“I Have Married England”: Dorothy L. Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon,” Part II

busmans2Now for the things I don’t love about Busman’s Honeymoon. [If you missed it, Part I, “Love with Honour,” explains the things I do love.] Some of these I’ve always noticed, some stood out particularly on this reread; some are small irritations, and some make me uneasy that, in spite of them, I still love the book. In the discussion that followed my earlier post about making excuses for Gaudy Night I suggested that some books are “like a slightly embarrassing relative you still adore.” I think it’s not just loyalty that keeps Busman’s Honeymoon in my good books (so to speak!): I think the good in it really does outweigh the bad. But I can’t deny that it has some real problems.

Worst is the novel’s off-hand antisemitism, which surfaces in the context of not one but two “financial gentlemen” who get involved in squabbling over the victim’s estate. The first, Mr. MacBride, is anticipated as “an inquisitive Hebrew”; he turns out to be”a brisk young man, bowler-hatted, with sharp black eyes that seemed to inventory everything they encountered, and a highly regrettable tie.” He also has “a trifling difficulty with his sibilants.” The second, Mr. Solomons, is “a stout, elderly Hebrew” with a pronounced lisp (“Very thorry to intrude . . . I have here a bill of thale on the furniture . . .”). They are both presented as slightly comical figures and treated with perfect, if faintly condescending, amiability by our main characters, but there’s no doubt that they are meant to represent an exotic and not altogether desirable genus characterized by money-grubbing and sharp dealing. This is the kind of thing that could be shrugged off as “a product of its times” but is more appropriately pointed out as a symptom of what was wrong with those times, or at least with too many people living in those times. In Gaudy Night villainy is strongly associated with Nazism, but antisemitism and fascism had a pretty strong hold in 1930s England too: Mr. MacBride and Mr. Solomons could come across as quaintly offensive anachronisms, but they are also salutary reminders of the conditions that made Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts possible.

Next up is the novel’s snobbery. In Gaudy Night, where so much of what matters is educational and intellectual, I tend to think in terms of elitism instead, and to see Oxford as a place that (in Sayers’s admittedly idealized version) renders class barriers, if not irrelevant, at least less relevant. But in Busman’s Honeymoon you really can’t ignore the power of class hierarchies. Though there are references to Harriet’s past life as an ordinary person (you know, the kind who buys tea biscuits in a shop and so knows which ones from the package have the cheese in the middle), she’s living in Peter’s world now, and she adapts with discomfiting ease. It takes no apparent effort at all for her to refer to the gardener simply as “Crutchley,” to accept Bunter’s deferential services, or to be high-handed with the (admittedly dreadful) housekeeper Mrs. Ruddle.

In taking on Peter’s rank, Harriet is taking up a new place in a strictly ordered world, one the novel portrays with more nostalgia and idealism than mistrust or critique:

Whatever fantastic pictures she had from time to time conjured up of married life with Peter, none of them had ever included attendance at village concerts. But of course they would go. She understood now why it was that with all his masquing attitudes, all his cosmopolitan self-adaptations, all his odd spiritual reticences and escapes, he yet carried about with him that permanent atmosphere of security. He belonged to an ordered society, and this was it. More than any of the friends in her own world, he spoke the familiar language of her childhood. In London, anybody, at any moment, might do or become anything. But in a village — no matter what village — they were all immutably themselves; parson, organist, sweep, duke’s son and doctor’s daughter, moving like chessmen upon their allotted squares. She was curiously excited. She thought, “I have married England.” Her fingers tightened on his arm.

vintagebusmanIt’s one thing to be “immutably yourself” when you’re the duke’s son (or his new bride), but it’s another if you are a struggling mechanic or anyone else who might like to “do or become” something else. Even though Harriet’s own story could be read as one of disruptive social mobility (and that’s exactly how she is seen by the more hidebound of Peter’s family and aristocratic peers), in Busman’s Honeymoon social aspiration is cause for ridicule (the absurdly pathetic Miss Twitterton, for instance, who gives herself airs because her mother was a school teacher) or a sign of villainy; the cynicism of a world in which Mrs. Ruddle initially suspects Harriet and Peter of being film stars and “no better than they should be” is contrasted unfavorably with the noblesse oblige that requires dutiful attendance at village concerts and the vicar’s sherry party.

Peter is often a bit awkward or apologetic about the anachronism of his aristocratic identity, but he’s also profoundly attached to the continuity it represents, and Busman’s Honeymoon really indulges that feeling, particularly when he brings Harriet at long last to visit the family “pile,” Duke’s Denver, with its antiques and its peacocks and its well-mannered ghosts. The tour of the family portrait gallery brings to mind Trollope’s remarks about the wealth of the church: “Who could lie basking in the cloisters of Salisbury, and gaze on Jewel’s library, and that unequalled spire, without feeling that Bishops should sometimes be rich?”

