The Tuesday Night Club is an informal group of crime fiction fans choosing a new author to write about each month – and the finger has pointed at Dorothy L Sayers for February. We’ll all be producing pieces about her and her books on Tuesdays: new and occasional writers always welcome to join in – just send one of us the link to your piece.
Helen Szamuely is collecting the links this month - her blog is here.
Last week’s links are here.
Previously I wrote about the first four Wimsey books. In the fifth book, there was an important new arrival…
Nothing divides Sayers fans like the romance between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet D Vane. (Well, Gaudy Night does – see Kate Jackson’s splendid defence, part of last week’s TNC – but that’s part of the whole deal).
Lord Peter and the reader first meet Harriet in the 1930 book Strong Poison, when she stands in the dock accused of murdering her lover, and with every chance of being found guilty and being hanged. Lord Peter decides she is the woman for him, and is ‘much taken aback’ when he finds out that many people have proposed to her since her arrest: ‘that makes 47’ she tells him. The jury fails to agree, a retrial is ordered, and Wimsey has a month to find the evidence to save her. I really don’t feel it’s a spoiler to say that he succeeds. But she won’t marry him – she has been miserable in love leading up to the murder, it has quite put her off, and she resents the gratitude she must feel for Wimsey.
She next appears in the 1932 Have His Carcase (‘yes yes’ you are all saying, ‘we know, you keep telling us, first book ever on the CiB blog’), where she comes across a corpse and then proceeds to investigate and solve the murder with help from Wimsey. I have described it thus:
Nobody's favourite Sayers book, but the seaside resort is done very nicely, and Harriet, who is always a bracing if sometimes annoying treat, features a lot. (Yes of course a treat can be annoying, before you ask.)
And I have also claimed that the cipher chapter is jaw-droppingly dull (others disagree). Even Sayers seems unsure about the book – in the later Gaudy Night Harriet asks Peter, referring to the incidents in this book:
‘Do you remember that horrible time at Wilvercombe when we could find nothing to throw at one another but cheap wit and spiteful remarks? At least, I was spiteful: you never were.’But in fact the wit and spite improve the book, and the atmosphere of a 1930s walking tour, and then the resort and the smart hotel, are beautifully done.
‘It was the watering-place atmosphere,’ said Wimsey. ‘One is always vulgar at watering-places…’
After this Harriet Vane is kept in the background for the next two books, then reappears in the divisive Gaudy Night (great blog favourite, all over the place). At the end of this book (again, hardly a spoiler) Harriet finally agrees to marry Lord Peter. The final full-length Wimsey book, Busman’s Honeymoon, starts with their wedding.
I see the romance as being an important and intrinsic part of the series of books, and wouldn’t be without it. But, it is still at times excruciating.
In Strong Poison, Wimsey imagines his potential married life:
‘one wouldn’t be dull – one would wake up and there’d be a whole day for jolly things to happen in – and then one would come home and go to bed – that would be jolly, too - ’I don’t know about you, but I find that just plain embarrassing. It would make Lord Peter completely hideous, except that it is totally unconvincing as a set of thoughts going through any real head ever, anywhere.
And then, by the end of Busman’s Honeymoon – 1937, seven years later in real life, six years later in Wimsey world – Harriet and Peter are discussing capital punishment. They know that there was a very real danger that Harriet might have been hanged, and Lord Peter says:
‘If you had had to live through that night, Harriet, knowing what was coming to you, I would have lived through it in the same knowledge. Death would have been nothing, though you were little to me then compared with what you are now…’I have never see anyone else mention this, but I read that as meaning he was going to commit suicide if she was hanged. That is utterly bizarre. And, yes, excruciating. Completely unbelievable. But in a strangely different way from the previous quotation – it is hard to see them as coming from the same character. (In addition, Sayers had very strong religious views which you would expect would militate against suicide.)
I love the first section of Busman’s Honeymoon, and before now have recommended it to anyone who wants to read about the social customs and etiquette of certain sections of British life at the time (yes, people do ask me - I once wrote a book on etiquette). And the Dowager Duchess always brightens things up when she appears (see Bev Hankins’ great TNC piece on this character here). In an early blogpost on the book I put it this way:
There seems a lot of wish fulfilment in Sayers’ description of the wedding of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. For a sophisticated Bohemian with academic pretensions, she certainly had an eye for a lord, a fairy-tale wedding, and – above all – a wonderful man who sees the inner glory of a plain poor girl. A man who could have anyone, but chooses an older lady with whom he can have an intellectual conversation. Even though DLS is at slightly embarrassing pains to point out that both Peter and Harriet are very sexy. And even though Lord Peter does not seem that wonderful to anyone else over the age of about 22. The word ‘insufferable’ comes to mind. The bride's gift to the groom, by the way, is a very valuable letter about love, hand-written by the poet John Donne. A sister-in-law is reported as thinking "a gold cigarette lighter would be much more suitable", and after too much of the wedding preparations, one can start to agree with her, and long for a bit of honest flashy showing off. And what does the lovely bride wear in the end? Gold lame. Not so much in a position to criticize Jane Eyre.
I think that last line might be the most important...
All this is, of course, without prejudice to Clothes in Books great love for the entire oeuvre of Dorothy L Sayers.
There was a BBC series of the Wimsey/ Vane books in the 1980s, and Harriet Walter played her first-namesake to perfection: I can never imagine any other actress in the role. And Edward Petherbridge was excellent as Lord Peter. The adaptations look very much of their time, and very clunky occasionally, but they aren’t bad. The photos are from the production.
The page of clothes for Harriet is from the infamous J Peterman catalogue (much featured in Seinfeld) of the 1990s. How curious and intriguing. I haven’t been able to find out more about this particular line of clothing…