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This is a transcript of the April 8th, 2017 episode of Footnoting History by Elizabeth Keohane-Burbridge and Lucy Barnhouse, done for [ profile] teaforlupin. The original podcast can be found here.

[intro music]

Lucy: What can mystery novels written in the 1920s and later reveal about how WWI was viewed by upper class Britain? We'll explore that today on Footnoting History.

Lucy: Hello, I'm Lucy.

Elizabeth: And I'm Elizabeth. Today, we are using British novels, commonly labelled as belonging to the Golden Age of Mystery, to examine attitudes, reactions, and beliefs about the Great War as seen through the eyes of upper class British women. You might remember that Lucy and I did an episode a while back on queer women in Golden Age mysteries, and so this episode was a natural growth, you might say, for us out of that episode, especially given the fact that we are now hitting a lot of commemorations of the events of WWI, which is actually when Lucy and I first discussed that we would like to talk about this in greater detail because the mystery novels of this period are rife for examination and yet often overlooked.

Lucy: Tragically so. The Great War that was to end wars was not only a source of social transformation and social trauma, but according to many historians, also a source of great silences. Mystery novels by women such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Ngaio Marsh provide a still neglected source of insight into the War, as it figured in as background, as catalyst, or as plot device in their works.

Lucy: WWI was substantially different than anything the British or any of the civilian populations of Europe, or the world, be it mentioned, had experienced even up unto the Boer War. The older generation in Britain and beyond often could not see the new and different ways in which this total war impacted the war's survivors. Works like Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That and Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth provided the voice for many of the generation most nearly affected by WWI to know that what they experienced need not be an essentially isolating experience.

Elizabeth: And I think that's what struck Lucy and myself when we were planning this episode, because it so often seems that to Vera Brittain, Robert Graves, All Quiet on the Western Front if we're going to bring in kind of those classic works of fiction for WWI - those are it. That's what you look to, that's what you kind of work with, and I had already used Lucy Maud Montgomery's Rilla of Ingleside to talk about WWI on the Canadian homefront so we're very much aware that there are a lot of works that might not always make the common discussion of this topic. And we actually kind of debated what to include on it, and Lucy did send me about five single spaced pages of ideas on what we should include in this topic. So, it was, should we just focus on post-war novels? Should we include the screen adaptations of these post-war novels? What about contemporary mystery fiction? And I'll admit that at that point there was a great desire, because works such as Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs books which were published in 2003, kind of bring in a modern consciousness of the war and also can bring in a lot of more historical anecdotes, but we ultimately decided to stick with the contemporary post-war novels themselves. So the works of Sayers, Christie, and Marsh, specifically because - well, the episode would be incredibly long if we actually tried to include everything else we wanted to talk about, but also because we wanted to get to that voice of people who had lived it and this became the reality, and this will permeate the background of these works, that it's just there. It just is. You can't not talk about it even though you're actually not talking about it because everyone knows that's why this is happening in this moment, or oh, of course that's the answer here because we're all aware of it. And so I think that's why we decided to stick with these post-war novels and these three specific authors. We did have a point in this period or in the conversation where I wondered, because Marsh and Christie in their own ways - Sayers is a little more nuanced - but Marsh and Christie are very much kind of like the more upper class version of WWI.

Lucy: I would say middle class. We're not dealing with the landed gentry here. I mean, to us Republican minded Americans it may seem upper class to inevitably have, you know, between two and twelve servants in a given household, you know, of the protagonists, but it's a middle class view. I think this ties into the intended readership of the books as well, it's bourgeois, ranging from sort of genteel poverty with still, I would argue, middle class sensibilities, cultivated in a very specific type of education, to somewhat more, you know, exalted prosperous backgrounds. I mean, we have people ranging from those who, you know, work in shops or vaguely think about getting jobs to the very prosperous who live in gorgeous Art Deco houses. But it is a view distinctively informed by class.

Lucy: I think to get back to a bit of what Liz was saying about our decision to focus on interwar novels rather than contemporary adaptations, is also our desire as historians not to see the sometimes transparent evidence that yes, yes, a contemporary mystery author has read, you know, Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory and is now writing a novel about WWI, but a portrayal of society that was intended to be plausible in its time. So yes, there is a broader portrayal of the interwar society in contemporary works like those of Jacqueline Winspear, to name just one, Anne Perry, and Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher novels set in the 1920s we see Communist chauffeurs, anarchists, you know, it's delightfully diverse, but these interwar novels can give us more of an unfiltered look on the period. Or filtered, I should rather say, through the priorities of the period itself, which is what fascinates us.

Elizabeth: There, there, I've become my American and yet Socialist, Communist, Anarchist self, by declaring them all upper class. I suppose it'd be better if I did it more as, like, a bit of an upstairs, downstairs, which of course, Sayers and her work plays with the whole upstairs, downstairs dichotomy of life and what the upstairs sees about the downstairs. But in the others I do find it to be more of an upstairs story and yet, everyone reading these novels would have understood the allusions to the war, the place of the war, the constant character of the war. There was always this physical character of WWI that would be present in so many of works, because it informed so many of these works. And so anyone reading them would have gotten them. And so there I will hop off my Socialist box for a second, and alas, I know, my soap box, for just a few minutes, and we'll get back to, mystery novels, because the sooner we do the sooner we can get to Tommy and Tuppence and Lord Peter Wimsey which are really my goals in why we chose this topic. Lucy's like oh, she already revealed it, yes.

