What I’m Reading: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

The ancient General Fentiman is found dead in his favorite chair at the Bellona Club. The death appears to be natural, but a survivorship clause in a wealthy relative’s will, also newly deceased, requires a closer look at the circumstances.

The unpleasantness begins on Armistice Day, and echoes of the first world war create a complex theme throughout the book. The general’s two heirs, George and Robert Fentiman, are veterans. While Robert is the classic war hero- all hale and bluff and ready to shoot game in Africa after the war is over- George has suffered from shell shock since his return from the front.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s portrayal of shell shock and frail/fractured masculinities is one of the reasons I find her work so fascinating. Detective fiction, especially from this era, usually serves to shore up the disintegrating class system and the problems of modernity by ignoring all changes (Agatha, I’m talking about you). Sayers breaks that trend: Numerous characters in her books have been negatively affected by the war– Wimsey himself suffers from returning bouts of shell shock, and is open about spending time in an institution of some sort after the war. He met, and was rescued, by Bunter at the front, and Bunter is frequently presented as the indispensable one who knows what to do when the terrors come.

Bunter doesn’t suffer any aftereffects from the war. By positioning the hero, Lord Peter Wimsey (the aristocrat with excellent taste, excellent sensibilities, and excellent mental facilities) as the one with shell shock, I think Sayers is making a rather subversive stab at modern (well, 1914-style) war. She doesn’t make the leap to actually condemn the war– it is shown as a necessary evil–but in showing the repercussions of war, the long-term destruction of the livesthat escaped instant annihilation, she opens a space for a rather crippling critique of war. Presented with such violence, the correct response (since her hero responds this way) seems to be mental fracture. Instead of condemning shell shock (as was a prevalent party line at the time) as the effect of war on “weak, un-manly” men, shell shock seems to be the correct response.  (This from Elaine Showalter’s fascinating discussion of shell-shocked soldiers in  The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830-1980.)

I also love Sayers’ gestures towards understanding women’s roles. Wimsey is summoned in the middle of the night by the long-suffering wife of the shell-shocked soldier, who has gone missing. The police had made rather a bungle of an interview earlier in the day, and there are fears that George has had a recurrence of his difficulty. Wimsey’s first instinct is pure lord of the manor: he orders her to sit and calm herself, while he begins making some tea for the little woman. He then stops himself with the following reflection:

“One has an ancestral idea that women must be treated like imbeciles in a crisis. Centuries of ‘women-and-children-first’ idea, I suppose. … No wonder they sometimes lose their heads. Pushed into corners, told nothing of what’s happening and made to sit quiet and do nothing. Strong men would go dotty in the circs. I suppose that’s why we’ve always grabbed the privilege of rushing about and doing the heroic bits.”
And then he sits down while she makes the tea.

This is why I love these books: if he had just sat down while she made the tea, he would have looked rather patriarchal/aristocratic/little woman will serve/godawful. Instead, Sayers has him begin to do the expected thing- to take over- then stop himself. Sayers is excellent at discussing the motivations behind actions and assumptions. Even when she is wrong (in my opinion) about those motivations, she articulates a reason behind them. They aren’t just the “natural male response” or the “natural female response”: there are deeper issues at stake. I think she works to expose the construction of identity, and more particularly, of gender.

(And that sounds like an abstract for the paper that I someday will write about her works.)

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