The Stars Look Down is an actual book!

OK, this is admittedly a very trivial discovery, and one I could have made easily enough long ago, if it had ever occurred to me to inquire. No doubt I’m just revealing yet another embarrassing gap in my reading knowledge in pointing to it as a book I’d never heard of. Still, I felt a little amused thrill yesterday as I was browsing  in J. W. Doull’s and happened across a battered copy of a novel called The Stars Look Down. I instantly recognized the title because it is mentioned several times in the opening section of one of my long-time favourite books, Dorothy Sayers’s Busman’s Honeymoon. Peter’s mother is reading it as the drama of Peter and Harriet’s engagement and marriage unfolds: “Was reading The Stars Look Down (Mem. very depressing, and not what I expected from the title–think I must have had a Christmas carol in mind, but remember now it has something to do with the Holy Sepulchre–must ask Peter and make sure) after ea, when Emily announced ‘Miss Vane,'”  reads the Dowager Duchess’s diary for 21 May. Then she loses track of it (“Must remember to ask Franklin what I have done with The Stars Look Down“). It turns up again in October (“Tried The Stars Look Down again, and found it full of most unpleasant people”) and then finally, on October 8, after the wedding (“H. looked very lovely, like a ship coming into harbour with everything shining and flags flying at wherever modern ships do fly flags…”), she puts it aside once more: “Find The Stars Look Down not quite soothing enough for a bed-book–will fall back on Through the Looking-Glass.” I’m pretty sure The Stars Look Down has no thematic relevance to Busman’s Honeymoon: Wikipedia tells me that the novel chronicles injustices in a mining town. I have no particular interest in reading it. It was just such a surprising start of recognition the minute I saw the title. I guess I may have read Busman’s Honeymoon a few too many times. A while back, a colleague gave a paper in the department on Sayers and the automobile, focusing particularly, of course, on Peter’s Daimler, and I was disconcertingly able to provide exact quotations for the examples she brought up in the Q&A session: “Not waking the baby, are we, Bunter?” “The vibration is at present negligible, my lord.” The mystery plot of the novel is absurd; it was always Peter and Harriet I loved, Harriet especially–though I admit, the Peter Wimsey of Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon is one of a tiny elite group of fictional crushes of mine. (And no, neither Heathcliff nor Mr Rochester is in the group.)

As a completely irrelevant aside, while I was browsing in Doull’s the staff received a phone call from a woman asking for ‘books that would look pretty on her shelves.’ I kid you not. The woman who took the call was remarkably patient (“No, you really would have to come in and take a look to see which books would suit your decor. No, we don’t offer special discounts on books sold “by the foot”; no, we won’t sell our books to you for 25 cents apiece if you buy over a certain quantity; yes, our books are all priced individually based on what they are worth.”) It reminded me of my own days in retail: it’s odd how customers are at once essential and the bane of your existence!

6 thoughts on “The Stars Look Down is an actual book!

  1. lisa peet July 31, 2010 / 11:21 pm

    The fabulous Strand bookstore has exactly that service, called Buy Books by the Foot (in one selection, books “represent a variety of colors and subjects”). I guess if you can’t beat ’em, sell ’em.


  2. Minnie August 1, 2010 / 4:21 am

    I don’t think you have any grounds for shame at any gaps in your reading knowledge, Rohan! I’d forgotten that ‘The Stars Look Down’ is even mentioned in ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’. Interesting that the author’s name on dustjacket is Dr Cronin (usually ‘A J C’). I remember reading ‘The Citadel’ but (my turn for embarrassment) can’t recall plot/characters. Parents had a copy & it was obligatory reading (if only because one grandfather had been a doc in a coalmining area). Very … worthy – no wonder it sent her ladyship reeling away in search of Lewis Carroll!
    With you on Lord P – and Mr R + Heathcliff (both of whom I always found hysterical in every sense).
    Books “by the foot”, eh? Afraid am not a bit surprised. A friend is (wonderful) landscape painter & now inured to punters scanning her gorgeous work to see if it’ll ‘go’ with the décor in their living rooms. I, too, have done time in retail – can be hell, can’t it? But often staff solidarity (and satirical laughs) make up for it – department stores came out top for that. People a lot easier in books :-).


  3. Tom C August 1, 2010 / 4:35 am

    A very interesting blog – I have just come across it. Did they make a film of this book? I seem to remember seeing it as a child in the 1950s. Ah yes,

    In the UK we have a journal called Slightly Foxed which covers all these “forgotten” books from the last century. So many great writers just faded away – I fear even “greats” like Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene are going that way.


  4. litlove August 1, 2010 / 9:57 am

    Have you ever heard Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Whimsy in the BBC drama adaptations? I’d never had a literary crush on the character until I heard him in the role. He is magnificent. And nope, hadn’t ever heard of the Stars Look Down myself, under any guise!


  5. Rohan Maitzen August 1, 2010 / 10:15 am

    Lisa: Wow–live and learn! I’m pretty sure $400/foot for antique leather is not what the caller had in mind, since she seemed keen to pay no more than 25 c/book. I have a sudden urge to go and measure my collection of ‘Victorian era’ classics…

    Minnie: You’re right about staff solidarity. I have always thought that my 6 years in retail were very good practice for working with students, actually: though I don’t accept ‘customer service’ as the actual model for student-teacher relations, it’s helpful to know how to take a deep breath before you start talking in response to someone’s demands or complaints.

    Thanks, Tom. I’ll have to look up that journal! The first half of the 20thC is a weak spot in my own reading, for sure.

    Litlove: I have seen him in the BBC Gaudy Night, I think, and found him a bit weaselly for how I imagine PW. That’s the thing about deeply felt literary crushes, I suppose: they rarely survive the transition to real life. My thesis supervisor refused to watch the BBC Middlemarch because he didn’t want an actress’s face superimposed on his idea of Dorothea.


  6. Sam August 3, 2010 / 1:32 am

    We do Books by the Foot at Housing Works too (at cut-rate prices, of course). It’s mostly for movie sets and such, but there are also the occasional owners of a new mansion in Amagansett looking to fill a library in an aesthetically pleasing way. It’s a good opportunity to unload the 42-volume leatherbound James Fenimore Cooper or Wilkie Collins canon we have no idea what to do with. You just bite your tongue and take their money. Come the reading, I’ll show you the backstock of it all in our super-secret, super-creepy sub-basement!


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