Postwar life for ex-soldiers in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club cover
Audiobook cover for The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, based on the design of the Hodder & Stoughton 2016 printing of the book.

By The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, the fourth Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Lord Peter’s character is fairly well-established, including the fact of his lingering shell-shock from the Great War.  Despite occasional issues, Lord Peter’s doing fine—his shell-shock presents some occasional trouble, but overall, the war doesn’t continue to dominate his daily life.

This isn’t the case for everyone in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.  The titular Englishmen’s club counts many war veterans within its membership, and the titular unpleasantness involves the discovery of the corpse of one of said veterans in the club on Armistice Day.  With this strong connection to the Great War, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club offers Dorothy L. Sayers the opportunity to examine the circumstances of postwar life for ex-soldiers beyond just Lord Peter himself.

The war veterans introduced in the book fit a number of different archetypes.  The corpse discovered in the club belonged to General Fentiman, a veteran of the Crimean War; his two grandsons, Robert and George, fought in World War I.  General Fentiman and Robert Fentiman embody a specific type of stiff-upper-lip career soldier who continued on in the military after their respective wars and who seem relatively unaffected by their time in combat.

It’s George Fentiman whose portrayal hints at some of the more difficult realities faced by many ex-soldiers following the Great War.  As he tells Lord Peter when asked how things are going for him:

“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.  Sheila’s queer, too—overwork, poor girl.  It’s pretty damnable for a man to have to live on his wife’s earnings, isn’t it?  I can’t help it, Wimsey.  I go sick and have to chuck jobs up.  Money—I never thought of money before the War, but I swear nowadays I’d commit any damned crime to get hold of a decent income.”

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), p. 2

Cenotaph
Edwin Lutyens’ Cenotaph, unveiled on Whitehall in London in 1920. Armistice Day remembrance services center around the memorial. Photo by Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0.

A friend of Lord Peter’s, George suffers from the physical effects of having been gassed during the war and a variety of psychological symptoms that characterized the disorder known as “shell-shock” during his time—confusion, obsessive thoughts, irritability, general anxiety, occasional delusions—as well as the socioeconomic problems that tended to follow such symptoms.  His frequent physical illness and his shell-shock have made it difficult for him to hold down a job, and his wife, Sheila, has gone to work instead, an inversion of the traditional roles for husband and wife that aggravates George to no end.

Unlike Lord Peter’s intermittent flashbacks and occasional “nervous attacks,” George’s shell-shock troubles him constantly.  Lord Peter, a shell-shock sufferer himself, feels noticeably bad about his friend’s situation—he regards George sympathetically in general and is loath to consider him a suspect in the case as it develops, even as it becomes clear that George was one of the only interested persons who would have a means, motive, and opportunity for the crime.  His sympathy springs from a place of understanding as he recognizes George’s difficulties as aftereffects of his time in the war.  When the family lawyer Mr. Murbles mentions George’s “weakly strain,” Wimsey comes to his defense:

“…The two Fentimans you know—Major Robert and Captain George Fentiman.”

“I don’t know Robert very well,” interjected Wimsey.  “I’ve met him. Frightfully hearty and all that—regular army type.”

“Yes, he’s of the old Fentiman stock.  Poor George inherited a weakly strain from his grandmother, I’m afraid.”

“Well, nervous, anyhow,” said Wimsey, who knew better than the old solicitor the kind of mental and physical strain George Fentiman had undergone.  The War pressed hardly upon imaginative men in responsible positions.  “And then he was gassed and all that, you know,” he added apologetically.

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), p. 14

It’s clear that George does not live up to the archetype of the heroic ex-soldier so well exemplified by Lord Peter: while Lord Peter is heroic, carrying out a civic duty and generally fitting into society quite neatly despite his occasional troubles with shell-shock, George is struggling to reintegrate into civilian life following his experiences in the war.  How does Sayers depict those struggles?

The following sections detail his difficulties upon returning from the war and, more broadly, how Sayers presents the experiences of many ex-soldiers who faced greater trouble upon returning from war than Lord Peter.

BC2
First U.S. edition cover of The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, published by Payson and Clarke Ltd. and shared by talkingpiffle on Tumblr.

