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Rebecca West: The dreams of Englishwomen during war

Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Rebecca West
From The Return of the Soldier (1918)

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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 except the 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 night 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 in the war-films I have seen men slip down as softly from the trench parapet, and none but the grimmer philosophers would 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, that rings indomitable yet has most of its gay notes flattened, of the modern subaltern.

“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 Englishwomen today…

***

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 squalor of war and did not want to contaminate their bright physical well-being.

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