Monthly Archives: May 2006

Shell Shock and the aftermath of the Great War: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L Sayers (1928)

Of all DLS’s novels this is the one in which the aftermath of the war is most present. To my recollection, it is barely mentioned (if at all) in most of the others, with the exception that Wimsey suffers occasionally from shell shock. Perhaps the fact that this book was published in 1928 is significant – this date seems to have been the trigger for a lot of writing such as the classic novel, The Middle Part of Fortune, and Robert Graves’ ‘autobiography’ Goodbye to all That. Perhaps with the 10th anniversary of the end of the war, the dedication of the Menin Gate the previous year, many old wounds were scraped raw once more. I know that my great aunt took the opportunity that year to visit her husband’s grave in France (we still have the photographs my grandfather took on their trip). Whatever the reason, the war permeates this novel; indeed the fact that the murder is discovered on Armistice Day is key to the plot.

It opens on Armistice Day in the hallowed portals of the Bellona Club. The opening chapter contains a rather interesting discussion between Wimsey and George Fentiman, one of the major characters in the book. They are discussing how they feel about the Armistice Day parade. Wimsey says:

“It’s my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn’t run it for all it’s worth. However, it won’t do to say so.”

That Sayers has put these words into the mouth of her hero would seem to indicate that we are assumed to share this attitude, or at least understand it.

All is not well with George Fentiman. He tells Wimsey:

“Oh rotten as usual. Tummy all wrong and no money. What’s the damn good of it, Wimsey? A man goes and fights for his country, gets his inside gassed out, and loses his job, and all they give him is the privilege of marching past the Cenotaph once a year and paying four shillings in the pound income-tax.”

Again, I would suggest that not only is this an attitude that we are assumed to be familiar with, but perhaps also, know men in that situation.

When the inevitable body is discovered, George has a most unseemly bout of hysterics.

“It is doubtful which occurrence was more disagreeable to the senior members of the Bellona Club – the grotesque death of General Fentiman in their midst or the indecent neurasthenia of his grandson.”

So it is understood that not everyone is sympathetic to George’s behaviour. You can almost see the moustaches bristling in disapproval. But later in the book, Fentiman’s shell shock is important to the plot when he has a complete breakdown.

I don’t think Sayers was trying to make any profound statements with this book, she was writing an entertaining piece of detective fiction, not a literary thesis. However, I do think she was attempting to reflect that section of society in which she and her readers lived.

What an adventure! The Black Riders, Violet Needham (1939)

I must have been nine or ten when I first read this book. My copy had belonged to my mother when she was a child and is a 1940 edition. I loved it. It’s a stirring tale of secret agents and revolution, with the eleven year old hero at the heart of events.

The story opens when Dick Fauconbois (the names are always vaguely French) who lives some miles outside The City (always un-named) the capital of The Empire (also un-named), meets up with a man named Far Away Moses, driving a gypsy caravan. Dick helps him escape from a troop of Black Riders (some sort of mounted police) and they take shelter with the owner of a nearby castle who goes by the nickname of Wych Hazel. The dreaded Count Jasper, Governor of the Citadel follows and nearly catches them, since Wych Hazel is not a good conspirator, and nearly gives them away. But they escape and Dick returns safely home.

A year passes, during which Dick meets others of the Confederation – a revolutionary (and yet pro-monarchist group), who want to replace the existing emperor with a newer model, rather than a different one entirely. The politics is never gone into very deeply, the adventure is much more important for Dick, and one assumes for the intended audience.

There are plenty of desperate chases, moral dilemmas and races against time, to thrill the most bored of children, and the values are always solidly middle class British despite the foreign setting. All ends happily when the old emperor dies, leaving Far Away Moses (rescued from a firing squad by Count Jasper’s intrepid daughter) and Count Jasper to come to terms.

I’ve said elsewhere that I feel that The Empire is reminiscent of the pre-WW1 Austro-Hungarian Empire, and one could certainly take The River as similar to the Danube. The illustrations by Anne Bullen don’t give a 1930s feel to the story.

So engaging: His Official Fiancée, Berta Ruck (1914)

Written as a contemporary romance, this novel provides a hugely interesting insight into society just before the First World War. It features two common tropes; firstly the well-bred heroine in reduced circumstances, secondly the fake engagement/marriage plot.

What is interesting is that the two so often go together. And often, the heroine is offered a way out of her present difficulties by the hero dangling money bags at her. This usually requires a degree of deception from which she (of course) shrinks. Something always happens to persuade her to take the money bags, and in this case it is a demand for £100 from an improvident brother in South Africa (a very useful place to send such relatives apparently). The only way she can meet this demand is to take the hero’s money.

As the fake engagement commences, it becomes clear that the heroine loathes the hero. This novel is written in rather an unusual style – normally most romance is written in third person omniscent or switches POV between the hero and the heroine, but here, it is written in first person by the heroine, so we never see first hand, what the hero thinks about anything. This of course allows the inevitable misunderstanding upon which the denouement depends to fool us too. It is also written in a very unusual style – switching between simple past and present tense, in a very chatty voice, almost as if the heroine were talking to us. It’s an enjoyable pile of tosh, and was in print as recently as the 1970s, having survived being included in Barbara Cartland’s Library of Love. (!)

