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Pat Barker: The Eye in the Door

The second in Barker’s World War I trilogy carries on where the previous one left off. It takes as its premise that the issues being dealt with by psychiatric hospitals are pacifism, what was then called shell shock but would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder, and homosexuality, which are seemingly separate problems but are considered as all part of the same problem by the British military authorities. The main focus is on Billy Prior, whom we had met in Regeneration, and who is now more or less cured though, as it turns out, he isn’t. He starts off the book in a homosexual encounter with a fellow officer (married with children) and ends up going off with his girlfriend. In the meantime, he undergoes major memory lapses when he commits various misdeeds, including getting into a fight and betraying a friend to the authorities.

While we follow his treatment and other treatments administered by Dr. Rivers, we also follow his investigation into an alleged case of assassination of British Prime Minister Lloyd George. Beattie Roper, who runs a small shop in Salford and is based on the real-life Alice Wheeldon, is in prison and on hunger strike for allegedly trying to poison Lloyd George. Prior is part of an intelligence unit and goes to interview her. However, he knew her as a child. Indeed, when his mother was sick, Roper had looked after him for long periods. When he goes back to Salford we meet others in the movement who support pacifism and who aid deserters. Barker gives us an unusual insight into another side of the war, with deserters, pacifists and homosexuals.

In the background hovers another real life story, that of Pemberton Billing, a right-wing M. P. who, in his journal, alleged the existence of a black book, containing the names of 47,000 homosexuals (including Winston Churchill!) whom the Germans had tracked down and were blackmailing. The journal then mentioned a private performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé and implied, in an article entitled The Cult of the Clitoris that the actress Maud Allan, who was to play the title role, was a Lesbian. She sued for libel. This, of course, is linked to the homosexuality of various of the characters in this novel.

Finally, we follow Dr Rivers, both with his own (relatively minor problems) as well as his treatment of others, including once again, Siegfried Sassoon, who has returned to active duty and been injured (by one of his own men) and who also knows some of the alleged 47,000. Barker tells an excellent story and clearly shows, as one of the characters states, that England at that time wasn’t all heroic warfare or even just the stupid waste of men but had another side that we don’t always hear about.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by Viking