Psychological issues

The trouble, it seemed, had begun at breakfast.  Ever since the story of the murder had come out, George had been very nervy and jumpy, and, to Sheila’s horror, had “started muttering again.”  “Muttering”, Wimsey remembered, had formerly been the prelude to one of George’s “queer fits”.  These had been a form of shell-shock, and they had generally ended in his going off and wandering about in a distraught manner for several days, sometimes with partial and occasionally with complete temporary loss of memory.  There was the time when he had been found dancing naked in a field among a flock of sheep, and singing to them.  It had been the more ludicrously painful in that George was altogether tone-deaf, so that his singing, though loud, was like a hoarse and rumbling wind in the chimney.  Then there was a dreadful time when George had deliberately walked into a bonfire.  That was when they had been staying down in the country.  George had been badly burnt, and the shock of the pain had brought him round.  He never remembered afterwards why he had tried to do these things, and had only the faintest recollection of having done them at all.  The next vagary might be even more disconcerting.

At any rate, George had been “muttering”.

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), p. 183

When George tells Lord Peter “I go sick” in his introduction, he seems to be referring mostly to the psychological effects he’s suffered from his time in combat.  These effects are varied and numerous: George is generally anxious and irritable, and he displays “indecent neurasthenia” upon finding his grandfather’s corpse, breaking into uncontrollable hysterical laughter despite the gravity of the situation.  Various characters, offering up varying levels of sympathy, describe him as nervous, somebody they “wouldn’t answer for in an emergency” owing to how his nerves often overcome him.

These psychological issues also take more serious and more acute forms, as described in the excerpt above about George’s “muttering” and the “queer fits” that tend to follow.  He suffers from acute episodes of delusion—and here’s quite a late-in-the-game plot detail, so if you haven’t finished The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, you might want to skip to the next paragraph!—such as when he hears that his grandfather’s death was in fact murder, becomes suddenly convinced that he is the devil, and falsely confesses to the murder.  His wife indicates that while this is not his normal state, it’s also not new ground for him: “It’s the old trouble come back again,” she says.  “…He’s been like that twice before.”

While discussing the portrayal of shell-shock in Whose Body?, I quoted Fiona Reid’s summary of the “bewildering array of anxiety disorders, [including] mental tics, nightmares, confusion, fatigue, obsessive thoughts, inexplicable aches and pains” that fell under the umbrella diagnosis of “shell-shock.”  The manifestation of Lord Peter’s shell-shock in Whose Body? included flashbacks and acute attacks of nerves; with her portrayal of George’s difficulties, Sayers broadens her depiction of the variety of psychological problems that characterized shell-shock as a disorder.

Physical problems

Perhaps loath to speak too openly about his mental health issues, George tends to attribute his outbursts to feeling physically unwell.  He mentions having been gassed during the war and invalided out as a result, and he frequently complains of an ailing stomach.  His wife, Sheila, also refers to his stomach problems: “His tummy is feeling rotten and it makes him irritable,” she tells Lord Peter apologetically, after he’s witnessed George repeatedly picking fights with her for an evening.

Physical ailments often plagued soldiers who had been gassed, as described by a medical text of the sort that Sayers might have read.  However, in 1923’s Medical Services: Diseases of the War, the authors suggest that stomach problems for soldiers who had encountered gas may have been more closely linked to “neurasthenia”—a term frequently applied to the psychological issues from which shell-shocked soldiers suffered—rather than the chemical aftermath of the event.  In any case, whether George’s psychological issues are compounding his physical problems or vice versa, the difficulties from which he suffers cause him daily trouble.

Economic instability

This daily trouble makes it nearly impossible for George to hold down a job, and he and Sheila live in relative poverty, a situation that becomes quite important as the case comes to hinge on the question of how much money George will inherit from his grandfather’s death.  Lord Peter visits him and Sheila at home in what George calls their “ghastly hovel,” two rooms to themselves and use of a shared kitchen and bathroom on the ground floor of a multi-family home.  Their landlords are harsh and unsympathetic, and the couple are also subjected to ongoing extortion as part of a predatory lending scheme in which they became involved when they borrowed money from a shady character.

[Lord Peter’s] first idea was to go on up to Finsbury Park, to see the George Fentimans.  He remembered in time, however, that Sheila would not yet be home from her work—she was employed as a cashier in a fashionable tea-shop—and further (with a fore-thought rare in the well-to-do) that if he arrived too early he would have to be asked to supper and that Sheila would be worried about it and George annoyed.

