The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

"Like a beautiful voice singing in a darkened room": Mysticism and Modernity in Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier

Katherine F. Montgomery
lately of the University of Iowa

Mystical language and spiritualist imagery permeate The Return of the Soldier (1918). Throughout her first novel, Rebecca West uses the language of crystal balls, magic circles, séances and spirits to describe the mental state of the amnesiac soldier Chris Baldry, as well as the luminous soul of Margaret Grey, the now-faded woman who had been Chris’s lover when he was a young man, and to whom he now returns, having entirely forgotten the intervening fifteen years. The novel is narrated by Chris’s young cousin Jenny, and at the most important moments of her growing understanding of Margaret’s inherent goodness, the language of mysticism and spiritualism is especially pervasive: Jenny understands Margaret’s personality clearly for the first time as “a beautiful voice singing in a darkened room” (41), and sees Chris’s understanding of the characters of Margaret and his wife Kitty as being visible in “two crystal balls” (59). Later, she describes Margaret sitting with Chris, “englobed in peace as in a crystal sphere” (62) while creating for him a “quiet magic circle” (63). This mystical language is more than an aesthetic choice: understanding this mystical worldview is central to understanding the novel’s conclusion, in which Margaret and Jenny decide to restore Chris’s memory, even while knowing that this decision will send him back to the front line, and very possibly to his death. Jenny says that she and Margaret had to restore Chris’s memory for the “divine essential of his soul … if we left him in his magic circle. . . . He would not be quite a man” (79-80). The only way to understand this logic is in terms of the mystical revival, the turn-of-the-century cultural movement that sought a holistic understanding of the universe through exploring the connection between the soul and the body, and the language of which West uses in other contemporary writings to explore the transcendent possibilities of art and literature. 

The Return of the Soldier’s spiritual and mystical language has been largely elided or dismissed by critics as something vaguely embarrassing, a hokey Victorian holdover. Most critics prefer readings that seem to emphasize the novel’s modernity, sometimes by arguing that the novel should be understood as a feminist text that reclaims the female home front experience of World War I.1 In its portrayal of amnesia and shell-shock, the novel is also widely considered to be one of the first novels with a primary interest in modern psychology, written as Freud was publishing his 1917 Introduction to Psychoanalysis.2 I suggest that a spiritualist reading of the novel is not incompatible with psychological or sociological accounts; spiritualism itself was a movement that did grant power to women and sought to explain the relationship between mind and body.3 However, the novel’s mysticism deserves further focused attention, both as part of a large cultural and literary movement in early twentieth-century Britain, and as central to the novel’s conclusion, in which Jenny’s newfound spiritual understanding of the world enables her to comprehend Margaret’s goodness, the reality of war’s horror, and the enormity of what Chris faces in returning to it.

Central to spiritualist practice during its nineteenth-century rise to prominence was the idea that spirits of the dead live on and can be contacted after death (hence the prototypical séance scene, featuring a spiritualist medium leading a group attempt to contact these spirits). Growing and expanding from the 1850s onward, spiritualism was a popular interest in Britain by the 1870s, replete with societies, spiritualist newspapers, and public lectures. Conversation revolved not only around whether the entire practice of communicating with ghosts was fraudulent, but also on specific questions of its practice and its compatibility with science.

The 1880s and 1890s saw a new interest in spiritual practices with the “mystical revival,” a wide range of practices that constituted an alternative to religious orthodoxy. These included a revival of interest in metaphysics, paganism, magic, Eastern religions, and more, as potential sources of knowledge for a greater understanding of the universe and humanity’s place in it. These decades also saw the rise of Occult societies, which looked to the study of ancient religions and magic as a potential source of knowledge for the secrets of existence. The most famous of these societies was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which combined a study of Kabbalah, the four Classical Elements, tarot divination, geomancy, scrying (crystal gazing), astral travel, and alchemy. Members included (or were said to have included) William Butler Yeats, Maud Gonne, E. Nesbit, Bram Stoker, and Algernon Blackwood. In The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern, Alex Owen writes that occultism and mysticism, although they had their distinctions, were united by:

a loosely Neoplatonic belief in an occluded spirit realm and a broadly conceived sense of an animistic universe in which all of creation is intertwined and part and expression of a universal soul or cosmic mind. These ideas, together with a belief in the essential unity of matter and spirit and, similarly, a correspondence between things earthly and spiritual, are central to much occult thought, and they were what gave the “mystical revival” its strongly occult flavor. (21)

As the above description suggests, both mysticism and occultism derived strongly from spiritualism, which took as the basis of its belief that there was an “occluded spirit realm” through which spirits could be contacted. Spiritualism itself did not become obsolete with the advent of mysticism and occultism, but rather continued to expand. By the end of the century, spiritualists treated their practice in contacting otherworldly spirits as a scientific, methodological exploration of the spiritual, the paranormal, and the human mind—an area of inquiry not entirely inconsistent with the developing field of psychology. Freud himself was deeply interested in spiritualism (Owen, Enchantment 5). 

