This year the Durham Book Festival celebrates Pat Barker’s formative work of First World War historical fiction Regeneration. Twenty-five years after its publication and one hundred years after the conflict, we will be distributing copies of this Booker-Prize winner’s most famous novel to schools and libraries in the author’s home county of Durham.
Many of us learn about the First World War not through history books but through poetry. The war gave us incredibly famous works like Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ (published 1920), Robert Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’ (1914), and Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ (1914). Authors writing long after the conflict still return to the subject. The most well known example is Philip Larkin in ‘MCMXIV’ (1964).
Even if these titles don’t sound familiar, some lines from the poems almost definitely will. ‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?,’ ‘Age shall not weary them,’ ‘there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England,’ ‘Never such innocence.’
In Regeneration Barker seems to give us a glimpse into the lives of two of the most celebrated war poets – Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Much of the novel’s intrigue comes from the illusion of witnessing how their friendship develops. Yet the picture Barker creates of Sassoon and Owen is different from how they are usually imagined.
We don’t see them crouched in trenches in France of Belgium. They aren’t covered in mud, surrounded by rats, or framed by poppies. When we meet Sassoon in Regeneration he is on a train to Edinburgh, looking for his friend and fellow poet Robert Graves. He is going to Craiglockhart Hospital, sent there by army authorities because he has protested against the war. When Barker introduces us to Owen, he is a patient in the same hospital, peeping round the door of Sassoon’s room. He’s visiting to talk about poetry.
Barker combines intense historical detail, vividly imagined description, and energetic dialogue to make us feel that we are witnessing Sassoon’s and Owen’s relationship grow. We see them developing ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ together. We see Owen timidly asking Sassoon to write for The Hydra, the hospital magazine.
The novel also presents an intriguing, and equally lifelike, picture of the psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers. Rivers is in many ways the book’s main character. He provides a thread of connection between its different stories, and his work in physical and mental ‘regeneration’ is its main theme. Rivers feels intense sympathy for his patients and compassion for their suffering. But he experiences guilt as well. Too old to fight himself, his role is to heal soldiers so that they can return to the front.
The more fictional part of Regeneration is the tale of working-class officer Billy Prior, who is being treated at Craiglockhart, and munitions worker Sarah Lumb. Their romance, which is Barker’s creation, takes place in the moments that Billy is able to spend outside of the hospital, and in Sarah’s time off from the factory.
For many readers and reviewers, Billy’s character becomes the novel’s most compelling. Having been born into a working class family but gained military rank, he has a hybrid class status, along with a (sometimes dark) bi-sexuality and a streak of stubborn aggression. These traits produce an energetic friction between Billy and the other characters, most obviously in his conversations with Rivers. Billy rebels against the doctor/patient relationship, pushing his psychiatrist to consider the significance of his own memories and experiences.
The various plots in Barker’s novel relate to different types of ‘regeneration.’ Most obvious is the regeneration of shell-shocked servicemen at Craiglockhart. Ironically, these men overcome their psychological conditions only to go back to the fighting that made them ill.
But there are more subtle types of rejuvenation at work in the book as well. For example we find out that Rivers conducted nerve regeneration experiments with his colleague Henry Head – these were painful and haunt both Rivers and the novel.
There is also regeneration involved in Billy Prior and Sarah Lumb’s story. By creating thoughts, feelings, and relationships for Billy and Sarah, Barker helps us to imagine what the conflict might have been like for members of the working class. She regenerates the way we think about the First World War, illuminating the kinds of experiences that are often overshadowed by more familiar and famous tales.
Perhaps most importantly, Barker seems to regenerate the past. She has gathered together historical documents – including Rivers’ research and Owen’s manuscripts – and revived them. She has blended the information they offer with her own fictions and interpretations. In doing so, she has created the impression that by immersing ourselves in her novel we can ‘get the past back.’ Regeneration is part chronicle, part fiction. It raises questions about if and how literature can reveal and revive the history.
This year, the anniversary of the book’s publication and the middle of the conflict’s centenary, we think about our cultural fascination with the First World War. Regeneration (1991), alongside The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995), has shaped and tested our perceptions of the conflict. But the books’ popularity and success also speaks to a desire to look back at the war – to return to it, to see it again and see it anew.
What effect has Barker’s work had on how we see the First World War? Why is it that the conflict remains so important to us? Why does its literature, whether published at the time or in our own day, stay with us? Will we still be asking these questions once another hundred years have passed?
The Big Read in Durham Libraries
We’re inviting library users all over County Durham to get involved with the Big Read again this year. Branch libraries across Durham will be distributing FREE copies of Regeneration to readers and holding book group meetings to discuss its themes. The prison library service will be sharing the book too. Participating libraries are: Durham Clayport, Newton Aycliffe, Peterlee, Seaham, Cornforth, Murton, Belmont, Chester le Street, Consett, Stanley, Pelton, Newton Hall, Crook, Barnard Castle, Willington Get in touch with your nearest branch for more details. On Tuesday 27 September at 2pm we will be hosting a special free library book group summit meeting at Consett Library and inviting members from all the library book groups to join together for a discussion about Regeneration. There is no need to book for this event. Drop into Clayport Library to see a specially commissioned artwork by visual artist Yvette Hawkins inspired by her reading of Regeneration and the First World War.
Please download this PDF to see our notes for reading groups.
Big Read events for Durham Book Festival
Durham Book Festival brings two of Britain’s foremost literary chroniclers of the First World War together for the very first time. Award-winning authors Pat Barker and Michael Morpurgo will together talk about what draws them to the First World War and will also reflect upon their illustrious writing careers.
This is a chance to see, handle, and discuss wartime magazines and journals from the Palace Green and Newcastle City Library collections. We have gathered together a range of little-seen periodicals to investigate how people wrote about the First World War while it was taking place.
A live performance of several centuries of war poetry, from the Live Canon Ensemble. This programme features not only well-known poems from the First World War, including by Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, but work from the Crimea, Second World War, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and some of the most extraordinary war poetry by women from every generation.
Join artist Yvette Hawkins to create a cloth book inspired by Pat Barker’s Regeneration. The workshop will use techniques including darning, mending and sewing to create a cloth book made of repaired recycled textiles.