In Toby’s Room, award-winning British historical novelist Pat Barker continues to explore the terrible human cost of World War I. The novel’s protagonist, Elinor Brooke, a painter, is trying to make sense of her brother’s death in France, and seeks answers from Kit Neville, who had been with Toby at the front and has just returned, his face horribly disfigured by a shell blast. When Elinor turns up at Kit’s rehabilitation hospital, however, she is surprised to find her art school mentor, Henry Tonks, working with the surgeons to record and restore the men’s faces—and dignity. Tonks, in fact, was a real-life character, a talented artist and surgeon who recorded facial injuries during the war. His startling portraits of British soldiers injured between 1916 and 1918 accompany the following excerpt.
ELINOR WAS WALKING HEAD DOWN when a near collision with somebody in a blue uniform forced her to look up. The corridor, almost empty when she set off, had become crowded with people all moving in the same direction: some nurses, but mainly patients. Faces loomed up in front of her, all kinds of faces; the bodies in their garish uniforms hardly registered. Men with no eyes were being led along by men with no mouths; there was even one man with no jaw, his whole face shelving steeply away into his neck. Men, like Kit, with no noses and horribly twisted faces. And others—the ones she couldn’t understand at all—with pink tubes sprouting out of their wounds and terrible wounded eyes looking out over the top of it all. Brueghel; and worse than Brueghel, because they were real.
Individually, each portrait would have been remarkable, displayed together they were overwhelming
She had to get away. She scaled along the wall, quickening her pace as the crowd began to thin. By the time the last of them had gone by she was almost running, and not looking where she was going until her nose came into violent contact with a man’s chest. Slowly, she raised her eyes, braced for God knows what horrors, and found herself looking at Henry Tonks.
“Miss Brooke. Good heavens.”
Her mouth opened but no sound came out.
“You don’t look at all well. Come along, let’s see if we can find you a cup of tea.”
Still unable to speak, she fell into step beside him.
“You must be visiting Mr. Neville,” Tonks said, pleasantly, as he unlocked a door.
“Yes, that’s right. I fancied a breath of fresh air.”
Even that little lie made her feel uncomfortable. This was a place for truth.
Tonks ushered her into a large room that contained a desk, two chairs, and a filing cabinet. There was a screened-off recess to her right. The part of the room she could see resembled a doctor’s surgery, except that at the far end, underneath the tall windows, there was an easel and a table covered with drawing pads, pens and ink, and pastels.
Directly underneath the window was a stool, presumably for the patient since it had been placed where the full, shadowless glare of northern light would fall directly on the face.
“I’ll see about the tea. Have a seat.”
He went out; she could hear his voice in the room across the corridor requesting a pot of tea and two slices of that rather nice fruitcake, do you think we could manage that? A woman’s voice replied; and then a man’s voice—not Tonks’s—and, finally, a rumble of conversation. Clearly, Tonks had got embroiled in hospital business.
Elinor went across to the table and looked at a pen-and-ink drawing of a patient with a gaping hole in his cheek. Presumably, Tonks’s medical drawings would be done in pen and ink—ironical, really, since he’d never made any secret of how much he hated the medium. In fact, he’d described it to her once as the least forgiving medium an artist could work in, calculated to expose every flaw in draftsmanship. Yet she’d have recognized this as Tonks’s work from the purity of the line alone.
She wondered what lay behind the screen; probably a washbasin, something like that. But when she looked behind it she saw, instead, a whole wall full of portraits of men with hideously disfigured faces. One of them, the man with no jaw, she recognized from the corridor. Individually, each portrait would have been remarkable; displayed together like this, row upon row, they were overwhelming. She took her time, pausing in front of first one portrait, then another.
Were they portraits, or were they medical illustrations? Portraits celebrate the identity of the sitter. Everything—the clothes they’ve chosen to wear, the background, the objects on a table by the chair—leads the eye back to the face. And the face is the person. Here, in these portraits, the wound was central. She found her gaze shifting continuously between torn flesh and splintered bone and the eyes of the man who had to endure it. There was no point of rest; no pleasure in the exploration of a unique individual. Instead you were left with a question: How can any human being endure this?
Tonks came back into the room. “Ah, I see you’ve found my Rogues Gallery.”
She thought she detected reserve, even disapproval in his voice. “I’m sorry, I—I realize they’re not on display.”
“No, don’t worry, you’d be amazed how many people see them. Though I like to think they’re mainly surgeons.” A pause. “I’d be quite interested to hear what you think.”
Tonks wanted her opinion of his work? That was bad enough, but the awful truth was she didn’t have one. She didn’t know how to react to images which seemed to call for several different kinds of response. In the end she just said, simply: “I don’t know how to look at them.”
“Well they are—”
“No, I don’t mean I can’t bear to look at them, I mean I don’t know how. I don’t know what I’m looking at—a man or a wound.”
“Both, I hope. You know, even when I was a very young doctor going round the wards I always saw them like that. On the one hand there’s a patient with a problem you have to solve, or at least try to solve, but there’s also the person.” He stood back, looking along the row of faces. “I can’t not see both.”
Somebody knocked on the door.
“That’ll be tea, I expect. You do look rather pale. Is there anything else I can get you?”
“No, I’m all right, thank you.” She pointed to one of the portraits. “How on earth do you repair that?”
“Actually that’s not too difficult because basically it’s a flesh wound. This one. Well, I’m not sure even Dr. Gillies can do much for him.” He touched her shoulder. “Come on, tea.”
“How do you find the time to do all this?” she said, when they were settled in chairs on opposite sides of his desk.
“Not easily. I do one day a week, two if I can manage it, but it’s not nearly enough. You have to do drawings when they first arrive, then you’re in theater during the operations, and then there are the post-op drawings. And the portraits.” He reached for a file. “Of course we take photographs as well. Look at this; this is a really good result. There’s a little bit of puckering, but Gillies thinks he can get rid of that. And when you think what the poor devil came in with…” He handed her another photograph.
“My God. That’s amazing.”
“He’d been very badly stitched up at another hospital. I’m afraid that’s what happened to Mr. Neville.” He offered her a slice of cake. MHQ
Pat Barker received the Man Booker Prize for her acclaimed World War I Regeneration Trilogy. This excerpt is from Toby’s Room (a sequel to the 2008 Life Class), copyright © 2012 by Pat Barker, published by arrangement with Random House.
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2012 issue (Vol. 24, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: “These Hideous Weapons”
Want to have the lavishly illustrated, premium-quality print edition of MHQ delivered directly to you four times a year? Subscribe now at special savings!