Spiritualism became more popular during World War I: Jay Winter describes 1914-1918 as the “apogee of spiritualism in Europe” (76). Many grieving Britons turned to spiritualism during and after World War I for a source of comfort. In Britain, one in nine men under the age of 45 were killed in the war, including 31% of British men between the aged of 20 and 24, and 28% of men between 13 and 19, numbers that ensured that almost every family in Britain was grieving for at least one loss (Kollar 2). Membership in the Society for Psychical Research, founded in Cambridge in 1882, peaked in 1920, with 403 members and 902 associates, at which point the society suspended new memberships for budgetary reasons (Kollar 9). Similarly, the Spiritualists’ National Union nearly doubled its number of affiliated societies postwar, with 145 societies in 1914 and 309 affiliated groups in 1919 (Hazelgrove 14). While many scholars attribute spiritualism’s growth to war-related grief, Jenny Hazelgrove argues that spiritualism’s increasing popularity cannot be “explained simply by the exceptional circumstances of mass bereavement,” and notes that spiritual societies in Britain continued to grow after the war, with participation in spiritual activities peaking in the 1930s (14).

Regardless of cause, the existence and importance of early-twentieth-century spiritualist and mystical practices has come to be increasingly recognized and examined in recent years; Alex Owen in particular has argued that “fin-de-siècle occultism not only addressed some of the central dilemmas of modernity but was itself constitutive or symptomatic of key elements of modern culture,” in particular “the project of Enlightenment” and its search for new modes of knowledge. (Enchantment 9).4 However, the relationship between this spiritualism, mysticism, and Modernist literature remains a potentially fruitful area of inquiry: both mysticism and Modernist literature attempt to explore individual subjectivity and the connections between individuals, and to understand and portray the nature of human consciousness. 

Here, I use the terms “mystical” and “mysticism” to refer to the broad tenets of the mystical revival, with its interest in understanding the place of humanity in a wider universe. “Spiritualist” and “spiritualism,” although they are sometimes used interchangeably with “mysticism,” here refer only to the spiritualist practice of communicating with the dead. Where appropriate, however, I also use the term “spiritual” in the sense of relating to the spirit or soul, even where it is part of a discourse that might be described as mystical rather than spiritualist. West herself often refers to the “spirit” and “soul” not in terms of spiritualism specifically, and this is the kind of language that I here describe as “spiritual,” if not always technically spiritualist. 

West does not appear to have been involved in any spiritualist or mystical organizations, either before or after the war. However, she does use mystical imagery even in her earliest writings about art, literature, and culture. In a July 1912 literary review for The Freewoman, West writes that: 

We want novels written by women about men. Very few men have ever succeeded in creating men as they have succeeded in creating women. Some woman ought to write a novel about a man and the struggle of his soul with the universe, as moving and as pathetic as Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It would be a great thing for a woman to do as much for one man as Meredith did for all his women. (The Young Rebecca 47) 

This passage anticipates the language of a crucial passage in The Return of the Soldier, where Jenny learns to interpret the way that Margaret sits with Chris, and describes how their postures show “that the woman has gathered the soul of the man into her soul and is keeping it warm in love and peace so that his body can rest quiet for a little time. That is a great thing for a woman to do” (62). The echo here, with the first passage written as West was beginning to conceive of the themes and ideas behind The Return, suggests that the novel’s language of souls and spirits is central to its purpose, and that West’s language of mysticism should be taken seriously as central to the novel’s intent: to show “the struggle of [a man’s] soul with the universe.” The Return is generally treated as a war novel first and foremost—and while its spiritual language may very well have been partially driven by the wartime growth of spiritualism in Britain, West’s 1912 letter suggests that she was already thinking of the novel’s work in spiritual terms well before the war. She noted in a later letter that the novel was “complete in [her] mind in the middle of 1915” ("Letter to the Editor" 67).  

