Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier centers a displacement in time: the disappearance of Chris Baldry’s memories of the last fifteen years of his life, which results in a love triangle between himself, his wife Kitty, and the lower-class woman he loved in his youth, Margaret. Chris and Margaret’s memories of their courtship center on a specific location: Monkey Island, which acts as their refuge from time and social norms. This space of temporal stasis, however, can be read against another space, one that correlates the steady progress of time with social constriction and strict adherence to duty. This place is Baldry Court, the inherited home wherein the action of The Return of the Soldier takes place. Baldry Court as a a spacial representation of the temporal reality Chris seeks to escape.
The movement of Baldry Court through time is set in opposition to Chris’s happiness with Margaret, in part through the necessity of its maintenance and the way this manifests in the form of duty. Shortly after their first major argument, Chris is called back to Baldry Court to do work for his father, and this adoption of duty enables the long term loss of contact between Chris and Margaret. Remembering this time period, Jenny describes Chris’s obligation “to keep the firm’s head above water and Baldry Court sleek and hospitable, to keep everything bright and splendid save only his youth” (53). In other words, the responsibilities that Baldry Court brings as it changes over time trigger Chris’s inevitable transition into upper middle-class adulthood, which stands in contrast to the illusion of perpetual youth that he has been experiencing on Monkey Island.
This requirement to keep Baldry Court “sleek and hospitable” paints the home as requiring constant maintenance in the face of time’s movement. This maintenance manifests not as preservation but as renovation in keeping with a specifically upper-middle-class aesthetic standard, a task taken up by Kitty and Jenny. “We had done much for the new house,” Jenny establishes at the very start of the novella, drawing attention to the “brittle beautiful things” and “solemnly chosen fabrics” that they have decorated the house with (8). The concept of Monkey Island exists in Chris and Margaret’s memories as a stable refuge, and the vivid memories that they present to Jenny are therefore safe from change. Changes to Baldry Court, meanwhile, are inevitable and ongoing. In fact, Jenny’s early narration designates the changes as agents of Chris’s happiness: she calls renovation “the responsibility that gave us dignity” (8) and claims that “here we had made happiness inevitable for him” (6).
The perceived inevitability of Chris’s happiness can be divided into three underlying forces: a) inhibiting the present as manifested through his duty to maintain and improve the space that belongs to him, b) the middle-class propriety that this space embodies, c) and the love of Kitty and Jenny as represented by Baldry Court and the changes they have made to it. All of these forces are destabilized from the moment Chris returns to Baldry Court having lost his memories. He finds the indications of Baldry Court’s temporal progression unsettling and uncomfortable. For instance, he falls down a set of steps that had not been in the house fifteen years ago; this disgusts Kitty, who sees it as “a failure of physical adjustment” (26). For comfort, Chris clings to the indications of Baldry Court’s grounding in the past: “whenever he thought himself unobserved, he looked at the things that were familiar to him” (27).
On the surface, this is the realistic reaction anyone would have to changes in their home if they’d suddenly lost the memories of a significant part of their life. On a symbolic level, however, Chris’s discomfort indicates a pre-existing discomfort with Baldry Court and its forward progression through time. This temporal progression represents two things, each equally oppressive from Chris’s perspective: the duty to maintain the responsibilities of an ancestral home, and the continual cycle of physical changes that transform this home from a childhood memory to something unfamiliar. The loss of Chris’s memory, therefore, is not the cause of his unhappiness at Baldry Court; it is the revelation of an unhappiness he has had all this time with the present position of his life and the ongoing progression of time away from his happy youth. This is the interpretation Dr. Anderson puts forward at the end of the novella: “Quite obviously he has forgotten his life here because he is discontented with it” (80). This claim is followed up by the revelation that Chris did not register his address with the War Office when he left for the war. This legal dissociation from his place of residence beocmes a placeholder for discomfort with not just Baldry Court but the relationships it represents and the degree to which it enforces Chris’s responsibilities.
Having established a return to the present as a return to unhappiness, the ethical quandary Kitty and Jenny struggle with is embodied by the two spaces, correlating to two distinct experiences of time. For Chris to stay as he is is to remain on Monkey Island, trapped in a happy stasis. Jenny interprets the absence of Chris’s memories as a permanent stifling of growth: “if we left him in his magic circle there would come a time when his delusion turned to a senile idiocy” (88). On the other hand, regaining his memory is equivalent to rejoining the forward progression of Baldry Court, and all of the suffering that the present moment entails. Chris is trapped between two artificialities: the reenactment of the past, or the pretense of happiness that his present embodies. At cost of his happiness, Chris ultimately does regain his memories. On the novella’s final page, he walks toward Baldry Court “as though it were a hated place to which, against all his hopes, business had forced him to return” (90). He walks to a war that neither author nor characters know he can win, and to an ever-present march of duty: to class, to masculinity, to family, and to an abandonment of the happy past. The hated place Chris returns to, then, is not just a place but the forward momentum of time it represents.