Historical Analysis: Regeneration by Pat Barker

Length: 1045 words

It is important to remember that Regeneration is a work of fiction, even if it is based on a real historical event. Certain circumstantial settings of the novel are indeed true. For example, it is not contested that within the theatre of the First World War, many British soldiers suffered severe psychological trauma. Likewise, it is a fact that some of them were treated at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. While retaining these basic facts of the war, author Barker had taken the liberty to change chronology of events or distil the collective experiences of the soldiers onto one character, etc. These literary licenses do not majorly diminish the utility of the work as a historical record. To the contrary they condense and encapsulate British soldiers’ experiences. The book proves to be both intellectually engaging and technically satisfying, while not compromising on history. This essay will argue that while accommodating the imperatives of the novel form, Regeneration does not compromise on historical veracity.

Firstly, an attractive feature of the novel is the manner in which it synthesizes real events across the realms of society, politics and the battlefield. For example, the renowned Dr. W.H.R. Rivers was the incumbent army psychiatrist at the

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Craiglockhart War Hospital during the war. It was true that he attended to poet Siegfried Sassoon as one of the patients. Sassoon had been diagnosed with ‘shell-shock’ – what in modern parlance would be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But there was a political conspiracy behind this event. Earlier, Sassoon had openly protested against the war and conscientiously objected to participating in it. Understanding the power and reach of a public intellectual like Sassoon, the powers that be sought to undermine his credibility by attributing a mental illness to him. But this would prove to be a blessing in disguise in retrospect, as Sassoon was able to mentor and inspire Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart, where the latter was recuperating from war-related stress. Indeed, Owen would go on to overtake Sassoon as a legend of war poetry. These are real historical events that have shaped twentieth century culture, especially literary and political discourse. They have all been faithfully captured by Barker in her novel, albeit by taking some liberties over certain descriptive aspects of these events.

In terms of shortcomings, Regeneration does not serve as a detailed biographical account of Sassoon’s or Owen’s life. Certain important facets of their personal life are eschewed for they are not relevant to the narrative at hand. Sassoon’s homosexuality, for example, is not directly treated in the novel. However,

“The most cursory glance of the poet’s life after the First World War immediately reveals the kind of sensitive issues involved. His post-war life was confused, experimental, even chaotic. In the Twenties he had three unsatisfactory homosexual affairs in quick succession, with the artist Gabriel Atkin, with Prince Philip of Hesse, and with the theatrical director Glen Byam Shaw, before embarking on a strangely ethereal romance with Stephen Tennant, aesthete and exotic beauty.“ (Bostridge, 1998)

Underscoring that it is a novel foremost, there are certain characters that are purely fictitious. But this is not to say that their characterization is unrealistic. To the contrary, their social backgrounds and battle experiences are drawn straight out of the war. They are fictitious in the sense that their names find no matches in the historical records. Billy Prior is one major character in this category. Even Davis Burns, with original name changed, is a fictionalized version of a patient at Craiglockhart. His ailment – a combination of shell-shock, nausea and anorexia is not uncommon to war veterans. Sarah Lumb is another fictitious character in the novel. But just like Burns, her characterization is very authentic. Depicted as a Scottish working-class girl toiling in an armaments factory, Lumb represents the plight of working class women of her generation. Indeed, most women of her generation were forced to work in factories only because men were drafted into war operations. Their own heroism is not less to that of men, for the economy between the years of 1914 and 1919 were shouldered by them. Hence, what the novel lacks in accuracy, it makes up through its authenticity. In this context, the following broader comment is an apt evaluation of the novel’s historicity:

“Indeed, each of Barker’s notes also compels, if not literally a rereading, at least a rethinking of the preceding text, further forcing and/or troubling issues that are alive in the main narrative–an additional, circular stage of rethinking history-telling. The books allow readers to access both note and narrative, intensely and simultaneously… and given the particular authority of professional or professional-sounding historical discourse in providing/constructing such truth, this effect of dual intensity may require that the books allow us to experience the stories as (ambiguously historical) fictions before presenting us with competing historical apparatuses.” (Westerman, 2006)

In conclusion, it is apt to describe Regeneration as historical-fiction, where the genre of the novel is imposed on real historical events. In terms of characters, we saw how both real as well as fictitious-yet-realistic people were incorporated into the narrative. Likewise, one can also see many themes in the novel resonating with that of the First World War. Firstly, set in a psychiatric hospital, the theme of madness is central to the book. The pathologies expressed in patients therein include fear of blood, PTSD, repressed anger, mutism, etc. Horrifying as these ailments are, they are purely a consequence of battlefield experiences. In other words, they were caused by prior unhealthy dispositions in the victims. Dr. Rivers, making a perceptive comment on this cause-effect relationship, questions how battle-induced mental conditions can be classified under medical taxonomy. He says that what he sees in his patients is not ‘madness’ in the conventional sense. In fact their scarred mental states are a reflection of their fully functional humanity. It is their conscience and compassion that has propelled them into their so-called ‘madness’. Dr. Rivers’ statement that is quoted in the novel is factually accurate. Even the list of psychiatric illnesses he refers to are consistent with war veterans’ experiences. The only fictionality is in the names of patients and in the manner in which their stories are synthesized to satisfy imperatives of the narrative form.

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