There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Best of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane

Perhaps that title is a little unfair since I have not (yet) read all the Wimsey novels. However, I believe it is a truth universally acknowledged that Gaudy Night is the best of Sayer's oeuvre, and the other novels featuring Harriet Vane are also greatly esteemed among her readers.

Have His Carcase
  I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Harriet Vane and Lord Peter better. One of the things I especially liked about this novel is that Lord Peter doesn't do everything by himself. Indeed, Harriet is making suggestions and discoveries along with him the entire time. The novel is most notable as a precursor to Gaudy Night, showing Harriet's unwillingness to have an unequal relationship with Peter based on gratitude. As with previous Sayers mysteries, I finished it in (nearly) a day. 

Gaudy Night
   Gaudy Night is a hard book to categorize: is it merely a mystery? an intelligent romance? a campus novel? a feminist bildungsroman? It contains multiple complex themes - such as balancing head and heart, intellectual integrity, and women's education - yet manages to sustain an entertaining central story. In this respect it reminds me a little of Middlemarch. Actually that connection is hardly surprising since I first learned of Gaudy Night from a friend who kindly sent me a term essay she'd written comparing female intellectuality in the two novels. I've been waiting to read it for almost three years now and it certainly didn't disappoint. Rather, it was a slightly dangerous read, making me fall more in love with a place, a (fictional) person, and a profession.

Besides intelligence and complexity, Gaudy Night shares with Middlemarch an abundance of literary epigraphs that add to the novel's intellectual, and even academic, air. One of my goals is to eventually be able to read all the French and Latin passages without looking up or guessing meanings. 

Busman's Honeymoon
 How do you describe perfection? While this novel has its humorous vignettes, and while it's also a romance novel, it's ultimately gravely serious. It's serious about the things in life that really matter. One of these things is maintaining integrity and independence in relationships. It's a heady blend of honesty about the difficulty of marriage (such as the moment when Peter and the Superintendent are having a little too much fun at the expense of the suspected Miss Twitterton and Harriet feels the two men are "on the far side of a chasm, and she hated them both") and passion bathed in the fiercely intelligent light of John Donne. It's obvious that Sayers poured the depths of her intelligence and conscience into this novel when we see Peter's struggles with his persona as the wealthy, hobbyist sleuth whose work condemns people to death.

Yes, all the Donne poetry the two quote to each other is a significant factor in my love for this novel. Ironically, there aren't really words to describe it. For me personally, Donne is about grace that strengthens the intellect, and vice versa. This novel presents the intellectuality of Donne's poetry as elevating and purifying the erotic.  

Here's a review that explains how Sayers created such lasting works through breaking all the mystery writers' rules. 

Now that I've read the best novels, I confess I'm hesitant to go back and read the other three I own (Murder Must Advertise, Nine Tailors, and Five Red Herrings) that don't feature Harriet. I'm more likely to reread the above novels, or even go for some of Sayers' theological or academic works. 

A Few Favorite Quotes ("A few!" Excuse me while I type out half the books.)
She had written what she felt herself called upon to write; and, though she was beginning to feel that she might perhaps do this thing better, she had no doubt that the thing itself was the right thing for her. It had overmastered her without her knowledge or notice, and that was the proof of its mastery.
Gaudy Night, p43

 Not one man in ten thousand would say to the woman he loved, or to any woman: 'Disagreeableness and danger will not turn you back, and God forbid they should.' That was an admission of equality, and she had not expected it of him. If he conceived of marriage along those lines, then the whole problem would have to be reviewed in that new light; but that seemed scarcely possible. To take such a line and stick to it, he would have to be, not a man but a miracle. 
Ibid, 262

The following is one of those passages I had encountered before reading the novel. Susan Wise Bauer further whetted my appetite for this novel, writing of the "great golden phrases".

