The page numbers are from the Perennial Library edition of “Unnatural Death” copyright 1927, 1955 by Dorothy Leigh Sayers Fleming.
“Unnatural Death” opens with the “Who’s Who” entry about Lord Peter, possibly from the 1937 edition as it includes references to his marriage to Harriet Vane and the birth of his first son. He is still a member of the Bellona Club; apparently, his activities there on behalf of the Fentiman family did not result in his being asked to leave.
The Wimsey coat of arms was described at the beginning of “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club” as “Sable, 3 mice courant, argent; crest, a domestic cat couched as to spring, proper; motto: As my Whimsy takes me.”
The British College of Heralds uses a particular format to describe coats of arms to ensure that they are represented properly, and that they don’t conflict with someone else’s arms. Precise terms were developed, many derived from the French.
Commonly, the background color is described first. “Sable” tells us that the shield is on a black background. The “3 mice courant, argent” means that they are portrayed 2 over 1 (courant) and colored red (argent). Crest means the area above the shield, and the cat is described in English, and portrayed facing to the left (proper). Mottos are traditionally portrayed below the shield, on a banner.
vii ~ arbiter elegantiarum — nec pluribus impar
Latin for “The arbiter of elegance.”
viii ~ both in and out of the Union
The Oxford Union.
Viii ~ for his final Schools in the temper of a Sir Eglamore
He was the subject of a folk song. Eglamore is also a character in “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
ix ~ in the V.A.D. hospital
Volunteer Aid Detachments were created at the beginning of World War I, in which women were recruited to work as assistant nurses, ambulance drivers and cooks. VAD hospitals were opened in most towns.
ix ~ D.S.O
The Distinguished Service Order was created by Queen Victoria in 1886 and awarded to officers for meritorious or distinguished service. In addition to the medal, recipients are allowed to add D.S.O. after their names.
ix ~ in a shellhole near Caudry
Caudry, a town approximately 12 kilometers east of Cambrai, was the site of part of the Battle of Le Cateau (August 26, 1914). It was captured by the Germans and held until October 1918. Caudry Old Communal Cemetery contains graves of known and unknown WWI casualties of French, German, British and Russian soldiers.
Caudry is also mentioned on page 349 of “Gaudy Night.”
3 ~ Reg v. Pritchard
A notorious poisoning case in Glasgow, Scotland. In 1865, Dr. E. W. Pritchard was convicted of poisoning his wife and mother-in-law with aconite and antimony. The case was notable for several reasons. Pritchard’s wife had been slowly poisoned for several months, yet despite the suspicion of several members of Glasgow’s medical profession, none acted on them out of professional courtesy. Both victims were treated by Pritchard, who refused assistance by his fellow doctors, and signed off on the death certificates without an autopsy. It took an anonymous letter to the authorities before an investigation was made and the truth came out. As described in Rick Geary’s excellent graphic novel “A Treasury of Victorian Murder,” Pritchard was a narcissistic sociopath, confident of his innocent and refusing to admit guilt until shortly before he was hanged. Pritchard’s hanging was attended by more than 80,000 people and would be the last public execution in Scotland.
Also known as snails.
4 ~ Tripes a la Mode de Caen
This renowned dish, using the offal of oxen, was developed in the 16th century and credited to Sidonie Bernoit, a monk who cooked for the Abbaye aux Hommes de Caen. According to one recipe, the tripes are cut into little squares and cooked with carrots, onions, leeks, celery and a bouquet of herbs.A glass of Calvados is added and let simmered for 12 hours.
5 ~ Prince Florizel of Bohemia
A character in Shakespeare “The Winter’s Tale.” He also appears in Robert Lewis Stevenson’s “New Arabian Nights.” (Also a reference to his “Stevensonian manner”)
a poor heart that never rejoices
This has proved a difficult phrase to pin down. It appears in Frederick Marryat’s “Jacob Faithful” and Charles Dickens’“Barnaby Rudge,” but its true source had not been found.
12 ~ ship-shape and Bristol-fashion
Bristol-fashion: “Ready to go,” a complement to that English port’s reputation for fitting out ships.
17 ~ Gilbert Frankau
Gilbert Frankau (1884-1952): Novelist and poet. Educated at Eton, Frankau worked in the family tobacco business and volunteered at the start of World War I. He fought at Loos, Ypres and on the Somme, suffering shell-shock that led to his being invalided out in 1918. In spite of the bitter tone of some of his poetry he was an intense patriot and supporter of the war throughout. During World War II, he served in the RAF as a squadron leader and wrote a best-selling novel, “World Without End,” in 1943.
19 ~ monomark
A series of letters used for identifying purposes.
