Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls was one of my favorite novels of 2018; I read it after teaching The Iliad for the first time, fascinated by the idea of a novel that told the events of the epic primarily from a feminine
point of view: namely, that of Briseis, the Trojan captive that Agamemnon and Achilles quarrel over. It was also my first introduction to Pat Barker in general, and was I ever appreciative of that when I learned that Barker had also written a trilogy set during WWI, in which war poet Siegfried Sassoon was a major character (and other poets like Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves had cameos). I ordered all three volumes during lockdown last year, and this spring, I finally started getting to them.
Regeneration is the first book, and it takes place primarily at Craiglockhart War Hospital, a psychiatric institution near Edinburgh that treated shell-shocked officers during and immediately after the war. It begins with Sassoon’s arrival after he wrote an anti-war manifesto and threw his Military Cross medal into the Thames; he was spared a court-martial when his friend Robert Graves rigged a medical board to declare he was shell-shocked and send him to Craiglockhart. There, we meet psychiatrist and military doctor William H. R. Rivers, who is both the advocate and the foe of his patients, who sometimes resent his efforts to work through their trauma. Both Sassoon and Rivers were real people, but Barker populates her novel with fictional characters as well, most notably Billy Prior, a lieutenant from a working class background, who suffers from asthma aggravated by gas, as well as periodic mutism from the trauma of the trenches.
Barker’s perspective on the war is complex; while she captures the sense of suffering and waste that it involves, putting Sassoon at the center of her story means complicating any of the simple narratives one might be drawn toward. Sassoon did indeed condemn the war, but he also refused to characterize himself as a pacifist or a conscientious objector: he felt the motives of the war had changed, and while he was willing to die to defend England, he was far more reluctant to risk death for the sake of conquest and economic advancement, and he was remarkably courageous in battle and devoted to the men under his command, who were equally loyal to him. Accordingly, Barker portrays the dual sense of horror and longing that both Sassoon and Prior feel for the front lines and their experience in their respective units, as well as Rivers’s own sense of divided loyalties over healing men in order to send them back to potentially face death. As she has Rivers reflect:
“And as soon as you accepted that the man’s breakdown was a consequence of his war experience rather than his own innate weakness, then inevitably the war became the issue. And the therapy was a test, not only of the genuineness of the individual’s symptoms, but also of the validity of the demands the war was making on him. Rivers had survived partly by suppressing his awareness of this. But then along came Sassoon and made the justifiability of the war a matter for constant, open debate, and that suppression was no longer possible. At times it seemed to Rivers that all his other patients were the anvil and that Sassoon was the hammer.”
Lurking beneath these questions about the war, though, are also other issues: Sassoon, after all, was not only a ferociously principled poet who, along with Owen and Graves, profoundly affected the way we write about war, but he was also gay, in an England only two decades removed from Oscar Wilde’s conviction for sodomy. This issue isn’t centered in Regeneration, but Barker takes care to acknowledge it in all parts of the narrative. Rivers again:
“After all, in war, you’ve got this enormous emphasis on love between men – comradeship – and everybody approves. But at the same time there’s always this little niggle of anxiety. Is it right kind of love? Well, one of the ways you make sure it’s the right kind is to make it crystal clear what the penalties for the other kind are.”
The issue of homosexuality in WWI Britain will occupy a much more prominent place in the sequel, The Eye in the Door, but Barker plants the seeds for it here. And she leaves us, near the end, with a paraphrase of damning sentiments found in a number of the war poets’ work: “A society that devours its own young deserves no automatic or unquestioning allegiance.”
Ultimately, Regeneration is a beautiful novel, preoccupied with questions about war, social class, art, and ethics in ways that remain pressing and relevant in our own age of endless war that art is still struggling to portray well, or indeed at all. The prose is simply gorgeous, and the amount of dramatic tension that Barker can wring from two men sitting across from each other in a room and talking–or even sitting along in a room and thinking–is extraordinary, and sensitively observed. It’s also decidedly fitting to her subject matter: the war helped to pushed a number of writers after WWI to try and capture greater interiority in their works, from Rebecca West to Virginia Woolf. I’d recommend it strongly to anyone interested in the era or its poets.
(Also, we’re getting a sequel to The Silence of the Girls in a couple of months. The Women of Troy, coming in August!)