History: Published in 1991, it is the first of three novels in the Regeneration Trilogy of novels on the First World War. Barker attributes the immediate inspiration for Regeneration to her husband, a neurologist familiar with the writings of Dr. W.H.R. Rivers and his experiments with nerve regeneration.[
Plot: The novel begins with Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, an army psychiatrist at Craiglockhart War Hospital (a mental institution at the time), reading poet Siegfried Sassoon’s declaration against the continuation of the war. Sassoon’s "wilful defiance of military authority" has led to Sassoon being labelled "shell-shocked", a label which the authorities hope will discredit his views on the continuation of the war. Rivers states that he feels uneasy about Sassoon entering Craiglockhart, doubting that he is shell-shocked; he is uncomfortable about the prospect of sheltering a "conchie".
Sassoon’s friend and fellow poet Robert Graves advises Sassoon to give up his protest against the war; although he shares Sassoon’s feelings he still feels it would be impossible to stop the war. Sassoon had hoped for a court-martial so that his views could be publicly aired, but Graves, thinking that he is helping, manages to persuade a Medical Board that Sassoon should be sent to Craiglockhart instead.
Rivers meets Sassoon and their discussion demonstrates that while Sassoon objects to the sheer horror of the war, he does not have any religious objection to fighting. Rivers warns Sassoon that since his job is to return Sassoon to combat, he cannot therefore claim to remain neutral. This troubles Rivers, as he knows the horrors soldiers suffer when sent back. Sassoon struggles with the idea that he is safe in Craiglockhart while others are dying.
The opening chapters of the novel describe the suffering of soldiers in the hospital. Anderson, a former surgeon, now cannot stand the sight of blood. Burns has been crushed by the war and has terrible hallucinations after being thrown into the air and landing head first in the ruptured stomach of a rotting dead soldier by a shell, which causes him to vomit whenever he eats anything. In one particular scene, Anderson struggles with nightmares about losing a bet to a former comrade, which Rivers is unable to interpret.
Another patient, Prior, suffers from mutism and will only talk to Rivers through the use of a notepad. Prior eventually regains his voice but remains a difficult patient for Rivers as he does not wish to discuss his memories of the war. Prior is visited by his father, an unlikeable man who beat his wife and emotionally abused his son.
The last chapters of the first section of Regeneration deal with the ideas of class. Prior states that there are class distinctions in the British Army even during times of war.
Sassoon meets Wilfred Owen, a young man who also writes poetry. He asks Sassoon to sign some copies of his work and Sassoon offers to review Owen's poetry. Sassoon goes off to play golf with Anderson and Prior goes into Edinburgh and meets a girl called Sarah Lumb whose boyfriend was killed at the Battle of Loos. They come close to having sex, but Sarah pushes Prior away at the last minute.
Prior’s absence from Craiglockhart causes him to be confined to the hospital for two weeks as punishment. Rivers admits that it may be a good idea to now try hypnosis on Prior. This hypnosis causes Prior to remember the gruesome death of two soldiers in his platoon.
A new patient, Willard, is examined by Rivers. Willard was injured in a graveyard when, under heavy fire, parts of a gravestone were shot into his buttocks. While there is nothing preventing Willard from walking he insists that there is an injury to his spine.
Sassoon visits the Conservative Club with Rivers, who notices that Sassoon is depressed after learning of the deaths of two close friends. He realizes that it will not be difficult to convince Sassoon to continue fighting but does not want to force Sassoon because Rivers realizes that Sassoon will eventually want to return to the fight on his own.
Later Owen and Sassoon talk in Sassoon’s room. Sassoon gives Owen some poetry to publish in the hospital magazine The Hydra. In exchange for Owen publishing some of his own work Sassoon agrees to mentor Owen on his poetry.
Prior goes into town to meet Sarah and explains why he did not show up for their arranged meeting. They take a train to the seaside and walk along the beach together. Prior explains to Sarah how he has to censor the letters of soldiers before they are sent home. He is eager to return to France as he feels unable to relate to anyone back home – he feels as though only fellow soldiers understand his emotions and experiences. He and Sarah get caught in a storm and later have sex in a bush. On the train back to town Prior has an asthma attack.
Rivers, suffering from exhaustion, is ordered to take three weeks holiday from his work at Craiglockhart. As a storm sounds outside Sassoon and Owen work on poetry together. Rivers' departure resurrects for Sassoon his feelings of abandonment when his father left him, and he realises that Rivers has taken the place of his father.
Part III of the novel begins with Rivers attending church with his family. He contrasts the biblical story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac with the war where soldiers are sacrificing each other. This is an allusion to Wilfred Owen's Parable of the Old Man and the Young; Barker makes use of the poem's central metaphor and actually quotes its final line: "And half the seed of Europe, one by one."
Rivers recalls the visits of Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, to his family home as a child.
Back at Craiglockhart Sassoon helps Owen draft one of his most famous poems, "Anthem for Doomed Youth."
Sarah accompanies her friend Madge to a local hospital so Madge can visit her fiance who has been wounded. Sarah gets lost and walks into a tent filled with injured amputee soldiers. She is angry at her shocked reaction as well as the fact that society hides these injured soldiers away.
Prior is examined by a medical board. Prior fears that they suspect he is faking illness and want to send him back to war.