20 ~ all those wives and porcupines
The poor child meant concubines, of course.
21 ~ cribbed, cabined and confined
Miss Climpson is mistaken, for the quotation is not from “Hamlet” but “Macbeth.” In act III, scene iv, when Macbeth gets the happy news that Banquo is killed, but his son, Fleance, had escaped, he cries:
Then comes my fit again: I had else been perfect;
Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,
As broad and general as the casing air:
But now I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears. But Banquo’s safe?
Ay, my good lord: safe in a ditch he bides,
With twenty trenchèd gashes on his head;
The least a death to nature.
Thanks for that.
22 ~ Somerset House
A grand government office building, built in the 18th century and occupied at times by the Royal Society, the offices of the Admiralty, Inland Revenue, and, most important for Miss Climpson’s purpose, the Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths.
25 ~ on account of the bathroom geyser
A geyser is a water heater. If you lived in an apartment, unless you had a fondness for taking a bath in cold water, you needed pennies to drop into the coin box that turned on the geyser to heat the water. Those who wish to learn more about such devices and read a cracking good story should find “Karmesin, Swindler” by Gerald Kersh, Harlan Ellison’s favorite writer, that appeared in “Ellery Queen’s Minimysteries” (1969).
25 ~ John Bull
A weekly newspaper founded by Horatio Bottomly (1860-1933) that became one of England’s most popular publications.
26 ~ a la lanterne!
French for “to the lamppost!” which, while correct word-for-word, actually means something more like “hang him from the lamppost.” During the Reign of Terror, on July 22, 1789, Joseph-Frances Foulon, the king’s hated minister of finance, was hanged from a lamppost by the crowd. “A la lanterne” became a phrase shouted by the crowd while escorting victims to the guillotine.
27 ~ collate a 12th century manuscript of Tristan
“Tristan and Isolde,” is an old love story, possibly Provencal in origin, that was incorporated in the Arthurian legends. “The Oxford Companion to English Literature” mentions three versions surviving from the 12th century. Presumably, Lord Peter was about to spend a pleasant event determining which version is his manuscript’s, and if there are any points of disagreement between it and other versions (which is the first definition of the word “collate.”).
29 ~ ancient Froth Blowers
The Ancient Order of Froth-Blowers was a popular service club during the 1920s, sort of like the Rotary and Lions and Elks, only centered around the more convivial activities in a pub. They held dances, raised money and performed good works for charities.
You might get a sense of how they saw themselves from this quotation in their handbook, in which they described themselves as:
“A sociable and law abiding fraternity of absorptive Britons who sedately consume and quietly enjoy with commendable regularity and frequention the truly British malted beverage as did their forbears and as Brittons ever will, and be damned to all pussyfoot hornswogglers from overseas and including low brows, teetotalers and MP`s and not excluding nosey parkers, mock religious busy bodies and suburban fool hens all of which are structurally solid bone from the chin up.”
30 ~ Sir Julian Freke
The noted neurologist from “Whose Body?”
32 ~ Crown Derby
Very noteworthy and expensive porcelain manufacturer.
33 ~ Royal Free
A hospital and medical school in London, founded in 1874 and for a long time the only medical school in the country to accept women.
35 ~ Butler, Hudibras
A satire by Samuel Butler (1612-1680), published in three parts in 1663, 1664 and 1678. Sir Hudibras was a Presbyterian gentleman whose adventures take potshots at the Puritans for their extremism, selfishness, bigotry and hypocrisy. Many common expressions such as “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” come from this book-length poem.
39 ~ nine grains of calomel
A drug containing mercury once touted for a host of cures, including venereal disease, mouth sores, dysentery, constipation and other ills.
40 ~ avenging Erinyes
Another word for the Furies, the winged goddesses of Greek mythology. Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone pursued and punished the doers of unavenged crimes.
42 ~ fundamental crudities . . . Sheila Kaye-Smith
Kaye-Smith (1887-1956): a Sussex novelist whose regional novels were very popular. She was part of a genre, known as the “Loam and Lovechild” school of fiction, in which rural farm families with Biblical names like Seth, Eli and Adam battled cruel nature and each other to wrest a living from the untamed Earth. Kaye-Smith was one of the writers satirized by Stella Gibbons in “Cold Comfort Farm” (1932).
Hardy (1840-1928): an English novelist.
A plant known for its hardiness and ability to survive in low light that was popularly used as a house plant during the Victorian age. Its use was so widespread that it became a signifier for staid, middle-class life where money and status were the central concerns of life, something to be avoided at all cost. George Orwell’s 1936 novel “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” comments on this life:
“The types he saw all round him, especially the older men, made him squirm. That was what it meant to worship the money-god! To settle down, to Make Good, to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra! To turn into the typical bowler-hatted sneak – Strube’s ‘little man’ [-] What a fate!”
