Kitty Baldry hasn’t heard from her husband, Chris, for two weeks—he’s on the Western Front, “somewhere in France”—but she begs Jenny not to fret. She and Jenny are sitting in the nursery that had belonged to Kitty’s baby son, Oliver, before he died; it’s been kept as it was during the child’s life, “unendurably gay and familiar.” It’s an early spring day, brilliantly sunny. The sun highlights the baby’s rocking horse and the stuffed animals on the mantelpiece.
Set in the spring of 1916, one of the bloodiest stalemates of World War I, the story immediately pulls the reader into the unknowns and anxiety of that time. The women’s location in the baby’s nursery also hints at a more intimate family tragedy framing the story. The bright sunshine contrasts with the sad memories that the women seem to feel in the nursery.
Jenny turns away, not wanting to intrude on Kitty’s grief, but Kitty calls her back—she’s just washed her hair and is only sitting in the nursery so she can dry it by the window; it’s the sunniest room in the house. She wishes Chris had not kept the room as a nursery, she says, “when there’s no chance.”
Even before Chris himself enters the story, a contrast between he and Kitty emerges—Chris is the more sentimental of the two and the more deeply impacted by the child’s death. It’s also clearly implied that the couple can no longer have children.
Jenny joins Kitty and gazes out the window at Baldry Court, which architects transformed after Chris and Kitty’s marriage, with “not so much the wild eye of the artist as the knowing wink of the manicurist.” The house sits in Harrowweald, which overlooks a country landscape—pastureland, hills, and woods.
Jenny feels offended by the beauty, however, because like many other Englishwomen, she is “wishing for the return of a soldier”—her cousin, Chris. She’s been having bad dreams about Chris running across No Man’s Land, dodging bodies, until he reaches safety and drops to his knees. But Jenny knows from the war films that reaching the trench doesn’t mean one is really safe.
No Man’s Land refers to the contested territory between two enemy trenches, which was often strewn with mud, barbed wire, and bodies. World War I was the first major world conflict that was documented on film, meaning that its realities were much more easily pictured—and dreamed about—by civilians than ever before.
After Kitty wails to Jenny, “Ah, don’t begin to fuss” about Chris’s whereabouts, she studies her reflection in a hand-mirror as if “[bending] for refreshment over scented flowers.” Jenny tries to cheer herself by admiring the work she and Kitty have put into the new house. She is proud of the beautiful antique and modern furniture and glowing fabrics they’ve carefully chosen, believing they haven’t indulged in luxury because they’ve done all this for Chris’s sake, to reflect “his amazing goodness.”
Kitty appears to escape into the consideration of her own beauty for relief from the real world. Jenny, likewise, finds a distraction, but it’s more external—the house that she and Kitty have lovingly transformed in Chris’s absence. She sees the house’s beauty as a faithful reflection of Chris’s own goodness (and she clearly has strong feelings about him).
Jenny believes that they have “made happiness inevitable” for Chris, because he is so “visibly contented.” She recalls how Chris delights in his surroundings at Baldry Court and in the women’s company. She especially remembers the morning when Chris first left for the front. He’d wandered through the house and stables, gazed into the woods, and then stood sadly beside Kitty until it was time to go. Even as the car drove off, she’d seen Chris staring hard at the house. Jenny knew this meant that Chris loved his life with them at Baldry Court and wanted to hold it close in his memory.
Jenny believes that she can accurately read Chris’s feelings about his life at Baldry Court. Her opinion of his happiness is based only on outward appearances, however, which she interprets as contentment; it will soon become clear that Chris’s feelings about Baldry Court may be as superficial as its carefully managed beauty.
Jenny cherishes Chris’s happiness because she believes that he isn’t like other men. They’d played together as children, and Chris had had a tremendous imagination, seeming to genuinely believe that a tree could become a princess, or that a tiger would emerge from the forest. Even as an adult, his imagination has turned into “the equally wistful aspiration of becoming completely reconciled to life”—believing that some wonderful event will transform his life into permanent joy.
Jenny has a longer history with Chris than Kitty does. Nevertheless, it’s questionable whether she fully understands him. She observes that Chris takes delight in believing that things aren’t what they seem—whether through childhood pretending or the adult belief that a deeper joy is hidden behind visible circumstances. Yet Jenny has committed herself to making him happy by fixing up his superficial surroundings, so this moment hints that her efforts might not really be what Chris needs to be happy.
However, Chris has been too busy for such joy. After his father’s death, he had to take over the struggling family business, and then he married Kitty, who is used to an expensive standard of living. Later, his little son Oliver died. It became Jenny and Kitty’s job, then, to make up for Chris’s lack of freedom and joy “by arranging him a gracious life.”
Though Chris seems to favor a more reflective and whimsical approach to life, his adulthood has been marked by consuming burdens and sorrows. Unable to help shoulder these, Jenny tends to the external details of his life in hopes of compensating for his unhappiness. It’s already clear at this point that the women’s private work at home is part of what makes it possible for Chris to carry out the public duties expected of him as a man.
Jenny’s reflections are interrupted by the parlourmaid entering with someone’s card—a visitor has arrived. The visitor is “Mrs. William Grey, Mariposa, Ladysmith Road, Wealdstone.” Kitty doesn’t know anyone from Wealdstone, which Jenny describes as a “red suburban stain” between Harrowweald and London (“one cannot now protect one’s environment” as in the old days). The parlourmaid says that the visitor claims to have news for Kitty. Kitty decides to see her, quickly pinning up her hair in an outdated style that’s good enough for someone “with that sort of address.” She figures the woman may need money, and it’s good to be charitable while Chris is at war. As they head downstairs, though, Kitty pouts over the interruption.
