#cbr10bingo And So It Begins
Pat Barker’s Booker-nominated first volume of the Regeneration Trilogy takes place during World War I and, unsurprisingly, deals with the trauma and horror of that conflict. What sets her work apart from other WWI novels, however, is that the action takes place not at the front but at an asylum for British soldiers suffering from what we would now call PTSD. Many of the characters in Regeneration are real people who really knew each other in London and at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh: the poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves; the doctors Rivers, Head and Yealland. In this first volume, Barker imagines the interactions of Dr. Rivers, one of the psychiatrists there, and his most famous and challenging patient: the poet, war hero and war protester Siegfried Sassoon.
In 1917, England had already been at war for several years without achieving its goal of defeating Germany. The prevailing view among civilians was that the war was necessary, that England’s objectives for fighting, however unclear they might be, must be achieved, and that it was one’s duty to serve. Getting wounded, physically or psychologically, might mean a temporary trip home to recover before being sent back to the front. Those suffering from “shell shock” or mental breakdown were sent to asylums such as Craiglockhart for treatment. Dr. Rivers’ patients there suffered in a variety of ways: mutism, stuttering, nightmares and hallucinations, paralysis with no physical cause, etc. Rivers understands that these behaviors result from the prolonged exposure to the stresses of war, that it isn’t one particular event that causes a breakdown. His goal is to get each man to consciously admit what he has endured rather than repress it in the good old English way, to recognize that fear and horror are a normal human reaction to what they have experienced, to heal, and then to go back for more. Rivers, like most other people, believes that the war must be fought to its conclusion, that Germany must be defeated. Siegfried Sassoon, however, will challenge Rivers and transform him as much as Rivers hopes to transform others.
Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart in the summer of 1917 after distinguishing himself as a leader in battle. Sassoon had not suffered a breakdown in the traditional sense; his transgression was to write a manifesto protesting the war. Sassoon was not a pacifist; having fought in the trenches and seen his men die, he wrote his “Soldier’s Manifesto” to protest “the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.” Sassoon was angry about the complacency of civilians, at their inability to imagine soldiers’ agony and suffering. He was angry that the government did not formulate clear goals and objectives for the war and that thousands upon thousands of men were being slaughtered for no clear reason. His goal was to get a court martial, a death sentence, as a way to get publicity for his views and stir people up. His friend Robert Graves intervened to prevent this from happening, convincing superiors that Sassoon had suffered a mental breakdown. In an asylum Sassoon would be out of sight and out of mind, his views effectively silenced. Yet it would also give Sassoon the chance to rehabilitate himself and, as Rivers hoped, return to active duty. It is at Craiglockhart that Sassoon meets Wilfred Owen, a fellow poet, and several other patients who are products of Barker’s imagination but whose experiences are based on facts. Dr. Anderson was a doctor at the front who performed dozens of amputations and watched men die regularly; he had a breakdown and now cannot stand the sight of blood but needs to return to medicine to support (and not disappoint or embarrass) his family. Billy Prior was in the trenches and frequently had to handle his buddies’ dead bodies; he suffers from mutism and guilt, and has other secrets besides. Burns is a very young man who cannot eat without vomiting due to his war experience. Dr. Rivers patiently works with each man, trying to get them to voluntarily remember their past experiences, acknowledge them and not feel ashamed of their reactions to them. Rivers is patient and kind; he is a sort of father figure to many of his patients. Even Sassoon finds himself wanting to engage with Rivers. He is a dedicated doctor, putting in 20-hour days meeting with these men and writing reports when he might rather return to the life of a researcher. Given his dedication, his compassion and his own background (middle class, not an elite, and suffering from a lifelong stutter), Rivers finds himself deeply affected by what he sees and hears. His work takes a physical and psychological toll, and he begins to suffer anxiety/panic attacks. In some ways, he is suffering from the same kinds of stress as the men he treats. More importantly, though, he is experiencing a conflict between his long held views and the reality before him.
Normally, a cure implies that the patient will no longer engage in behaviour that is clearly self-destructive. But in present circumstances, recovery meant the resumption of activities that were not merely self-destructive but positively suicidal.
Rivers’ epiphany comes after he himself suffers a physical breakdown and is forced to take a leave from Craiglockhart. He is able to return to the world of research in London and witnesses Dr. Yealland’s treatment of shell shocked patients, a horrific experience involving the use of electrical shock to force the paralyzed to walk and the mute to speak. Rivers realizes a few things from this: he is not that different from Yealland even if his methods are kinder; he likes working with patients at Craiglockhart and misses it; and he is beginning to question authority.
A society that devours its own young deserves no automatic or unquestioning allegiance.
Regeneration Volume 1 ends with Rivers’ return to Craiglockhart and Sassoon’s preparation to return to the front, and Barker has set up plenty of interesting story lines and conflicts to take the reader into volume 2. Class conflict is an issue that runs throughout the story, including the idea that one’s class influences the type of illness one might suffer. The issue of homosexuality and deviance/mental illness is also an undercurrent in volume 1. Sassoon at one point tells Rivers that “my intimate details disqualify me from military service” and Graves makes a point of telling Sassoon about a friend who was arrested for soliciting, the message being that if you can’t conform in one area (war protests), you have to conform everywhere else. Barker also brings up civilian life through a female character, Sarah, who works at a munitions factory and becomes involved with one of Rivers’ patients.
Regeneration is a short novel (under 300 pages) but provides rich reading. Barker’s characters are complex and sympathetic, the storylines take on complicated issues, and historical facts and details are skillfully woven into the narrative. The overriding message of standing up to authority, confronting prejudices, and of the pain involved in healing could not be more timely.