Lord Peter Wimsey

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Fiction, Part 4: Lord Peter Wimsey

“There were eighteen months… not that I suppose he’ll ever tell you about that, at least, if he does, then you’ll know he’s cured… I don’t mean he went out of his mind or anything, and he was always perfectly sweet about it, only he was so dreadfully afraid to go to sleep….”
– Lord Peter Wimsey’s mother attempting to describe his difficulties from second-hand experience

In the first part of this series, I talked about how PTSD is experienced in real life versus many of its more popular and less accurate portrayals in fiction.

In the second and third parts of this series, I went into more detail with four examples of PTSD in fiction: Sinclair in Babylon 5, Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, the apocalyptic version of PTSD postulated in World War Z, and Josh Lyman in The West Wing.

While these depictions are somewhat successful, even extremely so, they tend to be either one-off Very Special Episodes (Babylon 5, The West Wing) or bittersweet finishers (World War Z, The Lord of the Rings). Writing about a character experiencing PTSD is already a difficult affair; writing about a character living with PTSD is much, much harder. So often we think that the most exciting part of PTSD is when it explodes, an event that supposedly either leaves a shattered mind behind, or must be immediately mostly or completely dealt within the next few chapters, lest the aftershocks shake the plot and character relationships too much.

Thus, there is one more example I want to discuss that particularly sticks out in my mind, because it covers the long-term portrayal of a character with PTSD who nevertheless is functional: Lord Peter Wimsey, one of the famous sleuths in the mystery genre. His author, Dorothy Sayers, whatever else she may be, had a very good grip on chronic PTSD.

Chronic PTSD

How people react to PTSD, or even if they get it, varies according to the characteristics of the trauma exposure and the individual, in no precise formula of any sort. But given a long enough exposure to severe trauma, and what might be considered “normal” PTSD can switch over at some point to chronic PTSD. Months to years of war or abuse will do this, for example.

In chronic PTSD, symptoms will persist for many years, because the brain, dynamically adaptive as it is, has changed so dramatically structure-wise and chemical-wise. As a result, the treatment of chronic PTSD is different than for relatively shorter-term traumas—and this is why diagnosing PTSD correctly can be so important. Going the wrong treatment route either way is not helpful, and often actively harmful. For instance, extinction therapy (repeated exposure until symptoms go away) does not, for perhaps obvious reasons, help in most cases of chronic PTSD.

For dramas and adventure stories, chronic PTSD might seem to be a character development endpoint, even a character usefulness endpoint. Literary novels might like to lever this kind of thing as a bittersweet ending.

But this is not so in real life.

PTSD, even chronic PTSD, doesn’t describe a personality or even most of a personality—I think of that kind of generalization as PTSD Zombiefication. PTSD is simply a disorder, even if it is a particularly bad one. Like depression, or even like cancer, PTSD sufferers have their ups and downs, their good years and bad years, much less good days and bad days.

So yes, someone suffering from chronic PTSD can realistically be an amateur sleuth, if we adjust “realism” to the theater settings of the amateur detective novel. In such an environment, being slack is not a healthy characteristic.

PTSD as a Driving Force

Even readers without a keen sense of what PTSD is like tend to admire the Lord Peter Wimsey series for the psychological portrait of its main character, which is rather unusual in the detective mystery genre. While detective characters tend to have major character quirks tending towards the neurotic, those are usually exposed to add spice to an otherwise dry puzzle; as a rule, development is for the plot, not the characters. Wimsey is a rare bird indeed, especially within the amateur detective sub-genre—grim and gritty hard-boiled P.I. novels and police procedurals tend to have more internal drama room to work with, not that they always use it.

A wise man once told me that detective characters need something in their personalities that drives them to solve mysteries. It’s not a hobby to simply pick up, like stamp-collecting or bird-watching or even puzzle-solving, however often that reason may be used as a pretext by just about every amateur detective in fiction. It’s an obsessive occupation that sometimes develops into high risk, and shows the ugly side of humanity far more often than not. Amateurs also run against the police force, or whatever else might pass for the establishment protectors of law, and that takes quite a lot of ego and assertiveness (and, most of all, rightness) to manage.

That might seem an antithetical drive for a chronic PTSD sufferer to have—after all, murder mystery solving is swallowing trauma again and again and again in a detective series, and Lord Peter got his PTSD from his time as a soldier during the horrors of World War I. This puzzled me for a while, actually, though it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the stories.

And then I realized that when he’s solving a puzzling and dangerous mystery, something that drives the adrenaline of a type of person who’s already leaning that way in the first place—one of Lord Peter’s functions in World War I was as a spy—he probably feels normal. He certainly is very functional, much to the expense of everyone who assumes he’s just a shallow fop. At a pressing time when other people might lose their wits, a PTSD sufferer can be surprisingly calm and sharp, even during their own bad periods. That’s Lord Peter to his shoes.