In that melodious silence, something came back to her that had lain dumb and dead ever since the old, innocent undergraduate days. The singing voice, stifled long ago by the pressure of the struggle for existence, and throttled into dumbness by that queer, unhappy contact with physical passion, began to stammer a few uncertain notes. Great golden phrases, rising from nothing and leading to nothing, swam up out of her dreaming mind like the huge, sluggish carp in the cool water of Mercury.... Then, with many false starts and blank feet, returning and filling and erasing painfully as she went, she began to write again, knowing with a deep inner certainty that somehow, after long and bitter wandering, she was once more in her own place.
Ibid, 268,269

Meanwhile she had got her mood on to paper - and this is the release that all writers, even the feeblest, seek for as men seek for love; and, having found it, they doze off happily into dreams and trouble their heads no further.
Ibid, 270

Are you noticing a theme in page numbers? This is the "still centre" where the plot of the novel pauses. And yet it's the most evocative, memorable part. After that the plot seems to pick up again with sufficient speed that I ceased to add exclamations and stars in the margins, so you, reader, are spared a dozen more quotes. Now to Busman's Honeymoon.

 From the diary of the endlessly quotable Dowager Duchess of Denver:
Wonder whether Mussolini's mother spanked him too much or too little - you never know, these psychological days.
Busman's Honeymoon p. 19

Peter: How can I find words? Poets have taken them all, and left me with nothing to say or do-- 
          Harriet: Except to teach me for the first time what they meant.
Ibid, 326

For God's sake let's take the word "possess" and put a brick round its neck and drown it. I will not use it or hear it used - not even in the crudest physical sense. It's meaningless. We can't possess one another. We can only give and hazard all we have - Shakespeare, as Kirk would say...
Ibid, 362
 (That last phrase "as Kirk would say" is a reference to the game of filling conversation up with literary quotes that Peter and Harriet play with a police inspector. Peter's tendency to "talk piffle" tempts me to start throwing Shakespeare, Donne, and Browning into random conversations.)

Well, I can't capture the charm, the vigor, the honesty of these books in a few quotes. What searching for my favorite passages to share has taught me is that I need to reread these novels. Soon.



  1. Of the non-Harriet Peter novels, there are several that are truly lovely. Murder Must Advertise, Clouds of Witness, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, and The Nine Tailors are definitely among them - I think they are quite as good, if not nearly as romantic. Also the first Harriet novel, Strong Poison, is very good (I rank the Harriet novels GN-BH-SP-HHC, from highest to lowest).

    I do highly recommend all of them, but those are my very favorites. :)

    Ian (ibmiller from tumblr)

    1. I have read Strong Poison and it's another I need to revisit, as it sets out Harriet and Peter's relationship so fascinatingly. It's good to hear you think that some of those you listed are "quite as good". I certainly shall read the rest sometime. It's exciting and strangely comforting to have a substantial number of works to discover from a new favorite author.

  2. It is - makes me wish I were reading them for the first time again - wow, that makes me realize it's been over 12 years since I first read my first Lord Peter novel.

    I've been thinking about authors and their oeuvres lately - some authors have written so little, and most of it lovely and gem-like, that you just want more and more (for me, Megan Whalen Turner, who I discovered in November, read all four books in a week, and have reread my favorite book about five times already, is this way), and some have written so much that it's hard to muster up enthusiasm to read them all (Dickens can be that way, and I'm wondering if Brandon Sanderson might turn out to be anothers).

    I shall be happy to read your (always insightful) thoughts whenever you get around to posting them!

    1. Sounds like you met Sayers young. I'll have to look up the others you mentioned some time. (I'm still taking the liberty to put some short replies here. Hope you don't miss them.)

  3. I've enjoyed reading your review; Sayers' Peter Wimsey does that to you when he falls for Harriet Vane.

    I don't know how many times I've reread parts of Busman's Honeymoon - I have all the good parts underlined. The four novels - plus Jane Eyre - are the underpinning of my own. Both are believable love stories between strong people. The 'happily ever after' ending is earned the hard way.

    I am blessed to have Brontë and Sayers as my mentors in fiction.