Dornford Yates and the Uses of Facetiousness

(A paper given at the conference on The First World War and Popular Culture at the University of Newcastle, March-April, 2006.)

Brother Boche is in a playful mood this afternoon. Dashed generous, too. The crumps and the Jack Johnsons are dropping like the gentle rain from Heaven…”

Some people can’t stand the way of talking that I have just parodied; the facetious style of speech common among young officers during the Great War and in the years immediately afterwards has gained a highly negative reputation. The novelist Pat Barker told an interviewer:

“In the Regeneration-trilogy I avoided the kind of language they spoke because at least on our side in the trenches there was this sort of farcical humour which would not be appreciated today. It’s terribly febrile, you just could not use that language”i

Some may dislike this style of speech; others find it mystifying. In 1936 Ludwig Wittgenstein was puzzled when he read Journey’s End:

“I couldn’t understand the humour in Journey’s End.… I wouldn’t want to joke about a situation like that,”ii he said.

Yet any style of discourse that becomes and stays so popular must be fulfilling some needs of the speaker or writer; surely this facetiousness is no exception. I want to explore some of the purposes it might have fulfilled, in life and in literature, and especially in the “Berry” stories of Dornford Yates, which are positive carnivals of facetiousness and in the inter-war years had a popularity that can be hard for modern readers to understand.


Facetiousness was hardly an invention of the early twentieth century, but much Victorian facetiousness that I have come across is concerned with skirting the subject of sex, the great Victorian unmentionable. Facetious badinage is a way of talking about something while not actually talking about it, and drawing attention to the fact that you are not quite talking about it. It’s rather a good way of flirting.

Victorian soldiers are rarely represented as facetious. The Imperial heroes of Henty, or of A.E.W. Mason’s The Four Feathers, are straight-faced, earnest and seriousiii. Kipling, who was a great listener, puts facetiousness into the mouth of one type of soldier – the gentleman ranker, who without self-consciousness can use neither the language of the officer class he was born into, nor the language of the common soldiers among whom he lives. Facetiousness provides a solution:

We’re poor little lambs who have lost their way,
Baa! Baa! Baa!.

Where Kipling finds a great deal of facetiousness is in the language of schoolboys. The characters of Stalky and Co expend their energies on rebellion against a system in which they fundamentally believe. Doing this, they use many of the kinds of wordplay that make up the facetious style – for example:

  • Mock heroic and bombastic: “If you say a word, I swear I’ll slay you.”

  • Mock formality: “O Stalky.”

  • Bathos created by a mixture of linguistic registers: “Child of a noble race, trained by surrounding art, stop reading, or I’ll shove a pilchard down your neck!”
  • Vocabulary elaborated in excess of the circumstances: “Hullo, Orrin, you look rather metagrobolized.”
  • Dramatising oneself by use of the third person : “Leave it to your Uncle Stalky”

  • Quotation from a canonical or revered text in inappropriate circumstances: When the boys have been punished they assess the master’s caning abilities critically, quoting Shakespeare: “Strange how desire doth outrun performance.”iv

  • Inappropriate use of foreign language: “Squattez-vous on the floor, then.”

  • Or any wordplay that draws attention to the artificiality of language, or the disparity between language and the situation in which it is used.


This is a language developed in response to an institution that was all-encompassing, full of stern moral imperatives, and yet temporary – they’re only there for five years or so – it’s not really the real world. Kipling also wants to make us aware of the gap between the official ideology of school – the noble classics and the pious lectures – and the reality, of pilchards, ink-pots and beatings.

Stalky and Co. transformed the genre of public school fiction, and a host of later authors to a greater or lesser extent imitated Kipling’s attitudes and diction. One of the most successful writers of school fiction before the war was the young P.G.Wodehouse. In his novel Mike (which began as a serial in the boys’ magazine The Captain in the years 1908-9 ) Mike Jackson, a brilliant young cricketer, is taken away from Wrykyn, the public school where he and his sporting talents have flowered, and is sent to Sedleigh, a low-status school with no cricketing tradition to speak of. All Mike can do is glower morosely, until he meets Psmith, possibly the most facetious character in English literature. Psmith also feels utterly out of place in this environment, but instead of meeting the situation with gloom, he faces it with facetiousness.

If you ever have occasion to write to me, would you mind sticking a P at the beginning of my name? P-s-m-i-t-h. See? There are too many Smiths, and I don’t care for Smythe. My father’s content to worry along in the old-fashioned way, but I’ve decided to strike out a fresh line. I shall found a new dynasty. The idea came to me unexpectedly this morning, as I was buying a simple penn’orth of butterscotch out of the automatic machines at Paddington…”

School fiction imitated the language of schoolboys, and schoolboys imitated the language of fiction. And when prefects became second lieutenants, they had a linguistic resource at hand that would prove oddly useful when they went to war.

