Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Unpleasentness at the Bellona Club - Dorothy L. Sayers

Ive had my first weekend off in a month (and possibly last before Christmas), which I've spent doing all sorts of useful things. I also thought that after weeks of very slowly reading perfectly good books that I haven't felt any particular enthusiasm for (frustrating stuff, if they were bad books I could call it quits and move on, but they're not, they're just not what I'm in the mood for) I would follow Goergette Heyer with some Dorothy L. Sayers.

I discovered both writers at roughly the same point and read them continuously throughout my teens. At the time I was more interested in Sayers when she was following Peter and Harriet's romance. I found her through the really excellent BBC series in the mid '80's (Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane and Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter - perfect casting) and was young enough to be entirely uncritical about how she handles that romance. All things considered it surprises me a bit to find that whilst I think Heyer ages well, Sayers is increasingly troubling to read.

It turned out I didn't have a copy of 'The Unpleasentness at the Bellona Club', so I bought one in its smart new jacket (I'm still 90% sure I hadn't read it before) and got through it on Saturday between chores. In terms of plotting it's a belter.

It's armistice day 1928 (at least 1928 is when it was published, so maybe it's armistice day 1927) and Lotd Peter is at the Bellona to meet the father of a fallen comrade for dinner. He meets a friend, George Fentiman, who still suffers the after effects of shell shock, and together they discover that Fentiman's grandfather (90 years old, and part of the clubs furniture) has died.

His doctor is on hand and happy to state that he's died of heart failure, and then it all gets a bit complicated. The old general had a rich sister, also dying, who has left her money to her brother if he survives her, a niece if he doesn't. She does die, but it's not clear who went first, and as the sum in question is about half a million (if the inflation calculator I insulted is correct that's about twenty seven and a half million in today's money) it starts to matter rather a lot to the junior Fentiman's.

Lord Peter is called in to establish the time line, in the course of which he has to reveal that the body was tampered with post mortem, and it eventually transpires that the general was murdered... The likely culprit isn't so hard to guess, but the way all the bits fit together is eminently satisfying. It was also fun to find myself reading on basically the same day that the investigation starts (accidental, but I liked the way my weather outside was reflected inside the book). Interesting too to read about contemporary attitudes to armistice day and see the effect the war is still having on the generation of young men who survived it, and in a different way the women too.

What's harder to take is how much of a snob Sayers is - she'd put Nancy Mitford to shame; I could well believe she'd swallowed whole 'U and Non-U'. It's not that her sleuth is an aristocrat so much but that she's always at pains to point out how wide the gulf is between the upper classes and everyone else. Even Parker comes in for it. Then there are the references to wine and food (though I could quite agree that a girl who prefers burgundy to champagne is the right sort), music, manuscripts, and other such details (since reading 'Ask a Policeman' it's harder to take these seriously).

It doesn't bother me that Sayers likes to mock the bohemian set that presumably annoyed her in actual
life, but she does it with a very heavy hand. What I really don't like very much is how misogonistic her tone is when she talks about women generally. It might be a fair reflection of prevailing attitudes, but the more I revisit Sayers the more she worries me. I can't help but think she would always have thought of sex with a capital S, and has a few too many of the complexes she accuses some of her minor characters of. Her obvious crush on Lord Peter isn't encouraging either.

Meanwhile the end of the book came as something of a shock, and genuinely chilled me. I'm really pleased I finally read this one.


  1. The life of D L Sayers seems to have be a mass of experiences and possible contradictions - an early female graduate, a working woman in advertising, academic translator/poet, part of the 'literary set', a religious thinker & writer, mother of a well hidden illegitimate child - so she probably thought of both sex & Sex.

  2. To really put my finger on exactly what it is that bothers me in her books I'd have to read them all again, and really think about it. She certainly had an interesting life, and must have been a formidable figure in so many ways. I do think that her relationship with Lotd Peter becomes increasingly uncomfortable for the reader (or at least this reader) as the series progresses and reaches a point where it undermines her writing. there was a lot in this one that must have reflected contemporary attitudes, and I always find that fascinating, but as time goes by there's also more that jars on me - especially the snobbery.

    One thing though, I feel perfectly happy being quite negative about her because I know that most people who read this will have already have read the book, have an opinion on it, and probably love her faults and all.

  3. I don't think I've read this one, I'm curious now. I totally agree with you about the attitudes and the crush on Lord Peter which just becomes annoying. Ann Bridge is the same when it comes to Bohemians. They just seem unable to help themselves. It may be of its time but it's not endearing, especially as plenty of people at the time seen to have resisted the urge to be snobbish or misogynistic.

    Whisper it, but the last time I reread a few of Jane Austen's novels, I became increasingly irritated by her Very Definite Views on morality. Lighten up, Jane! Heh heh heh.

  4. Ha, I'm probably as uptight as Jane... and the only Ann Bridge I've read rather annoyed me. Sayers is interesting, certainly a contradictory sort of character, but I have increasingly mixed feelings about her. When I first read her 30 years ago her attitudes possibly didn't stand out as much, I certainly wouldn't have been as sensitive to them, but now she can make for uncomfortable reading.