The questions seem to be those that would take Dorothy L. Sayers herself away from writing mystery stories within about a decade, never to return to them in favor of more scholarly pursuits. Every reader of her detective fiction since then has had good cause to mourn her conclusions, which are not the conclusions she has given to her fictional characters.
This book has for thirty-some years been one of my very favorites. I read it again this week, collecting quotes that made me laugh, or think, or sigh.
“In the glamour of one Gaudy night, one could realize that one was a citizen of no mean city. It might be an old and an old-fashioned city, with inconvenient buildings and narrow streets where the passersby squabbled foolishly about the right of way; but her foundations were set upon the holy hills and her spires touched heaven.”
This beautiful little scene of Oxford reminds me of walking among the students and dons and visitors and tourists thronging New College Lane one summer when the vista of the towers was magical and the scent of old things a heady perfume.
“I know what you’re thinking—that anybody with proper sensitive feeling would rather scrub floors for a living. But I should scrub floors very badly, and I write detective stories rather well. I don’t see why proper feeling should prevent me from doing my proper job.”
When Harriet defends herself from an unjust assumption, all women readers identify with her, hoping someday to leave behind all eras when women must fight for the freedom to choose their own destiny. And more immediately, it would be some sort of millennial paradise to escape from these kinds of judgments. And yet, freedom from judgment is not so simple.
“It seems queer to me now to think that once I was a scholar . . .”
A former student at the Gaudy makes a somewhat wistful statement to Harriet—the woman had been such a superior scholar that she could have been a greatly successful academician, or really anything intellectual that she chose. But her choice was to marry a farmer and become a farmer’s wife, concerned with the material things of a hard-scrabble existence. She looked twenty years older than Harriet rather than her age, and she no longer enjoyed using her mind as she had before. Harriet felt that she had wasted her gifts. It is very hard to know how to judge another’s choices, but this case seems fairly clear that something important was lost.
“Bess of Hardwick’s daughter had been a great intellectual, indeed, but something of a holy terror; uncontrollable by her menfolk, undaunted by the Tower, contemptuously silent before the Privy Council, an obstinate recusant, a staunch friend and implacable enemy and a lady with a turn for invective remarkable even in an age when few mouths suffered from mealiness. She seemed, in fact, to be the epitome of every alarming quality which a learned woman is popularly credited with developing.”
Harriet Vane contemplates the painted portrait of the 16th century Countess of Shrewsbury, after whom the college was named, and through Harriet’s contemplation, the author shows us clearly what a modern woman could still be. If educated women were alarming in the old days, in the modern days alarms should be so common as to be comfortable.
Harriet, at least, does not suffer from mealy-mouth:
“. . . you haven’t the guts to say No when somebody asks you to be a sport. That tom-fool word has got more people in trouble than all the rest of the dictionary put together. If it’s sporting to encourage girls to break rules and drink more than they can carry and get themselves into a mess on your account, then I’d stop being a sport and try being a gentleman.”
Thus she scolds an undergraduate, Reggie Pomfret, who tries to sneak a girl, Miss Cattermole, who is fast approaching the dead-drunk stage, back into her college in the middle of the night. As a consequence, Harriet later finds this speech has created complications that reverberate through the novel and incidentally provide strong clues to the solution of the mystery.
This episode is one in a list of uncomfortable, mostly amusing, awkward social situations that Harriet gets into during the course of the novel that further the main and sub-plots. Some of the others are:
- Harriet attends an undergraduate party with Reggie Pomfret, who has a major crush on her that Harriet doesn’t at first realize. The hostess of the party doesn’t want her there; the hostess’s boyfriend doesn’t want Reggie there but definitely wants Harriet; Reggie doesn’t want to go but doesn’t want Harriet to go without him, and Harriet is amused and mischievous all around. At the end of the party when Reggie proposes to Harriet, they are pounced on by a Proctor and Harriet’s standing as a Senior Fellow protects young Pomfret from punishment. It is a comic reversal of his hope to become Harriet’s protector; it is furthermore a device to show that Harriet needs no literal protector—neither Pomfret nor Lord Peter.
- Harriet is literally run into by Lord Peter’s nephew, an undergraduate of Christ Church College, Oxford. Viscount Saint-George knocks all Harriet’s parcels out of her arms and scatters her meringues over pavement and plinth. He takes her back to his college kitchens where they replace the meringues and get acquainted.