A point often made about the Great War is the mismatch between the languages of peacetime and the conditions of trench warfare. How can civilised language cope with that appalling situation, that conjunction of the most modern industrial-scale methods of killing with the positively mediaeval conditions imposed on soldiers, crouching in mud and squalor, exposed to vermin and disease? The humour of The Wipers Times depends almost entirely on the disparity between fact and language. Joke after joke is made by applying peacetime linguistic registers (poetic, journalistic, advertising, etc) to wartime, and showing how silly they look. For example, the language of advertising can be used to describe one of the German’s most terrifying weapons:





Both young and old enjoy

This natty little toy.


Thousands have been sold.v

It would be a mistake to label this kind of writing “anti-war”; it registers the disparity between civilian and military life in a way that assumes its readers have shared the experience that gives it point. The language of pacifism is explicitly mocked in an announcement of “The Great Army Peace Movement” which claims:

We want peace!! Enrol Today!! Big advances in the cause have been made this year and we are holding a GREAT ANTI-WAR DEMONSTRATION at PASSCHENDALE. All are welcome. PRESIDENT: D.HAIG Esq.”vi

The implication of this is that the way to peace is not through the gesture politics of protest marches, but through the hard and unpleasant work being carried out by the text’s military readers, who would greet this item with a sardonic grin.

Yet the constant mismatching of civilian language and military reality also asserts the continued existence of home and its standards – in the same way as the very common practice of naming your trench Piccadilly or Trafalgar Square. Keith Grieve has written about how the composition of poems with reminders of home could provide an “emotional antidote” to war; perhaps, in its small way, this kind of facetiousness could do the same.

What do you say when you’re hiding in a dugout, terrified because people are trying to kill you?

Here is Wyndham Lewis, the vorticist, writing home:

In the more or less illusory security of the concrete dugout…it is not too unpleasant to listen to the absurd enemy smashing the parapets of your guns outside. Yesterday I had quite half a dozen splinters within a yard or two of me…

This facetious bravado is a most effective disguise; nobody can tell for certain what he’s really feeling. Sometimes, though, the disguise could be thin, as Philip Gibbs thought he recognised when he observed a group of officers enduring a bombardment:

I saw that these officers were afraid…that their conversation and laughter were camouflage of the soul. The face of the young A.D.C. was flushed, and he laughed too much at his own jokes, and his laughter was just a tone too shrill.vii

Facetiousness as a different form of disguise was a theme of the hit play of 1915 in London, The Man who Stayed at Home by Lechmere Worrall and J. E. Harold Terry. This features a silly-ass character called Christopher Brent. Everyone is saying he ought to join the army, but he pretends not even to understand them, maintaining a façade of unconcern. We, the audience, know that he is really a spy, hiding behind his mask of facetiousness. The scene that made the most impact is one where an earnest young woman gives him a white feather; he uses it to clean his pipe, and then cheerfully hands it back to her. The dramatic irony here means that the facetiousness which seems to deny Brent orthodox masculinity now actually works as the signifier of a masculinity that is hidden behind the mask.

When Wittgenstein made the remark I quoted earlier, about not understanding the joking in Journey’s End, his friend said “It may have been that they had no language in which to express their real feelings.”

Wittgenstein replied: “That may well be true. No way of saying what they really felt.”

Facetiousness perhaps helped just a little to put horrors in their place. In Whose Body? Dorothy Sayers suggests that Peter Wimsey’s “silly-ass” manner is a way of coping with war memories. He is shown as emotionally fragile, and haunted by dreams of wartime; speaking artificially means he does not have to risk exposing his real feelings. In the 1928 novel, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, his friend Fentiman tells him, “You’re not in the least witty, but you have a kind of obvious facetiousness which reminds me of the less exacting class of music-hall.” Wimsey replies facetiously: “It’s the self-defence of the first-class mind against the superior person.”viii A defence, that is, against the sort of person who asserts the moral high ground and wants to remind Wimsey of his conventional obligations, just as Stalky’s facetiousness was a defence against public school moral orthodoxies.

He is just one of the fictional characters who carried wartime linguistic habits into peacetime, and writers suggested various uses for doing this. Kipling makes a cheerful facetiousness part of the language that binds together the mutually caring community of ex-soldiers in his post-war Masonic stories.

