Pat Barker’s "Regeneration" – a piece of historiographic metafiction?

Seminar Paper 2005 18 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Facts and Fiction in Barker’s Regeneration

3. Discussion about facts and fiction in the historical novel

4. Historiographic Metafiction – a definition

5. Classification of Regeneration
5.1 “Intertextuality” in Barker’s Regeneration
5.2 Subjectivity in Barker’s Regeneration
5.3 War experience from an officer’s point of view
5.4 Fictive characters and their expressiveness
5.5 Factual characters and their expressiveness
5.6 Mode of narration in historiographic metafiction

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This term paper will deal with Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Regeneration is the first novel in a trilogy, which also includes The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road. Regeneration was first published in 1991. It is based on actual events during World War I and includes factual events as well as fictional ones. Opinions of how an author should combine elements of history and literature differ greatly, as well as opinions of what a historical novel is to achieve. Today’s conception is greatly influenced by Hutcheon’s term historiographic metafiction. Although this term has been widely accepted, there are still disagreements and discussion whether it is too narrow to describe the postmodernist historical novel. Here Nünning can be named as an example.

With Barker mentioning in her author’s note that: “Fact and fiction are so interwoven in this book that it may help the reader to know what is historical and what is not.”[1], and Hutcheon stating that one of the features of contemporary historiographic metafiction being “the double awareness of both fictiveness and a basis in the ‘real’”[2], it is worth examining whether Regeneration fits into the category of historiographic metafiction, or if it proves to be right what Nünning criticized and the category is too narrow. It will also be attempted to make cross-references to Nünnings splitting of the historical novel into five subcategories.[3]

To be able to answer the questions posed above, one has to briefly focus on which parts of Barker’s novel are historical and which ones are fictional. Furthermore the definition of postmodernist historiographic writing by Hutcheon is to be outlined. Afterwards this definition will be put opposite to Nünning’s approach in order to be able to highlight the commonalties and differences of the two definitions and apply the so established criteria of both approaches to Regeneration. Only after this has been done, a justifiable classification can be made.

2. Facts and Fiction in Barker’s Regeneration

Regeneration is based on actual facts. The novel deals with the period of time between July 1917 up to November 1917. It takes place at the British hospital for mentally ill soldiers at Craiglockhart. It describes, among other things, the relationship between the army psychologist Rivers and anti-war activist and poet Siegfried Sassoon. Both characters are historical. Their stay in Craiglockhart at the above referred time is verifiable through the publicly accessible diaries and letters of Siegfried Sassoon, as well as through the published notes of W.H.R. Rivers.[4] The public protest about the conduct of war, which was read out in the House of Commons and which can be traced back accordingly, was the reason for Sassoon to be sent to a hospital for mentally ill officers. There Sassoon met Rivers for the first time, who treated him from then on. The treatment consisted of talking sessions, in which Rivers tried to make his patients face their war experiences so that they could learn to live with them.[5] Other historically verifiable characters in Barker’s novel are Wilfred Owen, who after being blown up on a railway embankment and buried alive suffered from a shaky, tremulous and confused memory and was therefore referred to the same hospital.[6] He, however, was treated by Arthur Brock, who has also published a book about his treatment methods of ergotherapy. A description of this treatment can be found in Hibberd’s biography of Owen.[7] Sassoon and Owen met the first time when Owen, who had admired Sassoon even before they knew each other, knocked on Sassoon’s door to ask to have some copies of Sassoon’s latest book signed.[8] Barker sticks to the known facts here and retells the story as it is commonly accepted. She also incorporates the fact that Sassoon helped and improved Owen’s poetry and includes scenes like the one when Sassoon corrects mistakes in Owen’s poems and suggests alterations, which is documented in Owen’s original manuscripts.[9]

Robert Graves should not be forgotten here, as he was a close friend of Sassoons’ at the time and appears in the novel frequently. Graves undertook great efforts to make sure his friend would not be court-martialed and locked away, which can be, to name just one source, confirmed in Graves autobiography Good-Bye to All That.[10] Regeneration ends with Sassoon’s discharge to duty.

