Pat Barker’s novel, Life Class, is a highly effective mixture of Jane Austen and Somerset Maugham. That might not be the best formula for praising this fine novel, but let me play with it a bit.
Paul Tarrant is the Maugham figure, an aspiring artist who, in pre-WWI London, has technical talent but no feeling, no subject. Elinor Brooke is another aspiring artist with more fully developed painting gifts, and she’s doing better at the Slade School of Art under a benevolent tyrant named Tonks. Her parameters, allowing for a hundred years of social development, are Austenesque. She’s pretty, rational, cautious, and yet deeply committed to art, perhaps as a defense mechanism against the unhappiness of her unhappily married parents.
At the outset of the novel, Paul has noticed Elinor but is pursuing a questionable model named Teresa, who is fleeing a miserable sod of a husband. (This is more Maugham). Then that blows up, and the unappetizing but successful artist Neville finds himself rejected by Elinor. He’s no go for her; she really values her freedom and isn’t compelled, apparently, to engage in the nighttime activities of twenty-year-olds in a place like London where there’s no adult supervision. (Back to Austen.)
Then Barker brings Elinor and Paul slowly and skillfully together. Each finds in the other a degree of sympathy and understanding and desire that makes this a good match.
But…WWI intercedes, and Paul goes off to Belgium as a medical orderly and ambulance driver while Elinor, who doesn’t want to volunteer as a nurse, stays in London.
Barker has written about WWI on numerous occasions. Once again she does so with great skill, not overstating its horror but letting its horror be seen. Elinor visits Paul once in “the Forbidden Zone”–no wives, no girlfriends allowed–and their relationship deepens, but the inconvenient truth is that wars end when wars end. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to sustain the relationship, and then Paul is wounded, and the novel concludes with his extremely reencounter with Elinor in London.
I won’t describe that encounter or speculate about its meaning much, but I will say that I like it very much because WWI was an overwhelming and ghastly tragedy, and its survivors suffered from it a long time after its conclusion.
One intriguing question at the heart of the novel is Elinor’s insistence on the importance of art when almost everyone else in England had abandoned such things to concentrate on the war. It’s easy to be dismissive of painters at such times, yet why fight horrendous battles only to come home and find that we lived in a society without art? Art to enlighten and inspire us, art to affirm us in our sorrow, art to open pathways into the grim suffering and heroism that must be acknowledged if we aren’t to go, quite frankly, out of our minds?
Barker does a good job of handling this delicate question. There’s something steely about Elinor in refusing to get involved in the war. Likewise, the war is what gives Paul, ultimately, the feeling and subject he needs to reinvigorate his own painting.
Life Class shows off Barker’s psychological insight, her historical knowledge, her excellent prose, and her gift in structuring a novel so that you simply want to keep on reading. The restraint and intelligence and some of the narrowness of Austen is to be found in it. By the same token, there is some of Maugham’s sordidness, his skepticism, and his broader view of human events.
Life Class is definitely worth reading. It probes important wounds, discomforts, passions, and confusions; it also reaches beyond some of what’s worst in life for what’s best in it.
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