Seeing as though my work in progress, ALBERT & MARIE is largely set in the First World War it makes sense to read or listen to the most renowned novels about the period.
Having read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to learn more about the pre-war period and Birdsong because of its links with the tunnellers of the trenches, Regeneration seemed the obvious next step.
Like ALBERT & MARIE, Regeneration is based on a true story, the story of war poet Seigfried Sassoon who was decorated for bravery on the western front. He wrote a ‘Soldier’s Declaration’ in 1917 as a protest against the war which resulted in him being admitted to a military psychiatric hospital where he met another war poet, Wilfred Owen, who was greatly influenced by Sassoon’s work.
First published in 1991, Regeneration was nominated for the Booker Prize and is set in Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland where psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers treated Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Rivers pioneered treatments of posttraumatic stress disorder during and after World War I and the novel’s title refers to research into “nerve regeneration”.
Barker draws extensively on the writings of First World War poets and W.H.R. Rivers for the book and the main characters are based on historical figures, such as Robert Graves, Alice and Hettie Roper (pseudonyms for Alice Wheeldon and her daughter Hettie).
The book was adapted into a film in 1997.
Barker was born to a working-class family in Thornaby-on-Tees in the North Riding of Yorkshire, England. According to The Times, her mother became pregnant “after a drunken night out while in the Wrens.” In a social climate where illegitimacy was regarded with shame, she told people that the resulting child was her sister, rather than her daughter. They lived with Barker’s grandmother Alice and step-grandfather William, until her mother married and moved out when Barker was seven. Her grandparents ran a fish and chip shop which failed and the family was, she told The Times in 2007, “poor as church mice; we were living on National Assistance – ‘on the pancrack’, as my grandmother called it.”
Her first three novels were never published and, she told The Guardian in 2003, “didn’t deserve to be: I was being a sensitive lady novelist, which is not what I am. There’s an earthiness and bawdiness in my voice.”
Her first published novel was Union Street (1982), which consisted of seven interlinked stories about English working class women whose lives are circumscribed by poverty and violence. It was rejected by publishers for ten years until she sent it to Virago.
Regeneration is an excellent exploration of the trauma of war and its effects. It is very difficult to express the horror of the western front but Barker manages to evoke the unimaginable. She also does an expert job of taking historical records and bringing them alive by mixing historical figures with fictional characters.