Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Return of the Soldier

Photo: Sally Bavage
Sally Bavage writes:
The return of Dr Richard Brown, Reader in Modern Literature at the University of Leeds, to LitFest 2014, ably supported by his PhD student Daniel (both pictured), helped us examine Rebecca West’s debut novel – published in 1918 and the only one written in WW1 by a woman – in the context of the movement towards literary modernism. Human complexities and personal circumstances were explored individually rather than in the more Edwardian approach to a narrative of mass sacrifice.  As we know, the war produced a great upheaval in class and gender roles; this novel mirrors some of those societal changes through focusing on the impacts for the key characters.

Why choose that novel, when perhaps a more predictable choice for a seminal WW1 work might have been Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, or even something more in the Blackadder mould?  Exactly because it looks at the Home Front, or at least a part of it that strove to remain Forever England.  Without giving too much away – for you really should read this fairly brief, tightly-written and well-plotted novel – the central character returns from the trenches suffering from amnesia.  There is a wife, a lover and a cousin who move us through the dilemma – return the wrecked man to his military career and thus return him to the war?  Or leave him to remain in the aspic of his youthful happily-deluded self?

This echoes the research work and the book Stories from the War Hospital produced by the LitFest - to be launched on Friday 21 March in the New Headingley Club. The 2nd Northern Military Hospital based at Beckett Park in Headingley gave treatments for ‘shell shock’, which was both shocking to military doctors and not caused by shells.  At least not physically; it was recognised in 1915 in The Lancet as an emotional or psychological response to extreme stress; there were 80,000 cases by 1918.  But even shell shock had a class bias – it was suggested officers suffered ‘anxiety neuroses’ because of their higher education and sensitivity whilst the lower ranks exhibited ‘mental illness’ causing tremors and speech difficulties. 

Rebecca West picks up on these class-based approaches in a plot detailing the fractured family lives of a wife and a lover each nursing an empty cot, the one responding to the amnesiac by trying to keep life and him just as it always was whilst the other adapts to the changes in the times and her man. West tries to express the processes of change that WW1 set off in British society through the device of the soldier who leaves one idyllic world, goes to as hellish alternative and comes back to find his world view fits neither. Though there is a plot twist to complicate this simple view.

Some  anecdotes about which literary and society figures West may have used for her character models, and why, completed an enjoyable look at how class hierarchies and gender roles were affected by WW1, then it was out into the night clutching the last of Headingley Library’s borrowed copies of the novel thoughtfully prepared by our librarian Rimpu Bains, for which many thanks.

As a member of the audience said “Shall Return to the Novel Immediately.  Excellent.”

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