Pat Barker’s new novel, Toby’s Room, hasn’t been released in the States yet, but I’m looking forward to it eagerly, with its allusions to Jacob’s Room. Instead, I found the 2008 Life Class at the library and snapped it up. Only later did I recall having heard that Toby’s Room is a sequel to Life Class; my reading it first is purely serendipitous.
Barker is in her most familiar territory, World War I, in this story about Paul and Elinor, who meet as painting students at the Slade. When the war starts, Paul leaves his studies to serve as an ambulance driver in France. Toby is Elinor’s brother, a medical student, and he too enlists. Elinor and Paul correspond regularly, and she writes to him about an exciting encounter:
“I’ve been to tea with Lady Ottoline Morrell! I never thought I’d live to see the day. I met her at the Camden Street Gallery and she looked at me very intently for a long time and then she said in that vague way of hers, wafting a jeweled hand about above her head, You must come to tea sometime. Do come to tea….” Elinor is prepared to dismiss this as idle chatter until she receives a written invitation, which she accepts. She describes the encounter to Paul: “She’s not easy to talk to, though she is interested in everything you say. You feel she’s listening, not just waiting for the chance to make some clever remark her self like most of that Bloomsbury crowd….”
The acquaintanceship continues. Elinor isn’t totally comfortable; she feels that Lady Ott wants something from her—”She seems to be drawing your soul out of your body … a kind of cannibalism”—but she’s swept up in the milieu. She writes to Paul about a party at which Ott holds up a purple feather boa and hands it to “a tall etiolated man with a straggly beard who wrapped it around his neck and immediately started to dance a minuet….” What do you think—Lytton? Later, Elinor is “seized by a man who looked like a highly intelligent teddy bear and spoke with dry, devouring passion about how the war must stop, now, at once, this instant, keeping his gaze fixed on my bosom the while…” Clive?
Woolf isn’t mentioned, but you sense her in the shadows, perhaps in deep conversation with someone or other on a velvet covered settee. And apparently Elinor will meet her in Toby’s Room.