Wednesday, 7 May 2014

'Girls Seem To Go In For That Sort Of Thing'

One of the books I read over the weekend was Dorothy L Sayers' 1928 The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club, the fourth in her Lord Peter Wimsey detective thrillers. I'm not a fan of crime fiction in general, other than the occasional David Peace novel, but my interests in interwar fiction and popular modernisms led me to Sayers and I have to say I rather enjoy her work, despite the dubious plots and her conservative attitudes to pretty much anything. She has a brisk writing style and a sharp sense of humour, which goes a long way for me.

One exchange caught my eye in particular in the course of reading The Unpleasantness. Lord Peter, who purports to be a silly ass in public, discusses reading with his brother-in-law Parker, a stolid Detective Inspector who has at some point become an Evangelical Christian, while the search the room of a young lady suspected (wrongly) of murder.
'Books, you know, Charles, are like lobstershells. We surround ourselves with 'em, and then we grow out of 'em and leave 'em behind, as evidences of our earlier stages of development'. 

Perhaps so – though I have so many unread ones that my shelves are evidence of aspiration rather than achievement. The policeman agrees with him:
'I've got rows of schoolboy stuff at home – never touch it now, of course. And W. J. Locke – read everything he wrote, once upon a time. And Le Queux, and Conan Doyle, and all that stuff'
So Charles Parker has a sentimental side. Locke is largely forgotten now and probably not in print: he wrote sentimental novels and plays which sold sensationally. He's not entirely disappeared though: lots of his work was filmed, including Ladies in Lavender as recently as 2004 starring Judi Dench (spoiler: it's terrible). William Le Queux was a reactionary purveyor of Imperialist jingo and war stories. Racist, xenophobic and massively popular - just the thing a young policeman might read in the 1890s/1910s. His spy and military stories made him highly influential in foreign policy and military circles as they banged the drum for more weapons and more war.

Thankfully, Sayers suggests, Parker has grown up a little, perhaps because the Great War was so horrific (the novel is packed with men wrecked by their time in the trenches, and Wimsey fervently wishes Armistice Day could be marked by quiet reflection rather than mass public events). Wimsey remarks that Parker now reads theology.
'And what else?"
'Well, I read Hardy a good bit/ And when I'm not too tired I have a go at Henry James'.
So it seems that Inspector Parker is a man for self-improvement. I assume he reads Hardy's novels rather than poems, but Sayers is definitely establishing a hierarchy of literature. Hardy is the author of  rural rhythms and entrapments, innocents enmeshed in the plots of sophisticated social superiors who should know better. Is she teasing Parker or James with the suggestion that The Master's work can't be done without a clear head? Is Parker over-reaching himself or becoming a little pretentious? Lord Peter has a clear view:
'The refined self-examinations of the infinitely-sophisticated'
Perhaps only an hereditary Lord is sufficiently exalted to look down on Henry James as some kind of fraudulent social-climber: there's certainly an air of distaste implied, as though it's all very well for people like James to gaze at their navels in this way, but it's not really on for policemen and gentlemen, who should just get on and do their duty.

Then they look through the shelves of their suspect:
'Dorothy Richardson – Virginia Woolf – EBC JonesMay Sinclair – Katherine Mansfield – the modern female writers are well-represented, aren't they? Galsworthy. Yes. No J. D. Beresford – no Wells – no Bennett. Dear me, quite a row of D. H. Lawrence. I wonder if she reads him very often'.
He pulled down Women in Love at random, and slapped the pages open and shut.
'…Compton Mackenzie – Storm Jameson – yes – I see'. 
There are also some introductory chemistry textbooks (has she been concocting poisons?), some non-fiction and detective novels.
'Louis Berman, eh? The Personal Equation. And here's Why We Behave Like Human Beings. And Julian Huxley's essays. A determined effort at self-education, what?'
'Girls seem to go in for that sort of thing nowadays'
'Yes – hardly nice, is it? Hallo!… Austin Freeman, Austin Freeman, Austin Freeman  – bless me, she must have ordered him in wholesale. Through the Wall – that's a good 'tec story, Charles – all about the third degree – Isabel Ostrander – three Edgar Wallaces – the girl's been indulging in an orgy of crime!'
And as Wimsey holds a copy of A Silent Witness, the fictional pair discuss whether readers get their criminal plans from crime fiction. Which is all very funny and self-reflexive. But aside from that, we get rather a neat (though obvious) pen-portrait of our suspect, Ann Dorland. She's the personal assistant of the fabulously rich deceased: poor herself, highly intelligent yet wasted and (it turns out) a bit of a 'sex maniac' according to the doctor who set her up. All she needs – and gets in the end – is a solid kind of chap to ground her in reality.