Lucy: The novels we discuss here come from a genre that is not only too lowly to merit consideration in the not insignificant scholarship on writing and WWI, alas, but also a genre that signified tradition and stability even as tradition and stability in England were perceived as threatened or indeed already vanishing. I mean, the genre of the detective story is a genre with the promise of stability at its core. To quote Lord Peter Wimsey himself, the detective novel is our most moral fiction. Marsh, Christie, and Sayers all created protagonists with backgrounds in the war that upended society. And we are going to discuss the backgrounds of the detectives and how the novels in which they feature could romanticize the war and could also treat it sometimes with surprising directness.

Lucy: So we're going to start with the novels of Ngaio Marsh. Her long running series, 1934 to 1982, starring none other than Roderick Alleyn, who begins as an inspector at Scotland Yard.

Elizabeth: I need to say that I like that you say starring, because yes, I suddenly do picture footlights and him just kind of popping up and then hating it, but anyway.

Lucy: You know, it's probably a verb influenced by the fact that many of Marsh's novels take place in and around theatres -

Elizabeth: Oh, they do. All the operas and everything...

Lucy: Well, sometimes operas. But very often Shakespeare. She was herself involved in several theatre companies over the course of her life and so this metaphor is recurrent throughout her novels themselves. And Alleyn, often described as half monk and half grandee, is a man who inhabits many roles, so, yeah, there's my explication of my subliminally influenced verb choice.

Lucy: And although in 1934 we begin with Alleyn as, by any standards, at least speaking as a woman in her early thirties, still a young man, he's already a man with backstory, you know, he's already a sadder and wiser Alleyn. Marsh establishes early on that he served and did some intelligence work on the western front, and that he resolutely got himself the heck out of there as soon as he could do so. There's an amazing scene in one of the very early novels where he's lying under a bed in a suspect's room, you know, waiting for them to come back and, you know, reveal some terrible secret, and he's watching the lights of London, you know, creep over the window and reflecting on his times of doing reconnaissance. And he never talks about it. He just never talks about the war. There are a few times - and this is over a series that runs fifty years, right - there are a few times that he encounters old friends or acquaintances from his wartime service, and a few times when a particularly gruesome corpse is compared to those seen in the war, but the time we learn most directly, I think, about Alleyn's own reactions, interestingly, is in speaking to a young man, a sheltered young man, who is in shock after a violent death. In Overture to Death, 1938 publication date, this young man, a member of the gentry, like Alleyn himself, is making brittle jests, because of course he is, and perhaps on the brink of losing emotional control, to his own and everyone else's quiet horror. And Alleyn distracts him by remarking matter of factly that humour can often be a coping mechanism, and in fact, was his own during the war. And that's it, you know. Crisis averted, because of course the worst thing would be to have violent feelings, you know, in a drawing room, so crisis averted! And that's it, really, in terms of direct references. I infer an oblique reference to the war in one of the much later novels, When in Rome, where there's a stunningly macabre scene where Alleyn is lowered underground, right, you know, down through dripping holes, and eventually finds a semi-putrified corpse stuck in a grating, as one does in these novels. And this shakes him so profoundly - it's unusual, he a very cool customer - that I cannot help associating this episode with his wartime experiences of, you know, decaying corpses in the dark. Mostly, Alleyn is a very silent protagonist. More than a few times he shuts old military types politely and firmly down when they try to probe about why, you know, after such a promising beginning in the military and military intelligence he buried himself, quote unquote, you know, so many class issues, in the police force. So statistically, in term of the mores of the generation to which Alleyn and his cohort belonged, he's probably our most plausible main protagonist. He was involved, it affected him deeply, and he will not talk about it. Not even with Troy, his romantic interest, whom he loves very much, they're really adorable, I have many feelings.

Elizabeth: So Alleyn is our stiff upper lip man. He is the one who is probably how most English people saw, or believed that the men that would home, should come home, could come home, that they would just have gone through this experience, it would be internalized, and they would just get on with the rest of their lives.

Lucy: Well, and this fits very much, I think, with Marsh's often consciously idealizing look at society. I mean she herself was from New Zealand. When she went over to England she had both, you know, the literal long weekend country house experience through family friends and also, you know, lived in the cute little basement flat in London, so I think she often somewhat deliberately romanticized the structures of that society, which she perhaps perceived as more absolute, more binding, as someone who came from outside them.

Elizabeth: Right, that he was the archetype strong silent type.

Lucy: I mean, he's lovely though.

Elizabeth: And, yeah. Oh, well, yeah, I don't want to, I don't, I mean, well, okay, I don't like him.

Lucy: Okay.

