Pat Barker
Pat Barker; drawing by David Levine

Until Pat Barker’s Regeneration, the first book of her World War I trilogy, appeared in 1991, she was modestly respected for her novels of life in the urban wastelands of northern England, harsh and knowledgeable and showing a wonderful ear for the local idiom. But in the trilogy—Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and now The Ghost Road—she found a subject that energized her work, sending it in a whole range of new directions, and making her one of the most deserving winners of the prestigious Booker fiction prize in recent years. The core of the subject was the meetings that took place in 1917 between Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and the psychiatrist/anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers, recorded in several autobiographies. But she has branched out imaginatively around this factual core in a number of ways. Courage and its limits, love between males both Platonic and erotic, the nature of therapeutic healing, and—because of the appalling nature of that particular war—the brutality of dying and the tenuousness of any counterbalance to it, the themes unfold gradually throughout the three books.

Robert Graves the poet is well known, the war poet Wilfred Owen (killed in the trenches in 1918) less so, and Siegfried Sassoon, who survived to write both poetry and autobiography through the Twenties and Thirties, is temporarily out of fashion and probably out of print. It is W.H.R. Rivers, an extraordinarily multi-talented man, who is now the least known—partly because of fashions in psychiatry and anthropology, partly because of his own retiring character. In one sense he was the typical bachelor Cambridge don, presumed homosexual by inclination at least; from another aspect he was an intellectual adventurer, who jumped from medicine to psychiatry to anthropology, earned respect and honors, and died too early, just as he was about to stand for Parliament as Labour candidate. He was loved. Sassoon wrote that “there was never any doubt about my liking him. He made me feel safe at once and seemed to know all about me”; and Graves, of Rivers’s study room in Cambridge, “For that was the place I longed to be/And past all hope where the kind lamp shone.” Throughout the three novels Rivers, surrounded in the war hospitals he works in by broken minds and obscenely smashed bodies, slowly develops as a kind of unspectacular war hero himself, struggling to mend men and, against his own inclinations, to fit them to go back for more maiming and probable death.

Regeneration was the book that focused particularly on the relationship between Sassoon and Graves, and the two succeeding ones have gone on from there. Sassoon appears again in the second novel, and some of Barker’s material is based on his writings about the war. Jewish and homosexual, a member of a well-to-do family that originally came from Persia and Bombay, he was something of an outsider despite being brought up as a hunting and shooting country squire. Twenty-eight when the war broke out, he served as an exemplary officer and won the Military Cross (he was known as “Mad Jack” for his outrageous bravery). In 1917 he did something he considered to be braver than anything he had done in the trenches. Believing that no one any longer knew what he was fighting for, that it was time for a negotiated peace and that nothing justified the continuing suffering, Sassoon presented a statement of refusal to fight any longer. He hoped, he said, to help destroy “the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize”—agonies which Barker’s imagination forces us to stomach. Sassoon had had encouragement in this step from Bertrand Russell, as a leading pacifist.1

Robert Graves, fellow poet and already a seasoned soldier, though in age no more than a boy, has told what happened next in Goodbye to All That—his autobiography, mainly of the war years, which caused a sensation when it was published in 1929. Realizing that Sassoon would be court-martialed and would anyway not have the slightest effect on the war’s leaders, he wangled a temporary medical discharge for his friend on the grounds of mental breakdown. Sassoon was sent unwilling to Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland, popularly called “Dottyville.” Here Rivers and other doctors tended the truly broken-down, the men Wilfred Owen wrote about in his poem “Mental Cases”:

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear;
   night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.

In Craiglockhart Sassoon talked with Owen about poetry, and some of his bitterest anti-war poems first appeared in the hospital magazine.


Though he wakes with nightmares, and sees corpses on the pavements of Piccadilly, Sassoon is not a genuine shell-shock victim. The other patients in Craiglockhart are not so lucky. There is Anderson, a doctor from the Medical Corps, who has been averaging ten amputations a day in his field hospital. Since watching a soldier hemorrhage to death in front of him, he, like one of Owen’s “mental cases,” has developed a phobia of blood that cuts him off from any future medical career. There is the boy who asks, very politely, whether his injury will permit any kind of sexual performance; the answer is no. There is Burns, who has been blown up by a shell and thrown head first onto a decomposed corpse. His mouth filled with its flesh, and since then he has been unable to eat without vomiting. And there is Billy Prior, a veteran of twenty-two, who has lost his voice and lost his memory.

