Places: The Return

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1910

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Ghost

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Places DiscussedHerbert home

Herbert Return, Thehome. Ramshackle house in the English countryside, home to Herbert Herbert and his sister Grisel. Herbert describes the residence as a “queer old shanty,” but Arthur Lawford finds it a pleasing refuge from the problems his psychic possession causes at home. Peculiarities of the house mirror Arthur’s predicament. The house is situated at a point where the rushing River Widder washes against its lower walls. Similarly, it is purportedly haunted by a ghost which insinuates itself into living beings, and this is how Arthur becomes possessed. The spirit of Nicholas Sabathier has come rushing from the past to fill the susceptible vessel that the convalescing Arthur represents.

Herbert describes the ghost in the house as one who looks into shelves and drawers that no longer exist. Like the ghost, Arthur is someone searching for a past that no longer exists. When he returns to his own home physically transformed by the spirit of Sabathier after his sojourn in the Widderstone churchyard, he discovers that the domestic values that have kept his household and marriage together for seventeen years are a fragile illusion that become strained and eventually broken.

Inevitably, Arthur comes to realize that the spirit of Sabathier, which, though out of place in the modern age, hungers for life as he himself hungered for life while a young man. Sabathier haunts Arthur much the way the ghost haunts the Herbert residence, and both represent incarnations of the past trying to reassert themselves.

The Herbert residence is imbued with a strong sense of the past. It seems much older than the nearby Widderstone churchyard, arising from its surroundings like a natural part of the landscape, and it is filled with antiquarian books on all manner of subjects. Herbert is a scholarly man knowledgeable about history, including the history of Sabathier. Grisel offers Arthur a type of consolation that he compares to the love his mother showed him as a child. It is no wonder that Arthur comes to a sense of the man he once was during his stay there.


Widderstone. Centuries-old churchyard, a short walk from the Lawford residence. Its unconsecrated ground is the site of Nicholas Sabathier’s grave, where Arthur Lawford’s possession occurs. Though the vicar of the parish describes it as a beautiful spot, Lawford’s family and friends consider it an improper place for Arthur to take a walk; they view his decline following his experience in the churchyard as his just deserts for this transgression. Arthur’s attraction to the site is solid evidence of his difference from those around him.

Lawford home

Lawford home. Comfortable middle-class home in suburban England. Arthur Lawford, his wife Sheila, and his daughter Alice have lived unremarkable lives in the house until Arthur’s takeover by the spirit of Sabathier, after which Arthur feels himself an intruder and an outsider. The house represents a past from which Arthur becomes an outcast, never to return. Eventually, he refers to it as a “great barn of faded interests.”

BibliographyBriggs, Julia. “On the Edge: Walter de la Mare.” In Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story. Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, 1977. Offers a reverent account of de la Mare’s ghost stories, drawing various comparisons between The Return and his short fiction.Clute, John. “Walter de la Mare.” In Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror, edited by Everett F. Bleiler. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985. A sensitive discussion of de la Mare’s ambiguous use of the supernatural. Gives more attention to The Return than most such essays, which often concentrate entirely on his short fiction.McCrosson, Doris Ross. Walter de la Mare. New York: Twayne, 1966. A compact but thorough account of de la Mare and his work. Chapter 8 is devoted to The Return.Reid, Forrest. Walter de la Mare: A Critical Study. Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, 1929. An early study of de la Mare’s work, written when his reputation was at its height. Chapter 8 is a detailed critique of The Return, relatively uncolored by comparisons with the later ghost stories.Whistler, Theresa. Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare. London: Duckworth, 1993. A recent biography of de la Mare, much more detailed than earlier ones. The Return is set in its biographical context in chapter 8, which deals with the author’s relationship with the poet Henry Newbolt, who was the prime mover in procuring de la Mare’s Civil List pension.
Categories: Places