Sunday, December 2, 2012

World War I and the changing roles of women and men (Books - Toby's Room by Pat Barker)

World War I was one of the most influential events of the last century.  Some credit it with ushering in the modern war, the machine age, the birth of the airplane for regular human use, modern music, the spread of modern clinical psychology, and the death of chivalry.  Certainly it heralded the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, German, and Russian monarchies. Killed 8-9 million soldiers, disabled 7 million, and seriously injured 15 million. Germany lost 15% of its adult males, Austria–Hungary 17%, and France 10%.  Another several million civilians starved to death in its wake.  It is little wonder that artists have spent so much time contemplating its devastating reach.  English novelist Pat Barker has made the subject of World War I her literary bread and butter.  Her Regeneration Trilogy fictionalized Siegfried Sassoon's treatment for shell-shock after serving in World War I.  It dramatizes socio-political as well as clinical-scientific complexities of the war experience in a way that makes you feel as thought you were present then.  It's a strong and memorable read.  Her Life Class looked at making art in the context of war and the changes experienced by one young English woman as a consequence.  Pat Barker's latest, Toby's Room, like Life Class, deals with a young painting student named Elinor and her contemporaries, Neville and Paul.  I found it a richer exploration than her last novel of the changes wrought on the younger generation in the wake of the war.

Elinor, a painting student at the Slade, in some ways loses her innocence prior to the war because her brother Toby betrays her, complicating an already entangled loving relationship by making it sexual.  I say in some ways because, although she loses her sexual innocence within the first ten pages of the story, she does not look her loss in the face, becoming a mature person and artist, until after the war. She has potent premonitions that her brother will die in the war, a detail I felt Barker rendered too melodramatically, but whether he does die or not, Elinor and everyone in her life changes irrevocably.  Elinor begins as someone who believes she exists outside the events of the world.  This is a role society means for her to play as a member of her sex.  She spends time in Sussex with fellow painter Vanessa Bell and her circle:
...he asked if I had anybody Out There.  So of course I told him and Toby and Kit Neville, and the others.  Sometimes it seems as if every young man I've ever known is in France. (Or under it.)  I could see him waiting for me to ask why he wasn't Out There too, but I didn't.  I never do.  When he pushed, I said it didn't concern me.  As a woman, it didn't concern me.  To be honest, I was copying something I'd heard Mrs. Woolf say last night after dinner, about how women are outside the political process and therefore the war's got nothing to do with them.  It sounded clever when she said it, and stupid when I repeated it.  And immediately I started thinking about women in Deptford hurling bricks through the windows of "German" shopkeepers - they aren't German, they're Polish or Russian or something, but the name's foreign and that's enough - and about the girls who handed white feather to Toby when he was called back to London to complete his studies.  All the medical students got white feathers, that's why in the end they had to let them wear army uniform.  And I thought, No, it's not true, women aren't more peaceful than men. 
This is a book in many ways about the roles of the sexes and how they were changed by the war.  The women of a certain class were expected to serve the role of decorative elements and baby machines, the men of invincible protectors.  The certainty of these roles changes irrevocably.  Neville and Paul are physically injured in the war.  Neville suffers wounds to his face and is treated in a hospital made famous for its pioneering surgical procedures.  Henry Tonks, their painting teacher from the Slade, gets Elinor a job drawing the faces of the injured soldiers before, during and after their surgeries. It is there she looks life in the face, pun intended, and grows up from someone who watches and decorates her world to someone who sees and who documents suffering.  Now it is Neville who thinks about the beauty of his face.  At one point in the novel, his injuries are so severe that he wears a mask to go outside the hospital. wasn't a portrait of Neville as he'd once been.

"I borrowed it," Neville said.  "It's not mine."

"Well.  I'm impressed."

"So you should be.  It's an original Ward Muir."  He might have been explaining the provenance of some recently acquired painting.  "Chap it belongs to - well, no face at all,  basically' I don't think even Gillies could do much for him.  So off he went to the tin-noses department.  The last resort."

"It's beautiful."

"Bloody should be, it's Rupert Brooke."

God, yes, so it was.  Now he'd been told, it was obvious.

"Very popular, apparently.  The Rupert Brooke."

"But why?  Why would you want to look like somebody else?"

Neville shrugged.  "Why not?  Why not aim for something better?  You've got to admit he was absolutely stunning."
Where Barker's novel excels is in imagining not just the loss of innocence but the fabric of individual lives trudging forward into adulthood with pain and with loss, yet moving inexorably forward.  One of the many legacies of this terrible war - of all wars.

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