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Lord Peter Wimsey and the Great War

imageRemembrance. Armistice Day. It’s complicated. Or it is as far as I’m concerned. Every year I’m assailed by such a mixture of family history, childhood memories, political and personal reflections and theological doubts that I am reinforced in feeling that everyone has a uniquely personal reaction to this occasion, and that any attempt to impose a collective obligation to commemorate this season has failed to grasp that. In my lifetime I’ve seen the cyclical nature of how Remembrance Day is observed – currently it is in an upswing. Poppies are de rigueur, on every broadcaster’s jacket, on vehicles (tube trains, this year!), on mastheads. Yet for some people it is too painful to cope with regulated observance. It does not match their emotions or circumstances.

So I was interested to be reminded of a throwaway speech of Lord Peter Wimsey in the novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club:

“All this remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don’t it? It’s my belief most of us would be only too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn’t run it for all it’s worth. But it don’t do to say so.”

Oh, brave and prophetic, DLS! She could have been speaking of this very year (when newspapers ran a story about complaints from MPs and others that Google decorating its home page with a single poppy was ‘demeaning’ when its rival Bing covered its homepage in poppies as far as the eye could see). And she puts these words in the mouth of Lord Peter in a courageous and thoughtful novel that deals with the aftermath of the Great War and its effects on returning soldiers whose scars are none the less appalling for being invisible. No character better qualified to speak for them than Lord Peter, damaged war hero that he is, or to bring his empathy to bear to solve the mystery and do a tiny bit to put the world right, and as every time at a personal toll on his mental health. In this speech lies his critique of the landscape of remembrance crafted by the powers that be as an appropriate response to the enormity of the Great War (beautifully revealed by Geoff Dyer in his essential work The Missing of the Somme)

Lord Peter is, of course, the perfect all-purpose hero, standing for all that is best that comes from chivalry, learning, gentle birth, intellect and emotional intelligence. This is the week in the year though that I’m moved to consider just how far he is a creation of his war experience and what that has to tell me.

We learn a little of his war record from his egregious uncle Paul Delagardie – that he served throughout from 1914 to 1918, being ‘blown up and buried in a shell-hole near Caudry’ close to the end of the war. This left him with serious shell-shock, incapacitated for two years. Bunter, the essential engine of his charmed life, was his sergeant, acts on a promise of a job when the war is over, rescues him and sets up his establishment in London and makes his existence possible. It is good to be reminded of the nature of the bond between them, as Bunter is one of the very few who know just how persistent and deep-rooted is the legacy of this experience to Lord Peter’s mental health.

There is so much that is stimulating, even enjoyable, even great fun, about Lord Peter Wimsey’s activities, as detective and otherwise. There is such brilliance and creativity in the intellectual process he brings to bear, in the breadth and depth of his learning, and the appreciation of his literary and intellectual heroes that overflows from him in his speech and thought. But, lest we think this crackle and sparkle is all that he has to offer, it is this legacy of war that brings him, and the reader, up short when the stakes are highest. When the mystery is solved and the villain is unmasked, that is when there is an upwelling of nightmares and flashbacks to underline that this is another human being suffering. In her early work Whose Body, the other novel that revolves around the war-wounded, Bunter is awoken by a hallucinating Lord Peter who imagines he can hear and feel the German miners burrowing under his trench, his sleepwalking triggered by his discovery of the the key to the mystery.

imageElsewhere in the novels, we find that often the resolution of his cases, the point where the intellectual endeavour turns into human consequences, there is a resurgence of his mental symptoms and turmoil to underscore the terror of the outcome. The culmination of all this comes in Busman’s Honeymoon, so full of joy and fulfilment for Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, now married, and so full of fun for the reader. At the end of Gaudy Night most of the barriers between them fall all at once, and the happy ending is prepared. But their honeymoon turns into a murder investigation, and there is one remaining barrier between them – can Harriet reach out to him when the final scene is played out? He unmasks the murderer; the murderer must pay; Lord Peter must pay for his role in this in the coin of recurrent shellshock. Harriet must wait it out before she finds out whether this final bridge can be crossed by him.

What can be a little hard to chew down on in DLS’s Wimsey novels is the sort of third person solipsism that surrounds Lord Peter. What do we know of Bunter’s war record, or the scars it left on him? Why at the very end must we accept that Harriet’s heroism lies in her passivity as she waits for Peter to find his way to her? And so on, and so forth. But for me, working through my thoughts at this time of year about what the novels mean to me, I find them cathartic, in the sense that in this aspect they invoke a sense of pity and fear, and in this they are regulating my thinking about the intensely personal nature of response to commemoration and Remembrance Day.