(Contributed by Dahra Latham)
43 ~ Chinese business (1927) references to rioting and Bolshevism
A watershed year in the struggle between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong for control of China. In April, the Communists, led by Zhou Enlai, were driven from Shanghai and by July the party had been driven underground. In August, Mao led the peasants in Hunan provence in an uprising, which was brutally suppressed, and in December, established a short-lived commune in Guangzhou province.
doth protest too much . . . Prince of Denmark
The quote is from “Hamlet,” and was said by Queen Gertrude to Hamlet while watching the play. Hamlet, of course, is the Prince of Denmark.
let the galled jade wince
Also from “Hamlet.” Both the “doth protest” and “galled jade” come from Act 3, Scene 2.
44 ~ Chapman, “The Widow’s Tears”
A comic play by George Chapman (c. 1560-1634).
Originally meant in the 16th century to refer to a hoax or fraud that is presented as wonderful or full of promise that eventually results in making those involved look foolish. Now, it refers to “a place, condition, or situation of great untidiness, disorder, or confusion,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
beside the springs of Dove
A quotation from “Lucy” by William Wordsworth (1770-1850). It begins:
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
The springs of Dove can probably be found near Dove Cottage in Grasmere, where Wordsworth lived in 1799. However, the “Lucy” poems were not written there, but earlier, when the poet was living in Germany.
45 ~ Psalms “I lay traps, I catch men”
No one verse may answer to this comment. Psalms is full of warnings about snares that can catch the unwary:
35: 7 For without cause have they hid for me their net [in] a pit, without cause they have digged for my soul.
38:12 All who want me dead set traps to catch me, and those who want to harm and destroy me plan and plot all day.
57:6 They spread a net for my feet– I was bowed down in distress. They dug a pit in my path– but they have fallen into it themselves.
invite, seriatim, Suspicion, Inquiry, Proof, Conviction and the Gallows
seriatim means in a series, or one after another.
49 ~ diver tram
A tram that dove underground for a time. One such tram was the Kingsway subway in central London, shown above. (Photo courtesy of Dewi Williams from his Web site.)
51 ~ Daimler Twin-Six . . . Edmund Sparkler . . . very anxious there should be no rows . . Little Dorritt . . . Mrs. Merdle
Wimsey’s car, known as the double-six in America, is a powerful vehicle, named for Mrs. Merdle, the character in Dickens’ “Little Dorritt” who hated a row.
A big story told across three columns on the front page of the newspaper.
53 ~ a la guerrer comme a la guerre
A French idiomatic phrase that means literally “With the war as with the war.” Also better known as “All’s fair in love and war.”
54 ~ May we ne’er lack a friend or a bottle to give him, as Dick Swiveller says
Swiveller is a disreputable character from Dickens’ “The Old Curiousity Shop.”
Heart of oak are our ships
Good English oak trees were used to build the Royal Navy, and “heart of oak” was the strongest. The phrase is also the title of a patriotic song.
55 ~ there had certainly been weasels
Sayers is saying in a very understated way that portions of the body had been eaten.
having this note traced
English bank notes at this time were rare things and capable of being traced by to the issuing branch.
56 ~ Whitsuntide
The week beginning on Whitsunday (commonly called Pentecost), especially the first three days. Celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter. It is usually regarded as the birthday of the church.
57 ~ Train up a child and away she go as the Good Book says
From Proverbs 22:6 (King James version): “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
nasty tag rag and bobtail
An old phrase dating from 1811 to mean the rabble (a bobtail is a cur).
59 ~ Tell me what you eat . . . Brillat-Savaria
A famous aphorism by Anthelme Brillat-Savaria, French jurist, gastronome and wit.
60 ~ musquash
A musquash is an American muskrat, so I assume that she’s wearing the fur in some fashion.
monument to Kraska
A brand of fingernail polish that bragged in its ads that “once done, you forget about polishing for a whole week. Soap or water cannot affect the brilliant Kraska lustre.”
(Contributed by Rikibeth)
65 ~ Dumas “Let pass the justice of God”
Possibly a reference to “The Three Muskateers,” chapter 66. Milady, who spent the novel in various nefarious schemes, is finally undone and has been executor. The phrase is uttered by the executioner before dropping her body into the water.
