In leading his patients to understand that breakdown was nothing to be ashamed of, that horror and fear were inevitable responses to the trauma of war and were better acknowledged than suppressed, that feelings of tenderness for other men were natural and right, that tears were an acceptable and helpful part of grieving, he was setting himself against the whole tenor of their upbringing. They’d been trained to identify emotional repression as the essence of manliness. Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures. Not men. And yet he himself was a product of the same system, even perhaps a rather extreme product. Certainly the rigorous repression of emotion and desire had been the constant theme of his adult life. In advising his young patients to abandon the attempt at repression and let themselves feel the pity and terror their war experience inevitably evoked, he was excavating the ground he stood on.The above passage expresses what is perhaps the central thesis of the Regeneration Trilogy: the enormous psychological cost of WW1 wasn’t just about the violence the young men at the Front were forced to witness, horrific though that was. It was about the fact that processing the emotions associated with their experiences required them to redefine their understanding of masculinity – an understanding so fundamental to everything they were always told they should strive to be that none of them could simply shrug it off. The fact that such a fundamental process of redefinition and identity shifting had to take place in such taxing circumstances was a perfect recipe for mental breakdown.
The change he demanded of them – and by implication of himself – was not trivial. Fear, tenderness – these emotions were so despised that they could be admitted into consciousness only at the cost of redefining what it meant to be a man.
Regeneration, the first book in Pat Barker’s renowned trilogy of WW1 novels, is set at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, an institution where army psychiatrist William Rivers treated officers suffering from shell shock. Rivers, along with poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, is one of the historical figures that play a key role in this novel. There’s also the fictional Billy Prior, an officer with a leg on each side of the class divide. In Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, Barker follows these characters through their recovery and eventual return to the Front. Along the way, she examines the social climate that prevailed during the war. The unusual circumstances of WW1 stirred up anxieties about class, gender, and sexual orientation (perhaps best embodied by the scandal surrounding actress and dancer Maud Allan) that affected individuals in different ways.
Many of the officers Rivers treated, including Sassoon and Prior, had one additional factor to contend with in their struggle to make sense of themselves and of their masculinity: homosexuality. As sociologist C.J. Pascoe so well explores in her work, homophobia and the policing of masculinity tend to go hand on hand. The theory about wartime homophobia these novels put forth is best expressed in the following conversation between Sassoon and Dr Rivers (interestingly enough, Rivers has almost the exact same conversation with Manning later on):
Sassoon looked downcast. ‘I thought things were getting better.’Dr Rivers is himself every bit as interesting as any of the officers he treats: he’s a product of the Victorian era, and so the nurturing methods of psychiatric treatment he favours amount to, as the passage I opened with puts it, “excavating the ground he stood on”. Furthermore, he’s a practical, compassionate, perceptive man, and yet he’s complicit in a system that’s destroying the young men he’s taking caring of (not to mention getting personally invested in). Rivers is well aware of the paradox of curing these officers only to send them back to the Front, where they are unlikely to survive. But at the same time, he knows that “doing their bit” is essential for them to salvage their sense of self. Learning to acknowledge and process their emotions doesn’t change that.
‘I think they were. Before the war. Slightly. But it’s not very likely, is it, that any movement towards greater tolerance would persist in wartime? After all, in the 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 the 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.’
Rivers sometimes tries to give them a way out, but many, like Prior, are far too intelligent for that to work. Rivers’ awareness that he’s sending them to their deaths and his powerlessness to stop it makes for an incredibly moving finale. He realises all along that “in war nobody is a free agent” and that “he and Yealland were both locked in, every bit as much as their patients were”; but the full emotional impact of this doesn’t hit him until the end.
The gender anxieties Regeneration deals with go beyond a redefinition of masculinity: there’s also women’s increasing participation in the workforce and the key role they played in the war effort as factory workers. Billy Prior becomes involved with Sarah Lumb, a “canary” – one of the munitions workers thus nicknamed because the chemicals they worked with turned their skin yellow and gave their hair tinges of green. Although the two develop a touching connection, there’s always a barrier between them: Billy believes that Sarah has no real understanding of what the Front is like; that she can’t understand because as a woman she’s supposed to be shielded from that kind of experience.
Reading Regeneration gave me some insight into the complicated reality behind poems like Sassoon’s “Glory of Women”: men like Sassoon resented women for idealising the heroism of war and for having no understanding of what things were really like; all without realising themselves that the real culprit was the system of rigid gender roles both women and men were trapped in. I do find the misogyny the poem expresses horrifying, but I also feel incredibly sorry for everyone involved: they couldn’t see what was going on because doing so required a different mindset, but if they had a different mindset they wouldn’t have the problems they did to begin with.