Barker’s novel deals with the First World War. Not with the actual fighting but rather with the emotional and psychological consequences of it. She chose to present the war from an officer’s point of view. Images of war are conveyed through accounts of different soldier’s experiences. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen are two of them. Barker was aware that Sassoon and Owen being two famous poets, who fought in the First World War, a lot of secondary literature about their lives, their experiences in the war and their work would be available. It also does not come as a surprise that the two gifted writers wrote many letters, poems and diary entries to fall back on. Although a huge amount of information was therefore accessible, it has to be kept in mind that Barker still had to invent, based on the obtainable information, “a psyche for her characters”[11]. That is, as Löschnigg points out, where fiction begins.[12]

3. Discussion about facts and fiction in the historical novel

Before the current stand of affairs in the discussion about the contemporary historical novel will be dealt with, it is worth to shortly outline why it is so problematic to bring history and literature together. Furthermore two opposing definitions of what the historical novel is to achieve will be given to illustrate the still lasting differences in opinion considering this question.

The problem of historiography is an inherent one. History speaks of what happened in the past – it relies on facts. Fiction however is something thought of and need therefore not have happened. Historiography combines history and fiction. The author uses narrative techniques to convey a historical event. The discussion was led as early as the Antique.[13] Over the time opinions and attitudes have changed considerably.

To realize how much these views changed one must only look at definitions of the historical novel in the past and compare them to contemporary attempts. It would be wrong however, to convey the impression that today’s definitions would be homogeneous. Disagreements about the freedom of action, the responsibility of an author and the function of historical novels do exist. In his essay, “Von der Wahrheit im historischen Roman und in der Historie” Erwin Wickert is of the opinion that:

Die Aufgabe des historischen Romans ist doch, die von der Überlieferung ausgesparten Stellen zu füllen, vielleicht sogar auch das Handeln historischer Personen psychologisch verständlich zu machen – nicht aber die Geschichte, die unantastbar und sakrosankt bleiben sollte neu zu schreiben.[14]

While Wickert speaks of history as something „unantastbar“ and „sakrosankt“, the postmodernist approach as Hutcheon points out is rather different:

Postmodern fiction suggests that to re-write or to re-present the past in fiction and in history is, in both cases, to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological.[15]

Now that one feature of what Hutcheon labels post-modern fiction has been addressed, it is time to look at her definition of postmodernist historiography in more detail.


[1] Barker, Pat. Regeneration. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1991, 251.

[2] Hutcheon, Linda. “‘The Pastime of Past Time’: Fiction, History, Historiographical Metafiction”. Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. Ed. Michael J. Hoffmann, Patrick D. Murphy. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1996, 476.

[3] Cf Nünning, Ansgar. “’Beyond the Great Story’: Der postmoderne historische Roman als Medium revisionistischer Geschichtsdarstellung, kultureller Erinnerung und metahistoriographischer Reflexion”. Anglia 117.1 (1999), 25-26.

[4] See Sassoon, Siegfried. Siegfried Sassoon Diaries: 1915-1918. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. Bristol: New Western Printing Ltd, 1983.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cf. Caesar, Adrian. Taking it like a man: Suffering, Sexuality and the War Poets Brooke, Sassoon, Owen, Graves. Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1993, 145.

[7] Hibberd, Dominic. Wilfred Owen: A new Biography. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2002, 251-258.

[8] Ibid., 264-267.

[9] Löschnigg, Martin. ‘…the novelist’s responsibility to the past’: History, Myth, and the Narratives of Crisis in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy (1991-1995)”. Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik: A Quaterly of Language, Literature and Culture 47.3 (1999), 217.

[10] Graves, Robert. Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography. Jonathan Cape Ltd, London, 1929.

[11] Löschnigg 1999: 218.

[12] Cf. ibid., 218.

[13] Cf. distinction between Facta and Ficta by Aristoteles

[14] Wickert, Erwin. “Von der Wahrheit im historischen Roman und in der Historie “. Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur 1 (1993), 4.

[15] Hutcheon 1996: 479.


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University of Heidelberg – Anglistisches Seminar
Barker’s Regeneration Proseminar Literaturwissenschaft




Title: Pat Barker’s "Regeneration" – a piece of historiographic metafiction?