The Guardian’s online reading group is exploring Rebecca West’s first novel, The Return of the Soldier, published in 1918.
The book was a ground-breaking work, according to Sam Jordison, the group’s director:
On the way to (an) unsettling conclusion, West packs in all manner of subversion. There are hints of lesbianism and adultery, as well as the eternal taboo of incest. She undermines the idea that women should exist merely to promote men’s happiness, and she pours gelignite into the foundations of the class system by making her narrator, Jenny, a terrible snob.
But while this was West’s first novel, she was already a well-established author and essayist in Britain’s early 20th-century literary constellation. West of born in 1892 and came of age as women suffragists — and suffragettes, the more active and sometimes violent wing of the suffrage movement — were attacking the male-dominated institutions that controlled much of daily life.
West wrote for the feminist week Freewoman and the Clairon, and she joined in many of the activities of the suffragists. Her writing went beyond those publications in both Great Britain and America, so that by 1916, George Bernard Shaw wrote of her, “Rebecca West could handle a pen as brilliantly as ever I could and much more savagely.”
In 1912, she reviewed H.G. Wells’ novel Marriage and called him “the Old Maid among novelists.” That review provoked an invitation to lunch from Wells, and the two became lovers the next year. They had a son, Anthony West, during their 10-year affair, and after their affair, they remained friends until Wells’ death in 1946.
West’s life had many twists and turns, which we’ll explore later, but she always continued to write both fiction and non-fiction. President Harry Truman once called her “the world’s best reporter.”
Meanwhile, check out the novel and the reading group. The novel is a short one (about 200 pages), and The Guardian’s commentary and discussions are enlightening and intelligent.
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