One of the things I really appreciate about belonging to a book group is that every now and again a novel will turn up on our schedule that has somehow slipped out of my tbr pile before I’ve managed to get round to reading it. This was the case with Pat Barker’s Life Class and, as it was the first of a trilogy, that has meant that I have also had to postpone reading Toby’s Room and the more recently published Noonday. It was because the member who suggested it wanted to read Noonday but, like myself, hadn’t read the earlier novels, that we ended up discussing Life Class at the beginning of the week and we had some very differing reactions to the novel.
I expect that by now everyone else has encountered the work and knows what it is about so very briefly, as a reminder, it is set just before and then, latterly, about a month into, the onset of the First World War. Initially we meet three art students studying at the Slade under the renown surgeon turned teacher of life drawing, Henry Tonks. Paul Tarrant, Kit Neville and Elinor Brooke each display very different talents and very different approaches towards their work as artists. Paul seems to be able to do nothing to please Tonks and is seriously questioning whether he has made the right decision in coming to London. Kit, on the other hand, has had some success and is prepared to be as commercial as is necessary to make money from his art. Elinor perhaps has the most difficult time because she has to battle not only to get her work appreciated but also with the prejudice against a woman studying art rather than preparing herself for what is generally seen as her real role in life, namely as someone’s wife. The difference in the ways in which each of these characters face their situations is expertly drawn and appreciating this set of contrasts prepares the reader for the more substantial contrast to come.
Nothing, however, prepares the young artists for what is about to happen. The move into the clearing stations for the wounded in France is as sudden for the reader as was the onset of war for the peoples of Europe. Paul in particular is completely unequipped for the Life Class in which he now find himself enrolled as he encounters the reality of what can be done to the human body in the name of war and the suffering that consequently ensues. Now the disarticulated limbs are not simply plaster casts studied for aesthetic purposes, they are the shattered remains of young men who had no idea of what they were heading out to when they enlisted and now no real idea as to what they are fighting for. The clearing station becomes another studio as artists turned surgeons struggle to understand the ways in which the human body works in order to save the lives of those who have become their unwitting ‘models’.
In general, we were in agreement about the book seen simply in the terms I’ve described. We all very much enjoyed it, although there was one dissenting voice who thought that the first section was too long. Where we differed was in respect of the way in which Barker had made use of real people to populate her work of fiction.
In many works of historical fiction mention will be made in passing of individuals who actually existed. That is the case here both with Tonks and with Ottoline Morrell, who later in the work befriends Elinor. No one had a problem with that. Discussion centred, rather, on the question of the extent to which the characters of Paul, Kit and Elinor were based on real artists of the day. Locally we had an exhibition last year of the works of Richard Nevinson and it didn’t take much to link him with Kit, especially as Nevinson’s given name was Christopher. One of the most striking works in the show was of a large barn being used as a hospital before there were any real medical facilities set up in France. this is exactly the situation that Kit and Paul find themselves in when they first go out with the intention of serving as ambulance drivers. Rather more tentative was the identification of Paul as Paul Nash. What we know of Paul Tarrant’s background doesn’t fit, even though Nash did have considerable wartime experience. However, Elinor is more easily linked to Dora Carrington, not the least because her connection to Ottoline Morrell would bring her into the Bloomsbury circle, the group of painters and writers with whom Carrington is inevitably associated. Where we, as a group, differed was in how far we thought we should take what we knew of the real people into consideration when discussing the actions of the characters in the novel. Is it valid, for example, when asking whether or not Elinor’s conduct in a given situation is believable to justify your response by reference to what you know of Dora Carrington’s actual behaviour?
I’m still not certain where I stand on this. If you, as the reader, are not in a position to make those identifications and draw those parallels then the character that the writer has offered has still to be able to stand up to scrutiny when you question the nature of their behaviour. And yet real people do behave in ways which if you attributed them to a character in a novel no one would endorse as credible. In the end we had to agree to differ because the discussion was getting quite heated. I wonder what you think?