Patricia Margaret Barker achieved literary prominence when she was awarded the prestigious Booker Prize for The Ghost Road, the last novel in her trilogy of novels about World War I. Before the publication of this highly regarded trilogy, her reputation had been that of a working-class feminist writer. She was born in a small town near Middlesborough in the industrial north of England. Her first three novels, published by feminist publishing house Virago, are all set in the working-class environment in which she had been raised, and they depict women who are struggling socially and economically.
Raised mostly by her grandparents, who ran a fish-and-chip shop, she developed an ear for the kind of authentic dialogue that she used in her early fiction. Unlike her grandmother, mother, and stepsister, however, she did not become a housecleaner. Instead, she moved to London and became a student at the London School of Economics. Moving back to Middlesborough, she took a post as an adult-education teacher and married David Barker, a zoology professor at the University of Durham. Pat Barker began to write fiction seriously when she was in her thirties, after the birth of a son and daughter, and it was after attending a creative-writing course in 1979 and receiving the encouragement of the novelist Angela Carter that she began depicting the lives of working-class women.
Barker’s first novel, Union Street, which drew significantly on her own experiences, is a bleak depiction of working-class domestic life. Her next novel, Blow Your House Down, was inspired by a notorious Yorkshire serial killer and is narrated through the defiant voices of the prostitutes who are his potential victims. The Century’s Daughter is told from the perspective of a working-class woman of about eighty. The novels that first brought Barker recognition, however, are almost exclusively those with male characters. The three works about men suffering from the effects of combat during World War I appealed to a reading public eager to reflect on the century’s two world wars. Barker herself was a “war baby,” the illegitimate child of a mother then serving in the Wrens (the Woman’s Royal Naval Service) and a father, possibly a pilot, who died during World War II. She grew up hearing the story of her grandfather, who while serving in World War I was left on the battlefield for twelve hours with a wound from a German bayonet. Another influence was her husband, who specialized in research involving the regeneration of nerves and introduced Barker to the work of W. H. R. Rivers, an early adherent of Freudian psychiatry who treated officers suffering from shellshock during World War I. Rivers’s patients included the war poets Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon; both Sassoon and Rivers became major figures in the war trilogy, in which Barker examines the men’s vulnerability during war to the kind of anxiety and loss of control she had previously identified as a situation exclusively afflicting her own gender. In her depiction of men who suffer the kinds of hysteria that arise from enforced passivity and from being manipulated by powerful male authorities, she relies heavily on the work of Rivers, who, through contact with troubled soldiers, had revised his ideas about masculinity and the socialization of the male. Barker’s greatest creation in Regeneration is considered to be not the upper-class figures of Sassoon and Rivers but a wholly fictional working-class lad named Billy Prior, whose gifts have resulted in officer status but who never quite belongs to this new, privileged world. In the second novel of the trilogy, The Eye in the Door, Barker continues Prior’s story and adds depiction of bisexuality that emphasizes Prior’s divided personality. Barker also concentrates on divisions within the country. Regeneration and The Eye in the Door also describe the presence of pacifist sentiments in the midst of the war effort. The Ghost Road , the last of the...
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