Rivers meets with some old friends, Ruth and Henry Head, who discuss Sassoon. Rivers suggests that it is right that Sassoon has the freedom to disagree with the war. However, Rivers realizes that it is his job to make Sassoon return to war. At the end of their conversation Head offers Rivers a top job in London. Although it is a career leap, Rivers is unsure whether he should take it..
Burns, who has since been discharged, invites Rivers to visit him at his seaside home in Suffolk. Rivers expects to talk to Burns' parents about his condition and is surprised to discover that Burns is alone. They spend a few days together with Rivers not bringing up the topic of the war. One night when there is a severe storm Burns walks outside and hides in a tunnel which floods at high tide, suffering flashbacks to his experiences with trench warfare in France. The trauma causes Burns to finally open up and talk about his experiences of war. He describes to Rivers the sheer horror he felt when taking part in the Battle of the Somme and how he hoped he would suffer a minor injury so he could be sent home.
When Rivers returns to Craiglockhart he tells Bryce that he will take the job in London. In another appointment Sassoon has with Rivers, Sassoon describes how he has been having hallucinations of dead friends knocking on his door. Sassoon admits he feels guilty about not serving with his friends and decides he should return to the front. Rivers is pleased with his decision but at the same time worries about what may happen to him there.
Sarah tells her mother, Ada, about her relationship with Billy Prior. Ada scolds her daughter for having sex so soon in a relationship; she reminds Sarah that contraception is not always reliable (repeating a story that every tenth condom is purposely defective) and states that true love between a man and a woman does not exist.
Sassoon meets his friend Graves and tells him of his decision to return to war. Graves lectures Sassoon on the importance of people maintaining their word. Graves then tells Sassoon about a mutual friend, Peter, who has been arrested for prostitution and is being sent to Rivers to "cure" his homosexuality. Graves stresses that he himself is now writing to a girl called Nancy, implying that he is not homosexual. This leaves Sassoon feeling 'like a precipice on a country road.'
The girls at the munitions factory joke that many of the men serving are gay. When Sarah asks why one munitions worker called Betty is not there, Lizzie replies that Betty is in the hospital seriously ill after attempting a home abortion with a coat-hanger.
Sassoon talks to Rivers before he is sent back to France and they discuss Peter and the larger question of the official attitude towards homosexuality. Rivers theorizes that during wartime the authorities are particularly hard on homosexuality, wanting to clearly distinguish between the 'right' kind of love between men (loyalty, brotherhood, team spirit), which is beneficial to soldiers, and the 'wrong' kind (sexual).
The Board meets to review the cases of various soldiers and decide on their fitness for combat. They decide that Prior should have permanent home service due to his asthma. Prior breaks down at this news, fearing that he will be seen as a coward and ashamed that he will not be able to return to war and find out what calibre of soldier he is. Sassoon tires of waiting for his turn to see the Board and leaves to have dinner with friends. Rivers, angry at this flippant behavior, demands an explanation, at which Sassoon apologises and admits that he was afraid. Sassoon assures Rivers that although his views of the war have not changed and he still stands by his "Declaration," he does want to return to France.
Prior and Sarah meet again and admit their love for one another. Sassoon and Owen talk in the Conservative Club about how awful it will be in Craiglockhart for Sassoon without Rivers or Owen there; Owen is deeply affected by his departure.
Rivers spends his last day saying goodbye to patients, then travels to London and meets Dr. Yealland from the National Hospital, who will be his colleague in his new position. Dr. Yealland uses electro-shock therapy to force patients to quickly recover from shell-shock; he believes that some patients do not want to be cured and that pain is the best method of curing these reluctant patients. In a horrifying scene Yealland demonstrates his brutal method of 'treatment' which is vastly different from Rivers' and which makes Rivers question whether he can work with such a man.
Sassoon is released for combat duty and Willard walks again. Anderson is given a staff job. Sassoon comments to Rivers that Owen’s feelings towards Sassoon may be something more than mere hero worship.
Rivers completes his notes, meditating on the effect that Sassoon, and the last few months, have had on him.
Review: Barker stated in an interview that "The trilogy is trying to tell something about the parts of war that don't get into the official accounts". She goes on to state that "One of the things that impresses me is that two things happen to soldiers in war: a) they get killed or b) they come back more or less alright. It's really focusing on the people who do come back but don't come back alright, they are either physically disabled or mentally traumatised.”
Barker states that she chose to write about World War I "because it's come to stand in for other wars, as a sort of idealism of the young people in August 1914 in Germany and in England. They really felt this was the start of a better world. And the disillusionment, the horror and the pain followed that. I think because of that it's come to stand for the pain of all wars."
On the role of women in her books Barker states that "In a lot of books about war by men the women are totally silenced. The men go off and fight and the women stay at home and cry; basically, this is the typical feature. And the women in the trilogy are always deeply significant, and whatever they say in whatever language they say it in, it is always meant to be listened to very carefully." Barker points out that the women in the munitions factories were expected to produce weapons to kill thousands, but a woman who attempts to abort her unborn child is criticised.
Opening Line: “I am making a statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war has been deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”
Closing Line: “He drew the final page towards him and wrote, “November 26, 1917. Discharged to duty.”
Quotes: “You seem to have a very powerful anti-war neurosis."