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), p. 57

Their financial situation is bleak and overwhelms both George and Sheila.  A wealthy man himself, Lord Peter tries gently to loan them some money, but George rebuffs him, although Sheila accepts his advice to enlist the Fentiman family solicitor in advancing them enough money from George’s inheritance to resolve their debts.  Relatives who live comfortably either hesitate or refuse to lend them money owing to what they see as George’s untrustworthy or generally bad character, although by Sheila and Lord Peter’s indications, it seems that the worse aspects of his disposition are results of the war and of his stress over his economic situation.

Between their debts and George’s inability to retain employment, Sheila and George’s economic situation reflects the realities faced by many soldiers returning from war.  As Lord Peter glumly recounts “poor old George’s” life: “Usual story.  Decentish job—imprudent marriage—chucks everything to join up in 1914—invalided out—job gone—no money—heroic wife keeping the home fires burning—general fedupness.”

Social issues

Economic instability, of course, often leads to other issues, and for George, the problem of the “heroic wife keeping the home fires burning” seems to chafe at him endlessly.  His frustration that Sheila’s work has to support both of them while he is unable to financially contribute leads him to lash out at her repeatedly, as well as at “modern women” in general:

“No wonder a man can’t get a decent job these days with these hard-mouthed, cigarette-smoking females all over the place, pretending they’re geniuses and business women and all the rest of it.”

[…]

“The modern girl hasn’t a scrap of decent feeling or sentiment about her.  Money—money and notoriety, that’s all she’s after.  That’s what we fought the War for—and that’s what we’ve come back to!”

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), p. 65

These outbursts—which, it should be said, clearly do not reflect Dorothy L. Sayers’ own opinions, as she was rather a modern woman herself and wrote about many positively—point to one of the other key tensions that faced soldiers returning from war: shifting gender dynamics.  George rails against these modern women, demanding to know why unmarried young women can no longer just be the companions of older, wealthy women and insist on also undertaking intellectual and artistic pursuits.  He blames women who pursue professional careers for his own difficulties finding steady work, and he’s clearly angry that his wife is working while he is not.  “Husbands don’t matter at all, I suppose, to you advanced women,” he spits at Sheila.

This social tension surrounding changing gender roles manifested itself as domestic turmoil for many during the time, especially for soldiers returning from war.  No longer were husbands the sole breadwinners; it was becoming increasingly acceptable for women to go to work and to maintain their own careers.  Faced with economic instability and embarrassed by his inability to hold down a job, George refuses to accept these evolving roles.  His anger at these wider social changes puts strain on his relationship with his wife, whom he argues with constantly, although in his calmer moments he admits that his anger is misplaced:

“I say, Wimsey—I do apologize for being so bloody rude.  It’s my filthy temper.  Rotten bad form.  Sheila’s gone up to bed in tears, poor kid.  All my fault.  If you knew how this damnable situation gets on my nerves—though I know there’s no excuse…”

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), p. 67

George Fentiman and the soldier’s postwar life

While, as Fiona Reid points out in “‘His nerves gave way’: Shell shock, history and the memory of the First World War in Britain,” Lord Peter represents the “young, idealistic hero-victim” of the Great War, George Fentiman represents another reality for ex-soldiers adjusting to civilian life.

There’s a common thread through the book voiced by many of the war veterans of the Bellona Club, an idea that nothing has been the same since the war.  The various former soldiers that Sayers introduces over the course of the novel show how these fundamental changes manifested for a variety of people and the troubles faced by those whose experiences during the war made their postwar lives incredibly difficult, even impossible.  The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club builds on Sayers’ previous depictions of Lord Peter’s experiences with shell-shock by opening up his world to show how his brothers-in-arms were affected by the atrocities of war.

Citations

MacPherson, W.G., W.P. Herringham, T.R. Elliott, and A. Balfour, eds. Medical Services: Diseases of the War, vol. 2 London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1923. https://archive.org/details/medicalservicesd01macpuoft.

Reid, Fiona. “‘His nerves gave way’: Shell shock, history and the memory of the First World War in Britain.” Endeavour 38, no. 2 (2014): 91-100. doi: 10.1016/j.endeavour.2014.05.002.

Sayers, Dorothy L. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. 1928. Reprint, New York: HarperTorch, 2006.

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Whose Body? and shell-shock

Whose Body? cover
Audiobook cover for Whose Body?, based on the design of the Hodder & Stoughton 2016 printing of the book.

