“A Critical Moment”: Francesca Wade, Square Haunting


All the women in this book thought carefully about the sort of home they wanted to live in. Though they arrived at Mecklenburgh Square at different stages of life, moving there provided each of them with a fresh start at a critical moment: the way they each chose to set up home in the square was a bold declaration of who they were, and of the life they wanted to lead.

Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting is a nice new example of an old form: the collective biography. I really enjoyed reading it: it’s an elegantly constructed and well-written introduction to five remarkable women–the imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle); classicist Jane Harrison; historian Eileen Power; Dorothy L. Sayers; and Virginia Woolf. Starting from the very literal connection that all of them at one time (though not, mostly, the same time) lived in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, Wade explores other commonalities between them, especially their conviction that “real freedom entails the ability to live on one’s own terms, not to allow one’s identity to be proscribed or limited by anyone else.” For some of them, moving to Mecklenburgh Square represented their determination to live up to that insight; others came to this realization during their time there and moved away to fulfill it. Neither of these really describes Woolf’s trajectory: she is at once the best known (and most marketable) of the book’s subjects and the one whose time at Mecklenburgh Square was least significant to her formation as an individual or intellectual.

I knew very little about H.D., Jane Harrison, and Eileen Power before, so their chapters were the most novel and informative for me: Harrison in particular was a very appealing character. I already knew a fair amount about Sayers and Woolf, especially around the specific issues and time periods Wade addresses, though, and so their chapters, while also ably executed, inevitably came across as précis versions of what’s available in the very good options we have for full-length biographies–something that might well also be the case for those who knew the other three from existing treatments such as Mary Beard’s The Invention of Jane Harrison.

square-2This is not to say that there is nothing original about Square Haunting; Wade has not just done her homework and synthesized her findings but added details and insights of her own. Still, the most original thing about her book is its concept: grouping these five women together because they (more or less) shared an address. Wade makes the most of this geographical link, discussing the history of Bloomsbury in general and Mecklenburgh Square more specifically to clarify what it meant to choose to live there, especially for women moving away–as all her subjects were–from women’s conventional roles and paths. Having rooms of their own was both a vital practical step towards the independence they wanted and a heavily symbolic one, a point Wade makes (inevitably and rightly) with plenty of allusions to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

Wade does a nice job drawing out the thematic resonances between her subjects’ lifes and their work. Each in her own genre and with her own particular focus contributed rewriting dominant narratives and expanding our available stock of ideas about how to understand and talk about women who do not conform to them. Harrison, to give just one example,

drew on cutting-edge material evidence from the archaeological digs she’d personally witnessed, and revealed an array of powerful goddesses who once reigned alone over cult shrines . . . but whose ancient worship had silently been replaced by later cults to Zeus, their temples renamed, their powers re-attributed and their legends altered to accommodate the rationalized Olympian pantheon. These new gods, Harrison insisted, reflected not only human form but also man-made hierarchies: their rise was testament to the gradual erosion of women in Greek society.

Her “efforts to reread history through the lens of gender and power” had far-reaching influence, Wade observes:

Her legends of powerful, creative, and vengeful women–and her compelling evidence of the way women have been systematically devalued by centuries of patriarchy–inspired others, over subsequent decades, in their creation of female characters, from E. M. Forster’s Schlegel sisters to James Joyce’s Molly Bloom, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay, and D. H. Lawrence’s Brangwen women.

v-woolfHarrison is the “J—- H—-” of A Room of One’s Own:

on the terrace, as if popping out to breathe the air, to glance at the garden, came a bent figure, formidable yet humble, with her great forehead and her shabby dress–could it be the famous scholar, could it be J— H— herself?

Woolf met Harrison at Newnham in 1904 and “Harrison’s work,” Wade tells us, “gave Woolf a new, subversive model of history which informed all her subsequent novels and essays: one whose revelations offered powerful ‘mothers’ for women to ‘think back through’ and which revealed as man-made–and flimsy–the constructs on which patriarchal society rests.”

Wade makes many more connections than that, both biographical and thematic, and they are all interesting and convincing. Still, by the time I’d finished the book I couldn’t shake the feeling that its organizing premise is a bit thin. Mecklenburgh Square is a clever framing device, but it’s hardly essential to the more substantive discussions Wade gets into about her writers: it’s an excuse or an occasion for the book’s particular biographical studies. Many other women around this time had much in common with Wade’s chosen five, for one thing: Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, for instance, who make occasional appearances but happened to live at a different Bloomsbury address. Again, Wade makes the most of her geographical conceit, and it’s mostly successful. I especially liked her conclusion, with its neat revelation that there is now a room reserved for women students in the exact location (as far as researchers can establish) as Woolf’s study in her home at 37 Mecklenburgh Square, which was destroyed in the Blitz. At other times, though, I thought the effort required to sustain or and justify the book’s concept showed through. Probably because I have spent so much (so far fruitless) time trying to imagine how to package and pitch the kind of literary writing I like to do (including about some of these same writers and questions) I found myself almost more impressed with Square Haunting as a successful publishing concept than anything else–as a lesson in, or a reminder of, what sells: biography, of course, or autobiography or bibliomemoir.


The reasons for this are probably similar to the reasons collective biography has always served: we still seek models and exemplars, though now we are more likely to find them in rebels and nonconformists than in the kinds of women celebrated in Victorian examples. The women in Square Haunting serve that purpose for me too, and I have found my own ramblings around Bloomsbury inspiring because for me too it is a place that represents a fantasy of liberation, both personal and intellectual. (As Wade points out, that really is a fantasy now, given what it would now cost to rent or own a flat there: it is no longer hospitable to make-shift bohemianism.) On my UK trip last summer I spent a lot of happy time roaming around and sitting and thinking in both Gordon Square and Tavistock Square, which were Woolf’s addresses at other times in her life. Wade has convinced me I should wander over to Mecklenburgh Square on my next visit, just to complete my tour. What a nice thought: to be a literary tourist again, brushing up once more against the materiality of those whose work continues to expand my mental horizons. As this shut-in time wears on and wears me down, it helps to imagine doing a little more ‘square haunting’ of my own some day.


Piffle: Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison

“If anybody ever marries you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle,” said Harriet, severely.

Strong Poison was the first Peter Wimsey novel I ever read. It was the right one for me to start with, as it is the first one that features Harriet Vane, who is superb from the first moment we meet her; I went eagerly on to read (and have since reread many, many times) the rest of the Peter-and-Harriet sequence: Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. I used to reread Strong Poison pretty regularly too, as the tattered condition of my copy testifies, but I haven’t gone back to it in ages–decades, perhaps. Rereading it this time, I felt the usual nostalgic pleasure in revisiting something once loved and still familiar in almost every word, but I was also surprised that it had inspired me to read on in the series.

It’s not just that now I have much less patience for elaborate but very unlikely crimes and protracted displays of ingenuity in their investigation: it’s that I can’t imagine that I ever liked this Peter Wimsey at all. How was I not then, as I am now, both horrified and creeped out by his opportunistic, entitled, manipulative “courtship” of Harriet? “When all this is over,” he says to a woman he is meeting for the first time and who is currently on trial for murder and thus facing the death penalty, “I want to marry you, if you can put up with me and all that.” It’s inexcusable, and it’s exactly right both that Harriet refuses him every time he returns to visit her in prison, update her on her case, and press her once more to consent to his proposal, and that at the end of the novel he slinks away without facing her.

