Roses

Stephen Wall

  • Regeneration by Pat Barker
    Viking, 252 pp, £13.99, May 1991, ISBN 0 670 82876 9
  • Rose Reason by Mary Flanagan
    Bloomsbury, 388 pp, £14.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 7475 0888 7
  • Rose by Rose Boyt
    Chatto, 182 pp, £13.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3728 2

Craiglockhart Hydro – an Italianate pile near Edinburgh – opened in 1880, but it figures in literary history because it was taken over as a military hospital in 1916. Wilfred Owen was sent there, and so was Siegfried Sassoon. That their meeting, and the place itself, had a catalytic effect on Owen’s poetry has long been recognised. When, in her new novel, Pat Barker shows Sassoon and Owen discussing the diction and title of the latter’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, she is following manuscript evidence of Sassoon’s suggestions and Owen’s revisions. But although Sassoon plays a crucial role in Regeneration, he does so more as a refractory soldier and reluctant patient than as a writer; he is only one of a number of the shell-shocked who otherwise have no memorial. The real hero of the story and the main source of its considerable interest is the doctor who treated him.

W.H.R. Rivers was in his fifties by the time he came to Craiglockhart, and had already had a distinguished career as a neurologist and ethnologist. His early research into nerve regeneration after injury and his realisation, after a trip to the Solomon Islands, that social standards are completely relative are both neatly fed into Pat Barker’s narrative. He is aware too, in his enlightened way, of the new Freudian view of dreams as wish-fulfilment, but it isn’t an easy concept to apply at Craiglockhart, where nightmares are a serious problem, not least because the men have to share rooms and wake each other up with their nocturnal terrors. As Sassoon himself wrote, later on, ‘in the daytime, in a sunny room, a man could discuss his psycho-neurotic symptoms with his doctor ... Significant dreams could be noted down, and Rivers could try to remove repressions. But by night each man was back in his doomed sector of a horror-stricken front line where the panic and stampede of some ghastly experience was re-enacted among the livid faces of the dead.’

Rivers’s attempts to help his patients deal with war neurosis are essentially humane and uncoercive, and as such contrast with those of Dr Yealland, another historical figure working in the same field. The episode where Rivers watches his colleague torture a dumb soldier back to speech by giving him repeated electric shocks is one of the most chilling in the book. Nevertheless, Rivers has to concede that he and Yealland are in the same business. Their function is to return men to the active service which has broken them. For all his sympathetic powers of observation and generous tolerance, Rivers cannot but act, in the end, as an instrument of control. Whether it is right for him to acquiesce in this process is something which he comes increasingly to question.

In practical terms and individual cases, he does what he can. He is endlessly patient with the recalcitrant Second-Lieutenant Prior, initially silenced by what he’s been through, and awkward to deal with when vocal again, partly because of class resentments. When eventually found unfit to return to France because of the asthma Rivers has insisted on reporting, Prior is ashamed of being let off, despite his new union with a munitions factory girl to whom he’d like to tell the truth about the trenches but can’t. Rivers also acts beyond the call of duty in the case of a colleague who can’t stand blood any more – a serious problem for a medical man with a family to support – and in saving the life of a young captain. What happened to Burns in no man’s land was intolerably disgusting as well as traumatic, and even Rivers – normally so ‘adept at finding bearable aspects to unbearable experiences’ – is nonplussed. Although by the end there seems some chance of limited recovery, Rivers himself feels an increased horror at the way Burns’s personality, like the nauseating corpse he can’t forget, has been blown to bits.

The position Rivers finally arrives at is close to the one Sassoon stalls from. Regeneration begins with the text of Sassoon’s ‘Soldier’s Declaration’, made in ‘wilful defiance of military authority’ in July 1917. The war has ceased to be the one he volunteered to fight; its political aims no longer justify the agonies which those at home do not share and ‘which they have not sufficient imagination to realise’. Pat Barker shows how Robert Graves – arguing that even if you change your mind you shouldn’t break a contract already signed – succeeds in smothering Sassoon’s protest (he’d also chucked his MC in the Mersey) by pulling strings and getting him sent to Craiglockhart. What she shrewdly and sensitively doesn’t attempt is any detailed authorial briefing about the nature of the agonies actually suffered. The iconography of the First World War is now so well established, its ordeals so familiar, that it seems more tactful and more effective to allude rather than to elaborate.

In order to help his patients live with what’s happened to them, Rivers needs to maintain a doctor’s dispassionate and even laconic tone, and he is seen to earn their gratitude for doing so. But he feels the horrors with them all the same – as how could he not – and his ‘sufficient imagination’ means conflict within. He encourages his men not to repress those emotions which they have been trained to despise: fear, panic, shame at breaking down oneself or feeling tenderness for others that do so. In this way, however, he will only rehabilitate them for further duty in the cause which made them crack up in the first place. At the end of the novel Sassoon accepts, for whatever complication of personal motives, the discipline to which he is in principle opposed. Rivers too represses, though with more and more unease, his doubts about whether anything can justify what his men have suffered, concluding that ‘a society that devours its own young deserves no unquestioning or automatic allegiance.’ During a church service Rivers looks at a stained-glass window of Abraham and Isaac, and sees it as a patriarchal archetype of the son who inherits through blind obedience. Rivers couldn’t have known Owen’s revisionist version of the story, ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’, in which

         the old man ... slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one,

but he would have sympathised with it.

