Working-class memory generated Pat Barker’s writing. Her early fiction presented itself as a tribute to generations of suffering and survival in the industrial North-East of England. It seemed to fall into a ready-made tradition: ‘the grit, the humour, the reality of working-class life’, Virago burbled cheerfully about Union Street (1982). But there was more to Barker’s work than that. Alongside the realism of her accounts of deprivation among the back streets was an intense imaginative inwardness. The lives she recounted were haunted, not only by the shared grind of poverty, but by private images of loss and love. There was a political edge to those novels, emerging as they did from the feminist Left, but what drove them was a long engagement with moments of vision, bleakly Wordsworthian spots of time that recur again and again in her fiction. Barker’s first four books had a cumulative force, shaping histories of obsession out of the hardships of oppression. The people she spoke for had an intimate particularity that tested the limits of political analysis. Their fantasies had the insistence, and often the violence, of a lived nightmare. Images of the body imprint themselves remorselessly on the minds of her characters, and her readers: the sputum and blood erupting from a dying man, the putrescent body of the murdered prostitute, the aborted foetus of the unmarried teenager. ‘She banished the image which always, in her rare moments of silence and solitude, returned to haunt her.’ Much of Barker’s fiction is involved with that attempted exorcism.
This self-reflectiveness carried with it the hazard of repetition, and Regeneration, published in 1991, consciously broke a compulsive pattern. It was a historical novel, based on the work of the Army psychologist W.H.R. Rivers, who treated Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart Hospital in 1917. The political burden of the fiction is explicit. This is the story of Sassoon’s rebellion against the continuation of the war, and of the process which eventually persuaded him back to the trenches in France. But the change in direction was not as radical as this new choice of subject might suggest. Barker has consistently written about the inheritance of suffering and endurance, and the impact of war had already emerged as one of her central preoccupations. Rivers’s mode of treatment for shell-shocked soldiers mirrors her method as a novelist: corrosive memories must be confronted if health is to be restored. The attempt to deny the trauma imposed by trench warfare is what pushes Rivers’s patients into insanity. The culture that instigated the warfare also attempted to deny its consequences: madness was the result there, too. Rivers, rather than Sassoon, emerges as the moral pivot of Regeneration, as he feels his way towards a larger understanding of the reasons for his patients’ misery. Unspoken but persistently present in the novel is the fact that Rivers was about to stand for Parliament as an independent Labour candidate at the time of his death shortly after the war.
The Eye in the Door is a continuation, and an enrichment, of Regeneration. It is a novel of formidable energy and integrity, and it confirms Barker’s status as one of the most rewarding writers to have emerged in recent years. Impervious to literary fashion, Barker’s fiction builds on its own solid achievements. Each succeeding novel absorbs and moves beyond what has gone before. Many characters from Regeneration reappear in The Eye in the Door: Rivers, Sassoon, Graves. Themes and images also return, brought into closer focus. The authority of the eye, what it sees and what it imagines, has always mattered to Barker. A single gazing eye has brooded over her fiction from the first. ‘Her one naked eye staring out like the eye of God’ is what we remember of Beattie, raddled prostitute in retirement, in Blow Your House Down. In Regeneration, the eye became an emblem of horror. Billy Prior, one of Rivers’s patients, has buried the memory of picking up the eyeball of a dismembered soldier called Towers and holding it in the palm of his hand. ‘He had very blue eyes, you know. Towers. We used to call him the Hun.’ What is left of Towers, a bare blue gaze that is neither English nor German, reveals the fragility of the categories that supposedly regulate Prior’s life. An officer but not a gentleman, intelligent, bitter and ambitious, Prior breaks down because the boundaries of what he has been taught to expect can’t contain what he has seen.
Prior’s slow regeneration is the dominant story of The Eye in the Door. As the novel begins he is simply looking for sex. Failing to induce his girl to provide it, he finds a more eager partner in a fellow officer called Charles Manning. The encounter is graphically described. Here, as in all her work, Barker insists that the intellectual and moral issues which she writes about are inescapably grounded in the life of the body – ‘because this mass of nerve and blood and muscle is what we are.’ The body makes its own demands, oblivious of the cultural distinctions that hedge us in. Borders of class and gender constantly shift around Prior. The First World War exposed and often denied established patterns of social difference, and this is one reason for Barker’s longstanding interest in its history. Traditional concepts of war assert the values of manliness, and of gentlemanliness, but the new experience of fighting in the trenches undermined both. It was the ‘peculiarly passive, dependent and immobile nature of their experience’ that led to trench soldiers’ vulnerability to what was termed ‘neurasthenia’. Their trapped helplessness was something that had been more usually experienced by women. As Rivers notes, it was one of the ironies of the war that the disordered minds of his patients would frequently display symptoms that had previously been identified as belonging to hysterical women. The officers’ duties, too – disciplining and caring for their men, providing food and comfort – were curiously domestic, like those of mothers rather than warriors. Meanwhile, the women at home were freeing themselves from the worst tyrannies of domestic service, often earning high wages in the munitions factories, and finding some degree of the freedom that the men at the front had lost.