But the important thing to remember is that there’s a limit: if something triggers your PTSD even once during this time, everything crumbles, whether the adrenaline pumping or not. And that also happens to Lord Peter.

How He Got There

Lord Peter Wimsey was a World War I veteran on the front lines; that tends to be enough of an explanation with regards to how he got PTSD in the first place, and even its chronic characteristic. The event usually pointed at as the smoking gun is that a shell exploded near him and buried him alive in rubble, and it wasn’t until a day later (and not a quiet day) that his men could get him out.

But the specifics, as always, differ from individual to individual. There’s always something that sticks out in someone’s experiences, because that’s how the PTSD gets triggered repeatedly afterward.

For Lord Peter, this trigger unfortunately seems to have been due to having sent men under his command off to die in horrible nightmare battlefields that he himself also experienced.

Thrilling and brain-wracking missing jewel mysteries are alright, usually harmless enough; but the high point, the murder mysteries, almost always send a man or woman to the gallows as a matter of course. Even if the guilty kills themselves instead, Lord Peter—technically rightly so—blames himself for causing their death. Even the fact that they are guilty in the first place doesn’t ease his anguish, because what soldiers during any war weren’t guilty of acts that would be considered high crime in peacetime?

Heck, even if the guilty was a nasty piece of work, Lord Peter still triggers.

Poor man. He has two intrinsic characteristics that are at serious odds to each other: the drive to solve high-profile crime, including murders, so that he feels normal and useful; and the trigger that is sending someone off to die, which makes him ill and has induced a complete BSOD 1 at least three times, probably more, during his career.

That’s not all there is to Lord Peter, of course, because PTSD by itself isn’t a personality, but that’s part of him. The other parts of him are, yes, that he is a very sweet and somewhat overly optimistic fellow, who happens to be observationally smart and very canny, and those characteristics aren’t negated, or even overshadowed, by the fact that he has PTSD.

His symptoms often don’t show up until the end of the books, but they’ve been known to show up in the middle of the plot, and in the penultimate book, Busman’s Holiday, Sayers covers his reaction in far more detail than most writers would feel comfortable with.

PTSD-Related Highlights of the Series

Of course I pay attention to these. Some would say it’s very limiting to view the series from the point of view of PTSD, but you know, it’s so rare to run across functioning yet PTSD-riddled characters that I just can’t help it.

Only some of the novels are listed here; the ones that aren’t tend to just feature Lord Peter’s semi-suicidal tendencies when it comes to trying to confront murderers because he feels really, really guilty. Even Unnatural Death, which I really don’t like, has it. It’s normal Lord Peter character background.

One novel notably has no PTSD allusions at all: Have His Carcase, wherein I must assume that the guilty party was so random that not even Lord Peter could feel sorry over the affair, which is really saying something. (It’s not a bad mystery in and of itself, and it’s technically one of the better older cipher mysteries, and I really liked the mock Russian play script.)

No Wimsey short stories allude to PTSD either, no matter how murderous the culprit, but sometimes one needs a break, and really, the one with the littlest Wimsey viscount is very cute.

Whose Body?

The first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Sayers and many of her critics consider it the least of the series, but that’s still much better than much of the fare in the detective section. Sayers was a much younger writer at the time, and it shows, but this novel will always have a near and dear place in my heart, because Lord Peter Wimsey triggers a little over halfway through, and that’s something that doesn’t happen often in fiction (and perhaps was one of the reasons Sayers considers the book “lesser”, though I think there are better candidates for that position, Unnatural Death getting my vote).

Actually, I really enjoyed watching Wimsey struggle and actually disappear for a little while, with his friend, Inspector Charles Parker, temporarily taking up the reins (and that’s where third-person narrative saves a writer). Sometimes you do get overwhelmed, but Wimsey still ended up solving the mystery before his PTSD completely knocked him out for the count—then again, the solution and realization does tend to trigger him.

Notably: there’s quite a strange second-person chapter near the end that made me think, “Yes, that really is rather like one of those walking nightmares I’ve had, poor devil.” That doesn’t occur again in the rest of the series.

By the way, Whose Body? is in the public domain under both U.S. and Canadian law, but not so under most Berne Convention countries, including the United Kingdom. So if you live in North America, you can visit your local Project Gutenberg repository to find it.

Clouds of Witness

Lord Peter Wimsey’s family can be idiots, and his brother is very much so an idiot, even if a friendly one, and Lord Peter has to keep his brother from the gallows (and during the novel, must contemplate having to send his sister instead, and you can imagine how much fun that was for him).