Of course, Sayers herself realized the same thing: as she explained, what began as a simple enough plan to marry Peter off went completely off the rails when her two-dimensional chatterer came face to face with a woman of substance and complexity. Before she could let Harriet say yes, she had to reinvent Peter as a man of a very different kind while also giving them both, but especially Harriet, time and space to recover from his first ridiculous, blundering advances. Only then could they develop (and could we believe in) a relationship based on genuine respect, intellectual camaraderie, and love. The process begins in Have His Carcase, reaches its triumphant conclusion in Gaudy Night, and then carries on with mixed success in Busman’s Honeymoon.

I think because I rarely read the pre-Harriet Wimseys (I’m not even sure I’ve ever read them all) and hadn’t read Strong Poison in so long, I’d forgotten just what a long journey Peter makes across the sequence. It’s not that there’s nothing at all interesting or redeemable about him in Strong Poison, but he is conspicuously more shallow than in Gaudy Night, in which he can deliberately put on or take off the aristocratic buffoon persona that nearly defines him here. What really bothered me this time, though, was his abuse of Harriet’s confinement and vulnerability to press his attentions on her. “Do please stop asking me,” she says near the end of the novel:

“I don’t know. I can’t think. I can’t see beyond the–beyond the–beyond the next few weeks. I only want to get out of this and be left alone.”

That seems more than fair! He’s harassing her. She can’t get away, what with being in prison and all, and for all she really knows, if she keeps rejecting him he’ll stop detecting for her. It’s true he’s preeningly self-conscious about the awkwardness of the situation, but by far the most insightful thing he says about it is the last line of the book: “I intend to marry the prisoner,” he tells his family … “if she’ll have me.” It is, and should be, up to her–and he’s right to be worried.

If Peter is the worst thing about Strong Poison (and I say this as someone who considers the Peter Wimsey of Gaudy Night very nearly the perfect man), Miss Climpson and her “Cattery” are the best. Smart, resourceful, intrepid spinsters working covertly in the service of justice: wouldn’t that make a splendid TV series? The first episode could be Strong Poison, just so we have the fun of following Miss Murchison’s adventures in the lawyer’s office and then Miss Climpson’s star turn as a medium. After that, though, Peter could be a minor character, which frankly, if we’re in the world of Strong Poison, is as much as he deserves.

“All of a Doo-Dah”: Dorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase


“Well, really, don’t you know.” Wimsey screwed his monocle more firmly into his eye. “Really, old fellow, you make me feel all of a doo-dah, what?”

Do you have books you reach for when you’re feeling low, books you just know will cheer you up? For me, Have His Carcase is a sure thing when I need a reading tonic — even though (or is it, possibly, precisely because?) it is a completely ridiculous book.

Not everything about it is ridiculous, of course. Still, its plot is unlikely and convoluted enough to deserve the kind of scorn Raymond Chandler heaped on Busman’s Honeymoon:

There is one of Dorothy Sayers’ in which a man is murdered alone at night in his house by a mechanically released weight which works because he always turns the radio on at just such a moment, always stands in just such a position in front of it, and always bends over just so far. A couple of inches either way and the customers would get a rain check. This is what is vulgarly known as having God sit in your lap; a murderer who needs that much help from Providence must be in the wrong business.

Busman’s Honeymoon (which, as I’ve said here at length, I both adore and kind of despise) is just one of many examples Chandler is using to debunk what today we might call the Golden Age puzzle mystery or cozy. He isn’t altogether wrong that this is a subgenre of crime fiction that puts clever conundrums ahead of either believable characters or social realism, never mind more probing philosophical themes. For that reason, they aren’t the kind of mysteries I like best. I hardly even read them. I’ve read maybe four Agatha Christie novels all the way through. They just don’t engage me. I’ve read quite a bit about them, as prep for my mystery fiction class, but my own taste runs more to Ian Rankin or Tana French or Arnaldur Indriðason.

I have always made an exception for Sayers, though — or, more accurately, for the Harriet Vane novels (Strong PoisonHave His CarcaseGaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon). I also admire The NineTailors and find Murder Must Advertise fascinating, but the Harriet Quartet is special. Sayers herself said that once she’d invented Harriet, she needed to transform Peter from a caricature into a man worthy of her. He’s a long way off in Strong Poison; he’s fully evolved in Gaudy Night. He’s about half way there, as you’d expect from the sequence, in Have His Carcase. And that, for me, is where the joy of the novel lies: reading it is like tuning in half way through a championship to root for your favorite, who’s in the lead. Now, when I reread it, I skip, or at least skip around in, a lot of the development of the case itself, focusing in only on the scenes between Peter and Harriet.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I do absolutely delight in sequences such as their search for clues along the beach (presented as a play, for no reason except why not, I suppose):

PETER: I just wanted to ask whether you’d given any further thought to that suggestion about marrying me.

HARRIET (sarcastically): I suppose you were thinking how delightful it would be to go through life like this together?

PETER: Well, not quite like this. Hand in hand was more my idea.

HARRIET: What is that in your hand?

PETER: A dead starfish.

HARRIET: Poor fish!

PETER: No ill-feeling, I trust.

HARRIET: Oh, dear no.

carcase3And it is fascinating to watch Sayers build layers into their relationship in order to move it out of the awkward spot she’d started it in in Strong Poison. By the end of the novel they are speaking quite differently to each other than they were at the beginning. All of that is great (and so much more interesting, to me at least, than the timetables and tides and encrypted letters on which the actual murder mystery turns). It’s not just Harriet with Peter that’s such a happy feature of the novel, though. Peter shows up in the book, but from the very beginning it is Harriet’s story overall. So we’re always approaching both the case and the relationship from her perspective, with a focus on what events mean to her. The novel even opens with one of the great literary declarations of female independence:

The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth. After being acquitted of murdering her lover and, indeed, in consequence of that acquittal, Harriet Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal; and although Lord Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.

Fond as I am of Lord Peter, I am always just a bit sorry, on every reread, when Harriet’s walking tour is so rudely interrupted by Paul Alexis’s body, so that instead of being a novel about a happy, self-sufficient career woman on a well-earned solo vacation, Have His Carcase gets coopted by both murder and romance.

But then I come around, because the two of them are so much crackling, prickly fun together, and I admire Sayers so much for fighting with the conventions of romantic stories and making both her hero and her heroine wrestle with them too, until by the end of Gaudy Night they have achieved the miraculous: love with neither subordination or compromise. That could never happen without the process ongoing in Have His Carcase, by which the Lord Peter who really is an aristocratic stock figure becomes one who plays that role with theatrical flourish. It makes me feel all of a doo-dah, what? 🙂 Just writing about it cheers me up all over again.

“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.

“Love with Honour”: Dorothy L. Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon (Part I)

busmansI’ve written at length about my love for Gaudy Night, but I have never really tried to sort out my views on its sequel, Busman’s Honeymoon. As I have owned and loved Busman’s Honeymoon as long as I have Gaudy Night (I have them in matching editions, inscribed to me on my 13th birthday), I thought it would be an appropriate book to write on for my 1000th post here at Novel Readings! But it turns out that I have so much to say that I’m going to do it in two posts.

