You might say that Great War 100 Reads began with Regeneration. Pat Barker’s trilogy of WW1 novels has been sitting on my reading pile for years, but always with other books on top of them. In the months leading to August 2014, I kept hearing about interesting projects for the WW1 centenary and thought about how I, too, could mark the occasion. First thought: I should finally get around to reading the Regeneration trilogy. Second thought: Ha! Reading a mere three books would be a pretty pathetic attempt at commemoration. And so began the idea that ultimately expanded to a reading list for the duration.
Regeneration views the war from the safety of Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. There, officers suffering from shell shock – what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD – are sent to be restored to ‘sanity’ so they can return to the front lines. Through the eyes of psychiatrist William Rivers and his patients, Barker mixes fact and fiction to explore the complexities of war colliding with class, courage, gender, sanity, sexuality.
You want perception, you go to a novelist, not a psychiatrist. (p 164)
Through their observations, we come to know that mutism is a PTSD symptom for enlisted men; officers stammer. That courage can be measured on the battlefield, or in speaking out against the war. That the natural reactions to war go against an upbringing to “identify emotional repression as the essence of manliness.” (p 48) That gender roles were in a state of flux, where women “expanded in all kinds of ways, whereas men over the same period had shrunk into a smaller and smaller space.” (p 90) That homosexuality is censured so comradeship amongst soldiers does not tip into the “wrong kind” of love. That anxiety neuroses and hysterical disorders are prevalent in those whose “relatively more confined lives gave them fewer opportunities of reacting to stress in active and constructive ways.” (p 222) … in other words, the conditions of war create a condition for men that is more likely the norm for women in peacetime.
As soon as you accepted that the man’s breakdown was a consequence of his war experience rather than of 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. (p 115)
Many of the characters in Regeneration are actual people. Rivers was a psychiatrist at Craiglockhart. Siegfried Sassoon was his patient, sent to the hospital after publishing a declaration “that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” (Better that a decorated officer be treated for mental illness than court-martialled for treason.) Robert Graves was instrumental in arranging the outcome of Sassoon’s medical board. Wilfred Owen was treated there as well. Sassoon did make suggestions that Owen incorporated into his poem, Anthem for Doomed Youth.
The author’s note is a good starting place to understand Barker’s meticulous research and the factual elements of the story. But the value of the novel goes beyond the facts to a deeper understanding of a complex time that continues to resonate.