The Return of the Soldier
Harriet Hume: A London Fantasy
The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West, 1911-1917
The current interest in Rebecca West’s work, even if it is partly due to the pursuit of every and any feminist writer and partly homage to her age, is well deserved. But she is a critic’s nightmare. How can anyone have written so well and so badly? Have worked in so many different genres? Be so resistant to fitting any particular pigeonhole? If the four books under review were representative of her life’s work, she need not be taken too seriously; but in fact they are oddments from the very beginning and very end of her long writing career. One could say that they are interesting mainly because of their relation to the other books—except that it is so hard to relate the different parts of her work to each other.
She writes, she once said in a radio talk, to explore character: an unexceptionable explanation from a writer half of whose oeuvre has been fiction, except that it is only outside her novels that she really does so. When she has to invent, she generally flusters and fails; but once she has a theme, whether a journey or a political trial or a critical exposition, her gift for observing character and then fitting it into great sweeping generalizations and moral patterns comes into its own. She needs her characters to be somewhat at a distance: a fourth-century saint (Augustine), the peasants and monks and chambermaids and children of her Balkan journey, the human dregs in the dock at Nuremberg. Watching these like a hawk, interpreting them sub specie aeternitas, she is stunningly magisterial. “Who does she think she is?” we are inclined to ask as she explicates history, sorts out morality, defines our condition and destiny. Someone exceptionally well up to the job of doing so, is the answer.
But then there are tremendous failures. Here we have reissues of two early novels, from 1918 and 1929. In her early book reviews reprinted in The Young Rebecca she is hilariously cruel about what has displeased her, so let me borrow some of her cheek (if not her wit) and say that they are awful. It is their very awfulness that is endearing: we see that this powerful writer is not in fact the Archbishop of Canterbury and Regius Professor of History and Lord Chief Justice rolled into one, but an uneven writer who spans extremes of brilliance and disaster. The Return of the Soldier has just been made into a film, with Glenda Jackson as Margaret (shabby, with loyal gray eyes, and as full of natural goodness as a cup of Ovaltine) and Julie Christie as Kitty (dainty, rosebud-mouthed, very nasty—a recurring figure in West’s books). Caught between them is the shell-shocked booby Chris, a powerless hulk up for grabs by the women; for in the trenches he has lost the memory of his marriage to Kitty and thinks he is still Margaret’s lover. These two powerful females decide his fate: he …