I think the general consensus, even among Sayers fans, is that Busman’s Honeymoon is a bit of a let-down, not just as a detective story but for the ways it carries forward the relationship between Peter and Harriet — though I may be extrapolating much too far from the dismissive comments of critics like Julian Symons, who complained about the ‘dismal sentimentality’ of Sayers’s later novels. Still, it seems to be Gaudy Night that’s usually cited as the pinnacle, not of Sayers’s whole oeuvre necessarily, but of the four that make up the Harriet Quartet. I actually used to prefer Busman’s Honeymoon, which makes sense given how much more abstract some of the issues are in Gaudy Night, and how cerebral its romance. Busman’s Honeymoon has more going on right on the surface: both emotionally and criminally, it has more blunt objects! I don’t know quite what my 13-year-old self made of some of its details, such as the discussions of “shabby tigers,” or Peter’s “fits of exigent and exhausting passion” during the agonizing wait for the killer’s execution. There weren’t many limits on my youthful reading, so my guess is that these allusions to Harriet and Peter’s sex life raised fewer questions for me than their struggles to define their marriage as a relationship of equals. Rereading the novel now, it’s those struggles that stand out, and that remind me why Peter and Harriet have so long seemed to me one of the most interesting and important literary couples I know.

Gaudy Night makes a powerful case for finding a balance between head and heart – but accepting that as the ideal isn’t the same as living up to it in perpetuity. Busman’s Honeymoon is the next step: what does this really look like in practice? One thing I really liked about Busman’s Honeymoon this time (in my next post, I’ll get to the things I really disliked) is that we see these two fiercely independent and highly intelligent people trying very self-consciously to make sure their romantic relationship reflects their principles, not just their passions. The personal equality they value isn’t an easy thing to achieve in a world that is otherwise defined by inequalities — not least of wealth and power, of which Peter has a disproportionate share. Once they are married, of course, Harriet enjoys much of the same privilege (about which more next time), but Sayers is savvy about the challenges she faces to both her finances and her pride as she prepares for the wedding. “Oh, Mr. Rochester!” she says to Peter on receiving his extravagant gift of a mink coat, while she earns the money for the Donne manuscript that is her gift to him by writing “three five-thousand-word shorts at forty guineas each for the Thrill Magazine.” At Oxford, in Gaudy Night, none of that mattered: the interchangeability of their academic gowns stands for the meeting of their minds, for the freedom to face and love each other as peers. It’s very clear in Busman’s Honeymoon that they aren’t at Oxford any more.

Neither Harriet nor Peter wants marriage to mean compromise. After their first real disagreement — which arises when Harriet questions whether Peter needs to get involved in investigating the sordid murder that turns out to have taken place in their honeymoon home just before their arrival — she backs off quickly when faced with his argument that he shouldn’t “pick and choose what I’ll meddle in” to suit his own convenience. “This business of adjusting oneself was not so easy after all,” she thinks, and she can’t smooth things over with girlish ploys:

He wasn’t the kind of man to whom you could say, ‘Darling, you’re wonderful, and whatever you do is right’ — whether you thought so or not. He would write you down a fool. . . . He wanted you to agree with him intelligently or not at all.

Imagine that! Later, when the argument recurs, with the added stress that now there are real suspects who stand to pay the price for Peter’s “meddling,” Harriet rejects the power she wields because of his love for her, scorning to be the kind of woman who boasts “My husband would do anything for me.” “What kind of life could we have,” she demands, “if I knew that you had become less than yourself by marrying me?” “Love with honour” is their goal, and they know it’s not a conventional one: “If you go on behaving with all this reason and generosity,” Peter says admiringly to Harriet, “everybody will think we don’t give a damn for one another.”

newgaudynightIn Gaudy Night another sign of their equality is their collaboration on solving the mystery. It’s true that in the grand reveal it’s Peter who dominates, and the attack on Harriet could be seen as marking her as a victim in need of rescue (and there’s the whole dog collar thing too). Harriet works on her own at first, though, and prepares the dossier on which the solution depends. That they work so closely on the mystery reinforces both the novel’s overall theme of balance and its promise that the two of them are truly partners. In Busman’s Honeymoon the investigation is more clearly Peter’s turf: in those quarrels, he’s the one insisting that detection is his work, his vocation; it’s Peter who really puts the pieces of the puzzle together and who carries the guilt, in the end, of having brought the criminal to justice and thus (after due process) to his own violent death. Harriet still has a lot of input, though: it’s not the case that she simply stands by and observes. I don’t think she needs to get redefined as a sleuth herself to sustain the balance of their relationship: she has a career, as a writer, and that’s the expertise she brings to the case.

Something else Harriet’s presence does in Busman’s Honeymoon that has real generic significance, particularly for a novel that belongs to the “Golden Age,” is galvanize Peter’s transformation from sleuth into complex, flawed, and intensely vulnerable human being. This is a process Sayers herself undertook deliberately once she’d introduced Harriet into her novels. I don’t much like the early Wimsey books, as Peter’s such a chattering fop in them compared to the layered character he eventually becomes (he does still play the part of upper-class twit occasionally). Sayers knew he had to become someone Harriet could say yes to; that’s only accomplished by the end of Gaudy Night (in Have His Carcase, there are moments, but overall he’s not quite there). The implications of that for him as a detective are particularly interesting in Busman’s Honeymoon, as the ending of the novel is anything but triumphant for Peter even though he has solved the puzzle. Instead of this “success” setting him up as a heroic avenger, it brings back all the trauma of his wartime experience and leaves him broken and weeping. In “The Simple Art of Murder” Raymond Chandler quite reasonably mocks the artifice of English puzzle mysteries, including Sayers’s — in fact, he singles out Busman’s Honeymoon for its admittedly absurd scenario (“a murderer who needs that much help from Providence must be in the wrong business”). It’s interesting that he doesn’t comment on the novel’s conclusion, which could surely be read as a repudiation of the entire form of the book itself, or at least of the type of mystery it sort of is, which as Chandler noted, could force “real people” (which he admits Sayers could create) to “do unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot.”

With all this attention on reason and intelligence and principles and genre, I don’t want to miss the one other thing I have always loved about Busman’s Honeymoon, which rather pushes against the more intellectual merits I’ve been highlighting: it is utterly sentimental, full of declarations of love, some playful, some breathtakingly sincere. How wonderful to be caught up in these moments with Harriet and Peter, to be in a world, and a relationship, and a novel, in which the demands of reason and intelligence, and the conflicts that inevitably arise between two strong wills, don’t rule out the emotional abandonment — the ecstasy –of love. Peter and Harriet are both ever-ready with literary quotations, a game that’s played perhaps to excess (and sometimes to comic effect) in Busman’s Honeymoon. But it’s also here that poetry becomes, at last, the truth of their experience. “How can I find words?” asks Peter, in frustration at his own struggle to articulate his feelings on his own behalf. “Poets have taken them all, and left me with nothing to say or do — ”

“Except to teach me for the first time what they meant.”

He found it hard to believe.

“Have I done that?”

“Oh, Peter — ” Somehow she must make him believe it, because it mattered so much that he should. “All my life I have been wandering in the dark — but now I have found your heart — and am satisfied.”

“And what do all the great words come to in the end, but that? — I love you — I am at rest with you — I have come home.”

It seems fitting that Donne (that most cerebral of love poets) is always their touchstone. “This is joy’s bonfire, then,” reads his “Eclogue for the Marriage of the Earl of Somerset,” which ends the novel,

where love’s strong arts
Make of so noble individual parts
One fire of four inflaming eyes, and of two loving hearts.


This Week in My Classes: Am I Making Excuses for Gaudy Night?