The novel’s original conception, then, was not as a war novel, but as the spiritual education of the narrator Jenny, whose spiritual growth helps her to see beyond class lines and learn to value extraordinary individuals like Margaret. Jenny doesn’t begin the novel on a spiritual note at all, but her education advances quickly. At their first meeting, Jenny fixates on Margaret’s empty pigskin purse, yellow raincoat, and false-tortoiseshell umbrella handle (9-13); later, on her sweaty face and floury arms (39). However, in the face of Margaret’s selfless sympathy for both Chris and Kitty, Jenny has a sudden mystical vision of Margaret and Chris:

There were only two people in the world, Chris and this woman whose personality was sounding through her squalor like a beautiful voice singing in a darkened room, and I was absorbed in a mental vision of them … they were standing, in flowing white robes on rocks against a pitch-black sky, a strong light beating on their eyes upturned in ecstasy and their hand outstretched to receive the spiritual blessing of which the fierce rays were an emanation … I said to myself, “If she really were like that, solemn and beatified!” and my eyes returned to look despairingly on her ugliness. But she really was like that. She had responded to my irrelevant murmur of adoration by just such a solemn and beatified appearance as I had imagined. (41-42) 

Jenny’s vision begins with the language of the séance: “a beautiful voice singing in a darkened room.” But this interiorized séance is no hoax: when Jenny concludes her “mental vision” and turns back to look at her, Margaret, to Jenny’s shock, enacts the very vision that Jenny saw. The unexpectedness of this connection between spirit and body adds to its credibility: Jenny is no credulous observer; instead, she expects the worst and opens her eyes to a wonder. And what Jenny describes is an inherently mystical scene, a secular, pseudo-Christian moment of connection to the universe: Margaret and Chris with “a strong light beating on their eyes upturned in ecstasy and their hand outstretched to receive the spiritual blessing of which the fierce rays were an emanation.” The scene is the beginning of an education for Jenny, who had recently warned Chris that Margaret “isn’t beautiful any longer. . . . She’s seamed and scored and ravaged by squalid circumstances. You can’t love her when you see her” (39). This shallow understanding of beauty has abruptly gone, replaced by a new understanding of Margaret as an extraordinary spiritual being, emanating radiance to all who are the least bit sensitive to it. This mystical vision is not a fantasy or escape from reality, but a way to help Jenny learn to understand Margaret’s real self better: “she really was like that.” 

Jenny learns to see beyond Margaret’s class—and this theme, along with the novel’s spiritual language, also predates the war. In a December 1912 essay on feminism and class, West writes that: 

The rich woman is the most expensive luxury the world has indulged in. She is the most idle human being that has ever secured the privilege of existence, and, with her furs and jewels and silks from strange places, commands more service than any emperor of the past. And her achievements are nothing. Art and science are beyond her grasp, and her growing sterility stultifies the last reason for her dependence. Perhaps he feels the tragedy of her incompleteness but luxury has bred a hard pride into her. 

And hard work has made the poor woman ugly and clumsy. The working woman, whom childbearing and continual drudgery have made bruised and withered thing at forty-five, feels herself an offence against beauty and life. She is too weak, too tired to shift the blame to those who ought to bear it, and feels humiliated. 

The poor and rich can only meet when the poor have been exalted and the rich humbled by some moral passion. There lies the true significance of the feminist movement. (The Young Rebecca 130)

The language used to describe the “rich woman” and the “working women” here sounds very much like that used to characterize Kitty and Margaret: the childless Kitty in her pearls and diamonds (23) and “luminous silks” (55); Margaret “drearily married . . . seamed and scored and ravaged by squalid circumstances” (39). The novel’s mysticism provides a mode through which Jenny can learn to see beyond class to the essence of the human individual, and to understand reality better, without romanticizing or condescending to Margaret’s poverty. 

This mystical understanding of the world does not ignore evil or hardship: Jenny learns to appreciate Margaret’s radiance specifically in the face of an unfeeling and potentially destructive universe. In a vision that follows soon after her first, Jenny sees Chris standing at a shop in France: “Chris is leaning on the counter, his eyes glazed. (This is his spirit; his body lies out there in the drizzle, at the other end of the road.)” (59). He is:

facing across the counter an old man in a blouse, with a scar running white into the gray thickets of his beard, an old man with a smile at once lewd and benevolent, repulsive with dirt and yet magnificent by reason of the Olympian structure of his body. I think he is the soul of the universe, equally cognizant and disregardful of every living thing, to whom I am not more dear than the bare-armed slouchy woman at the neighboring door. (59)

This “soul of the universe,” then, is not necessarily kind or even good; in this vision, he is “at once lewd and benevolent, repulsive with dirt and yet magnificent.” Here, mysticism takes on a World War I-era cast: in retaining the language of visions, crystal spheres, transfiguration, and spiritual journeys, it retains the tradition of the late-century mystical revival. But in her portrayal of the “soul of the universe” as alternately repulsive and benevolent, lewd and magnificent, West suggests a wartime ambivalence towards any larger cosmic consciousness, who here is “equally cognizant and disregardful of every living thing.” West continues to emphasize the unimportance of class: Jenny is “not more dear than the bare-armed slouchy woman at the neighboring door.”

