In which Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie see the future with more clarity than H. G. Wells
P. D. James:
But in Chipping Cleghorn or St. Mary Mead murder is only a temporary embarrassment. The vicar may find a body on his study floor but it is unlikely to interfere with the preparation of the Sunday sermon.Talking About Detective Fiction
She is writing about the “Golden Age” mysteries of the 1920s and 1930s. Christie, Sayers, and Allingham wrote well-crafted and entertaining popular novels. Their “cozy”, well-ordered world of village, church, and country house has been mocked and denigrated by progressive critics and envious rivals for decades. Yet these authors had an understanding of British character circa 1940 that was more acute than most of the nation's elite.
Tories like Neville Chamberland and progressives like H. G. Wells were certain that the British population would crack under the pressure of modern war and descend into terrified anarchy. (Vide: The Hive mind revisited )
What we see in the characters that populate Golden Age mysteries is the perseverance and unflappability that would carry Britain through the defeats of the early years, the Luftwaffe bombing, and the depredations of the U-boats.
“French sign peace treaty: We're in the finals” sounds like something Albert Campion might say in a novel, yet a London newsstand put on their sign in in the wake of Dunkirk.
George MacDonald Fraser both describes and defends this cast of mind (and strength of character) in his memoir of his time with Slim's Fourteenth Army in India and Burma:
Whatever sorrow was felt, there was no point in talking or brooding about it, much less in making, for form's sake, a parade of it. Better and healthier to forget it, and look to tomorrow....The celebrated British stiff upper lip, the resolve to conceal emotion which is not only embarrassing and useless, but harmful, is just plain common sense.
Quartered Safe Out Here
(Anyone interested in Golden Age mysteries – especially their social context and their usefulness as historical artifacts should check out the “Shedunnit” podcast. It is very well done and always informative and insightful.)
“The frivolity of evil....”
P. D. James, born in 1920, came of age in the 1930s and was a young wife and mother during World War Two. She lived into the 21st century and so was able to observe the changes that took place in her nation as “Cool Britannia” supplanted “Rule Britannia” and freedom replaced honour and duty as the highest value.
They had a far smaller expectation of happiness, admittedly, and a far lesser tendency to regard happiness as a right. All our brightly minted social reforms, the sexual liberation since the war, the guilt-free divorce, the ending of the stigma of illegitimacy, have had their shadow side. Today we have a generation of children more disturbed, more unhappy, more criminal, indeed more suicidal than in any previous era. The sexual liberation of adults has been bought at a high price and it is not the adults who have paid it.Time to Be in Ernest
The psychiatrist who writes as Theodore Dalrymple has made this point for decades in his books and articles. His practice encompassed both prison work and families caught up in multi-generational cycles of poverty and degradation. He sees very clearly the high price of liberation and who pays it:
She knew from her own experience, and that of many people around her, that her choices, based on the pleasure or the desire of the moment, would lead to the misery and suffering not only of herself, but-especially-of her own children. This truly is not so much the banality as the frivolity of evil: the elevation of passing pleasure for oneself over the long-term misery of others to whom one owes a duty.
Our Culture: What's Left of It
And lest he be accused of misogyny, here he is on the men and their selfishness:
I have had hundreds of conversations with men who have abandoned their children in this fashion, and they all know perfectly well what the consequences are for the mother and, more important, for the children. They all know that they are condemning their children to lives of brutality, poverty, abuse, and hopelessness. They tell me so themselves. And yet they do it over and over again, to such an extent that I should guess that nearly a quarter of British children are now brought up this way.
Dalrymple also is astute enough to see that this dysfunction has many serious consequences – most of them unintended and and unexpected:
It is the breakdown of the family structure-a breakdown so complete that mothers do not consider it part of their duty to feed their own children once they have reached the age at which they can forage for themselves in a refrigerator-that promotes modern malnutrition in Britain.
He also underlines a key point about James's “brightly minted social reforms”:
Curiously enough, the revolution in British manners did not come about through any volcanic eruption from below: on the contrary, it was the intellectual wing of the elite that kicked against the traces. It is still doing so, though there are very few traces left to kick against.