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Friday, January 31, 2014

The Murder Takes the Back Seat

“It has been said, by myself and others, that a love-interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story. But to the characters involved, the detective-interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love-story. This book deals with such a situation. It also provides some sort of answer to many kindly inquiries as to how Lord Peter and his Harriet solved their matrimonial problem. If there is but a ha’porth of detection to an intolerable deal of saccharine, let the occasion be the excuse,” wrote Dorothy Sayers about her final Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Busman’s Honeymoon.

Contrary to all accepted opinion on the wisdom of such a course, I started reading the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries with this novel. It was not entirely my fault. I was given this book as a birthday present by a friend who was sure I would like it, and being young, I had not yet heard of Dorothy Sayers. I immediately got all the rest of the books in the series (a dozen) and read them in order to find out how this fascinating sleuth and his valet and his wife ended up on such a pinnacle as the final book left them.

It was a journey into the land of the highly educated, a place one might have expected me already to be familiar with since I was then working on the M.A. degree in English literature. But my education had not nearly the depth and breadth of Dorothy Sayers. She sprinkles Latin and French quotations liberally, includes a bit of Greek, and when the quotations are not in foreign languages, they range through the ages of British literature, touching nearly every master of the nuances of that language and culture. I got out my dictionaries and translated the foreign quotes. I kept a pile of lit reference books nearby to look up quotations of English authors. I was absolutely enthralled with the world of Dorothy Sayers, and then astonished at the quality of the characters she had created.

Lord Peter has been criticized for being too perfect. He is of the aristocracy, he is rich, he is very highly educated and brilliant, he is skilled at negotiation with and between foreign governments, he is brave, strong, witty, kind, sees the equality between races and sexes, and is reportedly a great lover. However, he also suffers from shell shock, avoids responsibility, has a tendency to talk too much nonsense in general and especially when nervous, carries a guilt complex, is impatient, and is a nervous person in general. In short, he is a complex, believable character, and most fully realized in the final novels.

Harriet Vane comes on the scene as the Accused in a murder trial, so she is set before us in her complex imperfections, yet is also presented as the Perfect Woman for Lord Peter. She is an Oxford-educated crime novelist, rather like Sayers herself, and is the daughter of a country doctor, so most certainly not of the aristocracy. Though a gentleman’s daughter, she is poor and used to pinching pennies. She is not conventionally beautiful; instead she is striking. She is a rather liberated woman, but she sacrifices some of her ideals for love and when betrayed, she withdraws in a mirror image of shell shock for the former first World War soldier. She begins by enduring Lord Peter, and then soon subtly encourages him while refusing to acknowledge that she is doing anything of the kind. She cannot help being drawn to her soul mate, but she spends three books resisting, hoping to reestablish her independence as a means of asserting her right to her individualism. When she ultimately realizes, in the penultimate novel Gaudy Night, that she does not have to be independent of Peter to be free to be herself, she is freed from her emotional demons and can accept his proposal of marriage.

Peter spends part of Busman’s Honeymoon working out his own demons, because he has undergone an emotional makeover in the space of the three or four novels preceding this one; yet he finds himself at a crossroads: he has simply wanted her, finally won her over, and suddenly does not know how to be himself with her. He wants to withdraw into himself as he has usually done at the end of a case of murder, when the guilty must hang, but there is Harriet, waiting for him to come out of it and come to her instead.

Harriet has some distance still to go in Busman’s Honeymoon. For instance, near the beginning of the novel she has to meet with the Wimsey family solicitor and sign a lot of things relating to the Settlements and the Family Position. It nearly overwhelms her, for, as she tells the Dowager Duchess, “Ever since I left College, I’ve never spent a penny I hadn’t earned.” But Peter understands, sending a three-page letter of sympathy that ends with the line, “Either your pride or mine will have to be sacrificed—I can only appeal to your generosity to let it be yours.” And Harriet does. It will be Peter’s turn next.

And they do take turns throughout the novel, intelligently discussing the difficulties of adjusting to marriage and coming to ingenious and satisfying compromises and conclusions that lead to greater and greater happiness for them both. Of course this all happens with a murder mystery to solve in spare moments, but the mystery is not very difficult, and the marriage journey takes up most of the novel in almost episodic fashion. It is an idealized portrait, and yet a thoroughly realistic plan, of how a marriage should work, and it is absolutely wonderful. The sentiment never becomes overly sentimental; their wit and practicality and a bit of comedy from the supporting cast keep it above the syrup level.

Though this book is said to be a gift to only the firm fans of Peter and Harriet, I can attest that it also can stand alone in creating such a fan.

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