|Pat Barker's Regeneration|
"Heritage and Identity"
Ann Crusch (Spring 2004)
The presence of Jews in England has been a source of controversy for many reasons. On page 35 of Pat Barker's historical novel Regeneration, Siegfried Sassoon reveals the nature of his relationship with his father, who left home when he was five, and gives an account of his Jewish history. Though he hadn't been raised Jewish and apparently had no association with his Jewish relatives, Sassoon was subjected to the discrimination that was often seen in England before and during WWI. Through Sassoon's Jewish heritage and the other characters relation to the past, Barker exposes the need of mankind to identify with the past in order to come to terms with the present.
There is much history concerning the Jewish people and their presence in England as an organized community, beginning in 1066 when Jewish merchants were encouraged to move to England. Professor Daniel J. Elazer, in summarizing an article by Aubrey Newman, states that from 1066 to 1290 the Jews suffered persecution in the form of "blood libels, mass riots, and discriminatory legislation" (4), followed by expulsion from England until 1655 when a Sephardi Rabbi was able to convince Oliver Cromwell to allow the Jews readmission. Most of the Jews coming into England were Sephardi Jews, well educated and successful businessmen from Spain and Amsterdam, until later in the seventeenth century when Jewish immigrants from Northern Europe began to arrive. These Jews were known as Ashkenazi Jews and were of a lower social class than the Sephardi (5).
Anti-Jewish sentiment in England can be attributed to more than religious persecution. It includes religious, race, and social issues and is researched in depth in Anti-Semitism in British Society, 1876-1939, by Professor Colin Holmes. Put very simply, he describes how there were two distinct attitudes towards the Jewish community. The Liberal Party was in great favor of Jewish immigration and strongly opposed any legislation or movement against it. The reason was mostly that lending money (usury) was not unlawful to the Jews as it was to Christians. Therefore, lending money to banks and businesses helped the economy and especially the Bourgeois capitalists who made up most of the Liberal party (104-106). Not everyone shared the same views as the Liberal party. Christians considered usury a sin, and the sinful nature of such practices was extended to the Jews even though it wasn't one of their beliefs. The anger was fueled by superstition and gossip. Jews were accused of sacrificing Christian children, poisoning water wells, and practicing Satanism (105).
Just before the war, there was a great insurgence of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Russia. Those who opposed a Jewish presence used the lower-working class status of the new immigrants to gain support for a bill to control immigration (Holmes106). In addition, the Russian Jew's social class caused some concern among the Jewish population as well. The wealthy Jews worried that the position they were now enjoying could be threatened by the new immigrant's working-class status. To compound the problem even further, when England entered the war, most Russian Jews refused to serve, which angered both the Christian and Jewish community (105-108).
References to Jews in Barker's novel begin on page 35 in a conversation between Dr. Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon where the reader learns that Sassoon not only lost his father at a very early age, but also missed a large part of his heritage, his past, which kept him from understanding himself. Sassoon feels disconnected from his father, who left home when he was five. Readers learn of Sassoon's Jewish heritage from the details of the conversation about his father's funeral from which his brothers "came back terrified" because "It was a Jewish funeral, you see, and they couldn't understand what was going on" (35). Sassoon's statement indicates that even though his father must have been Jewish, the rest of the family was not, and the children had not been exposed to the distinct culture of their father's Jewish roots.
Near the end of the novel, Sassoon's Jewish heritage appears to be a factor in deciding whether he will be allowed to return to duty. On page 247, Major Huntley, when asked if he knew of a reason for keeping Sassoon in Craiglockhart, responded with "Spanish Jews . . . Father's side. Spanish Jews," indicating that his father being Jewish was reason enough to doubt Sassoon's integrity. However, he quickly reveals that Sassoon's "Mother was a Thorneycroft," dismissing his Jewish roots as giving him "Hybrid vigour" when combined with the English blood of his maternal ancestors. Major Huntley's view shows that even though he is quick to disregard Sassoon's unfavorable Jewish roots considering his more nationally appealing qualities, it may have been reason enough to consider Sassoon unfit for service.
In the novel, Sassoon is one of many men and women who are struggling to resolve an inner conflict between their past and present selves, a conflict revealed by their war experience. Coming to terms with the present means facing the past for many of the characters, including Dr. Rivers, who begins to struggle with his own identity while working with the soldiers at Craiglockhart. Eventually the doubt and the strain of his position cause Rivers to have a breakdown and he is ordered to take three weeks leave (139 -140) which he spends at his brother's chicken farm (149 -156). While visiting his brother, Rivers recalls certain moments of his childhood and ponders his relationship with his father, a priest and speech therapist. During church services one morning, Rivers appears to be longing for the innocence of his youth when he sadly recalls the Sunday mornings of his childhood and realizes "They will never come back, those times" (150). The reader soon learns however, that his childhood was not necessarily a happy one because of the tension between himself and his father. The troubled relationship between father and son is revealed when Rivers sees his father's desk and recalls a speech he made to his speech therapy group led by his father. Rivers had secretly rejected his father's ideas and methods concerning speech therapy earlier that summer and was very happy about his conclusion even though he felt that he had "in a way, just killed" his father. Secret rebellion wasn't enough for Rivers, though, and his speech to the group was not only filled with stammering, but discussed evolution in a way that suggested "Genesis was no more than the creation myth of a Bronze Age people." The speech angered his father and upset the household, but Rivers felt triumphant because he had "forced his father to listen to what he had to say, and not merely to the way he'd said it" (155). The memories lead Rivers to examine the relationship he'd had with his father, and to realize the similarities they share in their work. Rivers realizes that he has become much the same man that his father once was "listening to some patient, with a stammer far worse than Dodgson's, try and fail to reach the end of a sentence" (156). By examining his relationship with his father, Rivers is able to recognize his present self, not as a copy of his father, but as a product of his past.
Rivers is only one of many who are struggling with their identity in Regeneration. Prior's struggle with his present identity is a result of the conflicting roles expected of him by his parents. As Karin Westman points out in Pat Barker's Regeneration, Prior and Rivers share similar characteristics (32-35) due mostly to the fact that their relationships with their fathers were very much alike. Prior's father wants him to stay true to his working class roots while his mother is hopeful that he will move up in social status because, as she says in chapter 6, "Billy was different." Prior is not able to do both or really, either, very well, leaving him in doubt and confusion about where he really fits in, a familiar feeling from childhood, through his young adult years, and in the war. He manages to overcome his conflicting identities when he embraces his past by falling in love with Sarah Lumb, a working class girl. The fact that Sarah is of the working class allows Prior to identify with his own working-class roots, giving the relationship a level of comfort Prior never felt while working as a clerk in the shipping office (58) or as an officer in the war (66). Through Sarah, Billy Prior has found a link to his past that allows him to connect with the present and gives him hope for the future.
Identifying and accepting their personal past allows both Rivers and Prior to embrace the present. By denying the past, many of the characters in Barker's novel struggle with the present. Many are unable to deal with the horrors of war witnessed and experienced in their recent past. Others, such as Rivers and Prior, struggle with issues from their childhood as well. Regeneration shows that by making a connection with the past and accepting it for what it is, the characters are able to continue their lives with some sense of order and purpose.
Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 1993.
Elazer, Daniel. "British Jewry." Jerusalem Center For Public Affairs. 14 April 2004. <http://www.jcpa.org/dje/articles3/british.htm>
Holmes, Colin. Anti-Semitism in British Society, 1879-1939. London: Edward Arnold Ltd., 1979.
Westman, Karin E. Pat Barker's Regeneration. New York: Continuum, 2001.