Pat Barker penned Regeneration in 1991. The novel depicts the effects of World War I on the British officers and soldiers who are recovering at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland. Set in 1917 and 1918, in the final years of the brutal conflict, Regeneration focuses on several patients’ trauma, memories, and recovery. This novel represents a significant departure for Barker, whose early work focused primarily on the lives of working-class women in the Northern England. Yet Regeneration still features many of the same themes that are present in Barker’s first novels, like shifting gender roles, class tension, and the effects of violence on the psyche. Widely acclaimed, Regeneration forms the first part of Barker’s World War I trilogy; The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995) complete the series.
Though Regeneration is a work of fiction, Barker relied heavily on historical fact to construct her characters and narrative. Of the novel's primary characters, only Billy Prior, who introduces important themes of class and alienation, is completely fictional. Siegfried Sassoon and Owen Wilson, the two main characters, were both officers and well-known World War I poets who actually resided in Craiglockhart and developed a friendship during the time frame of the novel. Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, a celebrated anthropologist, served as Sassoon’s psychologist. Likewise, Dr. Yealland, Graves, and Henry Head are fictional renderings of historical figures. However, Pat Barker took care never to contradict historical records where they existed. This left her much less leeway to fictionalize well-documented individuals like Siegfried Sassoon. On the other hand, there was little available information about Dr. Rivers, which gave Barker the opportunity to imagine and construct his inner life.
The novel begins with the actual anti-war letter published by Siegfried Sassoon in July 1917 and follows his subsequent placement at Craiglockhart Hospital for military officers. Sassoon’s psychologist, Dr. Rivers, serves as the book’s centerpiece, tying together the disparate stories of his patients into a single narrative. Each man struggles with some kind of war-related trauma that leaves him somehow helpless. At Craiglockhart, Sassoon and his fellow patients begin the difficult process of recovery. The novel’s title, Regeneration, hints at Barker's main underlying theme: how people heal after experiencing unimaginable mental and physical violence.