I’ve confessed here before that I can have trouble staying “objective and professorial” during discussions of Gaudy Night because I love the novel so much.  I have loved it pretty much since the first time I read it, which is a long time ago: my personal copy is from a 1978 edition, and though I can’t see any sign on it of when it was actually printed, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was close to that date, which would mean I’ve been rereading it since I was 12 or 13. (Here’s a possible clue: I have the matching edition of Busman’s Honeymoon, and it’s inscribed to me on my 13th birthday, in 1980.)

I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for me to let on that I love a particular novel. I make no secret of my strong feelings about Middlemarch, after all, but I am also clear that it’s not my job or my purpose to get students to love it, or even like it: I’m trying to help them understand it, and teach them to appreciate it. I also teach novels I don’t particularly like, though I don’t typically make a big deal about that; again, my job (and theirs) is about something else.  What’s important is that I encourage, respect, and support students as they develop their own interpretations: my feelings about the novel should not come into this, only my knowledge of the novel and my experience thinking about how its different elements are related, and what they mean.

But are these aspects — my feelings, and what I’ll call my ‘expertise’ — really so unrelated? Don’t I love the novel because of how I interpret it, and don’t I interpret it as I do because of the time and thought I’ve put into reading and rereading it? Or is it that I read and reread it because I love it, and thus I interpret it as I do because of how I feel about it? What does it mean to “love” a novel anyway? And since this particular novel focuses on precisely the challenge of integrating head and heart, can’t I just stop worrying about which came first, the love or the understanding, and be happy that here I find the perfect fusion of the two?

I could, of course, and yet it wouldn’t be intellectually honest not to think carefully about the problems my students routinely raise on their first reading of the novel, and intellectual honesty is the fundamental principle of Gaudy Night. So here are some of them, and some preliminary responses. I think they are intellectual responses, responses based on my ‘objective and professorial’ understanding of the novel. But I worry that they are excuses, ways of getting around problems with the novel, that are motivated by my loving desire to protect it. Maybe — probably — they are some of both! What do you think?

1. The novel is elitist, and/or Harriet is elitist, about education.

I actually think that this is true, but for me it’s not a telling criticism of either Harriet or the novel. Both idealize a certain kind of education, and a set of values, according to which a university education is not for everyone the way we like to think (or talk as if) a university education is for everyone here and now. I thought this objection might be tempered in my Somerville seminar because we’ve already spent quite a bit of time thinking about Oxford as an idealized space as well as a place with very particular social and historical significance for women at this period. Up to this point the university had never been a democratic institution or even, really, a meritocratic one, but women’s access to it mattered and the dream of Oxford as a means for women to transform their lives was very powerful. Gaudy Night explores both this dream and its limits. I also think that it is self-conscious about this as a dream, including for both Harriet and Peter, neither of whom ever really imagines giving up the rest of their lives to embrace an academic vocation. And academic life is shown very much as a vocation, not a profession. It isn’t right for everyone. It isn’t even, as I’ve said, right for Harriet. Oxford itself, too, is shown to be much more (or is it much less?) than that ideal. But to Harriet, and, I think, in the novel overall, the life of the mind that Oxford symbolically represents is something special, something worth aspiring to and cherishing above other options. If that’s elitist, sign me up, I guess.

A key episode that always provokes intense reactions is Harriet’s conversation with her former classmate Catherine Freemantle, now Mrs Bendick, who has become a farmer’s wife. “What damned waste!” Harriet thinks; “All that brilliance, all that trained intelligence, harnessed to a load that any uneducated country girl could have drawn far better.” Is Harriet just being a snob? She asks Mrs Bendick about the “compensations” of her work and Mrs Bendick asserts that it is “a finer thing than spinning words on paper,” but she goes on to admit that she misses “things” and feels resentful of what she has given up. “It seems queer to me now,” she says, “to think that once I was a scholar.” If Sayers had wanted us to see working the land as a genuinely valuable alternative, couldn’t she have made Mrs Bendick happy and confident in her choice instead? Is she, therefore, dismissing farming as lowly labor, unworthy of a certain better class of woman, or is she regretting that a highly educated woman (still a rarity, in 1936) has lost, or given up, the opportunity to use her education?

There’s also Miss Cattermole, the current student who’s getting in all sorts of scrapes and hates that her parents have insisted she go to Oxford when what she wants is to be a nurse or a cook. “We haven’t got room for women who aren’t and never will be scholars,” rages Harriet after their conversation. Cattermole’s mother is of the generation that fought “to get things open to women,” and now Cattermole feels herself a victim of her mother’s feminist ideology. When Harriet demands, “Why do they send these people here?” is she, once again, being elitist, asserting that not everyone is fit to go to university? Or is she upset that a rare space at a women’s college is being wasted on someone who would be perfectly happy without this particular kind of specialized education? Who’s at fault here, anyway? Oxford, for not being right for Cattermole, or Cattermole’s mother, for mistaking her daughter’s opportunity for her daughter’s obligation?

2. The charge of elitism extends also to a more general complaint about class prejudice, and the identity of the perpetrator adds to the sense that the novel overall is kind of snooty.

I think this is partly true, but that it oversimplifies. Harriet herself is not upper class or aristocratic, and the difference in class and wealth between her and Peter is a major stumbling block in their relationship. Her education has changed her social position in some respects, and Oxford itself is a symbolically leveling environment for their relationship (their academic gowns are the same size, even). The privilege represented by the university is not exactly a matter of class, though, and the prejudices most on display in the novel are against the uneducated, or the enemies of (women’s) education. Annie’s own position at the college is a bit of a red herring, as far as class goes: yes, she’s working as a servant, but if things had gone differently she’d be a faculty wife. She’s dangerous and vilified because of her Nazi-affiliated views on women’s proper place, not because the novel (despite being set in a hierarchical, class-conscious world and full of people who take that structure for granted, Harriet included) is anti-working-class. I usually suggest that the central crime in a mystery novel can be read symptomatically. In Gaudy Night, the most dangerous force is a regressive sexism directed against women who have gone, or seek to go beyond, their historically limited roles through education. Such reactionary misogyny is, tragically, not a fiction in today’s world, where as we’ve just seen, it can take a tragically violent turn. Early Oxford women obviously did not face the same literal level of threat, but Annie embodies a version of the kinds of hostilities they really did incite.

3. Peter swoops in and solves the case, reducing Harriet to the status of a sidekick.

BalliolIt’s true that Peter is the ‘closer’ on this case. It’s also true that he withholds information and delays identifying his chief suspect, nominally on the grounds that he does not have sufficient proof and does not want to drive the suspect into hiding. But he also does so explicitly on the grounds that he thinks Harriet can figure things out for herself. He plays very nearly the ‘Great Detective’ role, including a classic reveal scene in which he lays out the facts of the case as he has sorted them out. Harriet’s role in the dénouement is closer to that of victim than that of heroine or detective: in classic Gothic style, she goes wandering down a dark hallway and nearly gets herself killed. But Peter makes clear that he solved the case only with the help of Harriet’s dossier, and Harriet  is taking risks in dark hallways because Peter has joined her on the case but not excluded her from it. Worried for her safety, he nonetheless accepts her right to take risks and encounter danger. Early in the novel he is injured because of a close encounter with a bad guy; now it’s her turn. It might be neater, if equality is the standard, for them to have worked literally together at each stage of the investigation, but their work until this point has been complementary yet not without conflict, and it’s not until after the case has been resolved that their relationship finally achieves mutuality (and they can finally kiss!). Disappointment that Harriet doesn’t triumphantly solve the case on her own ignores the novel’s dual purpose: it’s both a detective novel and a novel about the complicated relationship between Harriet and Peter. It is set up from the beginning so that both of these aspects need resolution. Harriet needs to figure out how she can retain her autonomy and love Peter. Feminism doesn’t have to mean doing everything without anyone else’s help. And love doesn’t have to mean capitulation. Harriet herself at one point imagines how much easier it would be to be “ridden over roughshod,” because hammering out an equitable alternative is exhausting in a world that sets up obstacles rather than providing models. Peter is not the man for that job, however–and a good thing, too, or she’d have to do a full-out Jane Eyre on him before they could marry with no threat to her self-respect.