Soldiers can become aware that outsiders don’t understand their military facetiousness. In Ford Madox Ford’s No More Parades, the unpleasant wife who intrudes on military territory where she has no right to be is annoyed by a military humour she doesn’t understand.

After the war, Bulldog Drummond – always bashing outsiders of one sort or another, by any means he can – uses it as a weapon – he is facetious to his arch-enemy because he knows “this particular form of baiting invariably infuriated Peterson.”ix


What Alfred Hitchcock said about films is true also of books ; some are slices of life and some are slices of cake. Dornford Yates’s stories are very definitely cake. He wrote three types of book:

  • his thrillers, which are rarely facetious;

  • his romances, which are sometimes facetious;

  • and his “Berry” stories, which are about a group of rich and frivolous friends who live a life that most of their readers could only fantasise about, and whose conversation is quite unremittingly facetious.

The carefree adventures of Berry and Co offered wish-fulfilment fantasies to contemporary readers, and probably to Yates himself. Dornford Yates’s biographer, A J Smithersx, is clearly eager to like his subject (whose real name was William Mercer), but can’t quite manage it. Yates seems to have been a curious character – reclusive, prejudiced and occasionally violent. Yet he had his own vision of what life ought to be like, and it touched something in hundreds of thousands of readers.

Technically, the series of Berry books began before the war, with the stories collected in The Brother of Daphne, but in these stories the facetiousness is a descendant of the Victorian flirtatious kind, as the central character, Boy Pleydell, chats up a series of pretty young girls (usually with deliciously grey eyes and delightfully small feet) and gets into mildly amusing amorous misadventures.

That was before 1914. Yates had a dispiriting war, stationed in Egypt, mostly, where he contracted severe rheumatism, so that he came back partially disabled, but without the glamour of someone who had seen action.

After the war, the romantic adventures of Boy are not the main focus of most of the stories. They are now very definitely stories about a group, a carefree and rich family group of five inseparable cousins, plus the spouses that they gather on the way, and Nobby, the Sealyham terrier. The most notable character is Berry, or Major Pleydell as he has become during the war. He is plump and lazy, and pompously self-mocking, and seems never to have done anything but talk, except maybe during the war years. Jonah, his cousin, was wounded at Cambrai, and walks with a limp, but makes nothing of it. According to the later thrillers, he was involved with Intelligence, but that is a theme never mentioned in the Berry books. The friends do not talk much about the war; or, indeed, about anything serious, but Yates is enough of a novelist to convey that his characters have been affected by those “four lean years that whipped the smile from many an English hundred.” The war experience lies just under the surface of Berry and Co, and sometimes seeps through in a metaphor or a memory, as in the work of so many other novelists of the early 1920s.

The characters’ language is a fiesta of insults, archaisms and mock-formalities: Here, for example is Berry describing an eventful bicycle ride.

” Four times were these noble limbs prostrated in the dust. The first time was when the handle-bars came off. Oh, it’s a beautiful machine.” Solemnly he waited for the laughter to subside. “But she doesn’t turn easily. If my blood counts, there are at least three corners in the County that are for ever England. And now will somebody fetch the Vicar? I shan’t last long. And some drinks.” He stretched himself upon the grass. “Several drinks. All together in a large vessel.”

Jill fled, weak with laughter, to execute his commands.

Yates constantly signals to us that the other characters are “weak with laughter” at Berry’s flights of language; linguistic excess bonds the friends by entertaining them. Another use for facetiousness is mutual abuse within the group. When Jonah interrupts Berry’s story with a sarcasm, Berry replies:

“Foul drain, your venomous bile pollutes the crystal flood of my narration.”

Insults so decoratively excessive need not be taken seriously, but even defuse any tension or disagreement there might be within the group. When Berry refers to “my brother-in-law, carefully kept from me before my marriage and by me ever since” everyone knows he doesn’t mean it, and nobody takes offence.

The stories are small anecdotes, mostly farcical, but some with a touch of the uncanny. Typically members of the group face a problem – their Rolls-Royce is stolen, a hat is blown away in the wind, an offensive neighbour is rude about Nobby, their dog. The resolution often involves outrageous coincidence – something that would generally be considered a fault in a story, but in Yates’s tales it works as evidence that these people enjoy charmed lives.

The stories set the characters against various embodiments of the post-war world. The person of dubious nationality who has made their profits during the war; the officious official; the nouveau riche who doesn’t know his place. Outsiders, so far as the group is concerned, though the disconcerting post-war world seems to have enhanced their status. Facetious conversation is a code that at once unites the group, allows the skirting of dangerous memories, and deters these outsiders; the foreigners, profiteers and suchlike are unable to comprehend or answer such frivolity.

