It is 1917 and WWI is still going strong. The Craiglockhart War Hospital is an institution where officers suffering from very serious cases of shell shock and deemed mentally unsound go to be healed so they can return to the front and continue the vicious battle against the Germans. Dr. William Rivers—a brilliant psychiatrist at the institution—has a cure which is at once successful while being highly unusual for his time. Instead of having recourse to violent and painful courses of therapy prevalent in other hospitals, such as submitting the patients to painful humiliation tactics and high voltage electric shocks, he helps his patients cure themselves by encouraging them to face their fears and the horrors they have witnessed in battle instead of attempting to repress them. Even with the advances in psychology brought on by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, such an approach would have still been especially novel in the mainstream, at a time when men were conditioned and expected to be impervious to fear, never acknowledge weaknesses, and generally keep their emotions in check.
Dr. Rivers doesn’t question the inherent contradiction in the fact that he is expected to bring these men back to a balanced mental state so that they can in turn continue fighting in suicidal missions in a war with countless casualties. But things start changing for him when he comes in contact with Siegfried Sassoon, a decorated war hero who has decided to take a stand by writing a declaration which condemns the continuation of what he is convinced is a war of aggression and meaningless slaughter. Sassoon’s hopes of being court-marshalled for his insubordination and thus creating noise and a public outcry around his cause are dashed when he is instead declared mentally unstable—precisely to avoid attracting attention to the issue—and sent to Craiglockhart and Dr. Rivers to be ‘cured’. Our good psychiatrist quickly appraises that Sassoon’s actions stem from true conviction, and that the best he can do in his case is to help his patient come to accept that he has no other choice than to return to the front, since any further efforts on Sassoon’s part to continue campaigning against the war will simply be interpreted as
the actions of a man who is mentally unsound.
From the beginning, Siegfried Sassoon, a man of great culture and a published poet, makes no bones about his sexual orientation. He makes mention of an indirect connections to Oscar Wilde and his veneration for Edward Carpenter, a socialist poet, pacifist, and gay activist who’s book The Intermediate Sex has been a great influence in helping him find his true identity. There is a running theme in the novel, which is the question of what constitutes ‘real’ and ‘acceptable’ manifestations of manhood in a time of war. The question of sexual orientation is intrinsically linked to those concerns, as is best expressed in the following excerpt, taken from a conversation between Rivers and Sassoon, who are discussing the prevailing attitudes toward homosexuality:
Sassoon: ‘I thought things were getting better.’
Rivers: ‘I think they were. Before the war. Slightly. But it’s not very likely, is it, that any movement towards greater tolerance would persist in wartime? After all, in war, you’ve got this enormous emphasis on love between men—comradeship—and everybody approves. But at the same time there’s always this little niggle of anxiety. Is it the right kind of love? Well, one of the ways you make sure it’s the right kind is to make it crystal clear what the penalties for the other kind are.’
This is a powerful novel and many of the themes at it’s core, such as the manifestations
of the instinct for self-preservation and what constitutes sanity and mental instability
are weighty stuff, and the brilliance of Pat Barker’s approach is that she manages to present her subject with a light and even humorous touch, with brilliant dialogue that
is absolutely true to life. Her observation of her cast of characters and their complex motivations fully brings out their multi-dimensionality and each of them is a fascinating study of the workings of the human mind.
Craiglockhart, Sassoon, Rivers and other persons, places and events are taken from real life, and the way Barker has woven fact and fiction in a way that is entirely believable
and wonderfully entertaining. This book came highly recommended from various sources and I must say I was most impressed. I’m much looking forward to reading the other two books in the Regeneration trilogy during the course of the year. Wholeheartedly recommended.