4. Peter buys Harriet a dog collar to wear. He even wants to put his name on it! Clearly that’s a sign that their relationship is about her submission and his control.

 When I brought this up on Twitter, other readers promptly chimed in to say that, like me, they had never been perturbed by this–one noted that the dog collar is a handy solution to a pragmatic problem (what else could she wear as protection against strangulation?), while another remarked that her sense of the Harriet-Peter relationship was already strong enough at that point that there didn’t seem to be a problem. All three of us are resisting reading the dog collar symbolically, or at least as a symbol of ownership or control. In any other book, I don’t think I would resist this reading. Am I being disingenuous in arguing that I think it’s crucial to put the incident and the gift in context? Peter spends most of the novel explicitly not controlling Harriet: that’s not what he wants from their relationship, and the dog collar is proposed, in fact, as a means to her ends — with its protection, she can continue to take whatever risks she wants and live to fight (or write) another day. He doesn’t force it on her: she accepts it and later chooses to wear it. I’ve always felt that its symbolic role lies in that acceptance, which ties back to the problem of balancing independence with love. She has held Peter at bay because she believes she’s only safe (only retains her dignity and autonomy) if she takes nothing from anybody, or at any rate takes nothing from him. Gaudy Night is about her evolution away from that premise. What she finds at Oxford, and through her work on this case, is enough confidence in herself not to fear his generosity. The admittedly weird but fundamentally pragmatic gift of the dog collar opens the way to the gift of the chess set, which is an apt marker of the changing balance in their relationship. (There was another interpretation bandied about on Twitter, something to do with dog collars and their, er, erotic potential. Can we just rule out of order any attempt to turn this into 50 Shades of Sayers? As your whimsy takes you, indeed…)

5. In Busman’s Honeymoon Harriet is marginalized even further from the detective plot; this just completes the downward trajectory of Gaudy Night.

It is definitely true that in Busman’s Honeymoon Harriet is no longer on the case, and if the true measure of equality in their marriage was co-detecting happily ever after, then I concede the failure. But Harriet is a writer, not a detective! In Gaudy Night, that’s the strength she brings to the case and also the real quest she’s on (transforming the two-dimensional plot of her own detective novel into something more layered and complex)–well, that and learning to love again. I love Busman’s Honeymoon too, but the murder case in it always annoys me because I’m reading it for the romance. Gaudy Night is special because all of these aspects converge so splendidly.

Oh dear. Although I believe everything I’ve said here with all my head and my heart, and also believe these interpretations are entirely, dispassionately, defensible, there is an air of special pleading, isn’t there? And a disconcerting tendency to talk about Harriet and Peter as if they are really truly real … Please feel free to pitch in with your thoughts on the novel, and particularly on Objections 1-5. Clearly, I can use all the help I can get. Luckily for me, and perhaps also for them, tomorrow we begin discussions of South Riding, which I don’t know nearly well enough to love.

Not Quite Cricket: Dorothy Sayers, Murder Must Advertise

Murder Must Advertise is my fourth favourite Dorothy Sayers novel, after Gaudy Night (first, of course!), Busman’s Honeymoon, and Strong Poison and Have His Carcase (tied at third, because though neither of them is as good as I could wish, both do have Harriet Vane, and that’s such a lot for any novel to have). Harriet is around, in Murder Must Advertise, though never seen; she’s mentioned, very briefly, as Peter Wimsey heads off to “keep his date with the one young woman who showed no signs of yielding to him.” Though, as Sayers blithely remarks, “what he said or did on that occasion is in no way related to this story,” one reason Murder Must Advertise is as good as it is, is that Sayers wrote it after reinventing Peter as a character worthy of Harriet.*

Murder Must Advertise is a clever mystery, with plenty of clues and threads to amuse the devoted puzzle solvers among us. I’m not one of those, myself: I almost never try to figure out whodunit, which is probably why I am so comfortable with the police procedural as a form (no use trying to solve the crime before the police have collected all the evidence, after all), and the interest I do take in the crime and its solution is almost entirely the result of (or proportional to) the interest I take in the characters, setting, and situation of the novel — which is certainly why my preferred mystery writers are those who lavish care and detail on these elements: P. D. James, Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin. As I’ve often remarked here, I’m not really a fan of mystery novels as such. When I really like a mystery, I like it as a novel: I read it with the same attention and attitude as any other novel. The mystery just provides the skeleton, as a marriage plot provides the underlying structure of many other novels, or some version of the Bildungsroman the basic outline of yet more. In some cases, there’s too little flesh on the bone: when the generic framework is too exposed, covered in only the thinnest pretense of novelistic substance, I lose interest. At other times, I get frustrated when the mystery intrudes on the other aspects of the novel–or I wish the characters could escape for a while from their form and just get on with their lives! I love Gaudy Night because for me, it integrates its mystery perfectly – both structurally and thematically – with the other aspects of the novel. Sayers too thought it was something pretty special.

Murder Must Advertise is a very different book than Gaudy Night, much more satirical in tone and digressive (or, perhaps, experimental) in style. It seems to me to have its own thematic unities, though, arising from – or making apt – its setting in an advertising agency (a setting Sayers knew about first-hand). It’s a novel about money, I think, more than anything, and more specifically about the relationship between money and class, and between money and consumption, and how both of these are related, as means and motivators, to aspiration. It’s a satire on the folly of believing you can buy everything you want, from health to happiness, and it’s an exposé of the ruthlessness with which some people will feed and profit from that dream:

All over London the lights flickered in and out, calling on the public to save its body and purse: SOPO SAVES SCRUBBING – NUTRAX FOR NERVES – CRUNCHLETS ARE CRISPER – EAT PIPER PARRITCH – DRINK POMPAYNE – ONE WHOOSH AND IT’S CLEAN – OH, BOY! IT’S TOMBOY TOFFEE – NOURISH NERVES WITH NUTRAX – FARLEY’S FOOTWEAR TAKES YOU FURTHER – IT ISN’T DEAR, IT’S DARLING – DARLING’S FOR HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES – MAKE ALL SAFE WITH SANFECT – WHIFFLETS FASCINATE. The presses thundering and growling, ground out the same appeals by the million: ASK YOUR GROCER – ASK YOUR DOCTOR – ASK THE MAN WHO’S TRIED IT – MOTHERS! GIVE IT TO YOUR CHILDREN – HOUSEWIVES! SAVE MONEY – HUSBANDS! INSURE YOUR LIVES – WOMEN! DO YOU REALISE? DON’T SAY SOAP, SAY SOPO! Whatever you’re doing, stop it and do something else! Whatever you’re buying, pause and buy something different. Be hectored into health and prosperity! Never let up! Never go to sleep! Never be satisfied. If once you are satisfied, all our wheels will run down. Keep going – and if you can’t  Try Nutrax for Nerves!

