Harold Gillies operating at Aldershot, 1916. Drawing by Henry Tonks.
Pat Barker’s latest novel, Toby’s Room, is a sequel of sorts to Life Class (2007) and is much better than the earlier book. Life Class wI found a rather disjointed ramble through the miseries both of peace and of war, whose unrelieved gloominess and grimness seemed rather in excess of the facts. Were art students at the Slade all really so morose and self-loathing?
Don’t look to Toby’s Room for a continuation of the stories that were left arbitrarily unfinished in the middle of Life Class. We don’t hear more about Teresa, the abused model, for example. This book follows Elinor, Paul and Kit from the previous book, but is self-contained, pretty well independent of its predecessor, and a much better constructed piece of writing.
It’s a detective story of sorts. In 1917, Alison’s brother Toby has been listed ‘Missing believed killed’, but something seems wrong. The letters of condolence from commanding officer and padre are unexpectedly curt and formulaic, and she has heard nothing from her artist friend Kit Neville, who was serving with Toby.
When she tracks Kit down, it is at Sidcup, at Queen Mary’s Hospital, which specialises in facial injuries. Henry Tonks, Elinor’s formidable teacher from the Slade, is there, helping the surgeons by making drawings of the facial injuries, and so is Harold Gillies, the New Zealander who pioneered facial reconstruction and plastic surgery.
Gillies is only a peripheral character in this book; Barker gives us a sense of his skill and attention to detail, and his manner with patients (‘My honey,’ he might call them) but if you want a more rounded picture of this remarkable man, Reginald Pound’s 1964 biography is well worth reading. Barker does not hint at the friction between Gillies and Tonks over hospital politics that would lead to a falling-out in 1918 – which is fair enough, since we see things mostly from the viewpoints of Elinor and Kit, who would credibly be unaware of such matters. She maybe missed a novelistic opportunity, though, by not including any mention of Gillies’ sometimes infuriating operating-room manner. Pound describes him:
While the theatre staff were on their toes, waiting, he would walk to and fro like a man in a dream, or retire to his room, apparently unwilling to make the first incision until a picture of the impending operation had composed clearly in his mind. Some attributed it to his ‘artistic temperament’. Others were less generous in their interpretation of a practice that led a later colleague to speak of him as ‘that arch-waster of other people’s time’.
Barker’s depiction of the War is much what you would expect from her other novels. She is very good at conveying war’s horror, and the way it might seep into civilian life. When a parcel of dead Toby’s effects is sent back from the front, for example:
The scissors were duly fetched and the string cut, but even before the first layers of brown paper had been stripped away, something entirely unexpected entered the room: the smell of the front line. Filthy water, chlorine gas, decomposition – and because it was a smell and not a sight, Elinor was defenceless against it. She walked, still-legged, to the window where she looked out over the lawn and trees, not seeing anything, every nerve and muscle in her body fighting to repudiate that smell.
That’s very good writing, I think, and so is much of Barker’s description. What I miss in her book, though, is any sense of variety of response or attitude. As in her other books, life is always seen through the eyes of fraught loners, burdened with personal problems. Nobody in her war experiences close comradeship with fellow-soldiers, or feels loyalty to, or pride in, their battalion. All relationships are tainted, especially those between officers and men. Certainly nobody in Barker’s books finds war a life-enhancing positive experience.
I thought of Barker’s morose characters recently while I was reading Louise Miller’s first-rate new biography of Flora Sandes, the sturdy middle-aged Englishwoman who joined an ambulance unit heading for Serbia, mostly out of a desire for adventure (or ‘sport’ as she would have called it). She performed medical work under the most dreadful of conditions – shortage of essential supplies such as anaesthetics, outbreaks of dysentery – and, rather than leave the men to whom she had developed an immense loyalty, eventually enlisted as a private in the Serbian Army. She stayed with them during the horrendous retreat of 1915, and fought in the Battle of Monastir, where she was seriously wounded (twenty-five pieces of shrapnel in body, and her right arm broken and lacerated). After recuperation and another spell on the front line in that nastiest of battlegrounds, she fell ill, and was taken to a hospital, where she immediately set herself to organising the place to combat the epidemic of Spanish influenza. Louise Miller’s book is the story of a woman’s discovery of what she was capable of, her potential unleashed rather than crushed by the horrors of war.
Yes, I know it’s unfair to blame Barker for the book she didn’t write, and I really should stress that Toby’s Room is a page-turner. You want to know the answer to Elinor’s questions, and when they come they are not a disappointment.
The book’s language is also without the distracting anachronisms that marred Life Class (like using the word ‘robot’ several years before it was invented. Niggler that I am, though, I can’t help pointing to one small thing that she seems to have got wrong.
A recurrent motif through the book is a record playing the Jerome Kern /Herbert Reynolds song ‘They didn’t believe me’:
And when I told them how beautiful you are,
They didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe me!
Your lips, your eyes, your cheeks, your hair,
Are in a class beyond compare,
You’re the loveliest girl that one could see!
And when I tell them,
And I cert’nly am goin’ to tell them,
That I’m the man whose wife one day you’ll be.
They’ll never believe me. They’ll never believe me.
That from this great big world you’ve chosen me!
Eventually, though, the parody version of this song goes through Kit Neville’s mind:
And when they ask us, how dangerous it was,
Oh, we’ll never tell them, no, we’ll never tell them:
I think that Barker has been misled (maybe by Oh What a Lovely War, whose version of the lines she uses) into thinking that this was a soldiers’ song, a folk parody originating in the Army.
In fact, it is the work of Cole Porter (as ‘War Song’ on page 50 of the Complete Lyrics, ed: Kimball). Since Porter enlisted the French Foreign Legion in 1917, and was stationed in Paris mostly. He mixed with British staff officers there, but I doubt strongly whether the parody would have reached the trenches. I don’t know where Charles Chilton found it for OWALW, but Kimball’s version, from Porter’s notebook, is slightly different from that used in the show:
And When They Ask Us
(Tune: ‘They wouldn’t believe me’)
And when they ask us, how dangerous it was
We never will tell them, we never will tell them:
We spent our pay in some cafe,
With wild women night and day,
‘Twas the wonderfulest war you ever knew
And when they ask us, and they’re certainly going to ask us,
Why on our chests we do not wear the Croix de Guerre,
We never will tell them
We never will tell them
There was a front, but damned if we knew where.