There is no comfort to be derived from this “old man in a blouse”—not for Jenny, nor even for the spiritually rich Margaret, who says that she “prayed and read the Bible, but I couldn’t get any help. You don’t notice how little there is in the Bible really till you go to it for help” (77).5 Instead of looking to any higher power or specific creed for goodness in the universe, West instead shows Chris looking to the strength of extraordinary individuals like Margaret. The “soul of the universe” rolls two crystal balls across the counter to Chris, who examines them:

In one he sees Margaret, not in her raincoat and her nodding plumes, but as she is transfigured in the light of eternity. Long he looks there; then drops a glance to the other, just long enough to see that in its depths Kitty and I walk in bright dresses through our glowing gardens. We had suffered no transfiguration, for we are as we are, and there is nothing more to us. The whole truth about us lies in our material seeming. He sighs a deep sigh of delight and puts out his hand to the ball where Margaret shines. (59)

Comfort and guidance, then, must be sought in individuals like Margaret, particularly in the face of this unfeeling universe. Or perhaps not entirely unfeeling: the universe had presented Chris with two choices; it is his responsibility to recognize and choose “the ball where Margaret shines.” He had chosen incorrectly earlier, having married Kitty.

Jenny’s understanding and appreciation of Margaret continues to grow in the same spiritual mode: when she sees Margaret and the still-amnesiac Chris on the lawn together, Jenny recognizes an attitude that she has seen before in Christian worshippers, and in “a mother with her child in her arms” (62). But only now, after her spiritual education has advanced, is she is able to understand its significance:

. . . it was not until now, when it happened to my friends, when it was my dear Chris and my dear Margaret who sat thus englobed in peace as in a crystal sphere, that I knew it was the most significant, as it was the loveliest, attitude in the world. It means that the woman has gathered the soul of the man into her soul and is keeping it warm in love and peace so that his body can rest quiet for a little time. That is a great thing for a woman to do. (62)

Rather than being dependent on an alternately benevolent or cruel “soul of the universe,” or on a Christian God, Margaret shows Jenny that individuals can do “a great thing” in caring for the spirit of another. This understanding is no guarantee of personal happiness (Jenny describes Margaret as “a woman whose bleak habit it was to champion the soul against the body” (58-59)), but the broader stakes are cosmic: “If humanity forgets these attitudes there is an end to the world” (62). It is worth remembering that neither Margaret nor Jenny is an actual medium, and there are no real crystal balls or conversations with the dead in West’s novel. All of the spiritual and mystical visions take place in Jenny’s mind, and in her description and understanding of the world: her mysticism is pure language and metaphor. But in using the language and imagery of mysticism and spiritualism to develop Jenny’s internal understanding of Margaret, West is able to draw on and evoke an understanding of the world in which the soul and its struggle with the universe matter. 

This reexamination of The Return of the Soldier’s mystical language provides a new context for West’s 1928 claim that the “novel has fundamentally nothing to do with psycho-analysis. I introduced a pyscho-analyst as an unimportant device … I doubt if any psycho-analyst would believe in a cure so sharply effective” ("Letter to the Editor" 68). West had personal experience: she underwent psychoanalysis in 1927. This response, originally published in The Observer in 1928, didn’t stop critics from criticizing her on these grounds: Walter Allen complains that the novel “reads like a dramatization of a case history” (qtd. in Cohen 138). This is especially surprising considering the way that the psychoanalyst Dr. Anderson couches his psychology in language that sounds inherently spiritual. He says that: 

There’s a deep self in one, the essential self, that has its wishes. And if those wishes are suppressed by the superficial self,–the self that makes, as you say, efforts, and usually makes them with the sole idea of putting up a good show before the neighbors,–it takes its revenge . . . (71-72)

Anderson’s “essential self” sounds like the “soul” that Jenny describes Margaret as safekeeping; the mysticism and psychology of the novel do not lend themselves to an oppositional reading. Rather, they rather lend each other credibility through consistency. 

