Today, alternating reading with work tasks and making full-use of a quiet lunch hour, I finished Dorothy Sayers’s The Unpleasantness At the Bellona Club (1928). BTW, I’m rereading Sayers’s murder mystery series. Because I never read for plot and promptly forget it when I’m done, I might as well have never read it. What I did and do retain is Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers’s acerbic writing, and the feeling that everything is precariously tottering on the edge of tragedy. This post is by way of expressing some of my random thoughts while I read. I don’t spoil, so feel free to keep reading. I don’t summarize or review, therefore, these comments may only be of interest to someone who’s read and/or is interested in Sayers. Or not.
The Unpleasantness At the Bellona Club centres around the murder of elderly General Fentiman, found deprived of his mortal coil when he spent too long snoozing in his usual chair at the Bellona Club, a London gentleman’s club. The first thing that struck me, and I don’t remember thinking about this when I first read the Wimsey mysteries, was the noise of The Great War in the background. Though the war has been long over, most of the characters, including Wimsey, live in its shadow, are yet haunted by the mud of the Somme so to speak, and carry the bitter, cavalier and frightening knowledge of witnessing death, feeling his breath on their napes. They are marked and Sayers’s novel is in turn marked by a macabre memento mori. The War, as Wimsey refers to it, is the great dividing line of before and after, what we were and what we’ve become because of it: “Wimsey said that nothing was what it had been; he thought it must be due to the War.” Wimsey’s diffidence marks all the characters; euphemism stands in for death, horror, evil, masked, out of fear, out of not-to-be-borne.
The door closed after them, and a tension seemed removed. Somebody lit a cigarette. The planet’s tyrant, dotard Death, had held his grey mirror before them for a moment and shown them the image of things to come. But now it was taken away again. The unpleasantness had passed.
Sayers’s uses “unpleasantness” repeatedly. It felt so very English, oblique, those things we don’t talk about: sex, death, the messy, uncontrollable things our bodies do and want. Sayers’s veil, however, is thin and Peter and the characters peopling the novel are constantly cracked open to their own mortality, to evil, to a fallen world.
The oblique, the opaque, the scaling over horror run throughout. To determine time of death, crucial to the murderer’s motivation, Wimsey proposes the General’s exhumation and autopsy to the General’s nephew:
‘You mustn’t think I’m not grateful, Wimsey, and all that. But it is rather unseemly.’
‘With all your experience,’ said Wimsey, ‘you oughtn’t to be so sensitive about corpses. We’ve seen many things much unseemlier than a nice, quiet little resurrection in a respectable cemetery.’
That irony in the use of “resurrection” and the obliqueness of the “things much unseemlier”: the rotting corpses in the mud of France. Wimsey was there, as was the nephew. And, as always, the reminder of death’s nearness, memento mori.
It was at this point, the exhumation-autopsy scene, that Sayers’s novel reminded me of Hamlet‘s last, great, memento mori Act V, of “Poor Yorick” fame. Indeed, the doctor performing the autopsy behaves in the gravedigger’s glib manner and Wimsey is Hamlet’s “to what base uses we may return” and “the king is a thing — of nothing.” Wimsey’s consideration of the deceased body as a thing has the nephew accuse him in a further scene, “I believe you batten on corpses” (recalling, for me, Hamlet’s accusation to his mother, “Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed/And batten on this moor?”) Except for Wimsey’s veil: the amoral aristo is a man of deep moral anger. The veil drops, when another character offhandedly tells the story, to a shell-shocked man, of a criminal who “pounded” his wife and five children “to a jelly,” Wimsey exclaims, “Shut up, you fool,” said Wimsey savagely [emphasis mine].”
Near the end, when Wimsey is speaking with one of the characters caught in the wake of the murder’s victims and perpetrators, a woman named Ann Dorland, they talk about how they cope with being hurt, in Wimsey’s case, by the war; in Ann’s case, by betrayal. One and the same, one historical; the other, personal. They have both found, and I was moved by this, a safe space, a viable escape, in books; as Wimsey says:
” … As I say, I have to fall back on books for my escape. Reading is an escape to me. Is it to you?”
And the power of telling your story de-demonizes it:
“One gets over everything,” repeated Wimsey firmly. “Particularly if one tells somebody about it.”
“One can’t always tell things.”
“I can’t imagine anything really untellable.”
“Some things are so beastly.”
“Oh, yes — quite a lot of things. Birth is beastly — and death — and digestion, if it comes to that. Sometimes when I think of what’s happening inside me to a beautiful suprème de sole, with the caviere in boats, and the croûtons and the jolly little twists of potato and all the gadgets — I could cry. But there it is, don’t you know?”
We return full-circle to a humorous equanimity with the givens, the body, the passage of time, death — staved with/by a book. (At this point, I also remembered Hamlet’s great retort to Claudius’s demand to know where Hamlet stashed Polonius’s body. Read it: it involves “a certain convocation of politic worms”, a king, a beggar, a fish, a worm.) And to echo Hamlet again, “the rest is silence,” with the sentimentally callous conclusion to the murder (I didn’t like this) and Wimsey’s final say, “It’s all right now. Sorrow and sighing have fled away.”
Have you read Sayers’s Unpleasantness? Any thoughts, questions, comments?