Books Culture

Historical fiction: Regenerating the psychological power of the past

Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy of novels, set as much at home as in Flanders, is a valuable addition to the oeuvre of First World War literature. So skilful is its prose, so wonderfully simple its dialogue, that it should be recommended to any doubter of the genre of historical fiction. In its wake, one will never read the poetry of Sassoon or Owen the same way again.

One key feature of the trilogy is that it relays historical events and tells historical characters’ stories without ever becoming subservient to dry historical narrative. Instead, psychology takes centre stage and often-devastating emotions never have to flex in vain to enliven the story of the war itself. The subtle interplay of historical figures such as the poet Siegfried Sassoon and his psychiatrist William Rivers, with fictional creations, notably the novels’ antihero Billy Prior, makes the trilogy a rich, delicate tapestry which shows a remarkable empathy on the author’s part with the soldiers she depicts.

Barker’s choice to focus on the home front, and especially on the mental damage inflicted upon the soldiers who had to return from the line for psychological reasons, facilitates this nuanced, emotional reflection upon war, masculinity and ultimately the human condition itself. The novels provide space for Barker to interrogate the characters from multiple perspectives, allowing the inner and outer beliefs of each of the main characters to compete, and thus question each other.

 This is particularly true of the relationship that is the spine of the trilogy: that between William Rivers and Billy Prior, initially a patient of Rivers’ in Craiglockhart War Hospital. Prior initially comes off as obnoxious, with his seeming inability to help himself infuriating the ever-patient Rivers as much as the reader. However, in the course of the trilogy, Barker reveals him to be a deeply witty and intelligent character, if only in as much as he is also psychologically unstable, with the war bringing to the fore underlying insecurities dating back to his childhood.

In many ways, the same can be said to be true of Rivers, a character who is something of a father-figure to his patients, and these similarities are clearly disconcerting to Barker’s imagined inner monologue of the historical doctor and anthropologist. As the series progresses, Rivers comes to question his own psychological state just as we become aware that for all his public abrasiveness, so does Prior. This tangled web of doubts on the part of two capable characters, one an officer and the other a renowned psychiatrist, makes the novels far more intense than any biography of the historical Rivers alone could hope to be.

Though set in a specific historic setting, then, the Regeneration trilogy explores universal themes in a highly artistic manner despite its purposefully sparse, often even vulgar, prose. This is what makes historical fiction as artfully written as Barker’s a match for the equally affecting war literature that sprang from the first-hand experience of the First World War. While Remarque in his seminal All Quiet on the Western Front, or Junger in his memoirs, Storm of Steel, may have had more direct access to trench warfare than does Barker, this by no means makes her writing more distant from the pathos of war.

Indeed, the setting and characterisation of the Regeneration trilogy are arguably more interesting in that it has the scope to explore the mores of early twentieth-century Europe with hindsight. The conflict between the stiff upper lip attitudes of soldiers on both sides, marvellously exemplified by Junger’s repeated references to breakfast in the midst of the maelstrom of the war, and the underlying fragility of the human psyche makes Barker’s novels incredibly thought-provoking. Though any modern author must take care not to impose modern debates about mental health on the thoughts of historical characters, showing that apparently stoic soldiers did feel immense strain makes for great new insights into a war that tend to become side-lined in novels written by people who were really there. Even if Paul Baumer’s return home from the trenches in All Quiet on the Western Front is striking and poignant, the contrast between Remarque’s description and the more explosive hatred engendered in Prior by the sight of frivolous civilian life in the Regeneration trilogy makes Barker’s venture to verbalise the intense inner feelings of First World War soldiers a noble one.

Barker’s trilogy thus powerfully makes the case for the importance of historical fiction in helping latter generations to process the traumas of the past. The novels are not just beautiful in themselves, majestically evoking human relationships in the wake of personal and global catastrophe. They add to our understanding of the events of the First World War themselves, not by baldly describing them but by vividly encapsulating their effects on society and the individual. Over a century after the conflagration’s conclusion, the pain the conflict caused in the minds of all it touched as well as in the bodies of its innumerable casualties is kept starkly relevant by historical fiction at least as much as by continued academic study of the war.