The Posts Go Ever On: Guest Post on “War In Heaven”

Just when you thought we were done with War In Heaven, I have another guest post to offer you. This is by CW scholar David Llewellyn Dodds. Enjoy!

The Corpse and Its Contemporaries

War in Heaven, published in early summer, 1930,  has, to my way of thinking, gone from a story set in the contemporary world to a classic ‘period piece’ without any loss of vitality. It was drafted, as The Corpse, four years earlier, having been finished in time to be offered to, and rejected by, Faber, by the end of May, 1926. I do not know how much or little The Corpse differs from War in Heaven as we know it. But the Twenties seem to have been a rapidly and even wildly changing literary landscape as far as ‘mystery’ and ‘detective’ stories went. And some facts about literary context at the turn of 1925-26 strike me as interesting.

In her paper “Is a ‘Christian’ Mystery Story Possible?” (2011), Sørina Higgins refers to “the inimitable, Chestertonian Archdeacon” – partly and very justly so, I take it, in comparison to (as well as contrast with) G.K. Chesterton’s clerical detective, Father Brown.  Now, when Williams was writing the novel, only the first two of the eventual five books of Father Brown stories had been published.

But in its humor, where treatment of characters, dialogue, and diction in general are concerned, Williams’s debt does not seem limited to Chesterton. There is, indeed, an intertextual clue (as well as a humorous touch of characterization) when Barbara Rackstraw introduces the retired publisher, Gregory Persimmons, to Jeeves, and her husband, Lionel, goes on to explain something about him to his old boss. At the time Williams was initially drafting the novel, only the first three of Wodehouse’s books with Jeeves and Wooster stories had been published (the most recent only in October 1925).

A more straightforward detective novel than The Corpse had already shown the influence of Wodehouse: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Whose Body? (1923), her first Wimsey novel and the only one to have appeared when Williams embarked upon his story.

James Brabazon, in his biography of Dorothy L. Sayers, says of the literary figures who were Lord Peter Wimsey’s “progenitors” as “silly-ass aristocrat with nerves of steel” (like Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel), “being a modern silly-ass (in 1921), who does he take his cue from but Bertie Wooster? – who must of course be accompanied by his Jeeves, now transmogrified into Bunter.”

Whether Williams had read Whose Body? by early 1926, or not, I do not know, but War in Heaven, and presumably, The Corpse, exhibits a similar combination of Wodehousian verbal humor and characterization with moral and metaphysical seriousness.

Father Brown and Jeeves and Wooster were, of course, already famous by the turn of 1925-26, and Whose Body? was selling well enough for Unwin to want to publish more Wimsey, but their fictional worlds of humor of character and style and diction, combined by the two detective story writers with depth and seriousness, were still new and close by in their freshness, when Williams started his entertaining second novel. Not a Wodehouse pastiche, nor even, as Sørina Higgins observes,  primarily “a mystery to entertain”, but very much, I think, intended to entertain in various ways, and to be (may I say) seriously entertaining.


About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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3 Responses to The Posts Go Ever On: Guest Post on “War In Heaven”

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    It is also interesting to think that, while the last six Sherlock Holmes stories had not yet appeared when Williams drafted his novel, “the Golden Age” was getting into full swing where Agatha Christie was concerned: five of her novels, two with Hercule Poirot, as well as a collection of short stories with him, had been published by then, with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd making a fourth Poirot the month after Faber rejected The Corpse.


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Greetings to each and all on this 128th anniversary of the birth of Charles Williams!


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    The process of going from a story set in the contemporary world to a classic ‘period piece’ must already have transpired to a considerable extent by the time the novel was reprinted by Faber & Faber in 1947, and published for the first time in the United States in 1949, by Pellegrini and Cudahy. I don’t know if the 1930 Gollancz edition was ever readily available across the border in Canada, or how many people in the U.S. might have brought back a copy, or ordered one directly, from England, before 1949.

    But it is interesting to think that a contemporary of its first U.S. appearance is someone with a sharp sense of humor, and a willingness to depict shocking horrors – with a faith that beyond them “this universe also carries its salvation in its heart”: Flannery O’Connor. By the time War in Heaven appeared, she had published seven short stories in various periodicals or collections.

    I am not, however, familiar enough with her letters and non-fiction to know whether she, like her older contemporary, James Agee, discusses Williams anywhere.


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