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.

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

  1. Sorry for the unrelated comment;

    I am looking for wrters/readers opinions about authors blogging and the growing social input and collaboration that the web allows. There are a few initial questions in the blog post but any input would be great.

    Please pass this on to anyone that you think might be interested.

    – thanks for your time.

  2. For me, Sayers’s most interesting treatment of shell-shock is in the first Wimsey novel, Whose Body, where it is Wimsey himself who is trying to get over his time in France (and a love-affair). It’s suggetsed that his detective work is a kind of therapy, and his silly-ass facetiousness is a way of coping with a world from which he feels disassociated. Three quarters of the way through the book the light and farcical plot is suddenly disrupted by a chapter of his nighmares – a daring literary device that I can’t think of a parallel for.
    In later books Wimsey’s war neurosis – and his silly-ass manner – fade.

  3. You know, I had forgotten all about that scene in Whose Body. IIRC from a biography of Sayers I read last year, Wimsey’s silly-ass manner was also supposed to be similar to Bertie Wooster’s, and the book a sort of Wooster does crime. But that scene puts it very much somewhere else. The silly assness disappears almost completely once he meets Harriet Vane, I suspect because it doesn’t really go with Wimsey as Romantic Hero.

    In this book, the armistice thing is only really there in the first couple of chapters, but I thought the characters have interesting attitudes to this feature of the cultural.

  4. Actually, the war is pretty constant throughout the books and is a major theme in some of the short stories. The economic aftermath is key to Denis Cathcart’s mindset in Clouds of Witness (and there is a lovely mini-scene involving an ex-service newspaper seller at the end), veterans turn up in Murder Must Advertise and the war records of a Scotsman and an Englishman are the basis for an argument in Five Red Herrings. Rather more importantly, Wimsey’s war service is used as a point of contact with both ex-servicemen and the bereaved, most notably in Have His Carcase, Unnatural Death and the short stories, which transcends his class. These are all details in comparison to the centrality of the war to the plot in Unpleasantness but it does indicate the extent to which the war and its memory was an integral part of the interwar years, although not always in the ways that we might expect.

  5. Phil the Badger

    And in “Gaudy Night” the porter at Shrewsbury College served under Wimsey and, we learn from his converstaion with Harriet, dug Wimsey out from the dugout in which he had been buried alive.

  6. The silly ass pose was common in the 1920s – it was thought gentlemanly (in all classes) to conceal the real bravery shown in the Great War under a gaily frivolous mask.

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