"The End of Patriarchy": Pat Barker’s WWI Novel, Regeneration
By Jennifer Orth-Veillon, Blog Curator
Legendary novelist, Pat Barker, winner of the 1995 Man Booker Prize for her trilogy, Regeneration, based on the life of British male soldiers in WWI, announced in a January interview with The Guardian that "we're at the end of patriarchy and I’m fine with that as long as it’s remembered that among the victims of patriarchy the vast majority are men." In this last post of Women's History Month in which WWrite has showcased women war writers, blog curator Jennifer Orth-Veillon discusses the meaning of Barker's statement in the context of Regeneration, a novel that takes place in Scotland's Craiglockhart Psychiatric Hospital and features the fictional characters poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and their renowned war psychiatrist, W.H.R. Rivers. Read about Barker and her monumental literary work on WWI at WWrite this week.
“You could argue that time’s up; we’re at the end of the patriarchy,” announced writer Pat Barker about her newest novel in an interview with The Guardian’s Claire Armitstead. The Silence of the Girls, published in January, retells the story of the siege of Troy in Homer’s Illiad from the perspective of the enslaved Trojan queen, Breseis. Barker is no stranger to the war story; out of 14 published novels, over half are about both world wars written from male and female viewpoints. However, she is best known for Regeneration, a trilogy tracing the lives of British men during WWI.
Barker’s announcement about patriarchy is not a simple reiteration of #Meetoo movement slogans. It could be said that she has been writing about patriarchy’s flaws during wartime for almost 40 years. She explains to The Guardian that at the end of the 20th century, “there was a return to the first world war. It was an attempt to see what has driven us so far off course…But you could argue, and perhaps it is true, that time’s up: we’re at the end of patriarchy, and I’m fine with that as long as it’s remembered that among the victims of patriarchy the vast majority are men.”
While the Centennial Commission has spotlighted stories on the Hello Girls, nurses, and female Yeomans, which have showcased the major role women played on the home front and abroad, men unarguably made the major military and political decisions driving WWI. For the most part, men perished in the trenches, men died from physical wounds, and many never recovered from the invisible wounds caused by the psychic trauma of war. One out of ten men of military-age died in France. And, as blog contributor Christopher Huang pointed out in his post, Agatha Christie’s post-war detective novels describe the ubiquity of Great War veterans who have been reduced to a wretched life of door-to-door salesmen in England.*
As Barker suggests, men no longer have absolute control of the major institutions and organizations that direct a state or society. Yet that doesn’t mean we can dismiss their suffering, past or present. In fact, she might even go as far as to say that women have the most to teach us about the male wounds endured under the traditionally-patriarchal system of war.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the first volume of the Regeneration trilogy, which is also entitled Regeneration. Regeneration, published in 1991 and followed by The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995), depicts neither battles nor trench scenes. Barker writes about this conflict through the compressed lens of treating war psychic trauma in the Scottish psychiatric hospital, Craiglockhart. The novel features several officer characters, who have been rendered unfit for combat after going through a particularly traumatic war experience. They fall under the care of neurologist and psychiatrist character, William Rivers. Inspired by the non-fictional Rivers’ medical writings about his work with patients during the Great War, Barker recreates the fictional figures of poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, who were both interned at Craiglockhart at the same time. Sassoon was committed not because he was deemed unfit but because he wrote a letter denouncing the war, claiming "I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defiance and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest." Writer Robert Graves makes several appearances, as does David Burns, another Craiglockhart doctor. Barker also writes in purely fictional characters, such as the promiscuous Billy Prior and his girlfriend, Sarah Lumb. The patients' traumas manifest themselves through more or less incapacitating symptoms. Most are characterized by language disorders, like stuttering or aphasia, or general malaise. Most suffer from nightmares, hallucinations and various psychosomatic illnesses, like uncontrollable tremors and tics.
The hospital doctors treat the disorders in different ways. Rivers seems the most benevolent as he assumes the role of psychotherapist and encourages the men to express themselves emotionally and verbally. Perhaps the most frightening part of the novel comes at the end when another doctor, Lewis Yealland, administers electroshocks to Callan, a despondent patient with aphasia. The violence of this scene amplifies as it becomes clear that Yealland believes he can sure Callan in one session. Yealland shocks Callan on different parts of his body, and before he moves on from one part to another, he stops and forces Callan to spit out a few horse words and sounds. Callan tries to escape a few times but eventually submits. When he leaves the session, he is weaker and more exhausted than before beginning. The words he had pronounced have disappeared. Yealland cheerfully pronounces Callan cured and fit to return to the front.
The fact that none of the patients appeared fully cured, no matter what the method, testifies to tension between the individual soldier’s strong aversion to the extreme violence of war and the order for him conform to a cultural ideal of war based on patriotic virility. After the session with Callan and Yealland, Rivers comments “nothing Callan could say could have been more powerful than his silence.”