Prior is entirely Barker’s fictional creation, unlike many of the other characters, and he takes a growing part in the narrative as the trilogy unfolds. Raped by his priest as a boy, he is bisexual; almost more significant in the England of 1917, he has become classless, having grown up in the rough northern alleyways that Barker knows so well, but having escaped to go to grammar school and become an officer. Prior has sold himself in back streets, dined in the West End, read Rivers’s books. “A little, spitting, sharp-boned alley cat,” Rivers thinks of him; “Neither fish nor fowl,” says his docker father with scorn. His ambiguous status and disabused intelligence let Barker show us, through him, many sides of the time and the place, the working-class home he comes from as well as the officers’ mess, his tenderness toward his factory worker fiancée as well as his homosexual adventures. Only gradually do we realize that in the randy alley-cat Billy Prior we are seeing an anatomy of courage. He had enlisted the week war broke out, concealing his asthma. After his stay at Craiglockhart and some Intelligence work he “goes back”—“going back” being what they all both dread and long for; and, of course, in the last days of the war and the last pages of the trilogy, a bullet gets Billy Prior.

Rivers’s role as diffident healer is, in a low-key way, a central point of sanity in the chaos of war. Perhaps Barker wants to show that the twentieth century, having invented war in its ultimately horrible form, also produced a new way of accepting mental suffering. Sassoon is not truly one of the “dotties”; his relation to Rivers is more teacher to pupil than doctor to patient, and there is an unstated erotic tension between the two, which Rivers keeps under control. I teach my patients to release their feelings, he muses wryly, while I keep my own tightly shut up. In The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, published later in his life, Sassoon has written of how deeply Rivers impressed him; at his death he put in his diary that it was “difficult to believe that such a man as he could be extinguished.”

But Prior, too, refuses to be just case-history fodder. He challenges Rivers, laughs at him, resents him, and at one point exchanges seats and becomes the analyst. He tells Rivers what going into attack is like:

“You start the count down: ten, nine, eight… so on. You blow the whistle. You climb the ladder. Then you double through a gap in the wire, lie flat, wait for everybody else to get out—those that are left, there’s already quite a heavy toll—and then you stand up. And you start walking. Not at the double. Normal walking speed.” Prior started to smile. “In a straight line. Across open country. In broad daylight. Towards a line of machine-guns.” He shook his head. “Oh, and of course you’re being shelled all the way.”

Prior has a memory gap of six days from his last period at the front. To recover the memory, he asks Rivers to hypnotize him. Under hypnosis, Prior finds himself standing outside his trench, when a shell hits it. He goes back into it and starts shoveling into a sandbag the fragments and flesh that were, a few moments ago, his men. He picks up an eye from the boards under his boots and holds it out to his sergeant. “What am I supposed to do with this gob-stopper?”2 he asks.

Gradually, from the time he remembers the eye, Prior begins to mend. Rivers, in a sense, seems to take Prior’s shock and exhaustion on himself. He remembers his vicar father quoting Physician, heal thyself. He muses on whether mothering must only be done by women, and on the mothering of men that is done by young officers in this war. They have a certain look, he thinks, that he has only otherwise seen on the faces of women bringing up large families on minimal incomes: “the look of people who are totally responsible for lives they have no power to save.”


Rivers’s kind of talking therapy is not the only one practiced on shell-shocked patients. Barker provides a grim description of the “cure” of a soldier with hysterical mutism as it was performed in the “electrical room” of another hospital.3 The boy is locked into a darkened room, told he will not be released until he speaks, strapped into a chair and given electric shock after shock until gradually he makes grunts, sounds, words. Afterward he is made to salute and thank his tormentor. After having to watch this, Rivers—who himself stammers—has a nightmare in which he is forcing a horse’s bit into a bleeding mouth. It is a self-accusation, he thinks on waking up afraid; he and his fellow doctor are both forcing sick men to seem well, to send them back to slaughter. The man gagging over the bit looked like Sassoon, and this first novel in the trilogy ends with Rivers filling in the last page of Sassoon’s file: Discharged to duty. Sassoon goes back. Regeneration, of a kind—but to what end?