In the end, however, it is the spiritual Margaret and not the scientific Anderson who is able to articulate why Chris’s memory must be restored, and to restore it. When Margaret tells Anderson that she knows how Chris could be cured, he loses “in a moment his glib assurance, his knowingness about the pathways of the soul” and says “Well, I’m willing to learn” (73). Anderson, the representative of science, cannot provide a precise reason for them to bring Chris back, apart from describing “a general feeling it’s the place where they ought to be. Sometimes I don’t see the urgency myself” (72). In a similar vein, Jenny doesn’t want to see her world crumble, and Margaret doesn’t want Chris to lose his happiness. But such smaller concerns become petty next to larger spiritual considerations: Margaret has protected Chris’s soul, but it cannot be allowed to wander permanently. Both Margaret and Jenny realize this at the same time, suggesting that Jenny’s own spiritual education is complete: 

I knew that one must know the truth. I knew quite well that when one is adult one must raise to one’s lips the wine of the truth, heedless that it is not sweet like milk, but draws the mouth with its strength, and celebrate communion with reality, or else walk forever queer and small like a dwarf . . . it is the first concern of love to safeguard the dignity of the beloved. . . . We had been utterly negligent of his future, blasphemously careless of the divine essential of his soul. For if we left him in his magic circle there would come a time when his delusion turned to a senile idiocy. . . . He would not be quite a man. (79-80)

Chris’s spirit must, while he is living, return to his body; otherwise he will be condemned to a ghostly, meaningless existence, the equally damned inversion of the ghost that refuses to pass out of the world once the body is dead. The horror of such a half-life is anticipated itself in Margaret’s earlier reaction to learning that both she and Chris lost a son at a similar age: “‘It’s–it’s as if,’ she stammered, ‘they each had half a life’” (69). The horror here is that of an incomplete existence, a type of limbo. The need to reconcile mind and body is a spiritual need; in a world in which soul, body, and universe are all connected, the spirit cannot be allowed to free-float indefinitely in a state of amnesia, even if such amnesia might be a temporary protective measure from a world of horror. 

Jenny says that one must “celebrate communion with reality,” a statement that critics have read as an embrace of “reality” and rejection of the novel’s mysticism (79). But even in describing the reconciliation of the individual with reality, Jenny speaks of “communion,” an act that acknowledges the meeting of the spiritual and physical, the secular and the sacred, the soul and the body. Further, the novel has already demonstrated that reality itself can be a kind of fantasy (surely Kitty lives in just such a reality), and that a spiritual vision may reflect reality better than one’s own eyes, as when Jenny learns to see Margaret “not in her raincoat and her nodding plumes, but as she is transfigured in the light of eternity” (59). In this context, Jenny’s “communion with reality” is at once a spiritual and a physical act. As is Chris’s loss of memory: Jenny goes on to say of this “communion with reality” that “Search for this sacrament had made Chris strike away the cup of lies about life that Kitty’s white hands held to him and turn to Margaret with this vast trustful gesture of his loss of memory” (79). Chris’s fantasy-reality has much to it that is more “real”—love and trust—than his real-life marriage with Kitty. But while it would make him happy, the permanent separation of Chris’s soul and body would have no integrity to it. The decision to restore Chris’s memory is not a rejection of mysticism or a mystical worldview, but the opposite: it is a sign of Jenny and Margaret’s full comprehension of the connections between soul, body, and reality. Further, their choice to restore his memory does not undercut or negate the spiritual meaningfulness of his amnesia, which was “a vast truthful gesture.”

While the novel’s spiritualist language has not gone unremarked, it is frequently treated as a narrative weakness. Misha Kavka has dismissed the novel’s mystical elements as belonging to “the narrative’s romantic logic,” less important than its psychological treatment of trauma (159). Steve Pinkerton, even in a critical reading that works to restore Margaret’s fundamental importance to the narrative, apologizes for the conclusion’s mystical nature, noting that “real-life traumas and trauma-induced madness contain much that one might describe in terms of the mystical or the absurd” (3). Even those critics that take this spiritualism seriously see it as something that must be overturned. Wyatt Bonikowski writes that “The ‘magic circle’ is a space of fantasy that does not admit the reality of suffering ... the magic circle must be broken” (123). Similarly, Claire M. Tylee suggests that “Chris’s ‘cure’ is the eradication of an unrealisable dream. From the point of view of the modern, materialist world, the ‘sacred’ dream of peace relies on a belief in magic” (147). Even Jenny herself, upon reflecting on the deaths of the children, says, in a much-cited moment, that “Such a world will not suffer magic circles to endure” (70). But at this point in the narrative, Jenny’s own spiritual education is incomplete. The magic circle with which Margaret protected Chris is not invalidated entirely; it was “a great thing for a woman to do” (62), a “sacrament” of its own (79). Such safekeeping cannot endure indefinitely (for primarily spiritual reasons, notably), but it was nonetheless a noble and meaningful event.