In Whose Body?, Dorothy L. Sayers introduces Lord Peter Wimsey to the world: an affable, good-humored young man with a fairly keen ability for deduction and a talent and passion for detective work, although he (unlike many fictional sleuths) confesses some misgivings about the role he plays in sending people to the gallows.  He immediately gets to work on a curious case when an acquaintance discovers an unidentified corpse in his bathtub and enlists Lord Peter to figure out what’s happened.

No mention is made, for a considerable period, of the Great War.  As the book was published in 1923, the war surely still loomed large in contemporary readers’ minds, but Sayers leaves out the fact of Lord Peter’s participation in it for a long time.

However, after a late night spent mulling over the body that’s been found and the circumstances that led it to be deposited in a stranger’s bath, Lord Peter comes to some conclusions that leave him shaken, and he suffers from an acute attack of shell-shock, believing himself to be back on the battlefield, mistaking the sound of a passing truck for the sound of gunfire.

He sat down again and buried his face in his hands. He remembered quite suddenly how, years ago, he had stood before the breakfast table at Denver Castle—a small, peaky boy in blue knickers, with a thunderously beating heart. The family had not come down; there was a great silver urn with a spirit lamp under it, and an elaborate coffee-pot boiling in a glass dome. He had twitched the corner of the tablecloth—twitched it harder, and the urn moved ponderously forward and all the teaspoons rattled. He seized the tablecloth in a firm grip and pulled his hardest—he could feel now the delicate and awful thrill as the urn and the coffee machine and the whole of a Sèvres breakfast service had crashed down in one stupendous ruin—he remembered the horrified face of the butler, and the screams of a lady guest.

A log broke across and sank into a fluff of white ash. A belated motor-lorry rumbled past the window.

Mr. Bunter, sleeping the sleep of the true and faithful servant, was aroused in the small hours by a hoarse whisper, “Bunter!”

“Yes, my lord,” said Bunter, sitting up and switching on the light.

“Put that light out, damn you!” said the voice. “Listen—over there—listen—can’t you hear it?”

“It’s nothing, my lord,” said Mr. Bunter, hastily getting out of bed and catching hold of his master; “it’s all right, you get to bed quick and I’ll fetch you a drop of bromide. Why, you’re all shivering—you’ve been sitting up too late.”

“Hush! no, no—it’s the water,” said Lord Peter, with chattering teeth; “it’s up to their waists down there, poor devils. But listen! can’t you hear it? Tap, tap, tap—they’re mining us—but I don’t know where—I can’t hear—I can’t. Listen, you! There it is again—we must find it—we must stop it…. Listen! Oh, my God! I can’t hear—I can’t hear anything for the noise of the guns. Can’t they stop the guns?”

“Oh dear!” said Mr. Bunter to himself. “No, no—it’s all right, Major—don’t you worry.”

“But I hear it,” protested Peter.

“So do I,” said Mr. Bunter stoutly; “very good hearing, too, my lord. That’s our own sappers at work in the communication trench. Don’t you fret about that, sir.”

Lord Peter grasped his wrist with a feverish hand.

“Our own sappers,” he said; “sure of that?”

“Certain of it,” said Mr. Bunter, cheerfully.

“They’ll bring down the tower,” said Lord Peter.

“To be sure they will,” said Mr. Bunter, “and very nice, too. You just come and lay down a bit, sir—they’re come to take over this section.”

“You’re sure it’s safe to leave it?” said Lord Peter.

“Safe as houses, sir,” said Mr. Bunter, tucking his master’s arm under his and walking him off to his bedroom.

Lord Peter allowed himself to be dosed and put to bed without further resistance. Mr. Bunter, looking singularly un-Bunterlike in striped pyjamas, with his stiff black hair ruffled about his head, sat grimly watching the younger man’s sharp cheekbones and the purple stains under his eyes.

“Thought we’d had the last of these attacks,” he said. “Been over-doin’ of himself. Asleep?” He peered at him anxiously. An affectionate note crept into his voice. “Bloody little fool!” said Sergeant Bunter.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body? (1923), pp. 136-138

The following morning, Lord Peter’s friend Inspector Parker comes around for their pre-arranged meeting to discuss the case further, only to find Peter’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, caring for him:

“I am going to take this silly boy down to Denver for the weekend,” she said, indicating Peter, who was writing and only acknowledged his friend’s entrance with a brief nod. “He’s been doing too much—running about to Salisbury and places and up till all hours of the night—you really shouldn’t encourage him, Mr. Parker, it’s very naughty of you—waking poor Bunter up in the middle of the night with scares about Germans, as if that wasn’t all over years ago, and he hasn’t had an attack for ages, but there! Nerves are such funny things, and Peter always did have nightmares when he was quite a little boy—though very often of course it was only a little pill he wanted; but he was so dreadfully bad in 1918, you know, and I suppose we can’t expect to forget all about a great war in a year or two, and, really, I ought to be very thankful with both my boys safe. Still, I think a little peace and quiet at Denver won’t do him any harm.”

Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body? (1923), p. 139

The Dowager Duchess makes the situation clear to Parker, discussing Peter’s “scares about Germans” and mentioning his incapacitating nervous state in 1918—five years prior, ostensibly, to the events of the book.  Parker, “vaguely sympathetic,” offers Peter an awkward token of compassion, telling him, “Sorry you’ve been having a bad turn, old man.”  And Peter, for his part, gives Parker and Bunter some instructions as to how to continue the investigation while he retires to the countryside to convalesce in his family home for a few days.

Whose Body? cover
An early cover of Whose Body?, printed by Victor Gollancz, London and made available through Penguin Books Canada.

Historically, of course, we know that Lord Peter’s difficulties with his “nerves” following his wartime experiences were far from unusual.  In “‘His nerves gave way’: Shell shock, history and the memory of the First World War in Britain,” Fiona Reid discusses the “bewildering array of anxiety disorders, [including] mental tics, nightmares, confusion, fatigue, obsessive thoughts, inexplicable aches and pains” that plagued thousands of soldiers during and after the Great War.  “In total,” she writes, “approximately 80,000 British soldiers were treated for war neuroses during the First World War and thousands remained in lunatic asylums throughout the interwar years, some for the rest of their lives.”

Because “shell-shock” was created as a catch-all term out of necessity by a society that found an enormous number of soldiers suffering from a wide range of psychological and psychosomatic conditions after having served in the war, shell-shock experiences were not the same across the board.  Lord Peter’s experiences represent one example of how the symptoms of shell-shock could manifest.

The reactions of Parker and the Dowager Duchess—unlike the empathetic response of Peter’s fellow soldier, Bunter—point to some of the social issues surrounding the shell-shocked soldier returned from war.  Parker’s discomfited response nods not only to his difficulty in responding to a show of marked emotional vulnerability from another man but also to the judgment often passed on men who suffered from shell-shock.  “The military-medical profession did recognize the reality of mental war wounds,” Reid explains, “but also attributed some mental breakdowns to constitutional weakness.”

Parker’s uncertainty at how to treat his friend following his breakdown demonstrates this conflicted view of the disorder, and the Dowager Duchess’ disquisition on Peter’s state provides further evidence.  She first suggests that Peter should no longer be suffering such attacks “as if that wasn’t all over years ago” before conceding, “I suppose we can’t expect to forget all about a great war in a year or two.”

These reactions to Peter’s state point to some of the social attitudes at the time: an acknowledgement that yes, men suffering from shell-shock had endured something serious and traumatic that they surely couldn’t forget in short order, but an uncertainty at how to handle them, as well as a lack of clarity on how long the symptoms would continue owing to the fact that the disorder was not yet well-understood.

Notably, Reid’s article indicates a disparity between the social experiences of upstanding and refined upper-class officers, such as Lord Peter, and those of the lower classes who, while grappling with shell-shock, struggled to hold down jobs and to reestablish healthy domestic lives.  Stating that Lord Peter has “contributed to longstanding British perceptions of the shell-shocked soldier,” Reid points out that as an “attractive, perceptive, and intelligent” man, a “young, idealistic, hero-victim,” Peter is (and has always been) easy to sympathize with.  He clearly contributes to society, solving mysteries and apprehending criminals, and it is evident that he is working hard to overcome his psychological traumas.

Many real life soldiers found it much more difficult to elicit a sympathetic response.  Men who lived itinerant lives, facing difficulty in keeping themselves employed and in keeping their families together, were a much harder sell to the general public and to politicians than the obviously hardworking and principled Lord Peter Wimsey.  While shell-shock made it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for many ex-soldiers to live normal lives after the war, Lord Peter is quite all right most of the time comparatively—he is able to live a normal, if not exceptional, life in spite of his trauma.

