Regeneration By Pat Barker – An Overly Long Book Review
October 12, 2009 in 5 Minute Book Review
One of my favorite books is Regeneration by a British woman named Pat Barker, published in 1991. While it’s part of a trilogy whose full story is intricate, deep and beautifully written, Regeneration is the first book in the series and can easily stand alone. One of book’s main characters is Dr. William Rivers, who was a real psychiatrist at a real mental hospital in Scotland during World War I. At the time, soldiers suffering from “shell shock”—what we know call PTSD—were sent off the line to a hospital to recuperate.
They suffered from a host of conditions, including loss of control of limbs, blindness, hallucinations, night terrors, insomnia, sudden onsets of muteness and, important to our story, political dissention encouraged by none other than Bertrand Russell.
The truly remarkable thing about Regeneration is its characters, a group of real people who actually met in 1917 at Craiglockhart War Hospital, and one fictional character who stands as an example of the toll that war took on an entire generation of young British men: Billy Prior (fictional), Dr. William Rivers, Siegfried Sassoon, and arguably the most famous poet of the WWI era, Wilfred Owen.
We also meet Robert Graves, Sassoon’s best friend, and the one responsible for Sassoon’s admission to the hospital (more on that later). Prior’s path goes separate from what I want to write about here, but he was admitted to Craiglockhart after losing the ability to speak. Only in the third book do we learn the reason (which I won’t write here, in case anyone decides to read these books—if you really want to know, I’ll tell you in comments or something).
Barker took pains to base her characterizations in Regeneration on writings from those characters that represented real people. Luckily for her, three of her characters (Owen, Sassoon and Graves) were prolific writers of poetry, memoirs and novels, and Dr. Rivers journaled constantly. Rivers deserves an essay all his own—he was an ethnographer in addition to being a psychiatrist—but for the sake of my interest, I have generally focused on Sassoon, Owen and Graves.
When reading Barker’s book in conjunction with Graves’ memoir Goodbye to All That, Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man, and Owen’s poetry, it almost seems as though Barker must have known the men behind her characters.
But what about that political dissention? This is what I mean:
Finished with the War
A Soldier’s Declaration
I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.
I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.
I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.
Big deal, right? (Also, does it sound familiar?) Sassoon sent it to several newspapers, which, not surprisingly, caught the attention of just about everyone who mattered. In an effort to save his friend from further humiliation, incarceration and likely death, Robert Graves called in a favor and convinced the army that Sassoon was crazy. As a result, Sassoon ended up at Craiglockhart War Hospital. He was angry with Graves, but forgave him quickly, as Graves, who was convalescing from a serious chest wound, saw Sassoon through the entire ordeal. (In the 1920s, Sassoon came out, and he and Graves had a falling out over it from which they never recovered, despite Graves’ changing attitudes about homosexuality later in life. Some speculate that Sassoon was also a Socialist, which was Graves’ real problem.)
While Sassoon thought his hospitalization was wholly unwarranted, close reading of his memoir shows how reckless he had become in the wake of his dear friend David Thomas’s death, and also how fucked up the military is. Sassoon received a medal for valor on a raid that really should have killed him, and did kill several others. He describes in detail how he was certain that he was dead, had even begun to accept it, and suddenly, he realized he had taken an entire German trench.
Context clues notwithstanding, Sassoon’s own memoir paints us a very different picture than Graves’ when it comes to his hospitalization. Sassoon felt his time at Craiglockhart was wasted, except for the time he spent getting to know Dr. Rivers and helping Wilfred Owen edit his, Owen’s, poetry. Graves, on the other hand, takes pains to describe the degree to which his friend Sassoon had deteriorated, how ill he looked and how he was truly not in his right mind. The difference in account, while notable, is not surprising.
Which brings us back to Barker. Obviously, we don’t have much information about what went on between Sassoon and Dr. Rivers during Sassoon’s time in the hospital. Where history fails us, Barker picks up, almost seamlessly. She makes an entire person of Sassoon, and Rivers, from mere fragments. And she fleshes out a relationship about which is known little: Wilfred Owen and a man he idolized, Siegfried Sassoon. (At times, when I was reading it for the first time, I literally forgot it was fiction.) In point of fact, it was Sassoon who encouraged Owen to write about war in his poetry in the first place. Owen previously spent all his time avoiding the war in his writing, but with Sassoon’s mentorship and guidance, he turned out what remains the greatest body of war poetry in modern history. Looking at Owen’s manuscripts reveals scribbles in the margins in another script—that’s Sassoon’s. There is speculation about Sassoon and Owen’s relationship being more than student and teacher. They corresponded after they both left the hospital, but sadly, Owen was killed just a week before the war finally ended.
While Sassoon’s poetry is much less famous than Owen’s, its value for posterity is no less. He had a visceral fear that what he and his friends had gone through would be completely forgotten by future generations. In one of his later poems, “Aftermath,” Sassoon pleaded, “Have you forgotten yet?/ Look up, and swear by the green of the spring/ that you’ll never forget.”
When I think back to my own education, even as a student of history, I learned little about World War I. All my knowledge came from my own interest after an elective I took on the literature of World War I. There are few veterans of the conflict left at this point, and I think Sassoon was understandably naïve when he begged we not forget his war.
For everything we forgot about that war, though, we have been given a replacement in modern terms. What remains timeless, to me, is the themes interwoven in all the writers of this era—Graves, Sassoon, Owen, Edmund Blunden, Ivor Gurney, Julian Grenfell, Erich Maria Remarque, and I could go on forever—that man is often more inhuman than human, and that war readily strips him of the last vestiges of his humanity.