Elizabeth: Lucy already knows this. She knows that I'm like, oh. You again. Alleyn. You're here.

Lucy: He has a sense of humour, and he doesn't take himself too seriously.

Elizabeth: Yeah, listen to Lucy's little, thing for Alleyn. Strong silent type but has sense of humour. All right, fine, fine.

Elizabeth: Well, that's going to bring us to my favourite, who are who I want to be, and who I like to think Agatha Christie created because they were who she wanted to be, but they're kind of - I'm not going to say the complete flip side of the coin from Alleyn, but Alleyn is, this is my job, I'm going to do my job, and I'm going, the war happened, we're not going to kind of deal with it, whereas Tommy and Tuppence, they were Christie's Bright Young Things, the modern kids who are going to come, and they've got a world to rebuild. They pop out of Piccadilly Circus and they just, they remeet after they had grown up together, they had gone their separate ways in the war. Both had been in the war effort, including Tuppence, real name Prudence, which is why I tried to get my husband to agree to that for our oldest, so we could have our own Tuppence. He did not, that's all right, I've sort of moved on, seven years later. So Tommy and Tuppence are the Bright Young Things. And of course that's kind of a trope of the 1920s, right, the Bright Young Things, and Agatha Christie will have them pop up in other works. The Seven Dials Mystery will have her Bright Young Things. And we could also get into that with the post-war period, but these two, they're on a quest to rebuild the world, but find their place in it. And find a place in it that will have a meaningful relief for them. And so the first work we get with them is 1922's The Secret Adversary. And it's kind of taking on this, this mastermind, who's going to bring down the world again, and so they have to stop him. And that's quite - that will become - when we think of Agatha Christie we think of Poirot, we think of Miss Marple, but Agatha Christie had her kind of, later on, The Big Four. This group of people who were really the power behind everything else, who were controlling things, and everyone's going to have to somehow go after them to end all of these nefarious evildoings. And I think she's just very shaped by this idea, and I think she wanted to know where she was going to be, and how to take it all.

Elizabeth: So Tommy and Tuppence establish, very early on, that these Bright Young Things who seem to not have a care in the world actually have very deep feelings. Tommy thinks that after his war experiences that he's kind of no good for anyone; Tuppence doesn't know how to return to her - she doesn't want to return. She's the daughter of - she's, you know, one of the children of the Vicarage, she doesn't want to go back to that life, she doesn't know how she can go back to that life. And in this work they kind of - they team up. They work together. She's the New Woman. They have a little Baker Street Irregular-esque helper. But then they keep coming back. So not only are they this kind of offshoot of the war, how it's displaced this group of people, what are they supposed to do, they've experienced these things they can't internalize. They can't go back to the way it was. They're not sure what they're supposed to be doing. But then, especially for Tuppence, they end up with very traditional roles at various points. And that's where Agatha Christie will kind of pick them up. Every now and then, when they've kind of been brought back to these very traditional roles. So that even during WWII, she had a book called N or M? which begins with Tuppence explaining that - well, at that point Tuppence is older - but just Tuppence will explain in that and Partners in Crime, that it's very dull being a housewife. She can do it in thirty minutes, everything looks great, she's got nothing else and she feels that she's got so much more to offer the world. And you know Tommy complains that he too hates having an office job and he feels like he's not bringing anything in, but they get these ideas. And so Tuppence is even getting this idea of kind of the women's movement, 1920s, that women had experienced a lot of work, a lot of different types of work, during the war effort and being relied on, and so they have a hard time going back. It's not going to be the same in post WWII, where in the 1950s women kind of feel, or have learned, for a short while, you might argue, you could conceivably argue, that they kind of have to return to give the men jobs, but in the 1920s they're -

Lucy: There are no men.

Elizabeth: They've tasted that freedom and they don't know where to go. Yeah, well, there are no men - that's another horrifying problem of the 1920s. There are no men. That's not - I know that the Lost Generation technically refers to our literati of that period, but whenever I explain it to - I teach - and whenever I explain it to my students I always start with, you have to realize that the Lost Generation is also just, you've basically wiped out almost a generation of men. And then you have to build from there and who are these people.

Lucy: Well, and, even at the time, and perhaps especially at the time, this was experienced as a great loss and a great liability. In fiction written in the 1930s you often get people reflecting on, oh, well, maybe all, right, the quote unquote Great Men, still clinging onto this very old vision of history, but maybe claimed that maybe the Great Men whom we should have had, leading us, who perhaps could have averted the horror of a second world war, maybe they ALL DIED. Right?

Elizabeth: Yep.

Lucy: In the trenches. Right, so, so it was deeply traumatic for everyone. But also it made, for women, notably, new ways of living thinkable. Right? I mean, doable, yes...

Elizabeth: Right.

Lucy: But first and foremost perhaps, I would say, as a historian, like, imaginable as ways of being in the world.

