Edinburgh Book Festival: Pat Barker is giving voice to silenced women

The silence of women about war generally, and in The Iliad in particular, moved Pat Barker to give them voices, she tells David Robinson

Picture: Geraint Lewis/REX/Shutterstock
Picture: Geraint Lewis/REX/Shutterstock

PAT Barker first read The Iliad just over ten years ago. In hindsight, she realises, it seemed to be trying to force its way into her 2007 novel Life Class, which opens on the eve of the First World War. In it, there is a scene in London’s CaféRoyal when the declaration of war is being celebrated. Old men fall silent while young men excitedly spout propagandist nonsense. The women are quiet too. Her central character, an artist called Eleanor Brooke, picks up on the contrast. “It’s like the beginning of The Iliad,” she says.

Barker knew full well how much The Iliad’s stories of heroism gilded expectations about war in the minds of men like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and their officer class contemporaries. If her Regeneration trilogy, which concluded with the 1995 Booker-winning novel The Ghost Road, had a subtext, it was about how far the realities of war in the trenches fell short of the glorious classical myths.

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On reading The Iliad, the first thing she noticed was indeed the silence of the women. It spoke volumes. “In his novel The Human Stain,” Barker says, “Philip Roth has a character who points out that European literature started out in the quarrel between two powerful men – Agamemnon and Achilles – over a woman. And this girl doesn’t say anything. So if, for men, all of European literature starts with a quarrel, for women, it starts with a silence.”

The woman Agamemnon and Achilles were quarrelling over isn’t Helen of Troy (who merely started a war, not Western literature) but Briseis, queen of a Trojan city captured by the Greeks, and taken by Achilles as his mistress. “She wakes up as royalty and by nightfall she has been enslaved and raped by a man who killed her brother and all her family,” says Barker. “And so she thinks nothing worse could possibly happen to her. Yet when she looks around what is effectively a rape camp and realises that the slave women who are held in common are living terrible lives that are far worse.”

Retelling old and familiar stories from a female point of view is almost becoming a literary subgenre – Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Madeline Miller’s Circe, Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary are all prominent recent examples. But there’s more to rein­terpretation than feminist rage.

“I don’t know that anyone creates anything out of rage,” says Barker. “I couldn’t have reimagined Priam or Achilles if I was in such a state. What I’d feel about any slave is irrespective of gender, it’s just that in the world I’m writing about all the captured young boys are slaughtered. Who’s worse off – the little girls running around the campfires who are nine or ten years old or their dead brothers? Who’s envying whom?”

Now that, I would suggest, isn’t the kind of thought that automatically enters the head of anyone reading The Iliad. Reimagining it, yes. And what I want to find out from Barker is at what point did reading Homer spark off her own, considerable, imagination. She didn’t pick up The Iliad with the intention of writing anything about it, but soon after starting Life Class she knew she wanted to make Eleanor Brooke paint a mural with scene from the siege of Troy. “That’s what tends to happen with me. It’s almost as though a book which is forming in my mind but which I haven’t definitely decided on tries to climb inside the book I’m currently writing. It creates havoc, because it doesn’t belong there and has to be cut out again, but it’s generally a sign that there’s a lot of life in the coming project. The good ideas are always the ones that follow you around for a long time.”

The scene in The Iliad that switched on her novelist’s brain was the one in which Priam, the elderly Trojan king, comes into Achilles’ camp to beg for the return of the body of his son, Hector. “I do what no man has ever done,” she has him say, adapting Homer, “and kiss the hand of the man who killed my son.”

If The Iliad has been properly reimagined, at this moment the reader should feel a chill. Priam is, after all, in the enemy camp, old and ultra-vulnerable. His dead son has killed Patroclus, who was more than a brother or a lover to Achilles. Achilles could seize Priam right there and then, demand Helen of Troy as a ransom from the Trojans, and the ten-year war would be over. But Priam is a guest, and guests should be honoured. The tension at this point should be – and, in Barker’s novel is – overwhelming. “It’s an incredible moment,” she says, “and right at the beginning of civilisation too, a moment when I think Achilles realises something almost outside time itself is happening. In the original, it is not sentimentalised, and you get the sense that both men remain angry, but somehow this magical moment is preserved.”

When she started writing, Briseis’s voice came easily enough. “What I found harder was the dialogue between the men. I can do that sort of slightly sadistic banter that goes on in groups of men very easily, but what I was struggling with was how many anachronisms I wanted there to be. In a historical novel you can’t have any, but when you’re retelling a myth you can.” Beyond changing the perspective, and telling the story through Briseis’s eyes where possible and through Patroclus and Achilles where not, she hasn’t changed the story too much.

At points – when Agamemnon orders a trench to be dug on the plains of Troy, for example – parallels with the First World War seemed unavoidable.

In interviews, Barker has often mentioned her grandfather’s bayonet wound from the trenches fighting – she’d see it as he stripped off and washed at the kitchen sink on Friday nights – and his own silence about the war as triggering her own interest in writing about it. Such wounds from hand-to-hand conflict were actually rare in the Great War – only about 3 per cent of injuries – but were perhaps another was a subliminal link across the centuries.

The biggest challenge, she says, was bringing to life the endless killing spree Achilles goes on after the death of Patroclus. Its sheer brutality was bad enough – so many eviscerations, so many heads sliced in two, such a bloody but boring list. “But the one thing you notice is that Homer never lets anybody die unrecognised, so right at the moment they die, he will introduce some figure of speech from civilian life that will almost freeze-frame violence.”

She got round the problem of the long lists of death by making Briseis acknowledge its pointlessness, and instead tell the kind of stories women would have told about the man who has just fallen: how long his mother’s labour was, how many months old he first was when he walked, what happened the first time his father took him fishing, and so on.

When the girls and the women aren’t silent, it seems, empathy can spread across a battlefield. It can extend even to Achilles, and even (though there are far fewer of them than in The Iliad) the gods themselves. Achilles’s mother, the goddess Thetis, is, says Barker, “the key to his complexity, oppressively loving him yet abandoning him when he was seven, and grieving 
for him – because he is mortal – from the moment he opens his eyes.”

Empathy at such a level is human, not divine, but if you read Pat Barker you could almost get the two mixed up.