At the novel’s end, Jenny’s spiritual education helps her to better understand the realities both of the restored Chris and the war. As Jenny looks out the window to see the now-restored Chris leaving Margaret and returning to the house, she is newly able to properly read the scene:   

There had fallen a twilight which was a wistfulness of the earth. Under the cedar-boughs I dimly saw a figure mothering something in her arms. Almost had she dissolved into the shadows; in another moment the night would have her. With his back turned on this fading unhappiness Chris walked across the lawn. He was looking up under his brows at the over-arching house as though it were a hated place... He stepped aside to avoid a patch of brightness cast by a lighted window on the grass; lights in our house were worse than darkness, affection worse than hate elsewhere. He wore a dreadful, decent smile; I knew how his voice would resolutely lift in greeting us. (81)

Margaret’s disappearance from the narrative does not imply that that the type of spiritualism she represents has no place in wartime or postwar life: even as Margaret fades into the background, Jenny retains what she has learned from her. Jenny, who only a little earlier had dreamed of Chris’s restoration, now sees, in the mere sight of him walking across the lawn, much more. While she had been “nurs[ing] a feeble glow” at the thought of his “little stiff-lipped smile,” she now sees the same smile as “dreadful”; the “feeble glow” turns into the dark understanding that “lights in our house were worse than darkness, affection worse than hate elsewhere” (81-82). Chris also “[avoids] a patch of brightness cast by a lighted window on the grass,” in contrast to Jenny’s first spiritual vision in which Chris and Margaret stand with “a strong light beating on their eyes upturned in ecstasy and their hand outstretched to receive the spiritual blessing of which the fierce rays were an emanation” (42). Jenny’s new sensitivity allows her to see Chris as he is, rather than as she hopes he would be, and she is also newly sensitive to how nature resonates along the same cosmic pitch: “There had fallen a twilight which was a wistfulness of the earth.” In contrast, when Kitty sees Chris walking across the lawn, she “suck[s] in her breath with satisfaction,” an act that can only signify her ignorance and self-centeredness (82). 

Jenny’s new understanding of reality is not limited only to Chris. She now knows that “bad as we were, we were yet not the worst circumstance of his return. When we had lifted the yoke of our embraces from his shoulders he would go back to that flooded trench in Flanders, under that sky more full of flying death than clouds, to that No-Man’s-Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead” (81). Kitty has no qualms about returning Chris to himself; it is the more sensitive Jenny who can visualize a “sky more full of flying death than clouds.” This description of war is both real and mystical: “that sky more full of flying death than clouds . . . that No-Man’s-Land where bullets fall like rain” (81), and it is this capacity to see the world spiritually that enables Jenny to understand war’s horror, and to know the world’s reality. 

Jenny’s description of war is strikingly similar to the first stanza from Wilfred Owen’s “The Show”: 

My soul looked down from a vague height with Death,

     As unremembering how I rose or why,

     And saw a sad land, weak with sweats of dearth,

     Gray, cratered like the moon with hollow woe,

     And fitted with great pocks and scabs of plaques. (1-5)

Owen uses similar spiritual language here, with the separation of soul and body, and the suggestion of life after death, to describe the violence, ugliness, and alienation of war. Spiritualism was never an inherently happy idea, nor is spiritualist language necessarily the language of escapism. Jenny’s sensitivity is not an escape into a spiritual world at all—on the contrary, it gives her a fuller understanding of what war and suffering mean, an understanding that Kitty cannot share. To Kitty, Jenny’s statement that Chris is again “Oh … every inch a soldier” means simply that he has returned; to Jenny, the horror is so real that she must ask herself “how could I say it?” (82). 

