July 28th marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the commencement of World War I, so in honor of the occasion, this week's post will feature one of the greatest novels written about the Great War -- Pat Barker's Regeneration.
If you're feeling a sense of foreboding right now, a realization dawning that I may have been buttering you up last week with the recommendation of the 100% silly and delightful PG Wodehouse to give you a bit of respite before hitting you with something profoundly harrowing, let me compliment you on your astuteness.
But let me also assure you that Regeneration is not a typical war novel -- there is no gore, there are no battle scenes except in memories or nightmares. This is not a book about war so much as it is about the effects of war – on the men who fight, the men who try to heal them, and the women who survive in their absence. It's about trauma and the uncertain possibility for recovery; the suffering that is beyond telling, one that leaves some mute and makes others unable to convey their pain except through writing; the bondage of social class which prevents meaningful connection among those who share injuries; and the emancipating power of compassion.
It's also a true story, for the most part. One of the major characters, Billy Prior, is a creation of the author, but most of the others are not.
Regeneration is a fictionalized account of the real-life poet Siegfried Sassoon meeting the real-life poet Wilfred Owen at the real-life setting of Craiglockhart War Hospital, a hospital for shell-shocked British officers, in Edinburgh, Scotland. There, Sassoon was treated by the real-life neurologist and psychiatrist, William H.R. Rivers, with whom he formed a close bond. The novel follows Sassoon as he is first ordered to the hospital for sending Parliament an anti-war declaration (it was either be declared mentally unsound or be court-martialed), spends time with him and a few other patients during their stay at the hospital, and ends when he is declared fit for duty and returned to combat.
[Side note: Siegfried Sassoon was a wealthy, well-respected, published poet at the time of his hospitalization; Wilfred Owen was unknown and unpublished, and a fan of Sassoon's writing. In one of history's great strokes of fortune, they met at Craiglockhart and Sassoon encouraged Owen to write about the war, even reading and editing Owen's poetry for him. Little did they know that in the decades following World War I, Wilfred Owen would come to be recognized as one of the world's greatest war poets (and for good reason), while Sassoon has largely faded from popular memory.]
The book's central philosophical struggle puts Dr. Rivers at the center: what is the role of a healer in a context in which healing is defined as successfully persuading the injured to return to the same situation that injured them in the first place? Furthermore, Rivers is himself an officer of the British Army, and his martial duty requires him to do this very thing. By "curing" Sassoon of his treasonous (and completely justified) anti-war stance, he will be preparing him to return to the front and most likely to his death. How does a man of good conscience fulfill his duty as an officer and his job as a doctor while remaining true to his oath as a healer to protect the health and life of his patient? Especially someone like Rivers, who is surrounded by men whose minds and bodies have been eviscerated by the war?
The real Dr. Rivers was a pioneer in employing talk therapy to treat "war neurosis" (as post-traumatic stress disorder was then called), a far gentler approach to treatment than the brutal bio-physiological therapies in use at the time. Pat Barker's Rivers is a pensive, emotionally reserved, but pre-eminently compassionate man -- she does a fantastic job of bringing him to life and showing the reader just what made his patients love and admire him so much. (You will understand why, after Rivers passed away a few years after the war, Siegfried Sassoon was so overcome with grief that he collapsed at his funeral.)
Barker writes beautifully, with simplicity, clarity, and great sensitivity to the social mores of the time, as well as to all the subtle shifts in power dynamics between doctor and patient, officers of different military rank, members of different social classes, and between people labelled mentally sound and unsound. One other feature that makes her war novel unusual is that she includes the voice of the women who remained at home while almost an entire generation of men were off fighting and dying in battle.
If this blog post is longer than usual, it's because I really can't say enough about Regeneration (and I haven't even touched on the character of Billy Prior!). It's one of those books that leaves you feeling like you've changed as a person after having read it.
Entertainment Weekly review : "In this extremely accomplished and intelligent novel, Barker describes the relationship between Sassoon — rich, upper-class, half-Jewish, handsome, and homosexual — and Dr. W.H. Rivers, the social anthropologist and neurologist turned, for the duration of the war, psychiatrist at Craiglockhart. Despite the grimness of its subject matter — the death, mutilation, and traumatizing of a generation of British youth — the novel is never depressing. In part this is because Barker refuses to manipulate her reader's emotions, but it is also because Rivers' reflections on shell shock and other forms of breakdown are so enlightening: In his view, 'it was prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness that did the damage, and not the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors that the patients themselves were inclined to point to...Any explanation of war neurosis must account for the fact that this apparently masculine life of war and danger and hardship produced in men the same disorders that women suffered from in peace.'"
Regeneration is actually the first book in a series called (as you might expect) The Regeneration Trilogy. The books that follow are The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road (for which Pat Barker won the Booker Prize). The FHG Library owns all three books in the trilogy.
You can see Wilfred Owen's handwritten drafts of his poetry with Siegfried Sassoon's comments here at the First World War Digital Archive. The same archive contains the handwritten drafts of Sassoon's war poetry. The archive also contains digital scans of Craiglockhart Hospital's literary journal, The Hydra, (of which Owen was an editor).
In this picture of the staff at Craiglockhart, you can see William Rivers in the front row (sixth from the left, the mustachioed officer sitting between two nurses). You can read a paper Rivers wrote during his time at Craiglockhart, "The Repression of War Experience," here at the National Library of Medicine website. The Rivers the Healer website has a lot of good, well-researched information about the man, as does this site. Finally, this paper by Paul Whittle includes some great testimony on Rivers' character, including this anecdote:
W. Arnold Middlebrook, of Downsway, Kirk Ella, East Yorks, called in the College Library in July 1963. He was treated for shellshock by W.H.R.R[ivers] at Craiglockhart Hospital in Sept. 1917. He visited the Library on, at least, two ocasions. Each time he asked to see the portrait of Rivers. He would stand, at the salute, and thank Rivers for all he did for him. On his last visit he was obviously in poor health and finished with the words “goodbye my friend I don’t suppose we shall ever meet again.”
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