68 ~ Edmund Pearson . . . “Murder at Smutty Nose”
Pearson, a journalist, wrote a book about this notorious double-murder that occurred on March 6, 1873, on Smuttynose Island off the New Hampshire coast. Karen Christensen and her sister-in-law Anethe Christensen were killed with an axe at their home. Karen’s sister, Maren, fled the house in the middle of the night when the attack occured and identified a Prussian fisherman who had lived with the family the year before, Louis Wagner, as the killer. He was convicted and hanged in 1875.
69 ~ Clemence Dane’s very clever book on the subject
Dane was the pseudonym for Winifred Ashton (1888-1965), a stage actress, artist and writer. The book in question might be “A Regiment of Women” (1917), about the emotional life in a girl’s school. The book treats lesbian relationships with considerable suspicion, especially if it goes beyond the boundaries of young women having a fling before settling into heterosexual (and, of course, married) relationships.
71 ~ Austin Seven
A small car that was built along the same lines as a Model T.
A medical term describing the temporary lose of consciousness or posture. Also known as fainting.
72 ~ exeunt omnes
Latin for “all go out.”
washing their hands
Presumably a reference to Pontius Pilate, who made a similar public display before turning Jesus over to his executioners.
weep for your the Walrus said
The Walrus is from “Alice in Wonderland.”
75 ~ Palmer for example
A reference to the notorious William Palmer case, a doctor convicted and hanged in 1856 for poisoning friend and gambler John Parsons Cook and taking his winnings at the races. He is suspected of having also poisoned his mother-in-law for her estate, his wife for the insurance, several children, his brother, uncle and several creditors.
76 ~ George Joseph Smith
George Joseph Smith (1872-1915) was a serial killer and bigamist. The notorious “Brides in the Bath” murderer was convicted in 1915 of murdering three women he had married. In addition, he had married several more women, only to soon after flee with their belongings and any cash he could get his hands on. He was captured after newspaper reports describing the death of the third wife were read by a relative of his second victim.
During the investigation, pathologist Bernard Spilsbury was asked to determine how the three women ? who were found dead in their bathtub ? could die. They ruled out drowning, poison and heart attack, and indications were that they died suddenly, as if from a stroke. Using experienced female divers the size of the victims, at Spilsbury’s suggestion, Detective Inspector Arthur Neil ran experiments using the tubs the women drowned in. When he tried the push them under water, they naturally resisted. But when he unexpectedly pulled the feet of one of the divers, she slid underwater quickly and lost consciousness, and it took doctors a half hour to revive her.
Smith was tried only for murder of Bessie Williams, but the judge allowed the prosecution to use the deaths of the two other brides to establish a pattern. The jury took 20 minutes to find him guilty, and he was hanged.
Armstrong . . . Martin . . . Chocolates
Herbert Rowse Armstrong has been tagged as the only solicitor hanged for murder in Great Britain. In 1922, he was convicted of murdering his wife with arsenic, a crime he would have gotten away with if he hadn’t tried to also kill his legal firm’s partner, Oswald Martin, with poison-infused chocolates.
Burke and Hare
William Burke and William Hare were a little too enthusiastic in meeting the demand by Edinburgh’s medical schools for cadavers. Working among the poor, they decided to increase the supply of bodies by killing them, usually by suffocation. Over the course of a year, they succeeded in acquiring 16 bodies before they were arrested. Because so little evidence was found, Hare was offered immunity for his testimony. Burke was found guilty and hanged in 1830. Of particular interest, it may be noted that his body was turned over to a medical school and dissected. Robert Knox, the doctor who bought the bodies and who may have overlooked their quantity and freshness, was never prosecuted.
In addition to biographies of the principals, Wikipedia also has an entry on the West port murders.
first cousin to an upas tree
Legendary poisonous tree supposedly found in Java. A putrid odor arises from the tree capable of killing anyone around it. While the tree exists, and is poisonous, it is otherwise harmless.
each of us holds the life of one other person
77 ~ Tennyson, “In Memorium”
From a long poem in honor of A.H. Hallam, a close friend and promising scholar who died at 22.
A quotation from “To The Cuckoo.”
wreaths of cinnamon and senna-pods
Grand Panjandrum with the little round button a-top
A reference to a character in a nonsense farrago by Samuel Foote (1720-1777). The story is that Charles Macklin, a noted Irish actor, claimed during a public lecture that he could recite anything upon reading it only once. Foote took him at his word, and spontaneously composed this ditty, full of nonsense phrases and made-up words. Macklin refused the challenge.
The passage runs:
So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. “What! No soap?” So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top, and they all fell to playing the game of catch as catch can till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.
The poem might have faded from history as well, except that the grand panjandrum became popular a hundred years later when Edward FitzGerald (the translator of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”) used it to describe a self-important local official.
(FitzGerald translation correction supplied by Alexander Campbell)