Previously, on Mole, Delving:
Part 1: Concerning Lord Peter Wimsey
Part 2: Whose Body?
Part 3: Clouds of Witness
Part 4: Unnatural DeathImportant caveat
This is a compare-and-contrast post; it will be looking back at Unnatural Death
and forward to Strong Poison
, so aside from the usual canon-pervasive spoiler warnings, be y'all aware that there will be heavy spoilers for those two particular books.
My second post on The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
will focus on the book in-and-of-itself.And now on with the show!
For me, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
stands like a swinging door between the first three books of the series and the last six. In particular, it has very close thematic and characterological relationships with Unnatural Death
and Strong Poison
, and I'm going to start by dissecting those.
All three books deal with the wills made (or not made) by old ladies: Agatha Dawson, Felicity Fentiman Dormer, and Rosanna Hubbard Wrayburn (Cremorna Garden). The murder(s) in UD
come from Miss Dawson's refusal to make a will; the murder in TUatBC
comes from Lady Dormer's idiotic way of going about making a will, and the murder in SP
comes from mucking about with Mrs. Wrayburn's will. The tangled inheritance issues in each book come about because of family schisms: Clara Whittaker's falling-out with her family was one reason she left her money to Agatha Dawson; Lady Dormer and General Fentiman haven't been on speaking terms for 60 + years until their deathbed reconciliation--which sparks the General's murder; and of course Norman Urquhart's Big Lie about the disposition of Rosanna Wrayburn's money hinges exactly on whether she did or did not forgive Philip Boyes for the bitterness between previous generations.
All three are books about the failure of love (as is Clouds of Witness
): romantic and/or familial. I covered the familial half in the previous paragraph. Mary Whittaker, as I said in the UD
post, is the negative image of love; Miss Climpson, in both UD
, presents us the life at least tolerably complete without either romantic or familial love, although we also know that Miss Climpson is not a spinster by choice. UD
also features the failed romance of Dr. Carr and Nurse Philliter. TUatBC
has Ann Dorland and Dr. Penberthy (and Naomi Rushworth and the interminable Bohemian soap opera of Marjorie Phelps's life) on the romantic side--plus, of course, Marjorie Phelps's quasi-proposal to Peter. And SP
presents the dismaying tale of Harriet Vane and Philip Boyes.
But this is also one particular place where I see TUatBC
as a pivot. SP
, of course, introduces the series' abiding love story between Peter and Harriet (and finally cements the relationship between Mary Wimsey and Charles Parker, also Freddy Arbuthnot and Rachel Levy), whereas UD
(as I also said in the post on it) presents nothing but failed romances. TUatBC
does have its share of romantic disasters, but it also has two relationships which suggest a change is coming.
One is the romance between Major Fentiman and Ann Dorland, hinted at in the last chapter. Ann Dorland is a kind of prefiguration of Harriet Vane: they both have heavy eyebrows and beautiful, deep voices; both get tangled up in murder cases where it is all but impossible to prove their innocence. Ann Dorland gets off lightly; DLS engineers a confession from Penberthy, and (since we never see Ann or the Fentimans again) we can assume that no further unpleasantness transpired. For Harriet is reserved the full, realistic working-out of consequences and aftermath. Ann, like Harriet, is in a relationship with a man who doesn't value her (Penberthy, Boyes); Ann, like Harriet, finds a relationship with a man who does value her (Fentiman, Wimsey). I'm grateful Ann Dorland didn't become the series' Harriet, because I don't like her very much and I don't think I could stand a heroine who painted terrible pictures and didn't seem to know it. But she does very clearly pave the way for Harriet, and her relationship with Major Fentiman is the first romance in the Wimsey books which seems to be tending toward success.
The other harbinger of change in TUatBC
is the marriage of George and Sheila Fentiman. Now, goodness knows, George and Sheila are Mr. and Mrs. Dysfunctionality 1928, but that they still love each other is clear when George turns up at the police-station in Clerkenwell. George and Sheila's arguments are painfully well-observed, and I feel very badly for both of them, but Sheila, like Wimsey, plainly understands that George's difficulties come from the War, and she stands by him. Other marriages we've seen are Sir Reuben and Lady Levy (destroyed by Sir Julian Freke); the Duke and Duchess of Denver (Mr. and Mrs. Dysfunctionality 1927); the Marchbanks and the Pettigrew-Robinsons (who are both very much background, and who cancel each other out); the ghastly deal worked out between Mary and Cathcart, which mercifully does not go through. There are no marriages in Unnatural Death
. So George and Sheila Fentiman's difficult but persevering marriage seems to me to be part of the same trend that Ann Dorland and Robert Fentiman represent: a new hopefulness.
And I think TUatBC
is also where we begin to see a change in Peter. In the early books, he is a character ... oh dear, I'm not sure if I can put this in a way that will make sense to anyone else. In the first three books, Peter is a sympathetic character, and we are very clearly shown (as, for example, with his shell-shock relapse in Whose Body?
) that his "silly ass" act is covering up some fairly deep psychological abysses. But TUatBC
is where we start seeing Peter using
the silly ass act, as he does with George Fentiman more than once. Also, by dealing very matter-of-factly with the walking wounded who comprise the younger generation at the Bellona Club, the book lays down a foundation for dealing with Peter as a psychologically realistic and three-dimensional character. This is also the only book where Peter himself says anything about the damage done him by the war (until his fits of self-loathing in Busman's Honeymoon
); he tells Ann Dorland:
I remember ... one time when something perfectly grinding and hateful had happened to me. I played patience all day. I was in a nursing home--with shell-shock--and other things. I only played one game, the very simplest ... I just went on laying it out and gathering it up . . . hundred times in an evening . . . so as to stop thinking.
[N.b., ellipses with spaces, ". . .", are in the original; ellipses without, "...", are mine, indicating editorial lacunae.]
It's interesting, too, that he confides in Ann, the proto-Harriet.TUatBC
also widens the gap between Peter and Charles Parker, again prefiguring SP
. (And, I just noticed, both UD
feature scenes in restaurants where Parker demonstrates a perfectly culpable mundanity about food.) In TUatBC
Peter "for the first time ... was seeing him [Parker] as the police" (TUatBC
193). And they quarrel over exactly the issue that will separate them in SP
; Parker, lacking intuition, accepts the obvious solution: Ann's, and then Harriet's, guilt. Peter, having brilliance and imagination, can see the truth. Parker can follow Peter, but he cannot keep up with him, and Peter does not need a follower. As we learn both in Whose Body?
and more specifically in Busman's Honeymoon
, Peter's psychological cracks are most apt to split open exactly over having too much responsibility for other people's lives. Charles Parker may be Peter's closest friend, but there are ways in which he is not the person Peter needs. Peter is outgrowing Charles, and in that way, too, TUatBC
is a pivot between UD
Next up, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
Sayers, Dorothy L. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
. 1928. New York: HarperPaperbacks, 1995.