The Secret Sanctuary

Warwick Deeping’s The Secret Sanctuary (1923) is not one of his better-known novels, or one of his better ones, but its treatment of shell-shock is rather interesting.

Stretton, the hero, had been an officer in the trenches, under difficult conditions – “Bursts of savage shelling, counter-attacks to repel, the ground like chaos, everything difficult – water, rations- getting the wounded away!” One night he led some men on a difficult and dangerous mission, in the course of which several were killed. Returning, he met a brigade-major, nicknamed “Slaughterhouse”, of whom fellow-officer would later write: “I think he was about the stupidest man I have ever met; his neck was as thick as his head, and he had eyes like blue marbles. He hardly ever gave you a word of praise, and he was a bully.” “Slaughterhouse” engages the exhausted officer in a fruitless dispute;  Stretton’s nerve snaps, “and in twenty seconds he had said things to Slaughterhouse which half the brigade would like to have said. And then that shell came. It covered us all with dirt. The brigade-major was killed, and Stretton knocked unconscious, but if he hadn’t been knocked out that morning he would have been up for a court-martial, sure as fate -“

Invalided home, Stretton has the typical symptoms of mild shell-shock – “Slight tremor of the hands. Some sleeplessness. No mental clouding but a slight hesitancy in speech.” On occasion, though, he attacks people. A hospital orderly, a platform attendant, a selfish and bullying man elbowing a girl in a bus queue. All these seem to be the same physical type as “Slaughterhouse”, and all are aggressive and officious.`The third victim suffers a fractured skull, and Stretton is jailed for two months.

The rest of the novel describes Stretton’s cure (predictably for the period, it involves a rugged country life, and the love of a good woman). What interests me is the representation of Stretton’s post-traumatic violence. It takes him over, and is something over which he has no control. We are told that “it had belonged to some sinister underworld in him” and Rollin Beal, a doctor, and Deeping’s spokesman in the novel, explains it thus:

“Imagine a sort of leak in the brain, imagine our most primitive and savage impulses able to rush through this leak and produce sudden acts of uncontrollable violence.”

Yet at the same time the attacks are the expression of a profound moral instinct against the types of person of whom he (and Warwick Deeping) disapprove. His remarks to “Slaughterhouse” were what “half the brigade would like to have said”. Later in the novel, he has another fit of violence, against Isobel Cropredy, a girl who has taunted him. (The TLS reviewer in 1923 accurately called Isobel “a creature of depravity scarcely credible”) The description of their conflict has sexual undertones. He has spurned her, so she lays in wait for him with a riding whip. While he struggles to take the whip off her, “he felt her strong young teeth in his shoulder.” There is one of those asterisks that novelists use as euphemisms for a scene that cannot be described. Then:

It was dark when she came out of the wood on to the stretch of heath below the cottage. She was weeping with rage and pain and the disillusionment of a balked desire; her hair was down; her stockings hung about her ankles. A little behind her walked the man, a figure of humiliation and self-horror; one sleeve of his shirt had been torn off, and there was blood on his face and the marks left by her fingernails.

The reader is given the excitement of a rape scene while being able to feel morally absolved, because it is the woman’s fault –  and this is the pattern of the whole novel. We are allowed to collude emotionally in Stretton’s violent attacks on bad people, while officially, as it were, we side with the wise doctors who see the outbursts as things to be controlled.

Critics have sometimes wondered at Deeping’s popularity. Samuel Hynes, for example, surmises that Sorrell and Son, which he describes as an “unremarkable plodding novel” was popular because many readers shared Deeping’s disillusionment, and because Deeping gave answers to post-war social issues “conservatively and reassuringly”. This book is definitely conservative in its attitudes, but it is only partially reassuring. At the end of the novel, Stretton is tempted to violence once again, and is only restrained by the firm words of the girl who loves him. The problem remains, though, of uppity bounders who do not know their place, and violence remains a potential solution.

Reading this book makes one aware of how much suppressed violence there is in Deeping’s novels. In Sorrell and Son, for example, we are made aware of the strength of Sorrell’s self-control by the ferocity of his fantasies about attacking that
“big, raw-faced creature, all belly, voice and blonde moustache” ex-Sergeant-Major Buck.

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