Dorothy L Sayers:
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. London: Hodder and Stoughton (New English Library), 2004. 288pp ISBN 9780450016301 First published 1928
Whose Body? London: Hodder and Stoughton (New English Library), 1963. 224pp ISBN 9780450031298 First published 1923
Busman’s Honeymoon. London: Hodder and Stoughton (New English Library), 2012. 438pp ISBN 9780062196576 First published 1937
All available in Kindle and eBook formats.

10 comments on “Lord Peter Wimsey and the Great War

  1. Kate
    November 13, 2013

    I loathe and am scared of the increasing aggressiveness in popular demands in the UK for conformity in wearing the poppy from early Oct throughout November. I haven’t done it for years, and it’s an act of nervous bravado that gets me through it each year, when I’m in the UK. I wear a white poppy if I can get hold of one. Today a TV news presenter has had to explain all her charitable giving history and family military service record just because she didn’t wear one on TV. It’s institutional bullying in the name of war-mongering, and its media-led. Its so interesting to read contemporary soldiers’ views (in the guise of fiction) on the remembrance industry. It’s also very difficult to separate remembering the dead from the wrong and right kind of wars, we’re all dragged into supporting war by feeling pity for the ones who are left behind. Brrr.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings
    November 13, 2013

    Lovely and very thought provoking piece. I always thought DLS was very brave to have Peter so fallible and her portrayal of his shellshock is very strong. I will always have a soft spot for Bellona, as it was the first Wimsey I read. Intelligent books by an intelligent writer.

  3. Alan
    November 13, 2013

    Harriet was born in 1903, the daughter of a country doctor, according to the Corpus ( though admittedly there is a slight confusion about her date of birth). However, whether she was 11 or 14 at the start of WW1 it would have made little direct impact on her; unlike her efforts in WW2

    And although I would not describe Bunter as unimaginative, his imagination takes a less fanciful, more practical, turn than Lord Peter (as befits his rank of sergeant). So although Bunter has seen plenty of the horrors of war he is better able to cope with them. Padgett (Gaudy Night) the porter at Shrewsbury is a further step along that road. For him the horrors of war are sublimated in his admiration for ‘Old Winderpane’ – Major Wimsey.

  4. Lisa
    November 13, 2013

    I’m ashamed to say that I never really thought about Bunter’s war before. Isn’t it in Busman’s Honeymoon where the Dowager Duchess tells Harriet about Bunter coming into service with Peter and pretty much curing him of his shell-shock, at least to the point where he can function? There’s also the old-soldiers’ reunion with Padgett the porter in Gaudy Night, where they bring each other up to date on old comrades, and later Padgett tells Harriet more about Peter’s service. It’s part of Harriet really getting to know Peter, after so many years, but it’s also a more benign remembrance – for both Peter & Padgett.

  5. Jackie
    November 13, 2013

    An interesting train of thought. In the U.S. there’s nary a poppy to be seen anywhere on Nov. 11th. Veteran’s organizations used to hand them out at the doors of grocery stores and such, but I haven’t seen that since the 1990’s. I still have one I keep in remembrance of my grandpap, who fought in that war. Here it’s more focused on veterans of recent wars.
    But I can relate to the media & social pressure around Sept. 11th, which has turned into a patriotic litmus test in the U.S. much as described in the comments concerning Armistice Day in the UK.

  6. Simon T (Stuck-in-a-Book)
    November 14, 2013

    I have to admit to loathing Lord Peter, but I wholeheartedly agree with his statement. I’ve chosen not to wear a poppy in recent years, because I think (although this was not the original intention) they’ve come to stand for a glorification of war – I’ve never been quite brave enough to wear the the white poppy, but may do one day.

  7. sshaver
    November 14, 2013

    Another proof of Sayers’ artistry: writing about PTSD before it was popular to do so. Peter never fully recovers.

    War leaves a mess.

  8. Christine Reuther
    November 18, 2013

    There is a similar phenomenon in this country to the poppy wearing–politicians sporting little American flag lapel pins and using it as a litmus test for patriotism. It came into fashion after 9/11 and Republicans drag it out every time a Democrat fails to wear one in public. Bill Moyers, a prominent journalist with liberal leanings, wrote a famous piece about the hijacking of the flag as a symbol. He defended not the obligation to wear it, but the fact that it stands for the right not to wear it. As far as Lord Peter goes, biographers of Dorothy Sayers say he was modeled on a young man Sayers knew who survived the war but suffered terribly from shell shock. Her husband also had mental health issues that were almost certainly manifestations of PTSD.

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