 The device of putting the über-aristocratic Peter Wimsey undercover at Pym’s Advertising Agency allows for some comic fish-out-of-water material in the early chapters, but the situation gets darker and more complicated as we see and feel – and Lord Peter sees and feels – the difference between his “ordinary” life and the realities of life for his colleagues at the office (and, just by the way, the novel is also an astute and sardonic portrait of office life and politics). It’s a harmless game to him at first, a pleasant charade laden with unthinking condescension:

‘So you have become one of the world’s workers, Peter,’ said Lady Mary.

‘Yes; I’m pulling down four solid quid a week. Amazin’ sensation. First time I’ve ever earned a cent. Every week when I get my pay-envelope, I glow with honest pride.’

Even Lord Peter seems surprised at how far he is transformed by his experience, which initially he is able to shrug off with ease:

In a taxi rolling south-west, Mr Bredon removed his spectacles, combed out his side-parting, stuck a monocle in his eye, and by the time he reached Piccadilly Circus was again Lord Peter Wimsey. With a vacant wonder he gazed upon the twinkling sky-signs, as though, ignorant astronomer, he knew nothing of the creative hands that had set these lesser lights to rule the night.

He is drawn into his new identity, however, by the simple necessity of having to do the job of writing advertising copy. It’s work for which, with his literary education and natural wit, he is actually well suited, despite being one of the people for whom (as he notes at one point to his brother-in-law Chief Inspector Parker) advertisement “does not exist,”people who are “not of the advertising sort”  – that is, he’s above either the lure of or the need for advertising by virtue of already having, or being able to afford, whatever he wants. He becomes fascinated by the cycle of yearning and imagining and manufacturing and advertising and selling and buying that sends money around and around in the modern world:

If this hell’s-dance of spending and saving were to stop for a moment, what would happen? If all the advertising in the world were to shut down tomorrow, would people still go on buying more soap, eating more apples, giving their children more vitamins, roughage, milk, olive oil, scooters and laxatives, learning more languages by gramophone, hearing more virtuosos by radio, re-decorating their houses, refreshing themselves with more non-alcoholic thirst-quenchers, cooking more new, appetising dishes, affording themselves that little extra touch which means so much? Or would the whole desperate whirligig slow down, and the exhausted public relapse upon plain grub and elbow grease? He did not know. Like all rich men, he had never before paid any attention to advertisements. He had never realised the enormous commercial importance of the comparatively poor. Not on the wealthy, who buy only what they want when they want it, was the vast superstructure of industry founded and built on, but on those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure for ever denied them, could be bullied or wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them, if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion.

Far from bringing some kind of other-worldly values into play to challenge or even trip up this “vast superstructure,” he is drawn into it, ultimately initiating a great advertising “scheme” that anticipates today’s AirMiles-type points plans: “Whiffling Round Britain.” He has just hit upon the basic idea for this plan and “written the word ‘WHIFFLE’ in capital letters an inch high” on his scratch paper when a call comes from CI Parker asking him to call him at the Yard: “Lord Peter Wimsey was so intimately in the skin of Mr Death Bredon that he said ‘Damn!’ loudly and heartily.” He’s frustrated when a turn in the case makes it impossible for him to return to work: “But that won’t do. I’ve got to get that Whifflets campaign finished. Armstrong wants it particularly. And besides, I’ve got interested in the thing.”

But of course it’s a temp job for him, a fling; when it’s done, he understands something else about how the world turns, but it’s not until Gaudy Night that he is really forced to confront the limits of what his wealth can buy, and the challenge it poses to creating equal relationships. Harriet hates his wealth and the power it gives him. The mystery at Pym’s, in contrast, turns on the need for money, on the insidious way just the kinds of desires stoked by advertising can lead someone into debt, then erode their moral fiber as they struggle to conceal and protect their position. “You don’t know, Bredon – Wimsey – you don’t know what it is to be stuck for money,” the murderer says during his painful confession; “you marry and start paying for your house and furniture, and you must keep up the instalments…” His need for money made him vulnerable, and he became involved with a ruthless ring of drug smugglers, who connect the Pym’s storyline to another in a world at once remote and fundamentally similar, full of people whose yearning for amusement and distraction make them eager customers, with different but no less damaging results. Round and round it all goes, and there’s always someone there making a profit, turning someone else’s weakness or fantasy to their advantage. “We want to get women down to serious smoking,” kindly Mr Pym says as they prepare to launch the Whifflet campaign. “Too many of them play about with it. . . You can smoke a lot more [Whifflets] in the day without killing yourself. And they’re cheaper. If we increase women’s smokes by 500 per cent – there’s plenty of room for it – ”

Wimsey’s presence at Pym’s, then, lets Sayers go a little bit ‘Mork and Mindy’ on the advertising world, but also on the world it serves, both those who produce its goods and services and those who consume them. Wimsey’s class sets him outside this “desperate whirligig.” The novel does not seem to me to be interested in fiercely critiquing his position of privilege, but the juxtaposition of his pampered life with Bunter in the Piccadilly flat with the goings-on at Pym’s certainly exposes that privilege, and along with it, Wimsey’s casual superiority in pretty much every respect (looks, wit, education, clothing) as accidents of circumstance. “I could be a good woman if I had £5000 a year,” reflects Becky Sharp, and what special virtue can Wimsey claim for himself, never having faced the kind of petty catastrophes that come with being “stuck for money”? And yet if there is an underlying moral code at play in Murder Must Advertise, I think it is what might be called the “public school code,” something to do with fair play and honor, that’s central to Wimsey’s character and identity.  “I suppose that’s . . . the public school way out of it,” says the murderer, as he braces himself for what Wimsey presents as his best alternative, the only way he can extricate himself from the situation without leaving a legacy of scandal and shame for his wife and new baby. Their exchange refers us back to an earlier debate at the office about which schools really count as “public” schools, and whether it matters where someone was educated. There’s a painful self-consciousness on all sides about how schools act as class indicators, with those who went to Harrow and Eton (and perhaps Winchester, “a decentish sort of place . . . if you’re not too particular”) downplaying the significance of it all: “if only you people could get it out of your heads that these things matter a damn, you’d be a darn sight happier,” as “Mr Bredon” says. “I am quite aware,” Mr Smayle later says irately to Mr Tallboys,

that I never was at a public school, but that is no reason why I shouldn’t be treated with ordinary, common courtesy. And from those who have been to real public schools, I get it, what’s more. You may think a lot of Dumbleton, but it isn’t what I call a public school.

It’s all very well for Wimsey to take the signifiers of class so lightly, but only someone in his position can imagine that class doesn’t matter. Perhaps, also, only someone in his position can imagine that it shouldn’t matter. After all, he’s already in the class people like Smayle and Tallboys assume (correctly) has all the advantages. Lord Peter, though “not of the advertising sort” himself, is an advertising fantasy for everyone else: he embodies and lives their aspirations. He both is and has what they want.