Elizabeth: And that many women at that point, who might have had, say, other plans prior to the war, after the war find out that those other plans have gone. That they are just never going to happen. I realize that that's just a horribly, I don't know, indelicate way of putting it but yes, they've lost their fiancé, they've lost their husband, they've lost that special friend, and you know, so you have women who, they're going to go to University, they'll do something with household science, as you know, that was termed at that time. And so you see that in Tuppence, this ideas that she's done these things, she knows she's fully competent, what is she supposed to do there?

Elizabeth: Although my favourite thing of N or M?, and Lucy informed me of this, was that N or M?, so again that's the WWII spy novel, I don't think that I'm giving up too much away because that happens in like the first twenty pages, was so believable that there was believed that there had been a leak, that somebody had figured out what was happening, because oh my gosh that is what we are doing right now. And so some of these things were - the fifth columnists, all these things were right there happening, so that, people were - military intelligence was horribly afraid that everything had been given away. The whole show had been blown. So that you have these authors who are creating these imaginary worlds, and yet they are based so much in fact. And they are so right, even if they're kind of working around it.

Elizabeth: So Tommy and Tuppence, who again, I am going to be both Tommy and Tuppence when I eventually grow up, Tommy has red hair, Tuppence is just fabulous, so I can do them both. They are created by WWI. The Great War, the war to end all wars, has created these Bright Young Things, and that's who Christie puts in, and Christie keeps them, I think, as this idea that they are going to continue, to try and fix the world to prevent all future wars. And that's actually one of the saddest things of N or M?, is that they are so horrified that we are at it again and this time their children are involved. Like it's just so horrifying for them. Of course Tommy and Tuppence are not the only characters related to WWI that Christie created.

Lucy: No. Our very own Hercule Poirot, of the famous little grey cells, is a Belgian refugee. I mean everyone knows, who's ever seen -

Elizabeth: Not French, then? Sorry.

Lucy: Everyone knows who's seen the immortal Sir David Suchet, I'm not French, madam. I am Belgian. The Belgian Embassy. No, he's magnificent. And he is, in fact, a Belgian refugee in the first novel introducing Poirot, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920. He is in the English countryside, dependent, interestingly, on the charity of individual upper class English women, government resources being strained, for the lodging of a group of Belgian refugees of whom Poirot is one. So he lands, you know, conveniently for the plot, right, on the outskirts of this charming little English village, somewhere in the Home Counties, you know, as the protegé, in a way, of the chateleine. So WWI is very explicitly a catalyst. The novel is in fact set while the war is still going on. And it is narrated by none other than Captain Arthur Hastings, who's the most Englishly named of Englishmen.

Elizabeth: Well, he is the most - he's the most English of Englishmen.

Lucy: He is. Despite WWI, moreover, Hastings remains spiritually an Edwardian. And I think it's telling that while the Poirot novels ran for decades, all of those in which Hastings featured I think were published no later than 1940.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Lucy: That's what I thought. Because he is less able than Poirot to adapt to a changing world, poor lamb. Which arguably I think, underneath the silliness of Hastings there is great pathos, arguably. We meet him when he's been invalided out from the western front, he's in England with a bloody wound, and an old school chum of his comes and invites him to stay with the family, and so Hastings does, in the village of Styles, where he meets his old friend Poirot. They had met in Belgium, like there's a lot of handwaving by Christie, like, for reasons unspecified. I think Hastings was over there to play golf. You know, because of course he was. But Hastings after the war, as explained in the first collection of Poirot short stories, cannot settle to a civilian job. And my heart aches, you know, every time I read this offhand little paragraph. Yeah, well, I tried this for about six months and I tried that for about six months, and I'm like, Hastings, sweetheart, please, you know, I know they still call psychiatrists trickcyclists but please, honey, you know, like. But he becomes - he moves in with Poirot, becomes his amanuensis, his Watson, if you will, although my feelings about John Watson are a subject for another time, but Hastings really is not, um. Which -

Elizabeth: Another episode at some point.

Lucy: Yes.

Elizabeth: We've got a bunch.

Lucy: Okay. Yes, we do. Interestingly, to me, although Hastings was not a career soldier, Poirot always calls him Captain Hastings. This is my friend, you know, my friend and associate Captain Hastings. So Poirot knows, instinctively, he always makes much of his knowledge of the psychologie, but he knows, instinctively, that that identity is very important to his ostensibly, you know, matter of fact friend, which is really touching, I find. And several early novels and short stories have Poirot taking on jobs for people or friends of people whom he's grateful to for helping him establish a social footing and a livelihood in his new country. So although WWI gradually fades from the background of Poirot and Hastings' lives, it does loom over them, if tacitly, in the early stories in which they both appear.

Elizabeth: I'm going to just do a little quick plug, because I do want to say that whenever I see Blackadder Goes Forth, that Hastings and Hugh Laurie, [] and George, they're just the same person in my head.

Lucy: Spiritually.

