Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Due to the subject of the book – the First World War, and its treatment – drawing extensively on real people’s experiences, and turning them into characters, whether under their own names (Henry Tonks, Ottoline Morell) or other names (Kit Neville, Paul Tarrant), this was the first book club discussion that looked at resources outside of the book.

Jacquie (W) had looked up Kit Neville (aka C.R.W Nevinson) and his work, and her research led her to the Wolfsonian Library, and its book club discussion. Very valuably, the notes contain resources contained in the library’s archives, and provide a fascinating look at some of the war paintings discussed at length in the book.

Henry Tonks’s surgery–art synthesis takes up a lot of the book too, so I wondered if some of his work was available online. I thought this article might be an interesting starting point for learning more about this –

The discussion started with the usual proviso that this was not necessarily a book that members of the book club would have picked up by themselves. From this it was agreed that the main aim of the book club was being met: challenging ourselves to read different kinds of books, and venture outside our comfort zones.

Everyone was united in their fairly vehement dislike of Elinor. Even though she had been through some difficult experiences, she evoked annoyance rather than sympathy. Some of the specific points raised were:


  • Her absorption in her ‘work’ as an artist starts to seem like self-centred posturing when it extends to entirely ignoring the realities of the war all around her. Pacifism is one thing, her wilful refusal to engage at any level a kind of moral turpitude that is hard to accept. Even her opinions regarding war are borrowed, ostentatiously, from Virginia Woolf – suggesting she is unable to expend even that much effort on her surroundings.
  • Her inability to engage in any meaningful relationships with anyone around her; even to some extent with the brother who in some sense ‘defines’ her, at least whilst he is alive.
  • Her obsession with Toby, which has cast unhealthy shadows over her reactions and relationships, long before the described incest took place. She resents her mother for having any sort of claim to him.
  • She is most likeable in her diary, perhaps because she is seen in her most private moments, when she allows herself to escape her external personality.

During the discussion, an unexpected pairing of ‘twins’ was revealed, both rendered creepy by the overt sexuality in relationships that are usually defined by their innocence.

  • The first twinning is the obvious one, that of Elinor and Toby.* There are repeated references to them as a single composite self, which is reflected in Elinor’s paintings which all repeatedly depict Toby, in Elinor physically mirroring Toby by cutting her hair short, by Elinor acting like Toby’s ‘widow’, by Paul sensing a ‘shadow’ over his relationship with Elinor whilst Elinor herself thinks Toby stakes out the ‘competition’ among her romantic entanglements.
  • The second twinning is Elinor and Catherine, who seem ‘entwined’ on the sofa. Kit and Paul, especially the latter, want both of them, rendering them interlinked and interchangeable.

* This twinning lent itself to a discussion about the title of the book itself. It was agreed that the name went beyond allusions to Woolf’s Jacob’s Room to being a reference to Elinor’s state of mind – her overweening obsession with her brother preventing her from moving on with her life. It was thought suggestive that at the novel’s end she was quite literally leaving Toby’s room, physically at least, even though it seemed somewhat unbelievable that Elinor would so easily leave with Paul, who she has had a less than cordial relationship with throughout the novel. (This seemed like too pat an ending – and a preparation for the next novel in the series. There were some joking attempts to guess the plot of the next novel, although there was doubt about the possibility of Elinor continuing to be a viable character without Toby.)

  • Kit was considered the most interesting character, gaining even more in nuance post-war. Paul was also generally considered a sympathetic character, and the interaction between the two men towards the end of the novel was considered one of the ‘best bits’, despite culminating in a less than surprising big reveal.
  • The theme of sexuality (incest, homosexuality) also brings up issues of class. The less than complimentary imagery, about sexual partners whose participation in the interaction may well be less than voluntary, includes reference to slices from cut cakes not being missed, or comparisons to cart horses. These somehow more expendable characters all belong to lower classes than the speakers, and that is hardly accidental. (Kit calls it bullying.)
  • Some of the other themes: medicine, art (and the relationship between the two),* moral attitudes to war, advances in surgery leading to plastic surgery as we know it today (which led to a discussion of skin grafts).

* Professor Tonks: readers liked him as a character but felt he was not fleshed out very much. He seemed to embody the art–surgery relationship that the book discusses.




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