|Pat Barker's Regeneration|
"Manly Love Beyond Wilde"
Joe Geist (Spring 2004)
In Pat Barker's novel Regeneration, there is little doubt that the cult of Oscar Wilde had taken hold already in the first decades of the twentieth century. In Oscar Wilde's Last Stand, Philip Hoarer informs us that by associating with Robert Ross, Wilfred Owen "was allying himself with the cult of Oscar Wilde: hero, mentor and martyr to an entire culture" (Hoarer 15). In some manner, the unraveling of this statement is what makes the references to Wilde so important in Barker's novel. Barker makes three references to Oscar Wilde on pages 54, 124, and 143. Each of the references to Wilde is in the context of friendships involving homosexual males. In Barker's Regeneration, Oscar Wilde is referenced to emphasize the theme that homosexuals are completely capable having friendships with other males and not just romantic relationships.
The interesting life of Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde began on October 16, 1854, in Dublin, Ireland. By the end of his college education, Wilde had become one of the most famous aesthetes; it was this recognition which drew attention to his affected paradoxes and his witty sayings. This fame led to his 1882 lecture tour of America. In 1885 Wilde began work as a book reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette and a critic for the Dramatic Reviewer. Two years later, he was appointed as the editor of the Lady's World Magazine. The year 1888 marked his first major published work The Happy Prince and Other Stories, which was a charming collection of children's stories. Three years later Wilde made a name for him self by publishing four books in 1891: A House of Pomegranates, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, Intentions, and The Picture of Dorian Gray -- the latter earning him his greatest fame to date" ("Biography"). In the next four years Wilde's fame grew larger with his wildly popular plays: Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest (both in 1895). The academic and literary career of Oscar Wilde was soon there after distracted by his private sexual life.
The private sexual life of Oscar Wilde was one that has left us with unmistakably clear truths and also clouded uncertainties. What is historically known to be true about Oscar Wilde's life is that in 1884 he married Constance Lloyd, and he fathered two sons, Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886). Another known truth is that "as early as 1886, Wilde had been actively involved in homosexual affairs with Lord Alfred Douglas" ("Biography"). When Douglas's father the Marquess of Queensberry found out about the relationship, he tried to end it peacefully. Instead, "Douglas regrettably persuaded Wilde to file a criminal libel case against the Marquess" ("Biography"). Wilde's charge was soon dismissed by the British courts and followed by a charge against Wilde by the Marquess. After the trial "the court found Wilde guilty of homosexual misconduct -- then a serious punishable crime -- and sentenced him to two years hard labor at Reading Gaol" ("Biography"). It was during this time that Wilde relied heavily upon his close friends, such as Robert Ross. This friendship is where the clouded uncertainty about the nature of the friendship between Ross and Wilde begins. All rumors aside, "the only indisputable fact is that all three of them (Wilde, Douglas, and Ross) did, at some time in their lives, indulge in homosexual practices" (Borland 19). Wilde's rollercoaster ride from fame to social out cast ended in bankruptcy and dismay when he died at the age of 47 in 1900.
Certainly, the references to Oscar Wilde in Regeneration help the reader to understand the loving relationships among men, both homosexual and heterosexual. All of the Wilde references are made in the context of situations in which characters must confront their sexual preferences. In one such situation when Siegfried is conversing with Dr. Rivers, he refers to both Wilde and Ross, not only to clarify his own sexual preference but also to show its ramifications. He notes that Wilde used little caution in making his own preference known, while Ross did find caution to be the better way (54). In the novel, the references to Wilde and Ross help to identify Sassoon's sexual preference to Dr. Rivers, and later in the novel, Rivers goes so far as to support his friend in front of the medical board. The risk that Rivers takes by supporting Sassoon in front of the board after Sassoon's repeated defiance is immense and proves his friendship to Sassoon. This friendship between two males with different sexual preferences shows that homosexuals can take part in loving friendships, not just sexual relationships with other males.