The afternoon sun slanted in through the long windows of the gallery, picking out here a blue Garter ribbon, there a scarlet uniform, lighting up a pair of slender hands by Van Dyck, playing among the powdered curls of a Gainsborough, or throwing into sudden startling brilliance some harsh white face set in a sombre black periwig.

We are all, in some ways, beneficiaries of such privilege: shouldn’t we be glad that some people have, historically, been able to collect and preserve so much beauty, to patronize artists and commission great buildings? But while it’s true that Busman’s Honeymoon does include reminders that democratic forces are at work — that in London, as Harriet observes, for instance, this “ordered society” is in flux — there’s something conservative about its yearning to keep those forces at bay and to protect “impeccable Inigo Jones staircases” from the encroachments of modern life. Along with the novel’s other nastier prejudices, this raises questions about just what kind of England Harriet has married: it doesn’t seem an altogether welcoming or progressive place.

Finally, there’s the crime itself, which Chandler was quite right to point to as contrived. The Golden Age aspects of the mystery are mostly good fun. I especially like Peter’s self-consciously Holmes-like reading of the vicar:

 “This is magnificent,” said Peter. “I collect vicars.” He joined Harriet at her observation post. “This is a very well-grown specimen, six foot four or thereabouts, short-sighted, a great gardener, musical, smokes a pipe — “

“Good gracious,” cried Miss Twitterton, “do you know Mr Goodacre?”

” — untidy, with a wife who does her best on a small stipend; a product of one of our older seats of learning — 1890 vintage — Oxford at a guess, but not, I fancy, Keble, though as high in his views as the parish allows him to be.”

“You know my methods, Watson,” he says self-deprecatingly to Harriet when she exclaims that “to the best of my knowledge and belief you’re right.” Unrealistic as they may be, too, the array of clues including clocks and cacti and wireless settings make for a good puzzle, Inspector Kirk is excellent, and the subplot with Constable Sellon adds a nice human touch. But it all feels like a puzzle set up to be solved, not (as Chandler wanted) a story of a murder by “the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” Our killer does have his reasons, but given them, and given his character, there are much simpler, more obvious methods he’s more likely to have resorted to. There’s also the typical Golden Age implausibility of a body turning up on the sleuth’s honeymoon in the first place, not to mention in his own home. These are, of course, the kinds of things about which this subgenre of crime fiction requires suspension of disbelief, but there’s too much genuine human drama and feeling in Busman’s Honeymoon for them to sit quite right. While Gaudy Night elegantly fuses its mystery plot with its other elements, Busman’s Honeymoon feels like a mish-mash, an uneasy and ultimately unsuccessful compromise between two kinds of books.

10 thoughts on ““I Have Married England”: Dorothy L. Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon,” Part II

  1. lawless March 5, 2015 / 2:36 am

    I had much the same reaction when I reread Busman’s Honeymoon recently. The anti-Semitic stereotyping and cultural conservatism were particularly grating, though my understanding always was that Mr. MacBride is a Scotsman and is referred to as a Hebrew because of his profession and the connection Sayer made between the stereotype of the miserly Scot and the reputation of Jews as masters of financial chicanery.

    Sad to say, I don’t like Busman’s Honeymoon as much as I once did. Gaudy Night is still my favorite, with The Nine Tailors, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Murder Must Advertise, and Clouds of Witness close behind.

    I find the other books with Harriet in them hard to read because they’re full of unlikeable people doing unlikeable things (a problem I have with Unnatural Death as well, which also has a cringeworthy anti-queer plot) and because Harriet comes across as boorish and not self-aware. The reason advanced for Harriet’s resistance (not wanting to be indebted/feel gratitude) to my mind misses the mark. Maybe it’s in character for Harriet not to acknowledge that her real problem is her fear of being overwhelmed and taken over, exacerbated by his class privilege and money, but it’s hard for me to take her seriously as a character. It also makes reading a bit of a slog.


    • Rohan March 5, 2015 / 11:53 am

      I puzzled over Mr. MacBride. When he’s first brought in, Peter says “Name of Moses?” to which Bunter replies “Name of MacBride.” “A distinction without a difference,” says Peter, which perfectly sets up just what you say — that he’s (as also described) “a financial Scotsman,” not Jewish himself. But then the remark about him as an “inquisitive Hebrew” made me wonder if it was to be taken literally. I guess the overall antisemitic implication is the same.

      I’m fond of parts of Have His Carcase but you’re right there are plenty of unpleasant people in it and even more so in Strong Poison.


      • lawless March 6, 2015 / 11:56 pm

        Given everything else, I always took MacBride’s characterization as an “inquisitive Hebrew” as honorary or metaphorical.


