The second book in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy opens with a rather shocking scene in which Billy Prior is revealed to be bisexual, as he picks up an injured officer in a London park and returns to the man’s home to have sex with him. If All Quiet on the Western Front is a perfect book for teenage literary-historical studies, Barker’s fiction is more advanced. The sex in the first volume is relatively brisk and drunken, not to mention hetero, as Prior tries to salvage emotional attachment and a tinge of romance out of his despair. Now, on his own and out of Craiglockhart and attempting to return to France and the war, we discover that Prior is an even more complex and troubled human animal than we could have imagined.
Barker is brilliant at taking dead aim at a crucial component of the war, male relationships. The book jacket notes that in the midst of the lingering war, when it is no longer rising or falling and seems like it might go on forever, pacifists and homosexuals have become targets on the home front. Barker sidestepped homosexual issues in the first volume, focusing on shell shock and psychological treatment. But Siegfried Sassoon is the starting point of her story, and Sassoon was a complex warrior-turned-pacificist-turned-warrior, who was also gay (and who married a woman later in his life). The poet Wilfred Owen, another important historical character at Craiglockhart and in Barker’s story, was also gay.
I have to keep moving and get to writing up Robert Graves’ memoir Goodbye to All That, but I want to mention that it gives an extraordinary, frank, and helpful description of male relationships and homosexuality in, first, British public schools, and how that “system” affected the man’s world of war and soldiering. It’s all very interesting and a little crazy, actually, and the situation is more complicated that Graves suggests, even though he does an amazing job of honest explanation for 1928. Barker, in the early 1990’s, captures the realities and nuances quite effectively, and rather boldly for mainstream historical fiction even at the end of the 20th century.
England, through the long Victorian and Edwardian periods, had two critically important social factors that are difficult for contemporary Americans to comprehend, and they both play directly into the war and its slaughter. The first is the exclusively male world of the elite public schools, where the absence of women generated a mix of male romance, cruelty, and chauvinism, one that was aided by the study of the classics and the Greeks, which also promoted values of military prowess and honor and glory, unable to take in account machine guns, unfortunately. The second, related factor is the British class system, which was evident, obvious, and determinative throughout society, and it was present in the military too of course.
In Billy Prior, Barker creates a central character with working class roots who has been educated to a level where he can “pass” (a phenomenon which would have racial overtones in an American story) at virtually any strata in this closely-defined society. This is established in the opening sex scene, where Prior is keenly aware of the relationship between class and desire. Trying to explicate these issues and themes is a bit out of my old school, “regular guy” depths, but it was fascinating, compelling stuff, extremely rich material for anyone with a good grasp of gender and queer studies. It’s also interesting how homosexuality, and its veiled existence in British society at this critical historical juncture, is tied to pacificsm, and Barker’s book navigates superbly through this issue as well.
The surprising opening to the second book not only reveals that Billy Prior is bisexual, but also that he’s the central character of Barker’s narrative, a fact that isn’t absolutely clear in the first volume. Now we’re following Prior and learning about his background and depths, the experiences that have shaped and determined his generalized, floating, Zelig-like abilities in closed society. We find out about his drunken, violent father, his socially ambitious, refined mother, his challenging childhood in a darker, sexualized Dickensian working class neighborhood. Prior has been attached to the intelligence services, where he is using his chameleon abilities and proletarian roots to spy on pacifists and trade unionists and anti-war activists. The second book in Barker’s trilogy is a complex journey into Billy Prior’s world and personal history, and his internal, domestic conflicts are a mirror of the entrenched divide that is the war in France.
The book is probably too far away right now for me to make any sense in discussing the key plot turns, so I’ll try to get by with a couple of short sentences. Prior’s childhood effort to survive in a tough neighborhood shows his sexuality was determined by an abusive priest and a charismatic older boy, whom he reveres as he is taught about survival in a lawless world. Prior’s clandestine assignment has him aimed at betraying this character, now a union organizer and anti-war threat. Or something like that. I suppose the main thing here, rather remarkable for a trilogy, is that one discovers a thoroughly surprising central character with unexpected depth and complexity, all in the second book. It also contains an in-depth exploration of completely different issues and a new theme and setting. And yet the trilogy is all one piece, different brief epochs and views of wartime tied together through deeply intriguing scenes and characters.