These popular books not only reflected linguistic habits, but also potentially provided a model for the attitudes and language of their readers. Many of these belonged to a class that historians have not on the whole been kind to – the middle classes who felt discomforted and threatened by the equalising tendencies of the twentieth century. They had felt themselves disadvantaged by Lloyd George’s radical budgets, and had then seen the social policies implied in these reinforced during the war years.

Few such readers could show their superiority to parvenus by driving a Rolls or holidaying in the South of France like Berry and Co. So what could you do, once you’d borrowed the latest Dornford Yates from the local branch of Boots Library? You could demonstrate your class by elaborating your language, playing with registers of vocabulary, showing an educated awareness of tone and nuance that the parvenus wouldn’t understand. The linguistic strategies that had been useful to show a degree of rebellion against school or military authority are now used to defend a class superiority against interlopers.

In the books after Berry and Co, Yates’s characters leave post-war England behind them, and live mostly in the South of France. The social fantasy becomes more extravagant. One of the group is mistaken for royalty; another marries an Italian Duke; Berry wins at roulette by betting on zero consistently all evening. The prose of the narrative becomes correspondingly more lush and more luxuriant; the facetiousness of the insults becomes more and more florid. The books are about pleasure, and for those willing to enjoy it, the excess of language is part of that pleasure. From what I can gather, the books were particularly popular in the austerity years just after the Second World War. Not popular with the critics, but cherished by those felt that they had lost out in the social changes of the twentieth century. None of Dornford Yates’s books ever went out of print during his lifetime.xi He died in 1960, having retreated to Umtali, Southern Rhodesia, last outpost of the old ways of Empire.

So facetiousness has come on a strange journey. I can quite understand why Pat Barker finds this kind of language “febrile” and something “you could just not use today”, but when they used it then, they weren’t just doing it to annoy, and I hope I’ve shown that it had its uses, especially for people who, whatever their circumstances, wanted to remind the world that they were more than merely passive victims.

The uses of facetiousness

> 1. To mention the unmentionable

> 2. To provide a language where alternative class-based styles are unavailable

> 3 To gently mock an ideology by producing language in excess of that situation

> 4 To demonstrate your distance from the world you find yourself in.

> 5 To register the inadequacy of other languages.

> 6 To domesticate the appalling

> 7 To disguise what you’re really feeling

> 8 To use when you have no language that can express your feelings

> 9 To provide a verbal correlative to your sense of dislocation.

> 10 To make a private language that only the group really understands.

> 11 To annoy outsiders

> 12 To amuse members of the in-group.

> 13 To provide a safety-valve

> 14 To defend your group against outsiders

> 15 To show your superiority to the democratic herd.

> 16 To assert a personal myth.

> 17 To assert a hedonism of both life and language

> 18 To mirror the independence of your life with an independent, free-wheeling language.


  1. Pamela Maddison
    Posted October 3, 2006 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    An interesting essay but almost unreadable because of the format – lines only 2 or 3 words wide.

  2. Posted October 3, 2006 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    I’m afraid there’s a browser incompatibility of some sort. WordPress’s blogs are totally compatible with Firefox, and aren’t bad on Internet Explorer 7, but problems can arise with earlier versions of IE, especially on low-resolution screens. I’ve been moaning about this myself in a WordPress discussion forum.
    If you can change your screen res, things should improve.

  3. Dave Bell
    Posted September 5, 2008 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    This has made rather clearer to me some of what I’ve been doing in my own writing, recently, concerning a Great War veteran in the mid ’30s.

    And you can see it all appearing anew in WW2. For instance, bits of Gibson’s “Enemy Coast Ahead”.

    I wonder if it is something specially British, or if the same happens with other cultures and languages.

  4. The Shadow
    Posted March 29, 2009 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Having dipped into various bits of interwar adventure/detective fiction, I’ve noticed how common this form of expression is. It does seem to be more of a British, or perhaps even English trait. The Americans are more likely to use the wisecrack or putdown, which is a much more aggressive mode of speech.

    I noticed that you mentioned DR WHO in one of your posts, and he does seem to be the modern fictional hero most likely to use facetiousness as a weapon. He deploys it against characters who have lost their sense of proportion, and hence their sense of humour; people who are so certain of their own importance that they insist people treat them with corresponding seriousness. In this case, it is a method of rattling your opponent by refusing to fit in with his world view.

  5. Peter the Lawyer
    Posted May 1, 2009 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Brickbats to Pat Barker. If she wishes to explian the period to us with any versimilitude, surely she should use the appropriate language. She seems to be quite happy to fill the trilogy with a sexual ethos that does not ring true. Presumably that’s because modern readers are expected to always look for the ‘hypocrisy’ behind the Edwardian moral code.