In “Drinking ‘The Wine of Truth,’: Philosophical Change in West’s The Return of the Soldier,” Margaret Stetz persuasively reads the novel as one of the narrator Jenny’s maturation and increased understanding of the world, an understanding guided by Margaret. In her conclusion, Stetz writes that 

. . . much of the novel is filled with a passionate yearning shared by the author and by millions of wartime readers, too, for escape to a “magic circle” outside of time. But reason forced her to see, just as the narrator recognizes in the end, that the sense of security enjoyed in the past would never be attainable again in the present or the future. One could not wipe out the lessons learned in the war, except through a mad act of self-induced amnesia that would strip one of “dignity” and maturity. One’s only course would be to try to savor the “wine of truth,” drunk from the glass of art. (78)

While I fundamentally agree with reading the novel as the development of Jenny’s understanding of the world, and that salvation lies in learning to “savor the ‘wine of truth,’ ” I suggest that it is not “reason” in particular that “forced [Jenny] to see” the real condition of humanity. Her education is not only that of logic or reason, but also of mysticism, which is not exclusively a mode of avoiding reality, but a way of learning how to understand it. It is this spiritual education that, once completed, allows Jenny to “see” the condition of humanity, understand war, and understand why Chris’s amnesia would rob him of his dignity. In 1912, West wrote that literary masterpieces “leave one not… with a sense of the valuelessness of life because of sorrow, but with a sense of the value of everything in life, even sorrow” (The Young Rebecca 50). Margaret, “like a beautiful voice singing in a darkened room,” teaches Jenny the value of sorrow when this lesson is most crucial, in a world where happiness as an end in itself becomes simply a “trivial toy” (41, 79). “The truth’s the truth,” says Margaret (80) and this truth applies not simply to Chris, but also to a larger circle of suffering and understanding.

The Return’s spiritualism involves not communication with the dead, but with the living; West turns spiritualism into a mode with which to connect living people, to transcend differences of experience and class and the damages that life and war wreak on individuals. Such a search for new modes of connection between individuals is central to the Modernist aesthetic. “Only connect,” wrote E.M. Forster in Howards End, and it is only connection—in spite of war, which turns nations into enemies, and individuals into soldiers, and in spite of class, which separates individuals who might otherwise help each other—that promises any kind of salvation or hope for humanity. Jenny’s ability to understand the interiority of the other evokes major Modernist texts and characters, including E.M. Forster’s Margaret Wilcox of Howards End (1910), Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway of The Voyage Out (1915) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and Mrs. Ramsay of To the Lighthouse (1927). But unlike these characters, who enter their narratives already rich in spiritual empathy, Jenny’s first-person narrative shows her learning the skills of empathy and connection. If Jenny can learn them, then so too can the reader. 

According to West, it is the work of art and literature to provide an opportunity for such spiritual enlightenment. In 1928, she published "The Strange Necessity," an essay that explores why art is necessary to humanity. In a 1927 letter to her publisher Jonathan Cape, she wrote that the essay features “An analysis of literature, and the discovery of a double and vital function it fulfills for men. Firstly it makes a collective external brain for man; secondly it presents certain formal relations to man which suggest a universe more easy in certain respects than the one he knows” (Selected Letters 98). West argues that any human understanding of life can only be based on sensory impressions, and is therefore a self-constructed fantasy for each individual, one which “stands not a dog’s chance of corresponding with reality” (57). The work of the artist, however, is to explore the nature of that fantasy through portraying it and examining it symbolically—as Jenny does, in her spiritual visions, which explore the relationship between physical reality and spiritual truth. 

West’s essay often echoes spiritual and mystical moments from The Return of the Soldier: in writing of the death wish in "The Strange Necessity," West writes that man’s “will to live suggests that he should take his milk like a man; his will to die suggests that he should leave it” (55); in The Return, she writes that “when one is adult one must raise to one’s lips the wine of the truth, heedless that it is not sweet like milk” (79). In The Return, Jenny meets “the soul of the Universe” (59); in "The Strange Necessity," West writes of “people who have said ‘No’ to the Universe” (70). The repetition of these spiritual images from The Return of the Soldier, as well as the themes of reality and fantasy, suggest that the mysticism in The Return is an inherent part of West’s developing aesthetic philosophy, more fully articulated a decade later in "The Strange Necessity." For West, art helps the individual understand and explore their place in the universe and their connection to others. In The Return of the Soldier, spiritual and mystical language and images become a mode for this artistic exploration. 

The ending of "The Strange Necessity," in particular, reengages with the meaning of Chris’s amnesia. West concludes her essay, which is broadly structured as a ramble through Paris, by writing that: 

Not only am I wandering in the universe without visible means of support, I have a sort of amnesia, I do not clearly know who I am … what I am … And that I should feel this transcendent joy simply because I have been helped to go on living suggests that I know something I have not yet told my mind, that within me I hold some assurance regarding the value of life, which makes my fate different from what it appears, different, not lamentable, grandiose. (213)

Here, as in The Return, the temporary separation of the soul from the body is no indication of real madness. Rather, it shows an openness to new experiences and new understandings of reality, a transcendent (and in this case joyous) openness. In The Return, Jenny says that “if madness means a liability to wild error about the world Chris was not mad . . . he had attained to something saner than sanity. His very loss of memory was a triumph over the limitations of language which prevent the mass of men from making explicit statements about their spiritual relationships” (58). However, while Chris was thrust into his state of amnesia by the trauma of war, art promises a happier, or at least gentler, way to learn to mediate between warring physical and spiritual realities. 