This, I think, is where the cricket match becomes particularly interesting. I’ve been thinking about the relevance of the cricket match ever since a careless question about it at a recent Ph.D. exam I was involved in. Though I know next to nothing about cricket, I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed the cricket chapter in this novel. It’s brilliantly told, with lots of energetic detail; all the various Pym’s people play their part, and all the lurking tensions and resentments and all their hopes and fears give the actual cricket all kinds of human interest. The best part, though, is when Mr Death Bredon, who has planned to play an unobtrusive game that won’t give his own game away, that will give no sign of “the Peter Wimsey of twenty years back, making two centuries in successive innings for Oxford,” gets hit by a ball right on his funny-bone, at which point he “suddenly and regrettably forgot himself”: “He forgot his caution and his role, and Mr Miller’s braces, and saw only the green turf and the Oval on a sunny day and the squat majesty of the gasworks. The next ball was another of Simmonds’s murderous short-pitched bumpers, and Lord Peter Wimsey, opening up wrathful shoulders, strode out of his crease like the spirit of vengeance and whacked it to the wide.” What follows is pure sport, pure fun, and total exposure, as old Mr Brotherhood corners him: “Aren’t you Wimsey of Balliol? . . . You have a late cut which is exceedingly characteristic, and I could have taken my oath that the last time I saw you play it was at Lord’s in 1911, when you made 112.” An elaborate cover-up follows, but Wimsey’s double-life is over, the suspect is warned, and the sordid, unhappy conclusion follows soon after.

I suppose not everyone would necessarily enjoy the cricket match for its own sake the way I always have, but there’s no doubt that it plays a crucial role in the novel by bringing everything to this crisis point. But why do this through a cricket match? I actually think my colleague, in spite of himself, was asking a very important question about the central premises of Murder Must Advertise. One place to start with an answer is, again, with money and class, and also with national identity. Is there any game more English than cricket, for one thing? Or any sport more strongly associated, historically at least, with the British public schools like Eton and Harrow (which have held an annual match since 1805)? To play well (to show up in the right ‘flannels,’ even) is to stand up for something, or to stand out as something – something that seems, from the slipshod performance of most of the Pym’s players, to be out of date or out of reach. Cricket represents one form of aspiration for everyone involved, but it’s a backward-looking, nostalgic kind, a yearning for a certain vision of themselves, maybe even their country. Then there’s the more general idea of sports. “I can’t help feeling,” Mr Hankin remarks to Bredon, “that the cultivation of the team spirit would do this office good.” “Evidently, thought Bredon, Mr Hankin had realised that something was on the breaking point.” He too is struck by the uneasy contrast between the ideals Pym’s peddles (“EVERYONE EVERWHERE ALWAYS AGREES ON THE FLAVOUR AND VALUE OF TWENTYMAN’S TEAS”) and the realities:

In this place, where from morning till night a staff of over a hundred people hymned the praises of thrift, virtue, harmony, eupepsia and domestic contentment, the spiritual atmosphere was clamorous with financial storm, intrigue, dissension, indigestion, and marital infidelity. And with worse things – with murder wholesale and retail, of soul and body, murder by weapon and by poison. These things did not advertise, or if they did, they called themselves by other names.

At Pym’s, Wimsey goes around as something besides his best self. He plays at indifference, callousness, even crass commercialism – plays so well he finds himself becoming the man he pretends to be. Rapped on his funny-bone by a fast pitch, he breaks out of this adaptive inferiority, casting off “Mr Death Bredon” and appearing in his full glory as “Lord Peter Wimsey.” His class, in other words, re-asserts itself – and that, ultimately, is what begins the real process of restoring order and achieving justice. The revelation of Wimsey’s real identity brings the murderer to his flat; his moral authority sends the weaker, poorer man out to meet his dark but welcome fate: “We’ll show ’em that [we] can achieve the Eton touch. Why not?” It’s a grim and dubious responsibility Wimsey takes on here: who is he, after all, to play judge and, if indirectly, executioner? Or, to look at it from a different aspect, who is he to urge a murderer to circumvent the due process of law? It’s the time-honoured privilege of the amateur detective, though, to act on principle, and also to decide which principle to act on. (“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it,” Sam Spade intones in The Maltese Falcon.) “The first thing a principle does,” Lord Peter says in Gaudy Night, “is kill somebody,” and then later, “I admit the principle and the consequences must follow.” In that novel, the relevant – indeed, the central – principle is integrity of the mind. What principle holds the corresponding position in Murder Must Advertise? I’m tempted to say, cricket does. Cricket’s not a principle, you say? Well, it is when we use it metaphorically, as in “It’s not cricket,” which my trusty Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable explains means “It’s not done in a fair and sportsmanlike way.” That, as I understand it, is what is meant by “the public school way” too, and that’s the principle that the various criminals and liars and cheaters in the novel have violated by playing on others’ weaknesses. How far is advertising implicated in the same creeping kind of villainy? Not completely, I think – as Miss Meteyard says, “if we didn’t do it, what would happen to the trade of this country?” But just because avarice and envy drive the economy forward doesn’t make them any less morally debilitating.

And yet there’s something uncomfortably high-handed about Wimsey’s role in this case, and something disingenuous at best about letting an aristocratic fantasy figure set the tone in a morality play about the dangers of social aspiration. “I’m damned sorry, old chap,” he says at the end, and to be sure, he is, but he’s not remorseful, and he’s not in any significant way reformed or transformed: his wealth makes him immune to the petty temptations that have done so much damage. I suppose it’s only fair to acknowledge that it opens up other temptations to him, including the sybaritic pleasures that prove pretty destructive to the characters in the other plotline, such as the languidly decadent Dian de Momerie. But here too he interferes playfully, and though his interference has fatal results, he remains essentially above it all. Unlike the people who really work at Pym’s, Wimsey can walk away from the whirligig, away from the lives lost or ruined or changed because of his field trip into the working world. Now that doesn’t seem quite cricket to me! On the bright side, though, Wimsey isn’t entirely happy with the way things worked out either. “Lovely,” he says, “with a spice of bitterness in his tone,” when Chief Inspector Parker calls to report that the case is nearly all cleared up. “I don’t feel quite like celebrating.” He’s pretty pleased with the results of his Whifflet idea, though: “with a few idle words on a sheet of paper he had touched the lives of millions.”

*When I next get to my office I will complete this post with a quotation from her essay on Gaudy Night, in which she writes eloquently about this point. Funny how odd, and rare, it is to be foiled in mid-post by wanting a text I have only in hard copy and only in one location!

Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul

I finished Barbara Reynold’s biography of Dorothy Sayers this evening feeling as if I know a lot more about both Sayers’s life and her personality. I already knew a little bit of the biographical outline–Somerville, a child “out of wedlock,” a turn to religious writing, translations of Dante–but because in my life she has always mattered because of her Peter Wimsey novels, I never really focused on anything else about her. I knew (and know better now) that she would not have wanted it that way, and yet that even in her lifetime she had to live with the frustration of other people’s preoccupation with her famous detective. She wrote to a friend that one reason she didn’t write more Wimsey novels was precisely that people kept importuning her to do it: “I have been so much put off by being badgered to do it when I was wrapped up in other things that the mere thought now gives me a kind of nausea. . . . the thought of being pushed and halloooed into the old routine fills me with distaste.” Fair enough–but except for now feeling I really ought to, and would actually quite like to, read Dante in her translation (confession: I haven’t read Dante in any translation so far), I’m still with those badgerers and halloooers.

