Authors: Pat Barker

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Writer

May 8, 1943

Thornaby-on-Tees, near Middlesborough, England

Biography

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.

Pat Barker.

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By summonedbyfells, CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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 trilogy, features Prior’s tragic death in battle but ends with a mystical vision inspired by Rivers’s anthropological research into non-Western cultures.

Barker’s war trilogy is notable for its contemporary tone and language, as well as for its contemporary treatment of such issues as peace, war, class, gender, and the governing establishment. The work deploys World War I as a crucible out of which developed the issues that preoccupied the rest of the twentieth century. Her next novel, Another World, continued the connection to the Great War. The dying of 101-year-old Geordie, a survivor of the trenches in World War I, allows the past to intrude on the present and on the lives of his grandson Nick and family.

Border Crossing returned to the complex urban themes of Union Street and The Century’s Daughter. It focuses on the relationship between Tom Seymour, a psychologist who specializes in troubled and violent children and adolescents, and Danny Peters, a young man who murdered an old woman when he was ten.

Double Vision (2003) focuses on the theme of violence as it follows the story of a writer working in a new English town on a book on that very topic following time spent reporting in the United States on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Shortly, he is confronted once more with real-life violence and must determine how to react. The novels Life Class (2007) and Toby's Room (2012), on the other hand, see Barker return to the World War I era and focusing on overlapping, continuing characters and storylines. While Life Class follows a volunteer for the Belgian Red Cross and his attempt to adjust to civilian life once more after the war's end, Toby's Room focuses on the war's influence on a sibling coping with the possible loss of a loved one to the war and conflicting feelings about her views on the war. Noonday (2015) completes the trilogy by dealing for the first time in Barker's career with World War II. Following the same characters through this second war, the book focuses further on the emotional traumas of such trying times.

Author Works Long Fiction: Union Street, 1982 Blow Your House Down, 1984 The Man Who Wasn’t There, 1984 The Century’s Daughter, 1986 Regeneration, 1991 The Eye in the Door, 1993 The Ghost Road, 1995 The Regeneration Trilogy, 1996 (includes the previous 3 novels) Another World, 1998 Border Crossing, 2001 Double Vision, 2003 Life Class, 2007 Toby's Room, 2012 Noonday, 2015 Bibliography Atkinson, Meera. "Transgenerational Trauma and Cyclical Haunting in Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy." Cultural Studies Review, vol. 21, no. 1, 2015, pp. 58–75. Examines Barker's Regeneration trilogy through the scope of Jacques Derrida's concept of hauntology and Jean Laplanche's concept of trauma. Barker, Pat. Interview by Donna Perry. In Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993. An extensive interview. Brannigan, John. Pat Barker. New York: Manchester University Press, 2005. Brannigan considers all of Barker’s novels in a critical assessment of their social realism, their examination of gender roles, their treatment of memory, and their narrative style. Fairweather, Eileen. “The Voices of Women.” The New Statesman, May 14, 1982. Reviews Union Street in the context of feminist writing. Falcus, Sarah. “A Complex Mixture of Fascination and Distaste: Relationships Between Women in Pat Barker’s Blow Your House Down, Liza’s England, and Union Street.” Journal of Gender Studies 16 (November, 2007): 249–261. Falcus’s thesis is that Barker’s early novels portray women as trapped in imprisoning roles by their gender yet bonding with each other. Falcus examines that bonding in the light of feminist theory. Fraser, Kennedy. “Ghost Writer.” The New Yorker, March 17, 2008. Kennedy considers the influence of spiritualism in Barker’s family background on her Regeneration trilogy and other novels. Harris, Greg. “Compulsory Masculinity, Britain, and the Great War: The Literary-Historical Work of Pat Barker.” Critique 39 (Summer, 1998): 290–305. Examines how the Regeneration trilogy frames gender roles during World War I through the psychological work of the character Dr. Rivers. Hynes, Samuel. “Among Damaged Men.” The New York Times Book Review, March 29, 1992, 1, 23. Reviews Regeneration favorably. Kemp, Peter. “War Has Been Her Greatest Obsession, and It Looms Large in Her New Novel—But Is This Pat Barker’s Last Battle?” Sunday Times, July 1, 2007. Based on an interview with Barker, Kemp writes of the author’s reasons for returning to World War I as subject matter, and of her interest in artists of the day. Includes biographical information. Monteith, Sharon. Pat Barker. Tavistock, England: Northcote House, 2002. In a critical overview, Monteith contends that Barker’s fiction combines both individual character and the national mentality in considering the psychological effects of gender and violence in communities under stress from war, crime, or poverty. Morrison, Blake. “War Stories.” The New Yorker, January 22, 1996, 78–82. An excellent survey of the life and work of Barker, especially the war trilogy. Westman, Karen. Pat Barker’s “Regeneration”: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Continuum, 2001. Following a short biographical chapter that also recounts the history of the writing of the three novels, Westmann addressed the themes of the Regeneration trilogy in detail. Includes a short bibliography.

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