So far I’ve told you why I found this novel so interesting from an intellectual and historical perspective, but I haven’t told you how much it affected me emotionally. You can tell from the very beginning that this is not the kind of story where anyone will be spared, but when the inevitable happens, it still absolutely slays you. John Green’s recent post on anticipation versus surprise is applicable to what Pat Barker does here. I do think surprise can be used effectively in fiction, but there’s a particular kind of emotional resonance to having readers live with the inevitable; to making them hope against hope that the characters they’ve grown to love are going to be okay, even though they know that their circumstances mean there’s no way they can.
This brings me to another reason why the Regeneration Trilogy resonated with me as much as it did: it captures what it’s like to be a victim of history; to have the course of your life be determined by the accident of when you were born. Lately I’ve been developing a greater understanding of what it’s like to be caught in the middle of social, political and economical forces you can’t fight on your own. This is obviously not meant to imply that graduating during a deep recession is on the same league as WW1, but differences of scale aside, some of what these characters faced felt familiar to me. These days we tend to shy away from the word “victim” and its connotations of powerlessness and lack of agency, but the fact remains that sometimes people are victims of their circumstances; sometimes they are pitied against systems they alone are powerless to change. This makes their stories tragic, but it doesn’t for a moment make them weak, or in any way responsible for their failure to overthrow the force of circumstances. We like stories about heroes who succeed against all odds, but I think there’s value in keeping other types of narratives and the possibilities they raise in mind.
I’ve only scratched the surface of everything Regeneration is about: there are also the unacknowledged acts of courage embodied by Beattie and the redefinition of heroism she represents; there’s Billy Prior and everything his story arc reveals about class; there’s the way Barker’s understated writing style cleverly conveys the emotional repression she’s trying to portray; and so on. I read these books back in May, and to be honest I got so obsessed with doing them justice, with not writing something thoughtless or shallow about them, that I kept putting off finishing this post. And of course, this inevitably destroyed any chance that I ever could actually do them justice.
Oh well; hopefully the glimpse I gave you was enough to pique your curiosity. Do read these books if you haven’t yet, and if you’re at all interested in gender and sexuality and the way our understanding of them has changed throughout the 20th century. They’re brilliant historical fiction, much in the same vein as Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch. And we all know how much I adored that.
A few more memorable bits:
One of the paradoxes of the war – one of the many – was that this most brutal of conflict should set up a relationship between officers and men that was... domestic. Caring. As Layard would undoubtedly have said, maternal. And that wasn’t the only trick the war had played. Mobilization. The Great Adventure. They’d been mobilized into holes in the ground so constricted they could hardly move. And the Great Adventure – the real-life equivalent of all the adventure stories they’d devoured as boys – consisted of crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed. The war that had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known. No wonder they broke down.The Eye in the Door
Was it possible Beattie had tried to reach out from her corner shop in Tite Street and kill the Prime Minister? The Beattie he’d known before the war would not have done that, but then that Beattie had been rooted in a communal life. Oh, she’d been considered odd – any woman in Tite Street who worked for the suffragettes was odd. But she hadn’t been isolated. That came with the war.The Ghost Road:
Shortly after the outbreak of war, Miss Burton’s little dog had gone missing. Miss Burton was a spinster who haunted the parish church, arranged flowers, sorted jumble, cherished a hopeless love for the vicar – how hopeless probably only Prior knew. He’d been at home at the time, waiting for orders to join his regiment, and he’d helped her search for the dog. They found it tied by a wire to a railway fence, in a buzzing cloud of black flies, disembowelled. It was a daschhund. One of the enemy.
In that climate Beattie had found the courage to be a pacifist.
“It’s evening now, and everybody’s scribbling away, telling people the news, or as much of the news as we’re allowed to tell them. I look up and down the dormitory and there’s hardly a sound except for pages being turned, and here and there a pen scratching. It’s like this every evening. And not just letters either. Diaries. Poems. At last two would-be poets in this hut alone.They read it too: Steph and Tony Investigate, Shelf Love (The Ghost Road), Park Benches & Bookends, Buried in Print, Ready When You Are, CB
Why? You have to ask yourself. I think it’s a way of claiming immunity. First-person narrators can’t die, so as long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe. Ha bloody fucking Ha.”
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