  6. yolanda baird
    Posted August 3, 2009 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    Thanks for an informative essay. I enjoy pre-War and inter-wars literature, and this made me realize that it is the facetiousness of “hiding one’s true feelings” and “domesticate the appalling” that I find touching in the characters who have survived the War. I do melt at Lord Peter Wimsey!

  7. Tony French
    Posted August 31, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Er..frankly I can’t see what you are driving at. I talk in the manner you have described all the time!!

  8. Philip Johnson
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    This is a very illuminating essay. I have read elsewhere that humour is seeing the gap between what is and what should be. If one takes facetiousness too seriously, though, one kills the enjoyment of these characters who are happy. Most of literature is not happy. Even in P.G.Wodehouse’ novels people are always ‘bothering’ other people, even those in their own group. Berry & Co like each other. This is anathema to the usual novelist’s usual view of life. Readers love to be discontented and critical.

    • Posted February 8, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      I agree. I think the sense of a close convivial group is an important part of Yates’s appeal.
      Though the group spirit is often reinforced by its being in opposition to some social outsider or other.

  9. Mark
    Posted February 17, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    George, I know what you are getting at, but I think that there is a lot going on in the post-Victorian mind wrapped up in this idea of ‘facetiousness’. You find the same notion of the offhand, the sidewise look, observation and comment intended to debunk and unhinge the conventional as early as, say, Way of All Flesh – it’s a style of speech and report that spikes the guns of convention and authority. When war came the same kind of playful facetiousness that you find in pre-war writers of working class life (like Arthur Morrison) must have seemed, in the trenches at least, to be much the same kind of thing. The trench culture of the western front was noted for the casual inversions of meaning and sly references to popular culture ‘sending up’ the situation (just read Coningsby Dawson using George Robey lines of send up army preparedness). I think this is a all part of a post-Victorian attitude of taking on the platitudinous and the synthetic head on. It seems to me that you can either then be an Edmund Gosse (noting the pointlessness of the platitudes and excusing them) or a Robert Graves (and show them for the empty baggage they are in reality). On top of all of this you have the language of bravado and heroism in which the square jawed hero always sounds offhand about danger and supposed certain death (Sapper springs to mind as the archetype here), but that too comes from a long tradition of adventure novels born in the 1880s. As I say, there is a lot going on to make for what you describe as the facetious voice.

  10. Michael A Jacobsen
    Posted February 2, 2014 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    An entertaining essay. What makes it of little importance is that it deals with only one aspect(and not necessarily an important one) of Yates’ style. Of course, I’ve always loved his language since I began reading his thrillers 60 years ago, so don’t mind me.

  11. Posted December 29, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Came to this sideways via Duffy and the Christmas Truce. Most illuminating. When I get to a machine where I can readily copy links I will share it with my sisters. Yates was about the only fiction that my father read. (He was brought up in the entrenched middle classes in the inter-war years, and all his life something of a snob.) And he loved them – kept in a special bookcase, distinct and apart among the thousands of books that came from my mother’s family and threatened to overwhelm the house. I note you say that they were never out of print during Yates’ life-time, but they were very hard to get hold of during the sixties when my father was trying to collect a second set to give my sister.

  12. Tony French
    Posted September 14, 2015 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand what Pat Barker means when she says the language is “Febrile.” My dictionary says the words means “feverish” What can she be talking about?

    • Posted September 15, 2015 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      Feverish, yes, but also over-excited. I think she’s objecting to the self-conscious hyperbole, mock-heroic, slang, ambiguities of tone, etc. that make it hard to understand when a speaker is being serious. Pat Barker is always very serious.

      • Tamsin Bacchus
        Posted September 15, 2015 at 7:41 am | Permalink

        There’s a condemnation for you! My husband always reckons that one of the saddest statements in the Bible is Paul in whichever epistle it is “Now I am a man, I put away childish things.”

  13. Posted January 29, 2017 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Interesting – and very well argued!

    Agatha Christie makes similar points in the relationship of the protagonist and his father in ‘Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?’

    Looking forward to exploring more around your blog!

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] have a Society, though there is a thriving listserv here. George Simmers wrote a very good online article about Yates and his humour, which analyses his use of facetiousness, one of Yates’ great […]

  2. […] in their descriptions of life at war.  For anyone interested in the subject, I highly recommend George Simmers’s excellent essay on facetiousness in wartime and post-war writing (which does a far better job of teasing out the class dimensions of this literature than I have […]

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