I always wanted to marry Peter Wimsey. Lord Peter Wimsey, that is. Me and Dorothy L. Sayers, both. Perhaps that’s where our love lives (separately) went wrong.
However, I can say that Wimsey has never let me down.
The clue’s in the name. From the family motto – ‘As My Whimsy Takes Me’ – to the long sensitive hands which play music and bowl cricket balls with equal ease, the beaky profile and the straw-coloured hair, the tormenting war history and passion for John Donne, not to mention the aristocratic birth and the fabulous wealth – here is a man made to fit. Did ever woman wailing for her demon lover come up with a more perfect solution than an Oxford Blue with a First in History who has bedded opera singers and countesses and ‘tenait son lit en grand monarque’ (a delicious shiver ran down my girlish spine as, aged 16, I carefully worked out what the French meant)? And his creator Dorothy L. Sayers added in a strong sense of public duty, an unofficial Foreign Office role as peacekeeper in the Europe of the 1930s, and absolutely the best presents, ranging from ivory chessmen to floor-length mink coats.
You can trace Lord Peter Wimsey’s uncanny powers of deduction through fourteen volumes of novels and short stories, most of them still in print and most entertaining enough as puzzles. But it is the four which feature his turbulent love affair with detective novelist Harriet Vane that hold me captive – and have done ever since I realized in my early teens that a) boys were attractive and b) most of them didn’t like clever, combative girls.
Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893–1957) had much the same realizations, I suspect. The only child of a clergyman, she was brought up in Oxford and Cambridge, went to boarding-school and was one of the first generation of women to be granted actual degrees, when she took a First in modern languages at Somerville College in 1915. There followed stints in publishing and advertising, during which she wrote her first murder mystery, Whose Body? (1923). More followed, to popular acclaim, until in 1937 she published Busman’s Honeymoon as both a novel and a play and rang down the curtain on Lord Peter, leaving him ensconced in wedded bliss.
Peter (as I prefer to think of him) first emerged as a Bright Young Thing, displaying the well-born tics of a Bertie Wooster and attended by a sub-Jeeves figure, Bunter. Bunter, whose character gradually deepened in the series with a first name, Mervyn, and a back-story, as devoted batman in the trenches of the First World War, was initially a Watson-type stooge, but he later assumed a Greek Chorus role as one who understood the proprieties and gravities of life, be they transporting port or letting a man drive his Lagonda through the night to escape his demons. It is those demons that slowly unravel through Strong Poison (1930), Have His Carcase (1932), Gaudy Night (1935) and Busman’s Honeymoon and that transform Sayers’s work.
She was savaged by some critics. ‘I had to skip,’ Edmund Wilson sighed, lamenting the ‘dreadful stock characters’ and the boring excursions into arcane bits of knowledge like the patterns of bell-ringing (The Nine Tailors, 1934) or complex cryptography (Have His Carcase). F. R. Leavis, brutal as ever, denounced her fiction as ‘popular and romantic while pretending to realism’.
But realism in detective fiction is hardly a virtue. Who wants to read about six weeks of knocking on doors to eliminate suspects or six hours of frustrating, repetitive questioning? Who reads thrillers to learn that people who live in villages are just as articulate and sympathetic as anyone else or that Oxford dons don’t spend all their time quoting the classics? If you want insights into human nature, go to Tolstoy. If you want a phantom lover, especially one with a discerning palate for a Léoville claret, read Dorothy L. Sayers. Or be Harriet Vane.
Harriet Vane, deep of voice, dark of brow, steps off the page in Strong Poison, accused of the murder of her lover. Exculpated by Wimsey (in a complex plot based on the metabolism of arsenic), she refuses to marry him but says, desolately, ‘I’ll live with you, if you like.’ He wants more than her body (a particularly useless insight for my 16-year-old self ), so they part, Wimsey promising regularly to ask for her hand in marriage. Next, Harriet collaborates with him in solving the mysterious death of a ballroom dancer in Have His Carcase, where their Beatrix and Benedick badinage dominates a creaking plot.
In Gaudy Night she enlists his help in solving a poison-pen mystery in her old college, clearly based on Somerville. He finally wins her over by declaring that her unique attraction is her independence of mind and her honesty, asks her to marry him in Latin and seals their promise with a passionate kiss which he, typically, describes as ‘no shabby tigers’ (quoting from a poem by Ralph Hodgson). Their busman’s honeymoon is marked by a tragi-comic murder mystery and ends with Lord Peter uttering the same exclamation with which he greeted the world in 1923: ‘Oh damn!’ – this time muffled in his wife’s hair.
No question that Sayers was herself Harriet Vane (but so am I!). Dark-eyed and husky-voiced, not traditionally attractive, a woman who made her own way in the then masculine world of advertising, she quickly became a top-selling, highly regarded crime writer. And she was surely also polymath Peter: she wrote and edited poetry and plays and, as a fervent Anglo-Catholic, popular and scholarly theology; she translated medieval French and Italian (her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy still sells well today); and she was friends with T. S. Eliot, Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis. I’m not so sure that her bowling and violin-playing were up to scratch, but she did enjoy a good red wine.
Yet her love life did not please her. Her affair with the Jewish novelist John Cournos ended when he revealed that his asking her to live with him outside marriage was merely a test of devotion. On the rebound, she had a brief intense affair with an unemployed car salesman by whom she became pregnant and who dumped her. The child was brought up in the countryside. Sayers kept in touch with John Anthony, but her friends only learned of his existence from her will after her death. In 1926 she married a war hero and journalist, Atherton Fleming (‘Mac’). Mac’s ill-health and possible resentment of her success wilted the marriage, and he did not adopt her son, as he had agreed he would. There are rumours of later lesbian affairs, but none were acknowledged at the time.
Sayers embraced the stage, the Church and literature, traditional domains of the clever, managing middle-class Englishwoman. (Yes, I plead guilty, more or less.) And if everyone else falls short, such a woman can summon up the demon lover. Let him bring sonnets rather than supermarket flowers (Harriet finds that Peter has completed hers, begun in a murder file) and an inside knowledge of the English class system rather than a ticket for Arsenal (Peter routs a rival by pulling strings). Let him pursue ardently for seven long years but in the end ‘his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.’
No, wait, that was Molly Bloom, invented by a man. Dorothy Sayers ends her love story ‘oh damn’. Back in the book, demon lover. You’re just an amusement, even if you are my perfect man.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 32 © Victoria Neumark 2011