A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

The Eye in the Door: Review

The following post was taken from my Goodreads review:

In my most recent attempt to explain what Pat Barker’s Regeneration series was about, I explained that it was “an exploration of how World War I changed Europe.” And yet, reading The Eye in the Door, what struck me most was how the book works to complicate the traditional view of The Great War as a definitive break from Europe’s past, and England’s Victorian/Edwardian years in particular. Instead, Barker’s narrative explores the ways that conservative elements within the British government used the crisis of total war as a means of reestablishing various social mores that the pre-war years had begun to destabilize.

The Eye in the Door puts most of its focus on Billy Prior, the working-class-Northerner-turned-officer who appears in Regeneration as an asthmatic soldier driven temporarily mute from his experiences at the front. By revealing in the opening chapters that Prior is both bisexual and the childhood friend of prominent pacifist activists operating within England, Barker places him at the nexus of the novel’s two main concerns: the treatment of secular conscientious objectors by the British government, and the persecution of homosexuals using both the law and private intimidation.

This focus allows for the type of pushback against typical narratives to which Barker seems attracted. Against the idea of British unity during the war, she focuses on the people willing to blow up munitions factories in order to impede the war movement and force their own country to the negotiating table; against the idea of a cultural sea change brought about by the horrors of war, she shows how elements within the British government used the war as an excuse to continue unfinished business with the estate of Oscar Wilde. Some of the most difficult-to-believe elements in the plot involves the series of legal maneuvers that led to a libel case against Noel Pemberton Billing, who published materials that linked homosexuality with national insurrections, claiming that “47,000 highly placed British perverts” were spying on behalf of the Germans. If it feels like I’m spending too much time recounting the events surrounding the book, it’s only because I found them so astounding. I haven’t even talked about the character (a real person) who earnestly believed that diseases had permanently warped the sex drives of most upper-class British women, who could “only be satisfied by bull elephants,” and who was diagnosed with paranoid delusional insanity shortly after being a key witness in the above trial.

As for the book itself, it’s a little too dour to be completely engaging—too many atrocities that the government commits against its own citizens, too much suffering, too much misery. It perhaps can’t be helped in a novel about WWI, but I feel like Erich Maria Remarque did a good job balancing the misery with levity in All Quiet on the Western Front, and Barker did herself in her previous novel. If there’s one place I’d lay the blame in particular, it’s at the feet of Billy Prior, who was one of my least favorite characters in Regeneration, and who remains somewhat irritating here. Prior is meant to be torn, conflicted, liminal in nature, but he ends up just feeling neutral—he’s not particularly implicated in the anti-homosexual campaigns, as he seems to use homosexuality as a way to get himself off when there’s no willing girls around more than anything. And his trip back to his home is the sort of misery porn you expect to find in a particularly unsubtle D.H. Lawrence novel.

But enough of the book is devoted to WHR Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon that Billy Prior doesn’t grate too much, and something must be said for Barker’s attempt to place this non-historical character next to all the historical figures she draws with such conviction and familiarity. Really, it’s worth reading these books to see how they function as historical commentaries on how the fact of the war impacted British life in the century to come.

Interested in reading this? I’m an Amazon Affiliate, meaning that I link products from Amazon, and if anyone clicks those links to buy the product, they pay me a commission. If you’re interested in purchasing The Eye in the Door, click the link below:

The Eye in the Door

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This entry was posted on 28 September 2019 by in Elegant Extracts and tagged , , , , .
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