- Saint-George asks Harriet to lunch, but she finds he has crashed his car over the weekend and is in hospital. This leads to a couple of comic hospital scenes in which Harriet ends up having to write a letter for Saint-George to his uncle Peter.
- The letter to Lord Peter makes Harriet write her own letter to him, which takes her five drafts, to her irritation but to our enlightenment, as it couldn’t possibly be that hard if she had not begun finally to care about Peter’s feelings.
- Several scenes involving Saint-George visiting Harriet’s college, along with Lord Peter, leave Harriet vulnerable to the criticisms, jealousy, and resentment of various members of the college. These scenes either advance the clues to the identity of the college lunatic, or complicate Harriet’s developing feelings for Peter. They are always fun to read.
- The final “scene” is truly that—more than awkward, strained, and awful. It is of course the occasion when the culprit is brought into the Senior Common Room. The confrontation goes both ways, and Harriet, at least, becomes physically sick as a result, echoing her earlier scene with Miss Cattermole, to whom The Worst was happening when Harriet was giving Reggie Pomfret a piece of her mind and enjoining him to stop being a sport and start being a gentleman. It becomes Harriet’s turn to vomit as the mystery is resolved, leaving her emptied of all the poison in the pen and ready to take up a fresh new page of life. (So to speak.)
“Were you really giving all your mind to it, do you think? Your mind? Were you really being as cautious and exacting about it as you would be about writing a passage of fine prose?”
This is Miss de Vine laying bare Harriet’s inner soul, as she does at key times throughout the novel. It is interesting that both Harriet and Peter almost immediately are drawn to her as soon as they meet her. It is because Miss de Vine is the Voice of Truth, and since both our protagonists are devoted to the pursuit of truth, it is inevitable that such a character should become their friend. She is not easy to be around especially for Harriet, but both Harriet and Peter value her very highly.
“I’m very sorry for the person who is somebody else’s job; he (or she, of course) ends by devouring or being devoured, either of which is bad for one.”
Miss de Vine offers this wisdom to Harriet as a warning. It is a good warning for anybody to heed. Nobody should be so obsessed with another person that they sublimate their personality, desires, and whole life to that person; or that they end up demanding the sacrifice of that person to themselves. That was the entire trouble with Harriet and Philip Boyes—he wanted to devour Harriet and it is fitting that he ended by devouring poison.
“But I know that, if you have put anything in hand, disagreeableness and danger will not turn you back, and God forbid they should.”
Peter writes this to Harriet when he learns that she is investigating something “disagreeable and dangerous.” It is Peter himself who shows Harriet clearly that he is not about to become her protector, though in subsequent episodes in the novel he is torn somewhat. But he sticks to his wisdom in this course. About which more later.
“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 waters of Mercury [a college pond]. One day she climbed up Shotover and sat looking over the spires of the city, deep-down, fathom-drowned, striking from the round bowl of the river-basin, improbably remote and lovely as the towers of Tir-nan-Og beneath the green sea-rollers.”
This lyrical passage echoes what is happening in Harriet’s mind, and it comes almost exactly halfway through the book, when she has allowed herself to recover just a bit of her youthful outlook, when she has allowed herself to express her first fully empathetic message to Peter, five drafts though it took. As soon as she has opened her mind and heart thus far, she becomes able to express herself in poetic phrases.
“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.”
Here is the full sonnet, the octet written by Harriet and the sestet later by Peter.
Here then at home, by no more storms distrest,
Folding laborious hands we sit, wings furled;
Here in close perfume lies the rose-leaf curled,
Here the sun stands and knows not east nor west,
Here no tide runs; we have come, last and best,
From the wide zone in dizzying circles hurled
To that still centre where the spinning world
Sleeps on its axis, to the heart of rest.
Lay on thy whips, O Love, that we upright,
Poised on the perilous point, in no lax bed
May sleep, as tension at the verberent core
Of music sleeps; for, if thou spare to smite,
Staggering, we stoop, stooping, fall dumb and dead,
And, dying so, sleep our sweet sleep no more.
Harriet has come “home” in herself. I think we all need this: at some point in our lives we need to find within ourselves that which rests and renews our minds, hearts, spirits, or souls. And as Peter points out in the sestet, we can’t stay in our state of rest, as a static state is akin to death. Better to use the point of rest to become ready for our next active state. Love, the impetus, in this sense must encompass agape, eros, philia, and all the other kinds of love described by the ancient Greeks.
After that point, the second half of the novel deals with more pointed commentary on the major themes. Harriet, for example, gains in confidence.