Elizabeth: And I just, I don't know that Hugh Laurie based him on Hastings, but I like to think that he based, like - Jolly good show. Ah, we're going over the top. Ah, we'll be eating in Berlin by lunchtime. Like, that's just how I see Hastings, just constantly positive until, you know, obviously the horrible poignant heartbreaking I'm scared. And then you just want to cry and you're like, yes, Hastings, put your head here. There, there, I've conflated the two of them forever and I will, and so now you all know that. But yeah, no, he is, he's just that everything's great, who's up for a game of tennis, oh by the way I've broken my leg, oh, what's happening over here, you know, I'm limping. And of course Poirot has a limp when it originally begins too, which disappears rather quickly so perhaps it was just a short term war wound, we don't really know.

Lucy: It does not do to inquire too closely into these things. I would mention though that the same novel that introduces Poirot and Hastings also contains a young women working in a dispensary, a young man training for medicine because of the war, another woman working on the land, so it demonstrates the pervasive impact of the war, and that none of this really needs explaining, it just creates, you know, the tone that these are the right sort of people, you know, they're doing their bit in various ways.

Elizabeth: Right. Nobody would have thought that Cynthia, you know, the red haired love interest, working down at the dispensary, that that was odd. Like oh, why is a young woman of this, of, you know, a member of this family circle, doing this? Oh, well, no, that's completely normal, of course she would be doing it. Oh, someone's working the land. Again, yes, they would be getting their hands dirty outside, that seems completely fine. And yet twenty years before - not even twenty.

Lucy: Not even five, right, yeah.

Elizabeth: Five years before, what? Dear God, what is happening over there, everything's falling apart.

Lucy: True

Elizabeth: There goes the Empire. Which, literally there went the Empire, but yeah.

Lucy: True. I don't think women working in dispensaries were directly responsible. Interestingly enough the -

Elizabeth: How dare you! Of course they were.

Lucy: Well, the emblem of Edwardian respectability herself, our heroine Miss Marple, alludes to having done nursing during the war herself. In The Blue Geranium, one of my favourite Miss Marple short stories, incidentally. She knows all about litmus tests, because she was a nurse during WWI. Which I love.

Elizabeth: I like to think that in a way what we learn from these novels is that in order to have street cred, in any of these British Golden Age of fiction mystery novels, you had to have some sort of link to the war. You couldn't have just been sitting around at home, because then obviously you would have been sent a white feather and everyone would have laughed at you, so even the women had to be doing their bit. Because why wouldn't you be doing your bit?

Lucy: But the extent to which this could be an individually debilitating experience, I think, can be underplayed by Christie. And speaking of the war's broad impact, I was struck recently, rereading Murder in Mesopotamia, as I am wont to do, is that one of the characters in this novel, published in 1936, is identified as having been traumatized by her widowhood. When she was twenty, her husband was killed in the Great War. And when this is revealed, the response of the other person in the conversation is, but that must have happened to thousands of women!

Elizabeth: I mean, dear god, get over yourself!

Lucy: Right.

Elizabeth: Everyone lost them!

Lucy: Right, I mean, it's fifteen years later, woman. But, it's this event that haunts her. And haunts the plot, not to give too much away.

Elizabeth: Yes, so there's obviously this tension, and I think, really, the tension between, so, say, the Roderick Alleyns of the world and getting on with it, and the Tommy and Tuppences of how are we going to fix the world, but even more this tension comes out in the greatest of the Golden Age mystery fiction. And I have - you can argue with me all day long, and I'll, no, they are - would be the works of Dorothy L. Sayers, and Lord Peter Wimsey. He embodies kind of so many things. He embodies the different - the gendered expectations of the war...

Lucy: Yes.

Elizabeth: How one, dealing with upstairs, downstairs understandings, sympathy, empathy, public displays, common knowledge, what was taken for granted and what was not, I mean, potential problems between the older generation who would have never have had to fight such wars, versus the older generation who lost their children in this war, I mean, she just, she juggled it all -

Lucy: Class issues. Class issues not least.

Elizabeth: I am giving like the thirty second elevator pitch for why everyone who studies WWI, especially anything to do with Britain in WWI, should just read Sayers right now.

Lucy: Please.

Elizabeth: I don't even know why you're listening to us anymore. Pause it.

Lucy: Go read all of the novels.

Elizabeth: Yes.

Lucy: Then please come talk to us, we will be your friends.

Elizabeth: But yeah, so Lord Peter Wimsey fought - so upper class, right, Lord. So this is where I get to be my full on American going, ooh, he's a Lord, oh, he's got a title, not just a title, he's got a monocle, people. He's fabulous. So Lord Peter Wimsey, you know, was at University, was engaged to be married, breaks off the engagement in case anything happens to him, goes and joins the war effort...

Lucy: Well, no, sorry -

Elizabeth: Serves in the war...

Lucy: Barbara breaks it off with him.

Elizabeth: Oh, I thought he broke it off with her in case he got -

Lucy: No!

Elizabeth: Did I misread his uncle's -

Lucy: She breaks it off with him and gets together with a roughshod Major and it was all rather brutal!

Elizabeth: I knew that part but I thought that he-

Lucy: Hold on. No, well, he achieved his first class honours, hold on, let me, I will consult the sacred texts.

