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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