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. 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.


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.

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