Jenny and Kitty’s insulated existence is suddenly disrupted by someone from a very different world. Though Wealdstone is within walking distance of Baldry Court, the women have no relationships with people in the town, due to the sharp class difference. Jenny describes Wealdstone as an undesirable “stain,” suburban sprawl from which wealthy people deserve protection. Though Kitty is willing to be generous to someone whom she assumes has come to beg from her, her charitable feelings don’t run deeper than money.
At the top of the staircase, Kitty and Jenny look down and see a middle-aged woman in a yellow raincoat, unfashionable hat, and muddy boots. Kitty shudders at the sight of the woman but runs downstairs and greets her sweetly. Jenny acknowledges that the woman has noble shoulders, a good brow, and tender eyes, but she likens Mrs. Grey’s solidity to that of an ox or a trusted dog. Jenny adds that Mrs. Grey is “repulsively furred with neglect and poverty.”
Kitty and Jenny draw conclusions about the visitor’s social status from just a glance at her appearance. Even when acknowledging her nicer points, Jenny likens the woman to a trusty farm animal; at worst, she’s completely identified with her undesirable social status. Either way, both women make it clear that Mrs. Grey’s lack of refined beauty makes her offensive and perhaps even less than human.
Mrs. Grey fidgets with her purse and seems embarrassed. She’s heard from her maid, she explains, that Kitty doesn’t know about Chris—that he’s been hurt. Kitty’s and Jenny’s eyes meet in amusement—they both know this can’t be true, because the War Office would have wired them the news. They suspect this is one of those infamous frauds that has been appearing in the papers—the woman will surely ask for money soon.
Kitty and Jenny assume that this lower-class intruder couldn’t possibly have real information to offer them and can only be after money—when really, it will soon become clear that Mrs. Grey knows Chris better than either of them.
Jenny can’t help feeling put off by the accusatory way Kitty begins interrogating the woman. When Mrs. Grey says that Chris has “shell-shock,” Kitty doesn’t react. When she asks how Mrs. Grey knows all this, Mrs. Grey claims that an acquaintance of her husband’s serves in Chris’s regiment, but her eyes implore Kitty not to question her any further. Uncomfortable with the woman’s agitation, Jenny hopes that there is some polite way of concluding this scene, but she can’t resist nudging aside Mrs. Grey’s cheap-looking purse with her foot, “[hating] her as the rich hate the poor.”
Shell-shock is a term that began to be used during World War I to describe the effects of bombardments on soldiers in the trenches—things like anxiety, nightmares, tremors, and many other sensory and cognitive effects. Rebecca West’s inclusion of this controversial topic (shell-shock was sometimes chalked up to mere cowardice) was cutting-edge for the time. Even though Jenny thinks Kitty is being unnecessarily cruel, she is still instinctively repulsed by Mrs. Grey’s relative poverty.
Finally, Kitty accuses the woman of trying to defraud them and dismisses her in shrill tones. Jenny feels ashamed that such an incident is connected to Chris, and she is touched by Mrs. Grey’s patient gaze, which reminds her of “an old horse nosing over a gate.” She encourages Mrs. Grey to tell them everything she knows. Gratefully, Mrs. Grey explains that she knew Chris 15 years ago. She withdraws a telegram from her purse and says again, imploringly, “He isn’t well!” She explains that Chris has lost his memory and thinks he knows her.
Jenny continues to associate Mrs. Grey with an animal—an endearing yet dispensable figure—even in her growing sympathy. But unlike Kitty, she manages to show kindness even though she’s still disdainful of Mrs. Grey. Chris’s past connection with a woman like Mrs. Grey seems strange and unlikely, and it hints at the way both Jenny and Kitty will soon need to evaluate what they know about Chris.
Mrs. Grey hands Kitty the telegram and explains that it was sent to her old home, Monkey Island at Bray, where she had helped her father run an inn. She and her husband visited recently and found the telegram waiting for her there. Kitty continues to disbelieve Mrs. Grey, saying that the telegram mentions nothing about shell-shock. Mrs. Grey admits there was a letter as well, but then she rushes for the door, saying she can’t show it to them. They hear her begin to sob as she runs outside.
Mrs. Grey’s past connection to Chris is clearly an emotional one. It’s such an incongruous link that Kitty is unable to conceive that it could be genuine. Mrs. Grey realizes she can’t cross the wide class divide and that it’s useless to try to explain further, highlighting how class divisions create senseless separations between people; Kitty and Jenny have a lot to gain from listening to Mrs. Grey, but they’re so scornful of her poverty that they miss the chance.
After a while, Jenny tells Kitty that Kitty wasn’t of much help in clearing this up. Kitty knows that she seemed rude, but she can only see two alternatives: either Chris has gone mad, which she can’t bear, or else Chris really does know and have affection for “such a woman.” This suggests that there are parts of Chris she doesn’t know, and she resents the very thought. Even if Chris is ill, Kitty concludes, it doesn’t matter to her—if Chris could send a telegram like that, it means “he isn’t ours any longer.”
Kitty can’t cope with the implication that she doesn’t really know her husband—that there could be aspects of Chris that don’t belong within the careful boundaries of her world. This is why Mrs. Grey’s appearance and alleged news are such an affront to Kitty; they threaten her sense of control over her life, and she would rather lose Chris altogether than try to understand the parts of him she doesn’t know.