Historical Analysis: Regeneration by Pat Barker

It is important to remember that Regeneration is a work of fiction, even if it is based on a real historical event. Certain circumstantial settings of the novel are indeed true. For example, it is not contested that within the theatre of the First World War, many British soldiers suffered severe psychological trauma. Likewise, it is a fact that some of them were treated at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. While retaining these basic facts of the war, author Barker had taken the liberty to change chronology of events or distil the collective experiences of the soldiers onto one character, etc. These literary licenses do not majorly diminish the utility of the work as a historical record. To the contrary they condense and encapsulate British soldiers’ experiences. The book proves to be both intellectually engaging and technically satisfying, while not compromising on history. This essay will argue that while accommodating the imperatives of the novel form, Regeneration does not compromise on historical veracity.

Firstly, an attractive feature of the novel is the manner in which it synthesizes real events across the realms of society, politics and the battlefield. For example, the renowned Dr. W.H.R. Rivers was the incumbent army psychiatrist at the Craiglockhart War Hospital during the war. It was true that he attended to poet Siegfried Sassoon as one of the patients. Sassoon had been diagnosed with ‘shell-shock’ – what in modern parlance would be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But there was a political conspiracy behind this event. Earlier, Sassoon had openly protested against the war and conscientiously objected to participating in it. Understanding the power and reach of a public intellectual like Sassoon, the powers that be sought to undermine his credibility by attributing a mental illness to him. But this would prove to be a blessing in disguise in retrospect, as Sassoon was able to mentor and inspire Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart, where the latter was recuperating from war-related stress. Indeed, Owen would go on to overtake Sassoon as a legend of war poetry. These are real historical events that have shaped twentieth century culture, especially literary and political discourse. They have all been faithfully captured by Barker in her novel, albeit by taking some liberties over certain descriptive aspects of these events.

In terms of shortcomings, Regeneration does not serve as a detailed biographical account of Sassoon’s or Owen’s life. Certain important facets of their personal life are eschewed for they are not relevant to the narrative at hand. Sassoon’s homosexuality, for example, is not directly treated in the novel. However,

“The most cursory glance of the poet’s life after the First World War immediately reveals the kind of sensitive issues involved. His post-war life was confused, experimental, even chaotic. In the Twenties he had three unsatisfactory homosexual affairs in quick succession, with the artist Gabriel Atkin, with Prince Philip of Hesse, and with the theatrical director Glen Byam Shaw, before embarking on a strangely ethereal romance with Stephen Tennant, aesthete and exotic beauty.“ (Bostridge, 1998)

1 2 3