Elizabeth: All right, Lucy's going to Google, while we talk about this, hold on. So Peter serves in the war, which is of course where he meets the most fabulous Bunter. Peter is at various points buried alive, has to be dug out, and he will have what today we would call PTSD but back then was just shellshock. And it will come out you might say at the most inopportune times, although I guess there's never really an opportune time for your shellshock to rear its ugly head. Lucy's literally flipping through a book -

Lucy: I'm sorry! I'm sorry!

Elizabeth: - As I speak. I am riffing now - no, I'm not riffing, I'm just waiting to find out if I'm wrong or not.

Lucy: No, you're right!

Elizabeth: I was finally right! People, I have never been right when Lucy and I have gone to task on anything. Someone mark this. Mark this day.

Lucy: Mark it. Then came the war. Of course the young idiot was mad to get married before he went, but his own honourable scruples made him mere wax in other people's hands. It was pointed out to him that if he came back mutilated it would be very unfair to the girl. He hadn't thought of that, and rushed off in a frenzy of self-abnegation - because of course he did - to release her from the engagement. Yes. And then...

Elizabeth: Hahah, huzzah.

Lucy: Yes, this is - He did very well in France. He made a good officer and the men liked him. And then, if you please, he came back on leave with his captaincy in '16 to find the girl married to a hardbitten rake of a Major, somebody whom she had nursed in the VAD hospital, and whose motto with women was catch 'em quick and treat 'em rough.

Elizabeth: Ah. Anyway.

Lucy: Sorry.

Elizabeth: No, no, no, that was wonderful. Right, so Peter serves in the war, and as you're even getting just from there, Sayers talks about the war. The other books, the war is there, the war is again a plot point, a piece of character, a piece of background, but it's never really all-consuming, necessarily. Even Hastings and Poirot are in the middle of the war, and yet the war is just very much in the background. Like, oh, that's just how we all happen to be in this small town together, isn't that convenient? And yet, Peter - Sayers gives him a full background with the war, she gives him shellshock, and she gives him friends who, some of them are completely fine. Some of them are the Roderick Alleyns, Arthur Hastings of the world. So that would be Lucy's favourite, Padgett.

Lucy: Oh, Padgett! Right, Padgett, bless him, is the porter at Harriet's old college, Shrewsbury, in Gaudy Night. He was a Corporal in Wimsey's regiment who idolized Peter because of an incident with a mop and a bucket. And he, in discussing old times and old friends with Wimsey, casually refers to the time he was a keeper at the London Zoo. To which Wimsey's response is, Good God, Padgett! So even in this rather light-hearted little conversation the experiences of men getting work after the war or not getting work after the war is addressed. And Padgett's doing well, as is their former Sergeant-Major, who's happily married, but Wimsey has to report on other mutual acquaintances who are physically broken, essentially. And the euphemistic little phrase, not doing too well, can cover anything, I think, from chronic pain to mental illness or both, and I sometimes wonder whether audiences today just read past these things. I've sometimes heard Sayers' mysteries described as, of all things, cosy, and I wonder like, what novels did you read? Just no. There's no way.

Elizabeth: Dear God. I mean, first of all we've got one man who's known as Tin Tummy, because he literally that - his insides were gassed out and now he has a tin tummy. The war permeates and pops up through everything, but it's The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, in which the war is not just background, it is central stage. And I can't actually say a lot of it, because it would be a complete and utter spoiler. But it's just taken for granted that one would know, would notice these things, would understand the customs that even within a few years of the war had become so much a part of the British traditional consciousness that everyone was going to get them. And I think the one that we can say is that - so there's a crime that happens around Remembrance Day. And the porter wasn't there and so Peter's like, you know, where were you, and he goes, well, you know, my wife and I leave to go to the Cenotaph, which is a statue dedicated to those who weren't buried there because they were buried abroad, to remember their son. And they always do. And Peter's like oh. Of course, I'm so sorry, like yes, obviously.

Lucy: He should have remembered, you know, that of course they would go to see the Procession and be at the Cenotaph.

Elizabeth: Right. That it should, because of course Peter that evening was dining with the father of a friend who...

Lucy: Right.

Elizabeth: Who had died in the war, and so every year the father would gather his son's friends around him for a dinner and so Peter is kind of like oh, of course I should have realized that that's what's going on and that's kind of why the club, which is where this crime takes place or is revealed, that that's where all these things happen because it is so overlayed with this day that is still so emotional and so - everything kind of still stops. And within this novel there's a character - it's George, right?

Lucy: George Fentiman.

Elizabeth: Yeah. So there are a few Fentimans running around.

Lucy: There are several Fentimans. Well, and the two Fentimans, be it noted, were both in the war, but just had really different reactions to it.

Elizabeth: One is just kind of like, well the war happened and that was, you know, it's my career. He's a career soldier and that's where he's going to go with it, yeah.

Lucy: I think that's important to note, too, that for Major Fentiman it's something that can be assimilated into his previous experiences, into his wordview, even, perhaps, more easily than for those who enlisted or were conscripted.

