Mad Richard – How Do You Know What It Felt Like To Live Back Then? May 10, 2017

I was scanning the shelves for a book I needed to research a script I’m writing, and my eye fell on Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. I must have read the trilogy almost twenty years ago, not long after it was collected in one volume in 1998. And for some reason, seeing it on the shelf, I decided to read it again.

A friend said, You have to pay attention to impulses like that. Sometimes books chose you.

So I sat down that night to start the trilogy, which for the most part follows real and fictional characters through the First World War. The first book, Regeneration, opens in Craiglockhart Hospital in 1917. We  meet psychologist W.H.R. Rivers and, soon enough, the poet and army officer Siegfried Sassoon, who planned to publish a declaration calling for an end to the war.

Sassoon’s friends had arranged for him to be locked up with a diagnosis of battle fatigue in Craiglockhart, a mental hospital in Scotland, rather than face court martial for treason, and quite possibly a sentence of death.

And there, on page thirty-two of my copy, I found something that made me sit up: Sassoon telling Rivers about a conversation he’d had with his friend, the writer Robert Graves, about killing the Prime Minister.

“I wasn’t going to kill him at all. I said I felt like killing him, but it was no use, because they’d only shut me up in a lunatic asylum,‘like Richard Dadd of glorious memory.’”

Of course, Richard Dadd is the subject of my new novel, Mad Richard, and a family connection of my husband’s from the 19th century. Maybe it was a very deep memory of Sassoon’s reference to Dadd that had made me reach for the trilogy, or the fact that at a more accessible level I knew that Sassoon was a friend of three of Dadd’s great-nephews—other distant family connections—having served with two of them during the war.

Barker goes on:

Rivers waited a few moments. “I know Richard Dadd was a painter. What else did he do?”

A short silence. “He murdered his father.”

Rivers was puzzled by the slight awkwardness. He was used to being adopted as a father figure—he was, after all, thirty years older than the youngest of his patients—but it was rare for it to happen as quickly as this in a man of Sassoon’s age. “Of glorious memory?”

“He…er…made a list of old men in power who deserved to die, and fortunately—or or otherwise—his father’s name headed the list. He carried him for half a mile through Hyde Park and then drowned him in the Serpentine in full view of everybody on the banks. The only reason Graves and I know about him is that we were in trenches with two of his great-nephews, Edmund and Julian.” The slight smile faded. “Now Edmund’s dead, and Julian’s got a bullet in the throat and can’t speak. The other brother was killed too. Gallipolli.”

The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, by Richard Dadd. Given to the Tate Gallery By Siegfried Sassoon, in honour of his friends, Dadd’s great-nephews.

In fact, the story Sassoon tells about Dadd is completely wrong, but if Barker puts it in Sassoon’s mouth, I assume she had reason to believe that’s what the real Sassoon had heard. Barker is a ferocious researcher who creates astonishingly vivid pictures of life in the trenches of the First World War, in the solitary confinement cell of a pacifist, in a munitions factory where young women work amid toxins that turn their skins yellow and stray hairs auburn, and in military hospitals from Scotland to London.

And this might be the reason I felt an impulse to re-read Barker: it would give me a chance to think more about the questions people ask when you write historical fiction. How do you know what it felt like to live in the 19th century? What it smelled like? How it felt to wear stuffy woollen clothes? To face fears of cholera, with poverty around every corner? How do you know what it was really like?


To be continued