It follows rather sequentially from Whose Body?, which I liked, because Lord Peter gets dragged away from the retreat his nerves so badly needed, into a situation where he had to engage on full thrusters anyways. He managed it, and while there are no breakdowns, I liked that he was able to do so, and in particular I liked that he wasn’t dropped by Sayers simply because he’d completely broken down from the events of Whose Body? Too many writers, I think, would have discarded Wimsey before a second book.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

This is perhaps my second-favorite Wimsey book from a PTSD perspective. After World War I, which was particularly awful because it combined the intimacy of old world combat with the body-shattering efficiency of new world weaponry, there were a lot of PTSD cases walking around. It actually was considered quite normal for young men who survived the war to suffer from it (indeed, the commonness of PTSD was inspiration for Frodo’s PTSD in Lord of the Rings). Lots of missing limbs and scars, too, it has to be said.

And yet, these young men weren’t considered evil, weak, or even necessarily broken. Oh, they were still thought of as damaged, make no mistake about it—one of the trails is obscured by the possibility that someone’s PTSD was triggered, and that one of the motives might very well have involved an all-consuming flashback. But undamaged people in the book, by and large, were not only sympathetic of the damaged ones, but also to treated them as functional, if sometimes odd, human beings. To me, it felt like reading science fiction—reading about a world where PTSD was considered normal, rather like depression today.

Of course, also like depression today, some characters weren’t sympathetic to the young men at all; these were mostly old men, who shook their heads and said things that summed up to, “We were better in the older days, these younger men are weak, obsessive, and stupid”—which is a very modern attitude towards PTSD. I understood more deeply one of Siegfried Sassoon’s lines in his poem, “Repression of War Experience”:

There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,—
Not people killed in battle,—they’re in France,—
But horrible shapes in shrouds—old men who died
Slow, natural deaths,—old men with ugly souls,
Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins.
2

The Nine Tailors

Jo Walton reviewed this book on Tor.com a while ago, and it’s really quite good, one of the best of the series. And also, Lord Peter’s PTSD kicks in almost in time to kill him, and keeps a firm grip of him after.

Gaudy Night

To many, the best of the series, and to many more still, the best of the Lord Peter and Harriet Vane 3 combined mysteries. It’s an Oxford novel to boot, and talks a little bit about Harriet’s experience with Lord Peter’s reaction to either The Nine Tailors or Murder Must Advertise case, though I suspect it was probably the former.

Busman’s Honeymoon

This is my first-favorite Wimsey book from both a PTSD and a normal amateur detective fiction fan’s view. And also the last one (and the second-to-last Wimsey story penned completely by Sayers; the absolute final, sort of, would be “Talboys,” which someone in the estate scraped up from her pile of drafts and published).

The PTSD episode is in the epilogue for the most part, along with the “eighteen months” attempted explanation by his mother. It’s realistic in both its shock and its subtlety, but the best part is that, during those bits, Lord Peter isn’t alone anymore.

… and after

There are two further novels, Thrones, Dominions and Presumption of Death, collaborations between dead Dorothy Sayers and living Jill Paton Walsh. I have quite a few complaints about them, but probably the first and foremost is that Lord Peter’s PTSD is treated as a simple wimping out guilt, rather than a much more complicated disorder that triggers from a guilt that is shaped by the disorder itself.

Oh well. Nothing lasts forever, good or bad. Not even chronic PTSD, the end of which is something I personally look forwards to.

Next time (at some point in time, because these articles are hard for me to do), some kind of wrap-up, with further reading recommendations. I’ll include recommendations from previous comment threads, and this one, and around and about the web, etc. I just realized I have another example of PTSD portrayal on Tor.com already: my review of Terry Pratchett’s Nation from last year.

Originally posted at Tor.com.

Addendum

It was pointed out to me that I was dismissive about my conclusion that Peter was no longer alone in Busman’s Honeymoon, because he was already no longer alone: Bunter, afterwards his valet, was the one to help pull him out, inch by inch, from his stupor after his return from the front—a tale also covered by the epilogue of Busman’s Honeymoon. And, if Sayers wasn’t so in love with Peter, who’s to say where that relationship might have gone?

Posts in this series: IntroductionBabylon 5 and LotRWWZ and West WingLord Peter Wimsey

Notes:

  1. Blue Screen of Death, if it happened to your head instead of your computer. [back]
  2. It was also the older generation that had sent the younger generation off to die in the fields of the Somme and elsewhere, and Sassoon never, ever, ever, ever, forgave them. Coming home from the front to that attitude must have been like getting kicked in the face. I talk a little about, and quote the full public domain poem, on my blog. [back]
  3. Dorothy Sayers: luckiest author with a crush on her main character ever. It’s not every author whose favorite character also happens to be a lot of actual readers’ favorite character, and very few authors are skilled enough to do a self-insert that isn’t a Mary Sue to everybody else, and then make a lot of money on it. [back]