“However badly we may assert our own unworthiness, few of us are really offended by hearing the assertion contradicted by a disinterested party.”
Harriet is no exception. She may have been battered by the choices she made earlier in her life, and by the accidents attendant on those choices, but now she is ready to recover her full, true personality, and that includes a feeling of well being. She is also ready to be somewhat silly and playful.
“Harriet and the Dean had begun to collect shirt-fronts.”
This is one of my favorite silly things. Harriet and Letitia Martin, the Dean of Shrewsbury, took bets on whether the male guests invited to dine in college at the High Table would wear a stiff or a soft formal shirt-front (formal dress for dinner is one of the things that dates the novel). One of the most memorable additions to their collection was the unfortunate Dr. Threep, whose “hard boiled” shirt front emitted a popping sound every time he bent or straightened. Harriet and the Dean “disgraced themselves badly,” the author wrote, over the unfortunate timing of the little POPs. I can remember many times in my younger years trying hard to stifle giggles at an inappropriate time and place. Later, one of other dons actually has the nerve to ask Lord Peter Wimsey why the popping happened, and Peter treats the question with great seriousness, to Harriet’s and the reader’s great mirth.
Another of my favorite things:
“She started up the High, pausing for a few moments to stare into the window of an Antique shop; there was a set of carved ivory chessmen there, for which she had conceived an unreasonable affection.”
After this little introduction to a very important step in Harriet’s and Peter’s relationship (the chess set), Peter makes his first appearance in the case, nearly two-thirds of the way through the novel. And Harriet experiences both harmony and conflict about him.
“She resented the way in which he walked in and out of her mind as if it was his own flat.”
“She had often wondered, in a detached kind of way, what it was that Peter valued in her and had apparently valued from that first day when she had stood in the dock and spoken for her own life. Now that she knew, she thought that a more unattractive pair of qualities could seldom have been put forward as an excuse for devotion.”
Ha! She doesn’t yet appreciate that Peter loves her for her ability to be truthful.
“She went to bed thinking more about another person than about herself. This goes to prove that even minor poetry may have its practical uses.”
Harriet needs to think more about Peter than about herself, after five years. She needs to develop her sense of empathy first. That sonnet was the catalyst.
Now back to silliness:
“Lord, teach us to take our hearts and look them in the face, however difficult it may be” – thus speaks an incoherent curate, to the great delight of collectors of such things.
“‘Dear me!’ said the Dean. ‘Abduction of Helen de Vine by Paris and Hector.’
‘No, no,’ said Miss Pyke. ‘Paris was the brother of Hector, not his nephew. I do not think he had any uncles.’”
The dons in the Senior Common Room are at their window watching Lord Peter and his nephew, Lord Saint-George, sauntering around the quad until they meet up with Miss de Vine and take her into the Library building. The dons’ joking tone covers the fact that the two aristocrats, one very handsome and the other very striking, are perceived with all their privilege and power, as the heroes of the ancient Greek epic. But because exactness in scholarship is another of the themes of the novel, the one don points out to the other where the metaphor breaks, providing a bit of subtle comedy in doing so.
Peter, meanwhile, having finally been brought onstage, is made to complete his own inner transformation. For five years he has loved Harriet Vane without a return. That’s five years of developing a mostly one-sided relationship, and although he has been forced to act in a different way than he has in the past toward any lover, in this case he has to change himself finally for good, from an essentially selfish, taking-privilege-for-granted type of man to one who thinks and acts toward his loved one solely for her good, not his own. The last points he has to give up are interesting ones.
“I object to being tactfully managed by somebody who ought to be my equal.”
Peter thinks he would hate such a scenario, and in this context, he provides Harriet with a perspective that allows her to continue to change her mind and heart about him. He shows her that he really does want an equal partner, not someone he might devour or who might devour him. In reality though, in the course of the next novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, Peter realizes Harriet is managing him at one point, and far from resenting it, he likes it, and it makes a potentially sticky situation smooth for all concerned. But it is a minor point, not the major characteristic of their relationship.
“That is the art of the charlatan—to induce a confession and present it as the result of deduction.”
Thus speaks Peter again. But isn’t this exactly what he does as a detective in novel after novel? Make deductions, come up with a solution, and then for lack of hard evidence end up relying on a confession? See the end of this novel. See the end of Busman’s Honeymoon. And so on.
