Novelist, journalist, critic, and feminist, Rebecca West (1892-1983) is considered one of the finest prose writers in twentieth-century England. Born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, she wrote under the penname Rebecca West. She has since become legendary, not only as an outspoken feminist and mistress of H.G. Wells, but also as the prolific author of novels like The Return of the Soldier, which helped to define an era. By mid-career in 1947, West was featured on the cover of Time and the story hailed her as "indisputably the world's No. 1 woman writer."
In West's later life, she increasingly turned to covering political and social issues. She contributed regularly to The New Republic, The New York Herald Tribune, The New York American, The New Statesman, and The Daily Telegraph. She had similar commissions for magazines like Harper's Bazaar and Vanity Fair.
During 1936-1938, she traveled extensively through Yugoslavia. Her impressions and memories of these trips were later memorialized in her nonfiction masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. She was also assigned to cover the Nuremberg Trials for The New Yorker, and her account was later published as A Train in Powder. In 1960, she traveled to South Africa for the Sunday Times to report on Apartheid. She wrote journalistic articles, novels, and memoirs at an unabated rate up until her death in 1983. Over one-third of her work was published posthumously.
Source: The Modernism Lab at Yale University, Biography, Rebecca West; http://modernism.research.yale.edu/wiki/index.php/Rebecca_West.
The Return of the Soldier
That day its beauty was an affront to me, because, like most Englishwomen of my time, I was wishing for the return of a soldier. Disregarding the national interest and everything else except the keen prehensile gesture of our hearts toward him, I wanted to snatch my cousin Christopher from the wars and seal him in this green pleasantness his wife and I now looked upon.
Of late I had had bad dreams about him. By nights 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, and not till my dream was packed full of horror did I see him pitch forward on his knees as he reached safety, if it was that. For on the war-films I have seen men slip down as softly from the trench-parapet, and none but the grimmer philosophers could say that they had reached safety by their fall.
And when I escaped into wakefulness it was only to lie stiff and think of stories I had heard in the boyish voice of the modern subaltern, which rings indomitable, yet has most of its gay notes flattened: "We were all of us in a barn one night, and a shell came along. My pal sang out, 'Help me, old man; I've got no legs!' and I had to answer, 'I can't, old man; I've got no hands!'" Well, such are the dreams of English-women today. I could not complain, but I wished for the return of our soldier. So I said:
"I wish we could hear from Chris. It is a fortnight since he wrote."
And then it was that Kitty wailed, "Ah, don't begin to fuss!" and bent over her image in a hand-mirror as one might bend for refreshment over scented flowers.
I tried to build about me such a little globe of ease as always ensphered her, and thought of all that remained good in our lives though Chris was gone. I was sure that we were preserved from the reproach of luxury, because we had made a fine place for Chris, one little part of the world that was, so far as surfaces could make it so, good enough for his amazing goodness.
Here we had nourished that surpassing amiability which was so habitual that one took it as one of his physical characteristics, and regarded any lapse into bad temper as a calamity as startling as the breaking of a leg; here we had made happiness inevitable for him. I could shut my eyes and think of innumerable proofs of how well we had succeeded, for there never was so visibly contented a man. And I recalled all that he did one morning just a year ago when he went to the front.
First he had sat in the morning-room and talked and stared out on the lawns that already had the desolation of an empty stage, although he had not yet gone; then broke off suddenly and went about the house, looking into many rooms. He went to the stables and looked at the horses and had the dogs brought out; he refrained from touching them or speaking to them, as though he felt himself already infected with the squalour of war and did not want to contaminate their bright physical well-being. Then he went to the edge of the wood and stood staring down into the clumps of dark-leaved rhododendrons and the yellow tangle of last year's bracken and the cold winter black of the trees. (From this very window I had spied on him.) Then he moved broodingly back to the house to be with his wife until the moment of his going, when Kitty and I stood on the steps to see him motor off to Waterloo. He kissed us both. As he bent over me I noticed once again how his hair was of two colours, brown and gold. Then he got into the car, put on his Tommy air, and said: "So long! I'll write you from Berlin!" and as he spoke his head dropped back, and he set a hard stare on the house. That meant, I knew, that he loved the life he had lived with us and desired to carry with him to the dreary place of death and dirt the complete memory of everything about his home, on which his mind could brush when things were at their worst, as a man might finger an amulet through his shirt. This house, this life with us, was the core of his heart.
"If he could come back!" I said. "He was so happy here!"
And Kitty answered: "He could not have been happier."
• Extract from The Return of the Soldier (©Rebecca West 1918), reproduced from the Virago Modern Classics edition (1980).