Elizabeth: Those who thought they'd be home by Christmas, and other - because there would have been people who were like, no. I'm in the Army, I'm here to serve, and we're going to keep going and that's fine, and so they didn't necessarily need it over by Christmas. And so Major Fentiman has a brother, who has not experienced or come back from the war at all well in a multitude of ways.

Lucy: Mind or body, no.

Elizabeth: No. And he is married, and he - his wife has to support them. She has to work. And both of them struggle with the upending, to go back to a word that we used earlier, the upending of this traditional lifestyle, because neither of them want this. They want to have him be able to be the breadwinner, and her able to stay home, and Lucy's like, no, I don't think she wants to stay home.

Lucy: Well, I don't know. I don't think Sheila - Sheila keeps protesting, and I think genuinely, to George that she doesn't mind going out to work, although it can be tiring. What's more wearying, for her, is that it's so emotionally and mentally burdensome for George.

Elizabeth: I also like to think it's because he won't do any of the housework.

Lucy: That's a big part of it, yeah. No, it's a big part of it!

Elizabeth: No, I know, to bring it to that, I mean, it sounds like a very modern problem, right, because this is what we're constantly seeing articles about, and newspapers, that oh, how do people divide the housework, especially as everyone's entering the workforce and yadda, yadda. And emotional labour and physical labour and household labour - I am not mocking any of this, by the way. I'm just saying it seems so modern and yet a hundred years ago Sayers is laying it all out for us.

Lucy: Well, Virginia Woolf lays this all out for us.

Elizabeth: No, she did. She did, right? I mean so we all see these things, and so even a hundred - so we've been talking about this for a really long time and here we are still talking about it. So Sheila would just like him to do - you know, pick up some of the slack, and partially I don't think he fully can because he physically and mentally and emotionally really can't, but also he - he doesn't want to. He would see it as I think debasing himself more to take on more of the woman's role. And so he won't do it, he doesn't want to do it, it really hurts him so he struggle with that. All right, so maybe Sheila's okay with it. But she wishes he'd pick up a dish.

Lucy: He - Sheila does wish that George would pick up a dish. And Peter, notably, like, a) takes Sheila out and like, buys her lunch, first of all -

Elizabeth: He gets it.

Lucy: - feeds Sheila, second of all, he tells George to be nicer to Sheila, third of all, tells Sheila that the war was really unimaginably awful, and fourth of all, gets George a part time job. So like Peter, basically, is the best.

Elizabeth: So, and the thing is, throughout all of this, even though, so, Sayers is placing it all there, right, these struggles, these ideas, these issues of equality and gender and what's going on, and Peter's just like, I love you all, I'm really sorry that this all happened.

Lucy: Yes!

Elizabeth: We're going - I want to fix it for - see Peter, much like Tommy and Tuppence, he wants to fix it all. And he can't fix it all.

Lucy: Can we talk about how Peter's sense of responsibility is simultaneously his greatest strength and his greatest weakness?

Elizabeth: He is his own worst enemy. In Busman's Honeymoon - so he and Harriet - if you've listened to our earliest episode then you know who Harriet is - if not, then she is Peter's it. She is the person who I sit around and I go why can't I just wear white linen and have housemaids to watch my children while I write things? But anyway - and drink tallboys - so - or just write short novels - short stories called Talboys - but anyway, so Harriet and he get married and in Busman's Honeymoon of course there's a murder, because it wouldn't be a mystery without it, and at the end, the murderer is executed. And when this kind of comes through Peter has a complete emotional breakdown. And it turns out that he basically almost always does, after the ending of a case especially where there's an execution or a death. And Bunter kind of has to walk Harriet through what to do with this, because Bunter, who went through the war with Peter - and again, so we were talking about how people have different reactions to the war. So Padgett was like well, that war happened, it's a good time, keep in touch with people, but still feels sympathetic -

Lucy: Well, not really a good time.

Elizabeth: Well, I mean I'm not glossing over it, but it doesn't - so I always see Bunter as kind of - he went through the war too, but he - it didn't impact him the way it impacts Peter which could just be because he has Peter to take care of, so that kind of gives him something to glom on to. But so, Lucy did point out, however, that it did in fact affect Bunter, and we find this out in a short story that pops up many years later.

Lucy: In Talboys, published 1942.

Elizabeth: Which is why I want housemaids, because of Talboys.

Lucy: Yeah. It's great. Addressing Padgett and Bunter gets us into the somewhat thorny territory of the question of whether these men who come from a working class background are represented as less affected because Sayers doesn't really have the time to explore the in-depth feelings of these secondary characters. But I mean, Bunter is a man with many and complex feelings. And I think some phenomenon that has been recognized by historians, social historians, is that the class stratification of service in WWI meant that, you know, Padgett and Bunter could fulfill their roles and, in Padgett and Bunter's cases, at least, you know, do so successfully in the war. Peter, of course, had to order men to go and get themselves killed. And as his mother puts it, you know, it's liable to give one an inhibition or an exhibition of nerves or something.

Elizabeth: Ah, the Dowager Duchess.