“The great advantage about telling the truth is that nobody ever believes it—”
I used to find this true when I wanted to confess something somewhat embarrassing or outrageous to my friends. I would adopt a certain tone of voice that seemed to suggest I was telling a tall tale, and it was very convenient that nobody would ever believe me when I told the exact truth about something I shouldn’t have done.
One of the major sacrifices Peter has to make in order to be the man Harriet can trust, is that of his instinct to protect the one he loves. Because he must not interfere with her right to determine what she will or will not do, he offers to teach Harriet some self-defense moves:
“I am very civilly pretending that I don’t care what dangers you run. You don’t want me to howl at your feet, do you?”
“You’re going to make me feel ignorant and helpless. I don’t like it.”
. . . .
“No gentleman could throttle a lady more impersonally.”
“Thank you for the testimonial. Cigarette?”
This scene shows that Peter is willing to do what it takes to honor Harriet’s independence, while acknowledging his own concern for her safety as she investigates the problem in the college, which he thinks will be physically dangerous. It shows that Harriet acknowledges Peter’s intelligence and experience, and that she trusts him more. It also provides a degree of subtle sexual tension, as the throttling involves physical acrobatics between the pair, and Peter’s off-hand remark at the end both echoes his very first proposal scene in the prison when he tells her that he could produce testimonials about his love-making, and the cigarette was then supposed to be the archetypal ending for sex scenes. That he then goes and buys her a dog collar for protection is comic relief indeed.
“Peter—give me the ivory chessmen.”
I love that the first purchased gift Harriet accepts from Peter is the dog collar. But when he is bitterly reminded that the first gift was her life, her restored empathetic nature feels quick remorse and she perfectly nails it with this request.
“But my chessmen! I could kill her for that.”
How sad that they fall victims to the college lunatic! I felt the same as Harriet. I wanted revenge in the first moments.
“‘This kind of thing,’ said Peter, as tenor and alto twined themselves in a last companionable cadence, ‘is the body and bones of music. Anybody can have the harmony, if they will leave us the counterpoint.’”
This is another metaphor for the relationship envisioned by Peter for himself and Harriet, which is another of the points that convinces Harriet that she will not lose herself with him. As in contrapuntal music, Peter sees each of them having their own melodic line that interacts without depending on creating vertical harmony (or chords). Each line has its own voice, and that’s what makes the whole work. Besides the metaphor, I like the literal device of giving Harriet a choral background of motets and madrigals that makes singing with Peter possible.
“. . . she had had, from Miss Hillyard, a strangely vivid little picture of Peter, standing at her bedside between night and dawn, quite silent, and twisting the thick strap over and over in his hands.”
Didn’t I say earlier that Peter lapses in his determination not to interfere with Harriet’s right to run herself into danger? This is surely one of those, when she is not strangled because of the dog collar, but she is knocked out in the subsequent fall. But he is silent, ambiguous. Perhaps this is simply Peter owning the risks but feeling the pain.
“Everything that was alive in him lay in the palm of her hand, like a ripe apple.”
Harriet realizes that the choice is close upon her.
“If you had really tried, you could have sent him away in five minutes.”
The Voice of Truth, Miss de Vine, provides Harriet with the appropriate sounding board for her decision. It has been obvious throughout Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, and this novel that Harriet never did want to send Peter away except temporarily. Miss de Vine continues:
“You needn’t be afraid of losing your independence; he will always force it back on you. If you find any kind of repose with him, it can only be the repose of very delicate balance.”
Miss de Vine has thus echoed exactly what Harriet and Peter together created in that sonnet.
“Face the facts and state a conclusion. Bring a scholar’s mind to the problem and have done with it.”
Miss de Vine here shows Harriet how to reconcile the life of the mind with the life of the heart. The scholar’s mind can look at the heart and interpret its “facts” and come to a conclusion. It is not only possible, but with Harriet, it is imperative.
“Six centuries of possessiveness, fastened under the yoke of urbanity.”
This is what Harriet at last sees in Peter when she looks at him deliberately with the perspective of her colleagues. She had never seen him for who he really was before this time.
“I set out in a lordly manner to offer you heaven and earth. I find that all I have to give you is Oxford—which is yours already.”
Peter sums up his five-year courtship and his entire life in this sentence. He has changed from the “lordly manner” to being fastened well and truly under the yoke of his choosing. He cannot give her Oxford, but ironically he helped her find that she had it within herself all the time. Once she has reclaimed that portion of herself, her melodic line is complete, ready to counterpoint with his toward consonance.