ART, WAR, AND REGENERATION: TOBY’S ROOM AND THE WOLFSONIAN BOOK CLUB

This past Friday, I participated in the Wolfsonian Book Club’s discussion of Toby’s Room by Pat Barker. The book’s title consciously echoes Jacob’s Room, a novel Virginia Woolf had written to come to grips with the death of her brother, Julian Thoby Stephen (1880-1906). But unlike Woolf’s work, which had been composed soon after the end of the “Great War” that had killed, maimed, and left few of her generation untouched by loss, Barker’s is a contemporary work of historical fiction with characters fashioned and only thinly disguised from their real-life sources of inspiration. Some of the real life characters who appear in her book (sometimes under their own name, other times under pseudonyms) are Henry Tonks (professor of art at the Slade School of Fine art, University College, London and later surgeon for facial reconstruction at the Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup during the Great War); landscape painter, Paul Nash (aka, Paul Tarrant); Vorticist artist, C. R. W. Nevinson (aka, Kit Neville); and Ottoline (aka, Ottoline Morell), a prominent member of the Bloomsbury group.

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The book begins with a dark secret in the overly intimate relations of Elinor and her brother, Toby in the pre-war period. We follow Elinor from her parent’s country home to London as she take art and anatomy lessons at the Slade School of Art at University College where she encounters Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville. After this, the novel takes a deliberately jarring leap ahead to the year 1917, when all of the characters’ lives have been radically changed by the war. Elinor, who had vowed to completely ignore the conflict has been inextricably drawn into the vortex, first by the telegram reporting Toby, “Missing, presumed dead,” and then by a cryptic letter from her brother found hidden in his uniform that seemed to foretell his fate. Her quest for details establishes the plot of the mystery that follows as she doggedly pursues and prevails upon her art school love interests (the war-scarred Paul and Neville) for details concerning her brother’s death.

The members of the Wolfsonian book club universally agreed that Kit Neville was by far the most compelling (if not necessarily likable) character in Barker’s novel. As mentioned earlier, the character of Kit Neville draws inspiration from England’s most famous artist of WWI, C. R. W. Nevinson (1889-1946). Like the real-life Nevinson, Kit Neville is presented as a radical Modernist who flirted with Futurism and Vorticism in his own work.

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Nevinson also attended the Slade School of Art where his ego chafed under the criticism of real-life drawing instructor Henry Tonks who plays an important part in the novel’s plot development as well. Keeping to the facts, Barker’s Neville volunteers as an ambulance driver following the outbreak of the Great War, and wins fame as Britain’s greatest war artist.

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Just as Barker’s novel appears to owe much to her viewing of the medical drawings of Henry Tonks, many of the scenes describing Toby and Kit Neville’s experiences retrieving dead and wounded soldiers from the front lines may also have been informed by C. R. W. Nevinson’s paintings of the war such as these:

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Kit Neville also shares Nevinson’s reputation for arrogance and an acerbic personality that won him as many enemies as admirers. The fictional character, however, suffers a far traumatic, disturbing, and disfiguring fate in Toby’s Room, but I won’t spoil the novel by giving too much away.

At the end of the discussions, I took advantage of my position as chief librarian to lead the book club members up to the library for an after-hours viewing of some rare and unique items shedding light on Nevinson’s artwork and personality. The library holds a couple of rare books of Nevinson’s work published during the war.

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The library also holds two of Nevinson’s original “poison pen” letters from the period, both written to a major who he accuses of “wasting my time” by daring to censor one of his paintings that depicted dead bodies. In the first letter, Nevinson sarcastically lectures the major on the obvious differences between photographic and artistic representation of casualties and between the “artist & propagandist.”

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A letter dated only a week later adopts a similar, if more triumphalist tone. Fairly dripping with bitter sarcasm, he begins by thanking the major for his kind letter and for bearing him “no malice for my peevish outbreak,” and pretending to commiserate with him over what a “rotten job yours must be.” In keeping with his reputation, he ends his second letter by gloating over the fact that the War Office saw fit to release his picture and informing the major that he “may be interested to know the American edition is sold out.”

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The library also holds works by Paul Nash from the war years that enhanced my own appreciation of the artwork described in Barker’s novel. Below are some of his scarred landscapes and Waste Lands of the Great War.

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Much of the book focuses on Henry Tonks and the medical drawings made of the soldiers recovering at Queen’s Hospital. In my own mind’s eye I kept returning to the equally disturbing work of the bitter social critics Otto Dix (1891-1969) and George Grosz (1893-1959) of hideously disfigured soldiers and veterans of the war.

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Both Barker’s novel and the artwork of these artists cannot help but impress the reader and viewer with the horrors of war.

Anyone in the Miami area interested in joining the book club should know that first time visitors may come for free and that Wolfsonian Members receive a 20% discount on book club selections purchased in the Dynamo Museum Shop. Interested parties should contact our book club volunteer organizer, Lydia Lopez at LydLopez@fiu.edu.

~ by "The Chief" on January 8, 2013.

2 Responses to “ART, WAR, AND REGENERATION: TOBY’S ROOM AND THE WOLFSONIAN BOOK CLUB”

  1. Well done! Much fascinating information about the prototypes for Barker’s characters. Thank you for showing us the Dix “December” that you kept returning to in your mind’s eye.

  2. Reading Toby’s Room before seeing these wonderful (and carefully selected) illustrations was one experience; reading Toby’s Room after seeing them would be another, quite different, experience.

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