The soldier returns from the front to the three women who love him. His wife, Kitty, with her cold, moonlight beauty and his devoted cousin Jenny wait in their exquisite home on the crest of the Harrow-weald. Margaret Allington, his first and long-forgotten love, is nearby in the dreary suburb of Wealdstone.
But the soldier is shell-shocked and can only remember the Margaret he loved fifteen years before, when he was a young man and she an inn-keeper’s daughter. His cousin he remembers only as a childhood playmate; his wife he remembers not at all.
The women have a choice – to leave him where he wishes to be, or to ‘cure’ him. It is Margaret who reveals a love so great that she can make the final sacrifice.
In the main, we were all very responsive to this book. For all but one, this was the first time that we had encountered this author and we were tremendously impressed with her use of language. Despite the somewhat heavy subject matter, this was a quick and easy read. We all of us felt that we were likely to pick it up again in the future.
Of the writing, the flow couldn’t have been better sustained. It was sharp and the observations – individual or social – crisp. However, I wouldn’t like to give the impression of utilitarianism – this little book contains beautiful descriptive passages that paint a picture, not only of the world around our protagonists; but also the time in which they lived.
It felt as though the characters – particularly Kitty – emerged from the pages fully formed. She was so protected, self absorbed and single minded. Her character should have horrified us – particularly when she desired that her husband return to the front lines – but she was too well drawn for that. Kitty was a bastion of the past who lived in a bubble, desperate clinging to tradition to try and stop the changes even she must have recognised as inevitable. Instead, we could only pity her…while being very relieved that Jenny and Margaret had a far better instinctive grasp of shell shock.
Jenny on the other hand was a mixed bag. Her aloof and removed observations were a transparent shield – in every line her emotional connection with the family was affirmed – as well as her apparent love for Chris. We see the war and the world through her eyes. Yet, she was a bystander; an observer of events rather than an active participant and I for one found her to be an unreliable narrator. However, she is also the only one actually paying attention to the consequences of Chris’ condition and later his feelings for Margaret.
Margaret and Chris are less defined. The story requires that the bulk of their time together is dominated by the past. Chris is trapped in it and Margaret wistful for the could-have-beens. Together, they represent all that is physical and emotional in Rebecca West’s created world. It is Margaret who realises that Chris is as impacted by one ‘little’ death – his child – as of the mass deaths he would have been exposed to at the front. It is Margaret who forces Chris and Jenny to acknowledge that death in order to work the ‘cure’. She is the cause and the catalyst – the most active participant in every encounter.
The final character of note is the psychiatrist. I found this section the most interested and frustrating. I have some *issues* with Freud and his idea of psychoanalysis, which was clearly very popular at the time. Suddenly, there was an impartial judgement and I personally felt that he was a little hard on Kitty. I also found it interesting that the ‘ordinary’ Margaret was the one best positioned to understand his implications – she had more real world experience than either of the other ‘ladies’.
It was only at this point that I learned that there might have been a bit of bitchy vibe at the core of the books DNA. Apparently, Rebecca West had been involved with the married HG Wells. Within the book, Jenny represents Rebecca West and Kitty Mrs Wells. Suddenly the doctor’s judgements seemed even more harsh!
A very successful book for our little group – as is reflected in the score. We also noted that it was a true delight to read a Great War based book with the war as a backdrop and the subject the women of the time.
View the trailer for the 1982 film here!