Social attitudes were generous to shell-shock sufferers like Lord Peter, and rather less so to those who had more difficulty returning to civilian life.  Five years after the publication of Whose Body?, Sayers addressed this disparity of experiences in the fourth Lord Peter Wimsey book, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), which introduces some of Peter’s fellow ex-soldiers who have adjusted less successfully to postwar civilian life.  This topic will be explored at length in a future post, but from a more strictly historical standpoint, Jay Winter briefly explores the socioeconomic underpinnings of cultural attitudes about shell-shock in “Shell-Shock and the Cultural History of the Great War.”

Whose Body? also offers a glimpse into the medical view of shell-shock during the period.  Whilst on the trail of murder (and for reasons we won’t go into at this time, so as not to give away the murderer’s identity), Lord Peter ends up paying a visit to a doctor.

“And you, monsieur? You are young, well, strong—you also suffer? Is it still the war, perhaps?”

“A little remains of shell-shock,” said Lord Peter.

[…]

Lord Peter bowed to his neighbour, and walked across the waiting-room. As the door of the consulting-room closed behind him, he remembered having once gone, disguised, into the staff-room of a German officer. He experienced the same feeling—the feeling of being caught in a trap, and a mingling of bravado and shame.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body? (1923), p. 173

Speaking to the physician, Lord Peter describes having been “very ill for some months” in 1918 but having recovered considerably since then, with attacks coming on less and less frequently.  He states that he does not personally remember what happened during the attack related in the excerpt at the beginning of this post, only the circumstances leading up to it and what Bunter told him about the situation afterward.

After a brief medical examination with an instrument that Sayers describes only in the vaguest terms, the specialist tells Lord Peter (the second speaker in the following quotation being Peter himself):

“Well, now. You know quite well that the strain you put on your nerves during the war has left its mark on you. It has left what I may call old wounds in your brain. Sensations received by your nerve-endings sent messages to your brain, and produced minute physical changes there—changes we are only beginning to be able to detect, even with our most delicate instruments. These changes in their turn set up sensations; or I should say, more accurately, that sensations are the names we give to those changes of tissue when we perceive them: we call them horror, fear, sense of responsibility and so on.”

“Yes, I follow you.”

“Very well. Now, if you stimulate those damaged places in your brain again, you run the risk of opening up the old wounds. I mean, that if you get nerve-sensations of any kind producing the reactions which we call horror, fear, and sense of responsibility, they may go on to make disturbance right along the old channel, and produce in their turn physical changes which you will call by the names you were accustomed to associate with them—dread of German mines, responsibility for the lives of your men, strained attention and the inability to distinguish small sounds through the overpowering noise of guns.”

“I see.”

“This effect would be increased by extraneous circumstances producing other familiar physical sensations—night, cold or the rattling of heavy traffic, for instance.”

“Yes.”

“Yes. The old wounds are nearly healed, but not quite. The ordinary exercise of your mental faculties has no bad effect. It is only when you excite the injured part of your brain.”

Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body? (1923), p. 177

This passage reveals popular and medical understandings of shell-shock during Lord Peter’s time; the specialist with whom Lord Peter speaks has previously been established as a well-read man of science, preeminent in his field.  This description of how the psychological effects of the traumatic experiences of war were understood is invaluable for evaluating social attitudes surrounding shell-shocked soldiers at the time—notably, Lord Peter’s shell-shock is being treated as a legitimate condition with a medical basis, not only as a general weakness of constitution.

Disregarding the issue of the extent to which the specialist’s analysis would measure up to modern understandings of post-traumatic stress disorder, the fact that the disorder was treated as an authentic and significant medical problem is helpful for understanding the cultural situation of shell-shocked soldiers returning to civilian life.

Lord Peter’s issues with post-traumatic stress recur intermittently throughout the rest of the series, but Whose Body? provides a lucid introduction to one of the more enduring cultural portrayals of shell-shocked soldiers in society following the Great War.  Reading the book historically—in conjunction with historical writings on shell-shock, such as Reid and Winter’s articles—allows us to glean some insight into these men’s situation during Lord Peter’s time.

Citations

Reid, Fiona. “‘His nerves gave way’: Shell shock, history and the memory of the First World War in Britain.” Endeavour 38, no. 2 (2014): 91-100. doi: 10.1016/j.endeavour.2014.05.002.

Sayers, Dorothy L. Whose Body? 1923. Reprint, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2016.

Winter, Jay. “Shell-Shock and the Cultural History of the Great War.” Journal of Contemporary History 35, no. 1 (2000): 7-11. doi: 10.1177/002200940003500102.