Though trained as a historian, Pat Barker began writing novels in 1982, but she first gained wide readership and critical acclaim with the 1991 release of her fifth novel, Regeneration. That book and the two that followed, collectively referred to as the Regeneration Trilogy, were set against the backdrop of World War I and chronicled the horrors of the war as well as the seismic shifts that it brought to English society. Most readers associate Barker with this war, and she returns to it with Life Class, after more than a decade during which she published novels on more contemporary subjects.
Life Class is divided into two sections, the first of which opens with a scene in a life drawing class at the famous Slade School of Art in London. Readers are introduced to Paul Tarrant, a young student who apparently has some talent but is not progressing with his art at the rate that he or his teacher, the stern and overbearing Henry Tonks, would like. Paul has a friendship with, as well as some romantic interest in, his fellow student Elinor Brooke, who is also being wooed by recent Slade graduate and rising artistic star Kit Neville. The three, along with others from London’s art scene, frequent the Café Royal, where Paul meets and becomes involved with Teresa Halliday, an artists’ model whose physical charms and sexual frankness captivate him, despite his haunting sense that she is hiding something and despite the fact that her estranged husband stalks and threatens the lovers.
The world in which Paul and his compatriots move is filled, as he thinks, with “the sense of witty, significant things being said by interesting people,” but it has a certain shallow, self-involved quality. It is also not without its worries or its serious side. Sexual and romantic tensions boil between Paul and Teresa, Paul and Elinor, and Kit and Elinor. Kit worries that Paul is a rival for Elinor’s affection, though both are uncertain if her commitment to her art and to her independence precludes romantic involvement. Her virginal detachment from all suitors suggests either an unlikely puritanical ethic or a complete lack of interest in sex. Meanwhile Paul, with his working-class northern roots, is intimidated by much in the gentrified world of art, notably Kit, who outstrips Paul with his class privilege, his apparent (though illusory) confidence, his sexual conquests, and particularly his artistic success. Throughout the novel’s early chapters, Paul struggles with the question of whether or not to continue his studies at the Slade or to accept that he is unlikely ever to succeed as an artist. Meanwhile, he is plagued with nightmares about the loss of his mother at an early age.
Behind these personal tensions, though, rumbles a far greater concern. All of Europe waits in anxiety as the once-distant possibility of war begins to resolve into a near certainty. The rumblings can be heard even in the fairly sheltered circles in which the characters travel. Near the end of the book’s first half, Paul, Kit, and Elinor are visiting her family’s country home when the news comes that war has finally broken out. Immediately discussions ensue as to how deeply and how soon England will become involved, who will enlist, and what all of this will mean to the future. The two parts of the novel, then, hinge neatly on the moment when World War I begins, the moment when Europe and the world are forever changed.
When the second part begins, Elinor is back in London, continuing her studies at the Slade, while Paul is away at war. After attempting to enlist, he was rejected because of his weak lungs, so he joins the Red Cross and soon finds himself working as an orderly at a Belgian field hospital a mere two miles from the front. After this point in the novel, Paul and Elinor begin to embody opposing attitudes toward art. Paul is strangely given new impetus to create by his hospital work, where he attends the maimed and dying, bearing witness to unspeakable miseries. Though this work leaves him physically exhausted and emotionally drained, he nonetheless rents himself...
(The entire section is 1678 words.)