Violet Needham

Violet Needham, 1876-1967, was an author of fiction for older children. She published 19 books between 1939 and 1957, many of which fall into the Ruritania sub-genre of historical fiction. These are set in the fictitious countries of Flavonia and The Empire, perhaps loosely based on Romania and the pre-WW1 Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the old Emperor in The Black Riders certainly seems reminiscent of the aged Franz-Josef. The descriptions in The House of the Paladin seem to describe a landscape similar to that of the Danube Delta, and the mountains described in The Emerald Crown are reminiscent of Transylvania. Although her tales of Dick Fauconbois, the Stormy Petrel were written in the late thirties and forties, they don’t seem to be set quite then – the illustrations would seem to indicate a setting twenty or thirty years earlier. Again in The Black Riders, although she doesn’t go into the politics much, the background of a revolutionary movement, and spies, secret police and agents very much suggests the pre-war Balkans.

Of her books, only those most recently in print are at all easy to get hold of – these are The Black Riders, The Emerald Crown, The Woods of Windri, The House of the Paladin and the Changeling of Monte Lucio.

Bibliography

  • The Black Riders 1939
    The Emerald Crown 1940
    The Stormy petrel 1942
    The Horn of Merlyns 1943
    The Woods of Windri 1944
    The House of the Paladin 1945
    The Changeling of Monte Lucio 1946
    Bell of the four evangelists 1947
    The Boy in red 1948
    The Betrayer. 1950
    Pandora of Parrham Royal 1951
    The Avenue. 1952
    How many miles to Babylon? 1953
    Richard and the golden horse shoe 1954
    Adventures at Hampton Court 1954
    The Secret of the white peacock 1956
    The Great house of Estraville 1955
    Adventures at Windsor Castle 1957
    The Red rose of Ruvina 1957
  • There is a long article in Solander, which touches on her work, in particular the Ruritania sub-genre, and the Violet Needham Society is finally getting a website together.

    Is there a doctor in the house? Days of Probation, Louise Gerard (1917)

    This was the first of my great grandmother’s romance novels that I was prompted to read. Preposterous plot aside (and it is, very) there is a most interesting depiction of nursing training in the early years of the 20th century. So much so, that on reading the book in the early twenties, my grandmother apparently decided that she wanted to be a nurse. I think she was off her trolley if she wanted to be a nurse having read this, or perhaps she thought all doctors were like the hero.

    As the title suggests, the heroine of the story is a probationer nurse, and the novel starts soon after she begins her training. The depiction of the petty jealousies and rivalries between the probationers and those one or two steps up the ladder is well done. In fact it’s only when we get the addition of the romance plot that it falls down. Going by her description, she has knee length hair, can sing like an angel, has a marvellous character etc etc it’s clear our heroine is a bit of a Mary Sue. The hero, a masterful doctor, is similar to the hero in Life’s Shadow Show, but at least he’s not married, and doesn’t indulge in moral blackmail. He does decide that he loves the heroine, and once more, she has nothing to do except acquiesce.

    The plot gets completely silly when one of the other nurses, jealous at our heroine’s popularity, recalls that she knows her name from somewhere. It turns out that, shock, horror, the heroine was the Other Woman in a big divorce case in India two years previously. While her name was naturally quite unjustifiably besmirched, she can no longer continue her training (nurses must be of good character after all) and flees.

    But all ends happily when having rebuilt her life elsewhere, the hero finds her and ensures the world knows the Truth, restoring her good character and enabling him to marry a woman of good repute.

    As a side note, according to Jay Dixon, this was Mills & Boon’s very first doctor/nurse romance.

    Tally Ho! and all that: The Straw, Rina Ramsay (1909)

    This is a similar novel to Barnaby, by the same author, which I discussed in an earlier post. I didn’t think it was as good as Barnaby, and like Ian Hay’s novel Knight on Wheels, although it’s a romance it’s told from the hero’s POV. It features a similar range of characters to Barnaby, although the main players are not quite as well drawn as in the other novel. Here though, there is some wonderful comic relief from secondary characters, missing in the other.

    The hero is a decent, likable fox-hunting sort of chap, a bit short of funds, and sadly reticent. These last two dreadful character flaws being the cause of most of the events in the novel. The heroine is the only character I found it hard to care much about – I felt she was a bit of a Mary Sue and her motivations were incomprehensible to this modern reader. She also has the major flaw of being an heiress. Finally the bad guy is a bit of moustache twirler, almost identical to the bad guy in Ramsay’s other novel, and incidentally very similar to Louise Gerard’s heroes.
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    Struck dumb: A Safety Match, Ian Hay (1911)

    I couldn’t bring myself to like this story at all. It’s similar to Knight on Wheels, in that it’s clearly a romance, but this time the focus is much more on the heroine, than the hero. Again it’s written in omniscient third, with lots of asides to the reader, and many comments that made me want to slap the narrator.

    This is one of Hay’s early works, and I don’t think he’s very good at writing women at this point. Consequently, since much of the focus is on the heroine, it never quite works for me: I could never feel much sympathy for her, and her actions seem to be the result of a contemporary male construct of how women behave, rather than any observation of how we really do. I realise times have changed, but I don’t think that if one had been living with a man for four years in the knowledge that he was a hard bastard, and had separated from him because of that, the discovery that he had been making secret charitable donations, would be enough to make one suddenly fall in love with him. Since this is in fact what happens, it does rather affect my suspension of disbelief.
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