It is no coincidence that West acknowledges that the “limitations of language” are a problem here, at the very moment that Jenny seeks to articulate the nature of Chris’s relationship with fantasy and reality. Such “limitations of language” (as exemplified by Jenny’s impossible description of “something saner than sanity”) were the very limitations that modernist writers tried to work around by experimenting with new kinds of narrative techniques. In West’s writing, spiritualist metaphor itself becomes an aesthetic mode with which to push back against these limitations in the pursuit of human connection and understanding. 


1  See Cohen, Cowan, and Gledhill.

2  See Bonikowski, Kavka, and Pinkerton.

3  See Owen, The Darkened Room.

4  See also Sword and Wilson.

5  For more on the relationship between Christianity and spiritualism in the early twentieth century, see Byrne and Hazelgrove.

Works Cited

Bonikowski, Wyatt. Shell Shock and the Modernist Imagination: The Death Drive in Post-World War I British Fiction. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013. 

Byrne, Georgina. Modern Spiritualism and the Church of England, 1850-1939. Studies in Modern British History 25. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2010. 

Cohen, Debra Rae. Remapping the Home Front: Locating Citizenship in British Women’s Great War. Boston: Northeastern UP, 2002. 

Cowan, Laura. “The Fine Frenzy of Artistic Vision: Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier as a Feminist Analysis of World War I.” The Centennial Review 42:2 (1998): 285-307. 

Forster, E. M. Howards End. 1910. Ed. Paul B. Armstrong. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998. 

Gledhill, Jane. “Impersonality and Amnesia: A Response to World War I in the Writings of H. D and Rebecca West.” Women and World War I: The Written Response. Ed. Dorothy Goldman. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993. 169-87. 

Golubov, Nattie. “Rebecca West’s ‘Strange Necessity’: Literature, Love, and the Good.” Rebecca West Today: Contemporary Critical Approaches. Ed. Bernard Schweizer. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2006. 207-22. 

Hazelgrove, Jenny. Spiritualism and British Society Between the Wars. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000. 

Kavka, Misha. “Men in (Shell-)Shock: Masculinity, Trauma, and Psychoanalysis in Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 22:1 (1998): 151-71. 

Kollar, Rene. Searching for Raymond: Anglicanism, Spiritualism, and Bereavement between the Two World Wars. New York: Lexington Books, 2000. 

Owen, Alex. The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 

---. The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1990. 

Owen, Wilfred. The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. Ed. C. Day Lewis. New York: New Directions Paperbook, 1965. 

Pinkerton, Steve. “Trauma and Cure in Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier.” Journal of Modern Literature. 32:1 (2008): 1-12. Project Muse. Web. 15 November 2010.

Stetz, Margaret. “Drinking ‘The Wine of Truth’: Philosophical Change in West’s The Return of the Soldier.Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory. 43:1 (1987): 63-78..

Sword, Helen. Ghostwriting Modernism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002. 

Tylee, Claire M. The Great War and Women’s Consciousness: Images of Militarism and Womanhood in Women’s Writings, 1914-64. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1990. 

West, Rebecca. Letter to the Editor of The Observer, June 24, 1928, rpt. In “On ‘The Return of the Soldier’ by Dame Rebecca West, D. B. E. with a Prefatory Note by G. E. Hutchison,” The Yale University Library Gazette 57:1-2 (October 1982): 66-71. 

---. The Return of the Soldier. 1918. New York: The Modern Library, 2001. 

---. Selected Letters of Rebecca West. Ed. Bonnie Kime Scott. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000. 

---. “The Strange Necessity.” The Strange Necessity: Essays by Rebecca West. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc.: 1928. 1-213. 

---. The Young Rebecca: Writing of Rebecca West 1911-17. Ed. Jane Marcus. New York: Viking Press, 1982. 

Wilson, Leigh. Modernism and Magic: Experiments with Spiritualism, Theosophy and the Occult. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2013. 

Winter, Jay. Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995. 

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. Ed. Claire Tomalin. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. 

---. The Voyage Out. 1915. Ed. Lorna Sage. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. 

---. To the Lighthouse. 1927. Ed. Mark Hussey. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2005. 

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