I’m glad to have read this book on Remembrance Sunday. Set in World War One, Regeneration uncovers the hidden trauma of the trenches. Author, Pat Barker, describes the work of Dr William H. R. Rivers, a real British army psychiatrist who tried to treat shell-shocked soldiers.
I began Regeneration a hundred years after the end of the First World War. I hadn’t been sure whether to pick it up. Some of the characters, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, were real war poets. Like Dr Rivers, their work is still available for future generations to read. Should words be placed into the mouths of people who expressed their own opinions so well?
Once I started Regeneration, I changed my mind. It’s clear how closely the author tries to stick to real events. Pat Barker offers an insight into the conditions and issues faced by actual First World War veterans (anonymised with fictional names), whether it’s the military doctor whose work left him with a phobia of blood, or the man unable to face eating after a shell blast threw him – mouth open – into a corpse. The nightmares, hallucinations and other injuries are distressing but Barker uses these true experiences to show modern audiences the horrifying impact of trench warfare.
A Soldier’s Declaration
The story begins in 1917 when, after months of violence, Siegfried Sassoon writes ‘A Soldier’s Declaration’, accusing the British authorities of prolonging the war and causing unnecessary suffering. These same authorities declare Sassoon is ill and place him under Rivers’ care at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland. While there, he mentors his fellow patient, the poet Wilfred Owen.
As Sassoon struggles with his anti-war feelings, we learn Rivers has his own moral dilemma. It’s his duty as a psychiatrist to help his patients, but those who recover may be sent back to injury and death in the trenches. This is one of many paradoxes and contradictions in Regeneration. After all, the book’s most violent episode happens in a hospital, not on the front line. Dr Lewis Yealland’s painful electric shock treatment is a frightening contrast with Rivers’ ‘talking cures’.
Barker explores the First World War’s changing gender roles. Sarah, the girlfriend of Billy Priors (one of the few entirely fictional patients), lives independently and enjoys after-work socialising with friends. We learn the conflict opened up new options for women, allowing her to leave a domestic service job she hates for a better paid role at a munitions factory. At the same time, some of Rivers’ patients feel emasculated, with one man dreaming of being tied up with corsets. Society tells these soldiers to repress their emotions and keep a stiff upper lip, but Rivers invites them to talk about their experiences. We’re shown that bravery is no barrier to developing shellshock after terrible events.
Bonds between men are another major theme. Rivers is a caring father figure (or “male mother”) to his patients. He resents the idea that nurturing traits are seen as feminine. After hearing officers worry about the state of their men’s socks, boots and blisters he comes to believe that the “paradoxes of the war” lead men to take on roles that would once have been seen as feminine. I found some of his diagnoses bizarre, but they show how ideas have changed over the last century.
Verdict: Regeneration is a fascinating mix of fact and fiction. It isn’t always easy reading but covers important themes. Expect an insight into attitudes towards shell-shock and the psychological impact of the First World War.