It is 1918: several months on from the events depicted in the first of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. We find that the erstwhile Second-Lieutenant Prior (now plain Billy Prior of the Ministry of Munitions, London) is more or less the central character of the continued story (more or less because Dr W. H. R. Rivers’ appearance, a little later in this offering, does absorb the reading focus with his presence). Prior has left Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, and we meet him again, early on, in a somewhat grubby and clandestine sexual encounter with one Captain Charles Manning, also of the Ministry of Munitions.
The Eye in the Door (Penguin Books, 1994) follows several strands of plot arc or character development, and the deepening of the understanding of Billy Prior’s psychological field is one of these strands. Prior is an attempted complexity of sexual need, childhood trauma, and father issues. Within and around this personal framework, Barker spins out the background story of an alleged plot to murder the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. According to the author’s own notes, the fictionalised account of the character Beattie Roper (known to Billy Prior from his childhood days in the backstreets of Salford, Manchester) is based on the real-life story of Alice Wheeldon, accused of conspiracy to murder the Prime Minister in the 1917 ‘poison plot’.
Another strand woven into the work is the real-life 1918 libel trial of the MP Noel Pemberton Billing who, as a newspaper owner and editor, ran articles written by a Captain Harold Spencer, claiming to be a British Intelligence agent who had seen a ‘Black Book’ containing the names of 47,000 ‘subscribers to a private performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salome’. Maud Allan, dancing the lead part, sued Pemberton Billing over the implication that she was a lesbian (the 47,000 of the Black Book being susceptible to the Germans’ use of the presumed knowledge of homosexuality).
Beattie Roper is a key figure in Billy Prior’s childhood, having taken care of him and whose own children he spent his days with. Her daughter, Hettie, is a one-time love interest, and the Ropers’ home is used as a safe house for pacifists, or ‘conchies’ (conscientious objectors). Into this mix, deeper into the story arcs, we are introduced to Paddy MacDowell (‘Mac’), a close childhood friend of Billy’s. Mac is involved in disrupting the munitions supply lines and in aiding the cause of conscientious objectors in their escape to Ireland. When Billy Prior visits Beattie in prison, his loyalties are divided: she, who has been accused of conspiracy to murder, is on hunger strike, and Billy (also torn by the internal divide of his working class roots and his officer and Ministry status) must be seen to be towing the army line whilst also trying to support and help her. Having secured a private meeting with Beattie in her cell via his Ministry status, we learn of the eye depiction on the back of prison doors: objectors are kept naked with a uniform ready and folded for them on their beds; the depicted eye has within it an actual spyhole. For Prior, the conflict of this scenario is also further complicated by the traumatic scene of his recent past (as described in the first book of this trilogy) whereby, in the trenches of France, he picks up the dislocated eye of one of his men following an enemy shelling.
Billy Prior travels north to seek out Hettie Roper in an attempt to further support and aid Beattie, and in so doing is drawn back into the orbit of Paddy MacDowell, his childhood friend. There is a tension in their conversations as Mac warns Billy that their meeting had better not be a means to entrap him. Billy’s loyalties lie north, but his working army life is south. Into the plot lines Barker adds Lionel Spragge. Spragge is directed to the Roper safe house, trusted as someone in need of the pacifists’ help, but actually working undercover for the Ministry. When Mac is caught, Prior’s investigations lead to Spragge as the informant.
However, Barker has further complexity for Billy Prior to have to contend with. Another strand of her writing includes the general idea inherent in the Jekyll and Hyde characters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Prior’s character develops an alter ego: he suffers memory lapses and becomes increasingly fearful of what takes place in these periods of time when he’s unaware of what’s happening. When Dr Rivers returns to the pages, the sometimes confusing entanglements of Barker’s various lines of inquiry settle with his presence. Now nominally engaged in the therapeutic treatment of pilots in a hospital in London (nominally, because Barker does not pay a great deal of attention to this notional endeavour), Rivers agrees to support Prior again, as he does for Captain Manning and the late re-emergence of Siegfried Sassoon, sent back again from France to the nearby American Red Cross Hospital. Billy Prior’s character(s) are supported by Rivers and, in time, Prior must examine if Spragge was indeed the cause of Paddy MacDowell’s downfall or if someone else, far closer to home, was responsible. Barker continues her ‘47,000’ strand, meanwhile, and Manning, Sassoon, and Robert Ross (Oscar Wilde’s literary executor) are all variously implicated.
The various strands that flow around one another in The Eye in the Door contribute to an ambitious write. However, there is just too much packed into the one book for it all to result in as smooth an offering as might have been desired. Billy Prior’s more fully-formed alter ego state appears relatively late on, and earlier foreshadowing in the writing cannot, therefore, be confidently seen as this: Barker may just as easily be regularly conversant in the arts of reverse engineering. This all said, there is a certain flow to the whole, even if some re-establishment of earlier events is necessary on the part of the reader. The grubby feel of the opening scenes is maintained, for the most part, in keeping with a dark eye on the times in question, and Barker’s writing is, also in keeping, if not exactly ‘clean’ then ‘readable’.
The real strength though of this, the second of Barker’s trilogy, is again the character of Dr Rivers. His presence on the pages focuses the reader on the psychological complexities of his patients, on himself, and indeed on First World War Britain and its social mores regarding class, gender, sexuality and morality. Through Billy Prior, Barker’s eye sees and creates a multitude of perceived ‘sins’; via Dr Rivers, we can try to understand.