Remembering Robert Fentiman

I started this month with two frantic weeks of research, paper presentation and working at the Great Yorkshire Show.  By the time the last event, a two-day conference on the emotional history of war at the British Academy, came around, I was exhausted, sick of train travel and worried that my children no longer knew who I was.  I seriously considered giving it a miss; I wasn’t giving a paper and wasn’t sure how emotional history might be significant for my work on RAMC servicemen.

However, I had booked a hotel room and paid for my train ticket, so I packed my bag and headed back to London.  And boy am I glad I went!  Not only was it a conference attended by many of the most notable historians of the cultural history of war (walking into the room where coffee was served felt a bit like seeing large parts of my PhD bibliography made flesh), but it forced me to rethink the nature of my work as a form of emotional history.  In fact, the ideas about emotional labour and the archiving of emotion that I took away from those two days have made me completely rethink the structure of the book proposal I am in the process of writing.

I still have a huge amount of work to do sorting out how my work is located in the history of emotions, but I’ve been thinking about one idea in particular over the past couple of weeks.  During the round table session which closed the conference, one point was made three times, in three different ways, namely how do we, as historians, research and write about emotions that make us feel uncomfortable.  The conference was divided into sessions on love, fear and grief.  None of these are comfortable emotions, of course, and the evoke strong reactions in us as historians and in those who read what we write.  But there are other emotions felt by participants in war that we didn’t discuss directly, skirting around or mentioning only in relation to other emotions: anger, joy, relief, pride, shame.  These are emotions that don’t necessarily fit into the narratives we want to tell ourselves about war.  They highlight the power of war not only to traumatise, creating victims of its participants, but also to brutalise, even dehumanise, the perpetrators of violence.  But they are as important a part of the historical narratives of war as an emotional experience as those easier, possibly more acceptable emotions.

Which brings me to Robert Fentiman.  Robert Fentiman is one of the central characters in Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1928 novel, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Like his brother, George, another key character, Robert served in the war.  Unlike George, who was gassed and suffers from shell shock throughout the novel, Robert, is described as ‘frightfully hearty – a regular army type.’ [1]  Indeed, he chooses to remain in the army after the war.  Throughout the novel, the differences between himself and his brother are emphasised.  Where George has a fit of hysterics upon the discovery of his grandfather’s corpse, Robert [spoiler alert], laughs with humour when recalling using the two-minute silence to hide the body in order to commit fraud. Neither is a particularly attractive character.  George is depicted as bullying his wife while Robert is described as ‘thick-skinned; the regular unimaginative Briton. I believe Robert would cheerfully go through another five years of war and think it all a very good rag. … I remember Robert, at that ghastly hole at Carency, where the whole ground was rotten with corpses–ugh!–potting those swollen great rats for a penny a time, and laughing at them. Rats. Alive and putrid with what they’d been feeding on. Oh, yes, Robert was thought a damn good soldier.’ [2]

Neither George nor Robert is particularly emblematic of how we like to construct our image of veterans of the First World War today.  As I have argued before, our culture wants to smooth out the image of shell-shock sufferer, to remove the violence and ugliness in order to create the image of a victim we can pity without qualms.  But, even in this bowdlerized form, the shell-shock sufferer retains an important place in our cultural memory, indeed an increasingly important place as the definition of shell shock expands to encompass an increasing number of men.  By comparison, we seem to have little cultural memory of the Robert Fentimans of the war, the men who went through it phlegmatically, found an acceptable niche for themselves in post-war society, and displayed little or no sentiment about publically commemorating the dead, however much they privately honoured their comrades.

Some might argue that such men did not exist, that even if they did appear to display resilience in public, the psychic wounds that war inflicted on them were repressed, to echo down the generations and that, to this extent, all men who had been under a rolling barrage, as Robert Graves and Alan Hodge asserted in 1940, suffered from shell shock. [3] Yet Graves and Hodge go on to assert that what they called shell shock was a temporary condition. The resilient, even thick-skinned war veteran was certainly a common enough cultural figure for Sayers to place him in direct, antithetical comparison to the equally emblematic shell-shock sufferer in a popular novel that sold well in the interwar years.  George and Robert Fentiman are two sides of the same coin, and would almost certainly have been recognised as such at the time, yet today we only remember one of them.

As I say, it is not easy to write about men like Robert Fentiman.  They aren’t particularly likable or sympathetic.  They do not fit into our definitions of heroes.  But these men too fought the war; they too must form part of our history.  The challenge that War: An Emotional History set me was how to write about these men whose emotions I struggle to recognise and respond to in a way that is honest and does them the honour they deserve.  I will be grappling with this over the next couple of months.  If you would like to hear how I get on, I will be giving a lecture on The Fentiman Brothers at War: Shell Shock, Emotional Resilience and the Cultural Memory of the First World War at the Freud Museum in London on 2nd October. Do join me.

[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, New English Library Paperback edition (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003), 14.

[2] Sayers, 99-100.

[3] Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, The Lond Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 (New Yorkk: W.W. Norton and Company, 1940), 16.

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4 thoughts on “Remembering Robert Fentiman

  1. Interesting how Sayers presents a third characterisation of the shell shocked soldier through Wimsey himself as one who suffers privately, but still suffers nevertheless. Not so much in this novel but The nine tailors, for example.

    • Wimsey fits far more easily into our ideas of the sensitive shell shocked hero (although interestingly I don’t think he is in any way a victim). I’m not entirely convinced I how easily he would have been recognised as a cultural figure of the war (as opposed to eccentric detective) at the time. One of those things I need to think about some more.

  2. Pingback: We need to talk about Arthur Shelby | armsandthemedicalman

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