Up until the trilogy, Pat Barker has written mostly about women although, this being a story of the First World War, it is necessarily about what happened to men. But women are part of these novels, too—Billy has a fiancée, Sarah, yellow-skinned from her work in a munitions factory, bereaved already of her first soldier. The wartime lives of Sarah and her mother, Ada Lumb, of Billy Prior’s mother and a crowd of other women from the poor streets of northern towns, are also present in the background. What the war meant to those at home is one of the themes of The Eye in the Door, the second book of the three. Women suffered great losses; there were blackedged cards in the front windows of small terraced houses. But for some of them war meant liberation: brutal husbands out of the way, freedom to go out to work. “I’m going to get meself some false teeth, and I’m going to have a bloody good time,” says one.

Prior reflects that for his brother officers England means green fields, streams, old village churches surrounded by elms; while for him and the majority of the troops in France the deadly landscapes there are only a worse version of their mean streets at home. The story of Beattie Roper, known to Prior since he used to sit in the back room of her sweetshop as a boy, is in the forefront of The Eye in the Door It is one of several interconnected stories, based on actual cases, that show how brutal the treatment of pacifists on the “home front” was—even the middle-aged and highly aristocratic Bertrand Russell was put in jail in 1918 for his views. The real Roper was accused, probably unjustly, in 1917 of trying to poison leading politicians and was sentenced to ten years’ hard labor. She died soon after being released from prison.

The image of the Eye in the Door has multiple meanings. What shall I do with this gob-stopper? in the previous novel had been Prior’s question as he picked up a still-warm eye from the trench floor, before he blacked it out. As a child he had bought gob-stoppers and other cheap sweets from Beattie’s shop. Now, round the inspection peephole in the door of her cell when he goes to visit her in Aylesbury prison, another prisoner has painted a huge eye, with lid and lashes. That’s horrible, Prior says to her. “‘S not so bad long as it stays in the door,” she says. “You start worrying when it gets in here”—tapping her head. The eye is inside Prior’s mind, and the night after his visit, he wakes from a nightmare—the book is spattered with them—that it is staring at him as he lies in bed in his moonlit room.

As well, Prior is at this time, between his stay in Craiglockhart and his final return to the front, a kind of private eye himself, working in Intelligence for the Ministry of Munitions in London. He is obliged to spy on people—pacifists, Communists—that he knows and feels for, and under this new strain his own “I” splits. (The epigraph to the book is from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: “I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both….”) He has returned to see Rivers, who is now working in London, because there are again chunks of time lost from his memory, and in one of them he suspects he has betrayed a pacifist friend while working for Intelligence. He tells Rivers of another nightmare:

I was walking along a path in a kind of desert and straight ahead of me was an eyeball…. Huge. And alive. And it was directly in front of me and I knew this time it was going to get me…. Fortunately, there was a river running along beside the path, so I leapt into the river and I was all right.

They both know who the healing river is. And they both know that Prior is split over “going back” to the front; by now he could easily stay in England and save his life.

Rivers, who lacks any visual sense, himself has a kind of wounded eye. When Billy Prior changes roles with Rivers and sits in the analyst’s chair, he tells Rivers so, says that something Rivers couldn’t bear to see as a child has blocked his visual memory from then onwards. And indeed, Rivers thinks afterward, he has been a deeply divided man throughout his life, and all his work has been influenced by it. But, we feel, Barker makes us feel, that there is enough courage, in him and in Prior, to endure the breakage and to heal it.

Barker’s is, however, not some chronicle of triumph over terrible odds—and in the last volume, The Ghost Road, the picture darkens even more. It is a book haunted by ghosts—those who have actually died and those, in Owen’s words, “whose minds the Dead have ravished.” They make a silent, reproachful, always growing population throughout the trilogy. Regeneration has quoted Sassoon’s poem, perhaps his finest, about “When I’m asleep, dreaming and drowsed and warm,/They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead.”4 In The Ghost Road there are interpolations from Rivers’s experiences as an anthropologist in Melanesia before the war, and it is from that culture that the book’s key word comes. Mate. In Melanesian society mate means “dead,” but in the sense of about-to-be-dead. The very old or sick or doomed are not classed with the living any longer. “Ghosts everywhere,” thinks Prior. “Even the living were only ghosts in the making.” Cheeky, streetwise, angry Billy Prior, writing his diary in his trench in the last days of the war, is mate. He is on the Ghost Road.