The cultural anxieties provoked by the faltering definitions of gender pervade Barker’s novel. Aberrant groups are ruthlessly watched, with consequences that are cruel and often grotesque. Pacifists and homosexuals are singled out. Ambivalent and divided, Prior hovers on the edge of both groups. He had been sheltered as a child by Beattie Roper (another Beattie – names, like images, constantly recur in Barker’s fiction), a pacifist now imprisoned for an improbable plot to poison Lloyd George with curare. Her cell is under unremitting surveillance, and the spyhole in the door is surrounded by an elaborately painted eye. Increasingly convinced that she has been clumsily framed by the Intelligence Unit that employs him, Prior’s loyalties are divided. He is pursued by nightmares about the eye in Beattie’s door, and his life falls apart. Terrifying lapses of memory fragment his days. His recovery – partial and qualified – comes when he finally looks at the roots of his own duplicity. As Rivers guides Prior towards self-knowledge, Prior inverts the orthodox relation of power between doctor and patient. Rivers has no visual memory. Prior’s evolving understanding of his own condition pushes Rivers into facing the reasons for this disability, and its effect on the institutional authority he assumes over his patients. Moved by Prior’s abrasive affection, Rivers is compelled to realise that he is not as separate from his patients as he has chosen to believe. He, too, has been trying to submerge the pain of memory, and has diminished himself in the attempt.
Prior is barely sane; other seemingly respectable figures are still less so. One of the most bizarre stories here is that of the ‘Black Book’, said to contain the names of 47,000 homosexual men and women whose moral corruption laid them open to blackmail by German agents. This mysterious book had supposedly been discovered in the cabinet noir of ‘a certain German Prince’ by Captain Harold Spencer, who went on to claim that members of Asquith’s War Cabinet were in the pay of Germany, and that many high-ranking British officers were in fact Germans. He was obsessed with the depravity of modern women, writing about what he called ‘the Cult of the Clitoris’ and suggesting that the list of subscribers to a private performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salome would include many of the degenerate 47,000. Barker’s point is that Spencer was clearly much crazier than many of Rivers’s patients, yet he was taken seriously in many quarters. Maud Allen, the dancer who was to take the part of Salome, sued for libel. Spencer’s evidence was admitted in court, and she lost her case.
Spencer’s lunatic fabrications revealed, rather than caused, the anti-homosexual panic that prevailed in the final months of the war. The divided consciousness embodied in an extreme form by Prior was a pervasive consequence of a profoundly traumatic war, and was by no means confined to those who had seen active service. One of the strengths of The Eye in the Door is Barker’s integration of historically documented events with the constructed imaginative lives of her characters. Charles Manning, invalided home from the trenches, has a dual existence, combining his homosexual activities with life as a loving husband and father. He is driven to breakdown by the fear of exposure triggered by Maud Allen’s libel case. Manning, too, becomes Rivers’s patient as fact and fiction weave patterns through the novel. In part, these designs are formed by the literary heritage left by the war. Barker, like the men and women she writes about, is working her way through memory, and books, like soldiers, leave ghosts behind them. The poetry of the war, often the creative product of homosexual doubleness, lingers in her prose. One function of the novel is the commemoration and celebration of Sassoon and Owen.
Robert Graves is a more equivocal spectre. The cadences of Goodbye to All That have sounded in Barker’s work before. In a climactic moment towards the end of The Century’s Daughter a social worker rescues the parrot belonging to the book’s dead heroine. He recites a verse from Skelton:
Parrot is a fair bird for a ladie.
God of His goodness him framéd and wrought.
When parrot is dead he doth not putrify,
Yea, all things mortal shall turn into nought
Save mannés soul which Christ so dear bought,
That never can die, nor never die shall.
Make much of parrot, that popajay royál.
They are grand lines, but there is a touch of self-regarding evasion in the social worker’s construction of an intellectual event out of the heroine’s pitiless murder. The literary memory behind this moment is Graves’s description of a wartime cricket match between officers and sergeants, in which a dead parrot in a cage serves as a wicket. Graves quotes the same passage from Skelton. The transposition is characteristic of Barker’s writing, with its reflected and transformed image, brooding on memory and mortality. She has learned from Graves’s engagingly direct style. But Graves had much to do with defusing Sassoon’s politically inspired denunciation of the war, and his position betrays an element of arrogance. Describing his family background in the opening pages of Goodbye to All That, Graves mentions an inherited disposition to ‘sudden and most disconcerting spells of complete amnesia. These fits, so far as I can discover, serve no useful purpose, and tend to produce in the victim the same sort of dishonesty that afflicts deaf people who miss the thread of conversation – they hate to be left behind and rely on intuition and bluff to get them through.’ These blanks bear a close relation to the bouts of amnesia that afflict Prior, whose loss of memory also implies the loss of moral identity. The ‘dishonesty’, jovially dismissed by Graves, becomes a dark and fearful phenomenon in Barker’s novel. Graves is no villain, but his literary presence hints at a kind of avoidance that runs counter to the rigorous confrontations with memory and the imagination that Barker imposes on her readers.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.