In the following passage, one of the most powerful in the book, Rivers seems to gain insight into the cause for the most severe cases of psychological trauma from war by contemplating the men who manned observation balloons over the battlefields – they suffer not from bomb blasts but from an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness. Barker writes of Rivers:
"As soon as he started work at the hospital he became busy, and as Head had predicted, fascinated by the differences in severity of breakdown between the different branches of the RFC. Pilots, though they did indeed break down, did so less frequently and usually less severely than the men who manned observation balloons. They, floating helplessly above the battlefields, unable either to avoid attack or to defend themselves effectively against it, showed the highest evidence of breakdown of any service. Even including infantry officers. This reinforced Rivers’ view that 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 as the explanation for their condition."**
It is here that Rivers appears to make a call to the psychoanalytic studies by Freud on women and their diagnosis of hysteria:
"That would help to account for the greater prevalence of anxiety neuroses and hysterical disorders in women in peacetime, since their relatively more confined lives gave them fewer opportunities of reacting to stress in active and constructive ways. Any explanation of war neurosis must account for the fact that this apparently intensely masculine life of war and danger and hardship produced in men the same disorders that women suffered from in peace."
Is it not here that Barker marks the “end of patriarchy” with the admission that the traditionally-imagined, patriarchal- designed roles for both men and women – the virile soldier for men, the docile housewife for women – can render both genders powerless in the eyes of a society at war or peace if they are incapable of complying with these roles' prescriptions? Is it not in the mysterious forms of non-compliance that we witness among the traumatized soldiers who, as Yealland would say “refuse to be cured,” a true statement about the ailment’s origins and its potential remedy?
When Rivers comments “nothing Callan could say could have been more powerful than his silence,” it becomes impossible to ignore that, while the psychiatric hospital is supposed to heal, it also works in conjunction with the military, whose only wish here is to master control of the soldier’s mind and body. The military, therefore, doesn’t want to hear the illness’ true voice. Rivers comes to understand that even his gentler approach with the patients works to suppress them. He explains “Silencing, then…Just as Yealland silenced the unconscious protest of his patients by removing the paralysis, the deafness, the blindness, the muteness that stood between them and the war, so, in an infinitely more gentle way, he silenced his patients; for their stammerings, the nightmares, the tremors, the memory lapses, of officers were just as much unwitting protest as the grosser maladies of the men.”
Just as women with the diagnosis of hysteria in the early 20th century were prescribed the famous rest cures during which they were discouraged from reading, writing, talking, and refraining from any activity that would stimulate their minds, the wounded soldiers are ordered to further repress their feelings by smothering their symptoms instead of uncovering them. In refusing the cure offered, Barker seems to suggest that the only real outlet the men have to express the truth about their condition and rebel against their imposed role lies in the extralinguistic – their bodies, their facial expression, non-linguistic vocal sounds, or muteness.
Perhaps Barker might say that these traumatic manifestations of the body and the voice are ultimately genderless. Both belong to humans dispossessed of language adequate to put the real reasons behind their suffering into words.
In an interview with Valerie Stivers in The Paris Review, Barker attests to the silent power of a physical wound by telling the story of her grandfather, a veteran of WWI. She says:
“I’d always wanted to write about World War I, ever since I was eleven or twelve. My grandfather—my grandmother’s second husband—had a bayonet wound in his side, and I would see it when he got stripped off at the sink before heading off to the British Legion for his weekly pint. It was a hideous wound, and I would ask him what it was, but it must have been difficult for him to answer that question, since he never spoke about the war. I can’t remember what he said—there was the wound and there was silence, so there was a mystery, and that is what usually sets a novelist going.”
As Barker intimates, her grandfather, by not discussing his physical wound, allowed her to hear something much more pertinent through his silence. The wound does speak but not in a language that was readily available to her grandfather. In some ways, the silence called her to construct her own narrative, empathetic world in which she perhaps finally came to understand him. Maybe this encounter with her grandfather marked one of Barker’s first encounters with the “end of patriarchy.” The silence he imposed on his wound and on his war experience was not meant to dominate or control but intended to open a space for someone with the right sensibility to truly listen.
Regeneration film trailer (1997)
Date: Feb 28, 2016
*To read an interesting article about women writing war, see The Paris Review's article about last week's blog contributor, Roxana Robinson, and Pat Barker, entitled "A Quaker Woman Writes About War."
** See Elaine Showalter's The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture 1830-1980. Barker was influenced by Showalter's chapter on shell shock as a way to examine gender issues and trauma.
Jennifer A. Orth-Veillon is a Franco-American writer, teacher, scholar, and translator who works on war, literature, and memory. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Emory University and curates the United States WWI Centennial Commission’s WWrite Blog, which explores the influence of WWI on contemporary writing and scholarship with a special focus on the American veteran. She has led writing workshops for veterans on university campuses and has taught over twenty-five courses on different modes and mediums for war veteran memoirs. In her writing and research, she seeks to understand the complexity of war through its shifting place in cultural memory and history. Her translations, fiction, and non-fiction have appeared in Esprit, Lunch Ticket, The Wrath-Bearing Tree, Consequence Magazine, and Les cahiers du judaisme. Her first novel, The Storage Room, is inspired in part by her grandfather’s experience as a battalion surgeon in WWII, where he formed a lifelong friendship with a Dutch artist he liberated from Ahlem-Hannover, a concentration camp in Germany.