In Melanesia, Rivers had seen the funerary rites of a chief, and the chants of the witch doctor—a healer like himself—to the powerful dead. “Be not angry with us, be not resentful, do not punish us.” The Melanesians talk to their dead, the English troops live among theirs, pressed in by them on all sides. They themselves are not-quite-ghosts. “We don’t even mention our own dead,” Prior writes in his diary:

We are Craiglockhart’s success stories. Look at us. We don’t remember, we don’t feel, we don’t think—at least not beyond the confines of what’s needed to do the job. By any proper civilized standard (but what does that mean now?) we are objects of horror. But our nerves are completely steady. And we are still alive.

Rivers has also seen death viewed as part of a bartering system. The chieftain’s widow could not be released from mourning without the sacrifice of a head, though head-hunting in Melanesia had been forbidden by the colonial rulers. When, late in 1918, Rivers sees Prior off for his last journey to France, he thinks of this, and of sacrifice, of a stained glass window in his father’s church: Abraham holding the knife over Isaac. (“The necessary supply of heroes must be maintained at all costs,” Sassoon noted down from a newspaper speech.) When death as managed in a tiny “savage” society is set against death in the Great War of 1914—1918, the insane uncontrollability unleashed in Europe is seen all the more clearly. Barker turns the screw almost tighter than is bearable: before the bullet gets him, Prior has pulled a hideously wounded boy out of a shell hole, a boy who a few days before had been arguing in favor of the war: “We are fighting for French independence…. This is still a just war.” In hospital, after he has been rescued, the boy takes far too long to die. Out of what is left of his head, a sound keeps coming; Shotvarfet, shotvarfet. What he is trying to say is: “It’s not worth it.”

Does Barker not balance the slaughter with some gleams of hope, goodness, survivorship? She does of course, because in a time of great darkness there were some gleams. The last thing she aims to convey is the shallow view of war as a pastime dreamed up by male aggression. The fighting men she creates, shit-scared, dogged, wary, are in some pitiful sense heroes. They want to save their skins, but they give each other care when they can. Sassoon describes to Rivers the lectures called “The Spirit of the Bayonet”:

You know, “Stick him in the kidneys, it’ll go in like a hot knife through butter.” “What’s the good of six inches of steel sticking out the back of a man’s neck? Three inches’ll do him. When he croaks, go and find another.” And so on. And you know, the men sit there laughing and cheering and making obscence gestures. They hate it.

There is male hatred of war as well as heroism, and through all three books there is the gleam of Rivers’s “kind lamp,” the place where Graves and the other patients “long to be.” Another gleam in the dark is the poetry that was being made out of the horrors. Billy Prior, no poet himself, feels it at misty dawns in the ravaged French countryside; and Barker gives the two poets, Owen and Sassoon, a moment of mutual recognition of the moment in history they share. “Sometimes when you’re alone, in the trenches, I mean,” says Owen,

at night you get the sense of something ancient. As if the trenches had always been there. You know one trench we held, it had skulls in the side…. And do you know, it was actually easier to believe they were men from Marlborough’s army than to think they’d been alive two years ago. It’s as if all other wars had somehow… distilled themselves into this war, and that makes it something you…almost can’t challenge.

Such community of feeling, wherever and whenever it happens, is another of the gleams. To go back to Sassoon’s diaries again (this is 1922, Rivers’s funeral in Cambridge):

The whole ceremony was beautiful and, to me, sublime. The whole college seemed to be absolutely one with the ceremony. It had lost something which was an intense factor in its communal existence. But, in the presence of death, it was alive—a living vindication of the physical failure of Rivers to go on breathing and speaking.

Truthfulness is in itself a glimmer of light. Virginia Woolf, in 1917, reviewed Sassoon’s war poems. He makes us feel, she says, the most sordid and horrible experiences in the world as no other poet of the war has done. “It is realism of the right, of the poetic kind.” In just that way Pat Barker has recreated in terrible and enlightening shape one of the great formative events of the century. My father won medals in that war, but never told me anything about it. Barker has now done it for him.

This Issue

February 15, 1996