Such considerations of gender link Regeneration with the feminism of Pat Barker’s previous work, but they also connect with other aspects of the novel which, while not obtrusively foregrounded, add to its suggestiveness. In the manly military world, the acceptable form of the feminine is the almost domestic care that officers have for their men. It is, of course, patronising, though not necessarily in a culpable sense, and a consequence of class distinction. Its omnipresence at the front is something which Prior, with his working-class background, is scornful of, and which Rivers’s clinical observation makes him unable to ignore. Typically, where the common soldier becomes mute, the officer merely stammers. It’s much more dangerous for the former to speak out, so something in him makes sure he can’t. Even Rivers is élitist enough to think that officers have a more elaborate dream-life because, being better-educated, their mental world is more complex. The ordinary man has to become physically incapacitated in order to be taken, and to take himself, seriously. At Craiglockhart the officers carry on with their preferred pursuits, like playing golf and writing poetry.

Poetry, in Sassoon’s hands and in Owen’s, is a form of speaking out, and Owen – the most eloquent critic of the war’s injustice – has a stammer. So does Rivers. Although long-standing, it is also a sign that his conservatism, when faced by his patients’ present suffering and the terrible past events refracted through it, is beginning to erode. It is to his credit that it should do so, and to the author’s credit that such large issues should emerge so unhectoringly. This economy is characteristic of this novel’s searching but succinct approach to the historical material it presents with such unpretentious immediacy.

Economy isn’t a feature of Mary Flanagan’s narrative method in Rose Reason, but then her time-scale is much more extended. Her heroine is born Frances Mullen among Irish Catholics in Florence, Maine. She takes the name Rose at Confirmation: ‘I saw my chance for a new identity and seized it.’ The real Rose was another girl persecuted at school, becoming ‘one of those who fled ... escaping into wider space, fresher air’ – a strategy that Frances/Rose is to follow throughout the long confession which is the novel’s story. It isn’t made to a priest, however; why it’s made, and to whom, are matters that we learn only later.

Becoming Rose helps her to bear her wretchedness after her mother’s early death and the oppressive regime of a narrow-minded aunt. Her father – perhaps the book’s most amiably rounded character – remarries and remains evasive, though lovable. One of the many things which amaze Rose about her first lover Travis is their likeness: ‘We could be twins.’ It’s the first example of a recurring symbiotic tendency. When Travis disappears Rose goes to New York to find him, keeps going by becoming a cocktail waitress, and changes into a city girl. At an anti-war demo in 1968 she falls in with and is taken up by the glamorous Hadley (whom she at first mistakes for Travis in the confusion). Her circle includes Tony, who makes underground films but is sincere and sensitive all the same. When she sees herself in Tony’s movie Martyrs Rose is disconcerted by fleeting appearances of the original Frances, despite the fact that she’s been cast opposite Hadley because of their mutual resemblance. ‘Rose’ may be a more ‘unstable construction’ than she’d imagined.

After a spell at home to watch over the death of her aunt, Rose escapes to Europe on the proceeds of her aunt’s mattress. In Greece she falls for the egregious Miles, and by this time we aren’t surprised to learn that ‘Miles looks like me,’ even though she still catches glimpses of Frances in the mirror sometimes. Miles has a line in cheek and chaff which some readers may find easier to resist than Rose does, and back in London their affair revives. His comings and goings remain mysterious, as does the nature of his relationship with the elderly and demanding Mrs Zahl for whom Rose works. The violent end of the affair leaves Rose as nurse-companion to the old lady – a caring role which she vainly sought when she first went to New York. Sustained by the indulgent company of the regulars at her Fulham pub, and having made her confession, she seems happier with herself, at last.

It’s been a long haul, however, and Rose Reason leaves one wondering whether personal history hasn’t been over-saturated in local and period detail. The milieux through which Rose passes are worked up with almost documentary diligence, but such fullness of registration tends to get in the way of the psychomachia which is the book’s real subject. The course of Rose’s fugue from identity might have made a more powerful impression if not so often obstructed by external impressions and the accumulation of minor events.

Too much trust in simple if well-phrased description and too little concern for its narrative function also marks Rose Boyt’s much briefer story of another Rose. Rose’s first fifty pages offer short scenes from childhood – first at sea in the Baltic and then in Trinidad – in which an appropriate and vivid naivety of style combines effectively with exactness of vision. Rose’s world seems close to fantasy at times, but that’s how the imaginative child, who doesn’t know the full adult facts, construes things. It has its ominous features, nevertheless. The interest in Rose shown by big Klaus, sea captain and her mother’s lover, comes unnervingly close to abuse – a threat revived at the novel’s end, when he returns after a long absence. Meanwhile the family have to go to London. It would be good to know more about the struggles and deprivations of her mother, but Rose’s preoccupation with her own sensations, what happens at school, and what she sees on the streets, prevents us from getting close to them.