What does the reader learn from Ann's bookshelves? It's a mixed bag of the familiar and daringly modern(ist). Dorothy Richardson is the least read of the experimental novelists, but she basically invented the stream-of-consciousness novel (though she didn't like the terms 'stream of consciousness' or 'novel') being applied to her work) and was the prototype for a Bloomsbury Writer: bisexual, affair with HG Wells (apparently compulsory in those days) and enormously experimental. Read Pilgrimage. Woolf I'll assume you know about. EBC Jones was a modernist novelist and critic with a similarly complex intellectual and social life in the Bloomsbury milieu, but I'm ashamed to say I haven't read any of her work. May Sinclair was a novelist, critic, suffragist, philosopher and poet: she was the first person to use 'stream of consciousness' in literary contexts, though she got the phrase from William James, Henry's philosopher brother. Also bisexual, she knew and/or was admired by pretty much every European and American writer and critic you can think of. Try Uncanny Stories. Katherine Mansfield is much more well-known, and one of my very favourite authors: I particularly love 'Bliss'.

So we work out that Ann's tastes run to highly intellectual, challenging female authors who challenge convention on the page, on the streets and in bed. As Wimsey notes, she reads John Galsworthy, the popular critic of Victorian repression, but nothing by the Grand Men of the Edwardian left, particularly Arnold Bennett, whom Woolf rejected so brutally in 'Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown' as incapable of writing work which reflected the modernist sensibility, whoever kindly their intentions. JD Beresford was a writer (chiefly of science fiction) and spiritualist whom I haven't read, though I do know his daughter Elizabeth wrote The Wombles. Miss Dorland also reads Compton MacKenzie (middlebrow but rather radical) and Storm Jameson (she's another of my favourite leftwing interwar authors), but her true character is revealed by her devotion to D H Lawrence, notorious purveyor of often-banned filth: Wimsey's excitement marks his recognition that Ann is indeed a sexually forward woman who reads books which are perhaps not quite suitable for a lady. There's a kind of dialogue going on between her books: experimental fiction, political fiction, suffragist authors, bisexual 'modern' authors, self-help texts (Berman was a quack experimental doctor whose work on glands is taken up by the chattering classes in The Unpleasantness while Julian Huxley – brother of Aldous –  was an evolutionary biologist and leading Eugenicist when it was popular on the left: Wells, the Webbs and Marie Stopes  were keen supporters) and a kind of literary subconscious manifested in the presence of crime fiction (Austin Freeman wrote detective novels relying on scientific enquiry to solve the cases), self-help stuff and the more popular authors. I've never read Cleveland Moffett's Through The Wall, Isabel Ostrander or the massively prolific Edgar Wallace, but can't help wondering how sincere Lord Peter is being. It's as though Ann's situation has left her torn between self-improvement, aspirational identification with the feminist avant-garde and their libertarian lives – she aspires to be a painter even though she's awful – and the cruder life of crime fiction.

There's an extra twist though: all this is in a crime novel (and Sayers enjoys having her characters criticise other crime novels). It strikes me that as it came out in 1928, Sayers is introducing her readers to some texts they may never have heard of – Richardson and Sinclair, at least, while locating Ann very carefully. Sayers isn't encouraging her readers to rush out and buy these books (Women in Love was first published privately after The Rainbow was banned for several years), but I think contemporary readers are meant to understand what these texts are, and what kind of person reads them. Sayers seems to be having it both ways in a playful kind of way: mixing up high and low culture references, breaking the curtain between fiction and literary criticism in interesting ways, while making sure that Ann remains a curiosity: falsely accused, yet broken and transgressive in some ways. It's an interesting state: The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club is conservative politically and in literary terms, yet it makes some accommodation with progressive society, at least in part through its representation of fiction and reading tastes.

What-ho!

3 comments:

Arron Hook said...

I've read one or two of the Wimsey novels (including the unpleasantness at the bellona club)and always enjoyed them.

Your statement of 'the novel is packed with men wrecked by their time in the trenches, and Wimsey fervently wishes Armistice Day could be marked by quiet reflection rather than mass public events' is interesting. The last years of 1920s saw a change in the view of the first world war where the views of people who witnessed the war from the home front (such as women and men who were at school during the war) began to supersede the views of men who actually fought during the war. Also the veteran's views changed. They come to the belief that the cause that they had fought for was just, but the peace had been lost by the politicians.

The Plashing Vole said...

Hi Arron. Yes, you're right: public perception of the war changed repeatedly - lots of veterans who became politicians were very reluctant to commit to more wars, based on their experiences. Careful about generalising though: some veterans came to that conclusion (including an awful lot of German soldiers) but there's a whole range of positions, during and after the war.

Arron Hook said...

When I said that I thinking of somebody such as R C Sherriff. I remember reading about the a group of WWI veteran being taken to the first productions of 'Oh, what a lovely war', they sang along with all the songs and afterwards in the bar they said it reminded they of old time and they'd enjoyed so much. The actors and production team were so horrified when they heard and I'd love to know what Joan Littlewood thought about it.