bridges’s The Return of the Soldier, with its screenplay by Hugh Whitemore, opens with Jenny’s terrifying dream, in which a line of faceless, unindividuated troops navigate the trenches. The film ends with the camera mirroring Jenny’s perspective, looking out the window at the distant figure of Chris. As he crosses the lawn to re-enter the country house, his walk transforms into that of a soldier’s march toward battle before both her eyes and ours, while noises of exploding shells echo on the soundtrack.
For his adaptation of Colegate’s novel, with its screenplay by Julian Bond, Bridges invents an image with which to open and conclude the film in circular fashion. The image, one not present either at the start or the finish Colegate’s novel, is that of the shooting party as a procession that moves slowly, ploddingly, single file, in the half-light of dusk across the countryside. At the film’s opening, it is a melancholy, yet ambiguous spectacle. By the end, it has become a sight explicitly mournful and military, accompanied by titles that announce the fates of several male characters who will be killed in the war that is soon to be declared. As in West’s novel, the figures are there to be read twice over—as embodiments both of country house splendor and of battlefield squalor, as images of the living who are also the ghostly dead.
If Alan Bridges, in effect, adds to The Shooting Party an extra dimension of borrowing from Rebecca West, there is certainly much already in the 1980 novel to suggest Isabel Colegate’s debt to her predecessor. Most obviously, there is the adulterous, yet spiritualized, love affair culminating in a moment that demands, on the part of a maternal woman, a mature acceptance of reality, however shattering the consequences and however great the losses that result. In West’s novel, Chris’s Madonna-like working-class lover announces resignedly, “‘The truth’s the truth . . . and he must know it[,]’” as she sends him back, both to his actual identity as a middle-aged man and husband of another woman and ultimately to war (West, Return, 116). Similarly, in Colegate’s novel, Olivia, who is also a mother, must turn her back on what she calls “‘something that was impossible’” and renounce the man who loves her; as she says, “‘But we have to live in the real world, a world with other people in it, not a dream world, with only us’” (Colegate, 181–82).
Yet the effect of West’s work on Colegate goes beyond the influence of The Return of the Soldier alone. With her central metaphor of upper-class, pre-war England as a murderous shooting party, Colegate also looks back to the central metaphor of Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down. In that 1966 novel, set at the turn of the twentieth century, the protagonist’s aristocratic Russian grandfather describes at length the simultaneously erotic and brutal spectacle of the “‘two special shoots we had at Datchina, which were among the greatest pleasures any man could know,’” as they brought “‘down by hundreds’” the mating pairs of woodcocks, “‘shrieking, shrieking, shrieking in panic’” (West, Birds, 71–72). So, too, Colegate draws upon the image of blood sacrifice as revolting, rather than ennobling, that serves as a cornerstone of the “St. George’s Eve: II” section of “Macedonia” in West’s travelogue, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941). Of the “shameful” ritual of slaughter that she witnesses there, West writes disgustedly, “Thus those who had a letch for violence could gratify it and at the same time gain authority over those who loved peace and life” (West, Black Lamb 690–91).
Colegate echoes this well-known moral and political pronouncement by West as the fictional Olivia argues with her beloved, Lionel Stephen (who will later enlist and die in battle), over the shooting party. Olivia objects to and questions its existence, saying, “‘I can’t help feeling the added solemnity the whole thing gets from that sacrificial note, the note of death, of blood. Why do we have to have that, to complete our pleasure?’” (Colegate 21). He counters by asserting that “‘Nature includes the note of death and of blood. It is all around us,’” but Olivia is not appeased. “‘We don’t have to love it, and seek it out and long for war so we can have more of it’” (Colegate 21), she insists, with the logic of West’s Balkan observer, who denounces “All our Western thought . . . founded on this repulsive pretence that pain is the proper price of any good thing” (West, Black Lamb 691–92).
Is Rebecca West an important writer of fiction? Is The Return of the Soldier an important novel? It is impossible to answer such questions without also asking, “Important to whom?” We know that both she and her most widely circulated novel have proven valuable to generations of readers and scholars, but especially to creative artists—to novelists, filmmakers, and other shapers of popular culture who have dealt with the WWI era. Certainly, The Return of the Soldier is a kind of ghost that productively haunts many works, from the London Weekend Television series of the 1970s, Upstairs, Downstairs (though the English country estate setting has been transposed there to a grand house in London), through Julian Fellowes’s ITV series Downton Abbey (2010–15), both of which include a cross-class focus on the British home front during the First World War. The recent centenary of that war has seen widespread international commemorations, rather than celebrations, for there is no reason to celebrate the anniversary of a four-year-long event so grim, bloody, and destructive. Virago Press’s 2018 reissue of Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier is an appropriate acknowledgment of this horror: a novel that goes on rising sorrowfully from the trenches to confront present-day glory-seekers and war-mongers with its picture of waste and loss.
Breslin, Theresa. Ghost Soldier. London: Random House, 2014.
Cobbs, Elizabeth. The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2017.
Colegate, Isabel. The Shooting Party. 1980. rpt. NY: Avon, 1982.
Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw. Volume II: 1898–1918, The Pursuit of Power. NY: Random House, 1989.
Jordison, Sam. “The Return of the Soldier: An Incendiary, Formidable Debut.” Guardian (UK), 5 June 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2018/jun/05/the-return-of-the-soldier-an-incendiary-formidable-debut
Prior, Robin and Trevor Wilson. “First World War: Military (1914–1918).” Twentieth-Century Britain: An Encyclopedia. Revised Edition. Ed. Fred M. Leventhal. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. 203–06.
Rasmussen, R. Kent. World War I for Kids: A History with 21 Activities. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2014.
Scott, Bonnie Kime. “Afterword: Unresolvable Pedagogy? Teaching Rebecca West.” Rebecca West Today. Ed. Bernard Schweizer. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2006. 245–257.
West, Rebecca. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia. NY: Viking, 1941.
—–. The Birds Fall Down. NY: Viking, 1966.
—–. The Return of the Soldier. 1918. rpt. Ed. Bernard Schweizer and Charles Thorne. Peterborough, CA: Broadview, 2010.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. rpt. NY: Harcourt, 1981.
The author, Margaret D. Stetz, is the Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women’s Studies and Professor of Humanities at the University of Delware. She has published more than 120 essays on a wide variety of subjects, from animated film to Asian military sex slavery during WWII, and has also been curator or co-curator of numerous exhibitions related to Victorian literature, art, and print culture.