Pat Barker: ‘Anne Boleyn can’t walk into our world but Helen of Troy can’

The novelist continues her retelling of the Iliad from the women’s perspective in new book

Author, Pat Barker

Author, Pat Barker

 

When it comes to grandes dames of English literature, they don’t come much grander than Pat Barker. Best known for her Regeneration trilogy, the third book of which, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize in 1995, Barker is still stridently writing essential and vibrant fiction well into her 70s.

Her last novel, The Silence of the Girls, a retelling of the Iliad from the Trojan women’s perspectives, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2019. Her new novel, The Women of Troy, picks up the story where the last one left off. Having sworn she would never write another trilogy, Barker appears to be knee-deep in one. “I’m not admitting to anything,” she says, laughing down the phone line from her home in Durham. “It may even be a quartet!”

Born in 1943 in the north of England, Barker was raised by her grandparents from the age of seven, after her mother, who had Barker during the war, got married and left the family home. Barker never knew who her father was.

“I’m very interested in parent-child relationships,” she says, “and in substitute parent-child relationships. A lot of the characters in my books are being mothered or fathered but not by their biological parents. I was brought up very, very lively by my grandparents, and my grandmother was a blood relationship but my grandfather was her second husband, so there was no blood relationship there with him, and yet they were the parents in my life, and I’ve always been very aware of the possibilities of being parented by people who are not your actual biological parents.”

Through her large cast of characters in The Women of Troy, Barker also explores the complex and varied relationships that exist between women. “I’m always wary of sentimentalising female friendships,” she says. “At the beginning of The Silence of the Girls Briseis says at one point that she doesn’t believe that men ever really understand how aggressive and passionate the hatred between women in the women’s part of the house can be.

“A lot of men believe women are innately less aggressive than they are. I think it’s just expressed in more subtle ways. I’ve always been haunted by something that’s been said about bullying at school to the effect that if a boy has plenty of friends around him and he sticks close to his circle of friends he will be safe from bullying, but in a girl’s case, the bullies are the circle of friends.”

Subverts assumptions

Barker certainly subverts our assumptions about women being the kinder and more caring sex in The Women of Troy. “I think it comes back to motherhood. It’s sometimes assumed that because women are mothers they extend that nurturing principle to more or less everybody they meet. You know, tigers are mothers too but you wouldn’t want to meet one.”

As with much historical fiction, there is a contemporary parallel to be drawn between The Women of Troy and modern events. “Two days ago there was a newspaper report that the Taliban are awarding themselves 12-year-old girls as slaves, which is exactly what happens to Briseis when she is in the hut about to be allocated to the various warlords – which is what they are – and there’s a 12-year-old girl with her face pressed into her side and she is stroking the child’s back and saying, ‘It’s going to be alright’, but she knows it won’t be alright. It’s going to be terrible.

“And that is happening today. And not just ‘over there’ because sex trafficking is a feature of modern societies as well so we can’t console ourselves that it’s only people with, well, I would have to say I’m afraid primitive ideology, their version of Islam is primitive – their version, I’m not saying Islam is. It’s not just them, it’s people trafficking 15-year-old girls in this country and all over Europe. It goes on all the time. Modern slavery is a shame to our so-called civilised society.”

Barker says she deliberately wanted the books to have a modern resonance and so didn’t include anything that hadn’t happened at some point somewhere in the world. “I didn’t put anything in that wasn’t happening in the modern world. It’s intended to be now, that’s the distinction between history and myth. Anne Boleyn can’t walk into our world but Helen of Troy can.”

There have been some mutterings about Barker’s use of vernacular language in the books, the fact that her characters talk and think in a modern way, but she is dismissive of the criticism, pointing out that these are not real historical characters but myths. Did that give her more freedom when writing the books?

“It was amazingly liberating. I could have Achilles’ men singing English rugby songs because that’s the kind of thing a group of men getting drunk together do. You don’t need to invent what you think a Bronze Age warrior would have sung because the same songs essentially are being sung today.”

Alternative

Besides, she points out, the alternative to that might not have been terribly enjoyable to read. “The alternative to modern dialogue was to write pseudo-Homeric poetry. Can you imagine how that would have read? No thanks! Some people think, well, Helen wouldn’t have talked like that, and you just think, look, she was the daughter of a god, she’s hatched out of a swan’s egg, 1,000 years after her death she’s snogging Dr Faustus in a backstreet in London... if you can do that you can say what the hell you like!”

Is it disheartening, though, to write a book based on an ancient myth only to discover that it’s all still so relevant, that human nature hasn’t really progressed when it comes to its capacity for cruelty and brutality? “I do think we do to some extent make progress. International law and human rights is a very weak system of law, which relies on coalitions to enforce it but at least there is a law that safeguards the rights of prisoners of war, the rights of civilians in combat and, however much it’s disregarded, it is adhered to most of the time by most armies so we have in fact moved on. It doesn’t feel like that listening to the news from Afghanistan.”

Barker has returned to war again and again in her books. Does she see it as the perfect subject through which to analyse human nature? “I think in every kind of fiction the object of the writer is to put a character under pressure, to crack them open and find out what’s going on inside at the very deepest level. I’m afraid the nasty writers are about making people crack wide open in order to show what’s inside and that in a very large way is what draws people to fiction I think. They see that and you don’t really see that very often in your own life, and we are just endlessly curious about what makes people work, what makes them crack under pressure, how they recover, if they recover.’’

Working-class women

Before eventually being published in 1982 by revered feminist publisher Virago, Barker had already written three novels, but it wasn’t until she took a workshop with the writer Angela Carter that she found the subject matter for her first published work – the lives of working-class women.

“She encouraged me to write about the world I came from. She validated it and could do that because she had a generosity of spirit and a real talent as a teacher. So often the main barriers are doubting the value of your own raw material.”

What made her forge on with her writing, despite the early rejection of those three unpublished novels? “Being a writer is not easy and what you don’t realise at that stage is rejection doesn’t stop when you’ve got a publisher. It goes on through your writing life. You have successes and slaps in the face and you have to be enormously resilient and have a basic bloody-minded confidence in yourself.”

Writers don’t retire either and at 78 years of age Barker has no plans to do so. “You just drop off the perch,” she says. She still writes something every day. “My husband always used to say to me, you’re never any good when you’re not writing, and I’m afraid that’s true. I tend to sink into a low mood. It does seem to be essential. I always remember him coming home at lunchtime and if I was hoovering the carpets or dusting, he’d walk in and say, ‘Oh my god what’s wrong!’

“Cleaning unfortunately is a very good displacement activity when the writing isn’t going very well. You have to be able to ignore the domestic jobs and the unpaid bills and just say no, this is more important. And it should be more important than anything, apart from your own health and your family’s health. That’s the only thing you should allow to come in front of it.”

The Women of Troy by Pat Barker is published by Hamish Hamilton

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