In the novel's second reference to Oscar Wilde, the situation is totally different in that it involves two gay males, yet it's also similar because this relationship remains platonic. In this episode, Sassoon is speaking with his friend, fellow poet and homosexual, Wilfred Owen. During the World War I years, Hoare reminds us the lives of these war poets "swung somewhat surreally between the battleground of the Western Front and the 'decadent' modern world of art and letters" (204). The two friends are discussing admiration for someone and how that person isn't always the best model. It is at this point that Sassoon admits his admiration of Oscar Wilde. Even though earlier in the novel we learn that Owen is intimidated by Sassoon's good looks, the friendship between the two homosexuals remains platonic. The reference to Wilde by Sassoon is meant to show that admiration, like that of Owen's for Sassoon, doesn't have to be complicated by a sexual relationship, while all three share a simpatico in sexual preference.
There are numerous friendships in which sexual preference could have affected the friendship but the friendships remained platonic. The case of Dr. Rivers and Sassoon is a prime example. The relationship begins as the doctor is having tea with Sassoon in order to examine his mental stability. As the novel progresses, the doctor-patient relationship grows into a friendship in which Dr. Rivers does Sassoon a huge favor in interceding for him with the medical board. In a conversation between the two, Sassoon makes reference to both Robert Ross and Oscar Wilde (54). The reference is relevant because of the very strong relationship between Ross and Wilde. Ross stood by his friend throughout his public trial for homosexuality and he helped raise money for Wilde when he was trying to recover from bankruptcy and served as his literary executor (Borland 121). The friendship between these two was very intense and often agonizing but nevertheless served as a template for other homosexuals after Wilde's death. Dr. Rivers makes sacrifices for Sassoon just as Ross did for Wilde. And once again the reference to Wilde reiterates the theme that friendship isn't made necessarily awkward by sexual preference.
Another friendship that illustrates the difference between friendship and a sexual relationship is the relationship between Sassoon and Owen. While both are homosexuals and both are trying to live with their sexual preferences in the post-Wilde British world, their friendship and admiration for each other go beyond sex itself. Sassoon states that he "admires Wilde" but his appreciation of Owen is on another plane (124). If Sassoon hadn't appreciated Owen's friendship he would not have given him a letter of introduction to a fellow friend with strong literary ties, Robert Ross. Owen clearly admires Sassoon by the way "that he was standing at his elbow, almost like a junior officer" (83). In that same scene Owen makes his admiration vividly clear when he quotes two of Sassoon's poems from memory. Owen actually described Sassoon once as "very tall and stately, with a fine firm chisel's head" (Hibberd 40). In the novel, their friendship is never awkward as they live through the war years as homosexual wartime poets.
Although the novel discusses homosexual friendships and relationships in society in general, it clearly and specifically attacks society's unfair bias against gays in the military. Barker telescopes the issue through the bond of friendship between Sassoon and his men. The main reason Sassoon goes back to the front is because he can't stand to let his men down. In Sassoon's poem "Sick Leave," featured by Barker on page 189, the question arises directly from one of Sassoon's men: "Why are you here with all your watches ended?"; the same poem poses another question: "When are you going back to them [Sassoon's men] again?" The guilt that Sassoon expresses in his poem is due to his love, in the form of comradeship, that he feels toward his men. Sassoon's homosexuality does not affect how he serves his country or directs his men. He is completely dedicated to them, not out of a sense of homosexual love, but for loving friendship between men -- a sense of "manly love" as Walt Whitman would say during another war in the previous century.
One could say that Oscar Wilde left his mark in the next decade after his death through Robert Ross who, in turn, inspired Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Pat Barker's novel details the social relationships and the sexual preferences of these young war poets who paved the way for the sexual freedoms that are slowly to come of age in the rest of the century. In Regeneration, Barker illuminates a statement Paul Hammond succinctly makes about the period:
The references to Oscar Wilde are ingeniously placed within the novel to give a historical framework to the novel. Pat Barker, in her use of historical characters intertwined with her creation of fictional characters, shows how homosexual and heterosexual men can relate in the background of war and in a society of changing social mores.
Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 2003.
Biography of Oscar Wilde. 2000. A&E Television Networks. 10 April, 2004.
Borland, Maureen. Wilde's Devoted Friend. Oxford: Lennard Publishing, 1990.
Hammond, Paul. Love between Men in English Literature. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Hibberd, Dominic. Wilfred Owen: The Last Year. London: Constable, 1992.
Hoare, Philip. Oscar Wilde's Last Stand. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1997.