    • Gabriel Baum May 26, 2022 / 5:03 pm

      There is also casual antisemitism in Gaudy Night, where Peter writes to his nephew, Saint-George, saying: “… I will ask you to see to it that the whole of your liabilities are discharged by that time, including your outstanding Oxford debts and your obligations to the children of Israel.“.


  2. Desperate reader March 5, 2015 / 10:41 am

    A year or so ago I skimmed through both Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon ignoring the mystery to read them just as a romance. Like you I first read them when I was 13 when I was as uncritical as I was ignorant about the complexities of adult relationships. I will always enjoy these books but a sense that Sayers has turned Peter into her own perfect fantasy of a man makes me a bit uncomfortable now. I can’t help but think she shouldn’t have followed them so far into the bedroom.


    • Rohan March 5, 2015 / 11:56 am

      I think P. D. James described Dalgliesh her ideal man — and Kate Fansler was (according to Carolyn Heilbrun / Amanda Cross) a fantasy version of herself (as well as a reinvention of Peter Wimsey). One thing that’s interesting about both Sayers and James in these cases is that their ideal men are not really typically masculine or “manly” men, as if part of their experimentation with the genre and its conventions is with its emphasis on particular kinds of strength or stoicism or toughness.


      • lawless March 7, 2015 / 12:11 am

        Dalgliesh and Wimsey are more the thinking man’s (and woman’s) detective/detecting hero than action heroes (not to say they can’t hold their own then). While there are some noir detectives I like, or at least appreciate reading about (Matthew Scudder, Sam Spade), most of the protagonists of hard-boiled detective novels leave me cold.

        I can see Kate Fansler being an idealized version of Heilbrun/Cross, but what’s the connection to Wimsey other than an interest in the academy and educational and intellectual attainments?


    • lawless March 7, 2015 / 12:05 am

      If you don’t mind my asking, what is it about Peter being Sayer’s perfect fantasy that bothers you? Is it just the sexual implications? While it’s clear that something’s going on, unlike today’s romances, it’s not at all explicit. I, for one, am glad she dropped those hints, considering what Peter said in Gaudy Night about the worst sin passion can commit is to be joyless.


  3. Jenny March 5, 2015 / 7:03 pm

    On class: isn’t that element interesting in Murder Must Advertise? When Peter must finally unveil his real name and origin, it’s seen as a kind of betrayal of all the ordinary people he’s been working with — even the educated ones — and an instant barrier.

    But for me, that sort of thing doesn’t grate, or make me like the book less. It causes tension in the mind, but I enjoy that.


  4. Katy March 6, 2017 / 4:26 am

    I hate Busman’s Honeymoon but find it weirdly compelling, and I end up rereading if every so often even though I try to resist. Here are the things that bother me about Busman’s Honeymoon (they are many.)

    1. The voyeurism. The sheer number of people in this book who are inordinately preoccupied with Peter and Harriet’s sex life wigs me out. They can’t even tell each other they love each other in the privacy of their own home on their honeymoon without a distraught eavesdropper falling out of the closet at them. And that’s a central element in the book from the very beginning, when we trade in the wonderfully immersive free indirect discourse of Gaudy Night for an arch epistolary chapter in which people we’ve never met speculate about Peter and Harriet’s upcoming marriage. All this makes me feel that the novel has deliberately placed me in the role of voyeur, and I don’t like it. I also find it depressing that Peter and Harriet, from the moment they get engaged to near the end of the book, have so many demands made on them and so little privacy. This isn’t the honeymoon I wanted for them when I read Gaudy Night.

    2. The French. Peter has never shown a tendency to suddenly drop into French before, so where is this coming from? It’s like Sayers has got him mixed up with Mr. Rochester, or maybe Cathcart from Clouds of Witness. It contributes to my feeling that this reads more like fanfic than like a “real” Lord Peter book.

    3. “My Lord.” Need I say more?

    4. The tone. I like the end, with the grimness and the PTSD and all that, but a lot of the book has these really over-the-top farcical elements that jar on me. It’s like a sandwich: you’ve got the serious drama of Gaudy Night, followed by some sub-Wodehouse comedy, followed by even more serious drama.

    What I like: The ending. Remember that startling moment (to Harriet anyway) in Gaudy Night when Lord Peter shows up physically and emotionally exhausted from all the Nazi-appeasing he’s been doing, and plunks himself down in the Dean’s sitting room and just unloads all his worries onto Harriet? And Harriet realizes that he knows all about her insecurities and she knows nothing about his, because he doesn’t like to be vulnerable? If you take that and put it together with all we’ve been told about Peter’s PTSD, plus his mini-breakdown that Harriet catches a glimpse of in Gaudy Night, I think it’s clear that the final scene of Busman’s Honeymoon is an essential part of Peter and Harriet’s story. I just wish I liked the rest of the book better.


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