Lucy: Ah, the Dowager Duchess, Lord love her. And for Bunter too the war is transformative. He started off as a footman before the war, and he and Peter are treated as near peers, essentially, in all the ways that matter, in the books, because they're in a tight space together - a jam, again to quote the Dowager Duchess - and Peter says, well, if you need a job after the war, come to me. And so Bunter does. Sergeant Bunter come to enter your Lordship's service as arranged. Ah. They're precious together. But anyway. To get back to the scene at Talboys. It's a moment I find intriguing because it's Peter whom we have seen as most visibly affected by the war, most visibly working through the trauma of the war, but at Talboys there are, should I say, midnight alarums and excursions, there are loud noises, shouting, banging, screaming, running up and down, and Bunter, in his blue striped pyjamas, appears from his attic room, and Sayers says, Sergeant Bunter came running down the hallway and, you know, beholding the scene before him, drew up sharply and brought his broomstick into the present position. Right, so he's carrying a, you know, household implement, but is clearly very much in wartime like, emergency response mode, and when he sees Peter, you know, he comes to attention and brings the broomstick to present, you know. Which is such a poignant little anecdote even though, you know, five minutes later, you know, normalcy has been resumed by the entire household, for whatever variation of normal the Vane-Wimsey household can ever be. Can ever - I mean -

Elizabeth: The best.

Lucy: It can only be the peace of a very delicate balance, as Miss De Vine tells us, but, yes. But who would have it any other way?

Elizabeth: So we've had Roderick Alleyn, who gives us the stiff upper lip, we've had Tommy and Tuppence the Bright Young Things who are going to save the world, we've had Poirot where this is - it's brought him somewhere, it's brought him to his very good friend, it's given him something to be grateful for and to work towards, and then of course we have Peter, who gives us kind of this picture of the tensions that the war creates for so many people. So we get a multitude of pictures, which is exactly what you would want from reading multiple sources. And which is why I think that Lucy and I kind of went with this idea that these are sources for the war as well. And for what people idealized the war should make us realize, make us know, make us think, make us want.

Lucy: Mystery novels as underrated sources of social history. I think, you know, when - this is a creedo by which both of us will stand.

Elizabeth: Just wait for the next five episodes we manage to take out of this exact same -

Lucy: We could totally do it.

Elizabeth: I mean, we could do it, we could probably do it right now.

Lucy: I want to talk about women in the work force, for one. But here we're talking about the kaleidoscopic experience of WWI. And I think there are a lot of truths that are gotten at in these portrayals, that no one event is, or even collection of events, is inherently traumatic in the same way or degree for different people, so there is a diversity of reactions to the war that I think is captured much better in these interwar novels than in contemporary novels. Because I mean, a hundred years on, we know how horrible WWI was. You know, in the 1920s, you know, they thought maybe there wasn't going to be another war, bless them. I mean, and there were a lot of ways in which, you know, the long term impacts of WWI obviously weren't apparent. You know, they didn't know the geopolitical redrawing of the Treaty of Versailles was going to explode in everyone's face, you know, they didn't know any of these things.

Elizabeth: They could imagine a world where that was the war to end all wars and they were picking up the pieces and they were rebuilding and that was going to be it.

Lucy: In a way, I mean, it ends one vision of modernity. But everyone does respond in different ways. Everyone figures out or fails to figure out or, you know, makes jokes about failing to figure out what this ought to look like side by side and in this time of very rapid change. And mystery novels, which are genre bound to give us an illusion of stability, or continuity, I think can make a very interesting historical source. Nóra De Buiteléir, a scholar, has argued, making an exception for the Wimsey series -

Elizabeth: Obviously.

Lucy: That - obviously - that supposedly with a taste for, quote, bucolic settings and unshakeable faith in the explaining away of violence, and the restoration of order, the classic whodunnit of the 1920s and 1930s largely ignored the shattering impact of the war, end quote. We hope to have demonstrated that this is an overstatement of the case.

Elizabeth: And it's also because it depends on how you're looking for it.

Lucy: Absolutely.

Elizabeth: Are you looking for them to explicitly address the war, or are you kind of doing the, and this is how I love to do it, but the Edward Said version of, just, is it there? Would everyone have understood it? Did it have to be explained? And all these works we see over and over again that no one has to explain these references. That people are going to understand them, people are going to get them, nothing is going to take the reader out of the book. Because this is the brave new world that they have all stumbled upon. And so I think that that's one of the reasons why actually to be quite honest when we said we were going to do this I think we also thought there would be a lot more literature about the literature.

Lucy: We did.

Elizabeth: And then it turned - we were like, oh, someone else has probably written this so we'll just crib along - and it turned out that no, no one else really has, and I think it's because they're looking for more explicit discussion rather than the implicit nature that these works give us.

[exit music]

This has been Footnoting History. If you like the podcast, be sure to visit our website,, where you can find links to further reading suggestions related to this week's episode, as well as a calendar of upcoming podcasts. You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @historyfootnote. Until next time, remember, the best stories are always in the footnotes.
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