Trauma and World Literature: Studying the Face of Trauma – Toby’s Room
October 24, 2016
Readers of this column will remember Pat Barker as the Booker Prize-winning author of the Regeneration trilogy. Those three historical novels follow the efforts of psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers and the shell shocked Army Officers under his care at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland to recover from the horrors of the First World War. Among Rivers’ patients are the prominent war poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owens but the Barker’s dramatis personae also include leading clinicians including Henry Head and Lewis Yealland. Taken together, the Regeneration novels comprise arguably the finest portrayal to date of the inner workings of the minds and hearts of clinicians and patients as they confront psychological trauma.
Barker returns to the field of World War I from a different perspective (in fact, from an array of perspectives) in her more recent Life Class series, the second of which is Toby’s Room (2012). The Life Class novels approach the Great War directly and indirectly through the eyes of art students who meet at the Slade School of Fine Art (informally known as The Slade) of University College London shortly before the outbreak of the War. The actions of the novel move from their homes to their art studies to the fields of battle and back again.
Central to the storyline of the Life Class series is Henry Tonks (1862 – 1937), British surgeon and anatomy instructor at the London Hospital medical school turned Slade Professor of Fine Arts in 1892. Tonks, one of the first British artists to be influenced by the French Impressionists, was, himself, highly influential. He associated with leading artists of his time including James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. Like Rivers, who began his career as an anthropologist, Tonks was an intellectual giant whose diverse life experiences uniquely qualified him for the role he was to play in World War I. One wonders if Barker, a formidable artist herself but not a clinician, has found a new avatar within her own world of Art with which to explore, depict and reveal the harsh physical and personal realities of WWI.
Tonks, known as an acerbic teacher, returned to Medicine at the start of the War at a prisoner of war camp in England. He later served as a medical orderly at a British Red Cross hospital near the Marne in France in 1915 and, still later, joined an ambulance unit in Italy. When we meet him again in Toby’s Room, he is working for Dr. Harold Gillies, pioneer in plastic surgery, by documenting facial injury cases and their reconstruction at the Cambridge military hospital in Aldershot and the Queen's Hospital, Sidcup. Tonks became an official war artist (a fascinating parallel to the title, “war poet”) in 1918.
The following passage describes art student (and the novel’s protagonist) Elinor Brookes’ first encounter with the body of work which her old professor is amassing in his work for Gillies:
She wondered what lay behind the screen; probably a washbasin, something like that. But when she looked behind it she saw, instead, a whole wall full of portraits of men with hideously disfigured faces. One of them, the man with no jaw, she recognized from the corridor. Individually, each portrait would have been remarkable; displayed together like this, row upon row, they were overwhelming. She took her time, pausing in front of first one portrait, then another. Were they portraits, or were they medical illustrations? Portraits celebrate the identity of the sitter. Everything- the clothes they’ve chosen to wear, the background, the objects on a table by the chair- leads the eye back to the face. And the face is the person. Here, in these portraits, the wound was central. She found her gaze shifting continuously between torn flesh and splintered bone and the eyes of the man who had to suffer it. There was no point of rest; no pleasure in the exploration of a unique individual. Instead you were left with a question: How can any human being endure this?
Tonks came back into the room. “Ah, I see you’ve found my Rogues’ Gallery.”
She thought she detected reserve, even disapproval, in his voice. “I’m sorry, I-I realize they’re not on display.”
“No, don’t worry, you’d be amazed how many people see them. Though I like to think they’re mainly surgeons.” A pause. “I’d be quite interested to hear what you think.”
Tonks wanted her opinion of his work? That was bad enough, but the awful truth was she didn’t have one. She didn’t know how to react to images which seemed to call for several different kinds of response. In the end she just said, simply: “I don’t know how to look at them.”
“Well, they are-“
“No, I don’t mean I can’t bear to look at them; I mean, I don’t know how. I don’t know what I’m looking at- a man or a wound.”
“Both, I hope. You know, even when I was a very young doctor going round the wards I always saw them like that. On the one hand there’s a patient with a problem you have to solve, or at least try to solve, but there’s also the person.” He stood back, looking along the row of faces. “I can’t not see both.” (pp. 157-9)
Readers who would be interested in having an experience similar to Elinor Brooke’s (or, perhaps, to Henry Tonks’), may view a display of Tonks’ portraits.
Barker, Pat. Toby’s Room. Copyright 2012 by Pat Barker. Anchor Books edition, New York, 2013.