On reading Dorothy L. Sayers, Part 1

I wrote this post already couple weeks ago, but never got around to publishing it – as much as I love the Wimsey novels, I am actually a bit lost on what to write about them or about Dorothy L. Sayers herself, and this post shows it; my apologies for what looks like a really half-hearted attempt. She doesn’t seem to ever manage to spark the sort of devotion I have for some other authors – she was a strong, unconventional woman who made some intriguing choices in her life, but somehow I don’t connect with her like I connect with someone like Virginia Woolf or Winifred Holtby. As much as I enjoy reading all the Wimsey novels, only Gaudy Night really makes my heart sing. But, this was written, and I even made the snazzy collage of book covers, so I’m going to post this here now, and then pretend it never happened.

For the past couple of weeks, I have dwelt so much on Henry VI that I have once or twice even dreamed about it. I’m pretty much Shakespeared out, and I’m still two plays away from Love’s Labour Lost. More over, those two plays are Titus Andronicus and Richard III. But, with the last blog post about Henry written and scheduled for Saturday morning, the next few days’ reading will be purely for fun. I have been re-reading the Peter Wimsey novels since Christmas holiday, which means of course that I have managed to get through four and a half of them so far. In five months. With one of them being really short. Like, seriously short. Hundred pages short. This has been so far a very unimpressive project.

sayersDorothy L. Sayers was very much a golden age crime author; a contemporary of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Josephine Tey, similar in style and approach to detective fiction. She came from a professional upper middle class background – when she was born in Oxford in 1893, her father was the Chaplain of Christ Church College and the master of its cathedral school (the house Sayers was born is on Brewer Street, across St Aldates from the college – there’s a blue plaque on the wall); she was educated in the Godolphin and got a first from Oxford in 1915. Writing detective fiction was neither her first nor her primary career – she worked in advertising, wrote poetry and plays, and also translated (among other works) Dante’s Divine Comedy for Penguin World Classics, and published extensively on Christian theological subjects. She lived in Bloomsbury in London, but her affiliation was always more with the Inklings than it ever was with the Bloomsbury Group. She goes as far as to gently mock the literary and artistic circles of London in several of her books, painting the “serious” authors and artists as vain and snobbish about their work.

As it’s partly Sayers’ fault that I ended up in Oxford, it’s entirely appropriate that my first Oxford classes were next door from where she was born.

dorothy-l-sayersUnlike most literary detectives of his kind, Wimsey is actually chronologically tied to the period of writing, and he ages from young-ish to solidly middle-aged in the books; there’s something very satisfying in the way how he is shown maturing. In the beginning he still has occasional nightmares leftover from suffering severe PTSD following WWI, and Sayers shows how his whole generation is similarly affected – young men are physically and emotionally frail, unable to work or financially support themselves, while many women have been left unmarried, their fiances killed in the front. The general clowning about cannot quite hide a certain bitterness that Wimsey harbours, bitterness that mellows into weariness as he gets older. Sayers explains in a biography by Barbara Reynolds that she made Wimsey independently vastly wealthy because at the time she was financially struggling herself:

Lord Peter’s large income… I deliberately gave him… After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes. It relieves the mind and does no harm to anybody.

By Gaudy Night Wimsey is working for the foreign office, and Sayers seems to have believed already in 1935 that Europe is heading towards another war that she has Wimsey is trying to prevent. In the framework, the lives of the regularly recurring characters progress as well. It is mentioned in Clouds of Witness that Wimsey’s brother, the Duke of Denver, has two young children, and in Gaudy Night, one of them is a second-year undergraduate in Balliol College, Oxford. Similarly, Wimsey’s friend, the police detective Charles Parker gets his promotions, marries Peter’s sister Lady Mary, and has children of his own. In the fifth full-length novel, Strong Poison, Wimsey himself meets his destiny – he takes on to free one Harriet Vane, a detective novelist and Sayers’ fantasy version of herself, from the gallows after she’s on trial for murdering her former partner, highbrow literary author Philip Boyle. Wimsey has fallen in love with her during the trial, and proposes to her when they first meet. She seems attracted to him, but keeps rejecting his proposals for the next four novels; she owns literally her life to him, and feels that a debt of gratitude that great is not a good foundation for a relationship or marriage.

If Sayers had stopped writing after Whose body? or even after Clouds of Witness, chances are that she would be have gone unnoticed and become forgotten as a crime novelist; it is really in The unpleasantness at the Bellona Club that she comes to her own. It is a complex, unpredictable novel, and satisfying in its conclusion. Strong Poison is probably even better – Harriet may be a highly idealised character, but at the same time she’s sharp and cynical enough to give her an edge, attractive and alluring as a woman but also described as “plain as a pancake” (how reliable a description this is supposed to be, is another matter; I think Harriet to be much like the actress Haydn Gwynne – not someone classically beautiful, but striking nonetheless). By any account she is a gift of a character for a reader – someone I don’t want to just read about, but to be like. So much so that Gaudy Night made me to come to Oxford – which is something I’ll revisit when I have read Gaudy Night again. Which will, at this rate, be probably around this time next year.

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