I think one reason I can’t move forward with her is that I don’t share her religious convictions and so I can’t really enter into the mental world or the enthusiasms of her later career. In some ways Sayers is a more easily likeable person than Vera Brittain, or even than Winifred Holtby–it turns out she was rather a bon vivante, much more playful and frisky than the other two, and more tough and racy as well. But their passionate sincerity and dedication to social and political causes are easier for me to care about than Sayers’s radio plays about the life of Christ. It’s clear from the material Reynolds includes, though, that Sayers embraces a kind of practical or tough-minded Christianity, and also that she does see it as important to integrate religious with political thought and action. In one of her letters, she emphasizes that her faith is not instinctive or (she thought) irrational:

Since I cannot come through God through intuition, or through my emotions, or through my ‘inner light’ (except in the unendearing form of judgment and conviction of sin) there is only the intellect left. And that is a very different matter. . . Where the intellect is dominant it becomes the channel of all the other feelings. The ‘passionate intellect’ is really passionate. It is the only point at which ecstasy can enter. I do not know whether we can be saved by the intellect, but I do know that I can be saved by nothing else.

Reynolds goes on to say that Sayers found this “combination of intellectual light and spiritual ardour” in Dante; I would add that it seems the right way also to describe the love of Harriet and Peter, not just in the resolution of Gaudy Night but in the ecstatic passages of Busman’s Honeymoon–which I was glad Reynolds did not apologize for, as many have:

The love-scenes in Busman’s Honeymoon are exultant. The surprising, and original, thing about them, for a novel, is that they are love-scenes between a husband and a wife. Despite the deterioration of her own marriage, Dorothy L. Sayers the writer has allowed herself to visualize Hymen as a god of joy. Romantic sentiment, which she had so long distrusted, here comes triumphantly into its own.

I always thought so too.

One last quotation I liked, this time not from Sayers but about Sayers, from a letter from Professor R. D. Waller of the University of Manchester thanking Sayers for her lecture there on Dante. It had “heart,” he said, explaining further

that it was about something humanly interesting and that you were humanly interested in it . . . I don’t see why professors and lecturers shouldn’t try to give lectures like yours and so put a bit of heart into their universities . . . I think you do a good thing giving lectures like that when you can in universities . . . University people have grown shy of committing themselves to anything, especially in the presence of their colleagues, for fear of being proved wrong, or perhaps of being thought naïve for having any beliefs or enthusiasms.

“The book I wanted to write”: Dorothy Sayers on Gaudy Night

I’ve been reading (and enjoying) Barbara Reynold’s biography of Dorothy L. Sayers. Much as I enjoy some of the other Peter Wimsey novels, it’s Gaudy Night that I love, so much that I’ve had trouble staying objective and professorial in seminar discussions with students who don’t get how completely fabulous it is (see? hardly dispassionate). I very much appreciated, then, this letter from Sayers to her publisher that shows she too felt the novel was something special:

It is the only book I’ve written embodying any kind of a ‘moral’ and I do feel rather passionately about this business of the integrity of the mind–but I realise that to make a ‘detective story’ the vehicle for that kind of thing is (as Miss de Vine says of the Peter-Harriet marriage) ‘reckless to the point of insanity’. But there it is–it’s the book I wanted to write and I’ve written it–and it is now my privilege to leave you with the baby! Whether you advertise it as a love-story or as educational propaganda, or as a lunatic freak, I leave it to you. It may be highly unpopular; but though I wouldn’t claim that it was in itself a work of great literary importance, it is important to me, and I only hope it won’t be a ghastly flop!

For the other Sayers fans out there, by the way, back in the early days of Open Letters Monthly (August 2007, to be precise), Joanna Scutts wrote a very nice feature essay on Dorothy Sayers that’s well worth reading.

Boston by the Books

I’m back from a wonderful five days in Boston and it seems only fitting to post first (as I did following last year’s jaunt to New York) about the books that came home with me. It was a great bookish trip, thanks to the guidance but also the company of my co-editors at Open Letters Monthly, who were all (but especially Steve Donoghue) attentive and entertaining hosts.

We made two trips to Steve’s beloved Brattle Book Shop. The first day it was drizzly so the carts were not out and our browsing was all inside–which is not a complaint, as you could browse for hours inside and still feel there were tempting treasures you hadn’t found yet. I realized only belatedly, for instance, that most of the shelves are filled two rows deep, which means I explored only one layer. That day I settled on two novels by Ivy Compton-Burnett: A House and Its Head, in the typically elegant NYRB edition, and a Penguin of A Family and a Fortune. I’ve never read any Compton-Burnett before; my interest was piqued because she is the first author chosen by Her Majesty in The Uncommon Reader. At first she’s not a hit, but after Her Majesty becomes a more experienced reader, “the novel she had once found slow now seemed refreshingly brisk, dry still, but astringently so”:

And it occurred to her … that reading was, among other things, a muscle, and one that she had seemingly developed.  She could read the novel with ease and pleasure, laughing at remarks, they were hardly jokes, that she had not even noticed before. And through it all she could hear the voice of Ivy Compton-Burnett, unsentimental, severe and wise.

On our second visit to the Brattle we browsed the dollar carts, which are filled quite miscellaneously so that you never know what might pop out at you and seem too good to resist for the price. I found Barbara Reynold’s biography of Dorothy L. Sayers (not pictured here, as it is following by steve-post). I also picked up John Updike’s collected golf writings for my husband, figuring he likes both Updike and golf so this might well be a winner! And inside again, I found The Godwulf Manuscript, which is the first of Parker’s Spenser series (I also made a pilgrimage to the corner of Boylston and Berkeley, where Spenser’s office is), and Woolf’s The Common Reader, which I owned but lent out many years ago and have never gotten back. I think I was pretty restrained, really: it’s just as well the Brattle is closed Sundays as I was right in the neighborhood and would certainly have found more. My only disappointment was that this seemed the kind of shop likely to have a copy of Testament of a Generation: The Collected Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby–but no luck.

We went en masse to the Harvard Book Store on Thursday night. Time was limited, so all my finds come from the used section downstairs. One I was particularly glad to find was W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, which is the next reading for the Slaves of Golconda book group. I also found Salley Vicker’s The Other Side of You, which some of you recommended after I wrote up Dancing Backwards. And a bit more impulsively I chose Jane Gardam’s The Queen of the Tambourine: I’ve been interested in Old Filth for a while but haven’t come across it anywhere, and this one, which I see won the Whitbread Prize, looked appealingly dark and funny.

I was back in Cambridge on Friday but did all my browsing at the Coop, mostly because I had worn myself out walking all down Newbury Street earlier that day and then all around Harvard Yard (and all over Boston the two days before!). I was trying to pick books that I haven’t been able to find on the shelf up here, and one on my most-wanted list was Laila Lalami’s Secret Son which I was happy to find there. I have followed Lalami’s blog and journalism for some time, and I got Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits in New York last summer and was impressed and moved by it. I’m really interested to see what she does working on a larger canvas.

Finally, I had a pleasant browse in the big Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center, which is an important landmark because most of the OLM team has worked there (or in another B&N location) at some time. Though it lacks the deep bookish personality of the Brattle or the Harvard Book Store, it’s still a lovely bright store for exploring. I thought since I’d been collecting so much fiction I would go a different way with my selection there; I came away with Terry Castle’s The Professor. In one of those moments that make you wonder if there isn’t a larger force organizing your “random” reading choices, I discovered that the very first essay includes a long discussion of Testament of Youth. On her first reading, Castle had not liked the book much, finding Brittain “abrasive and conceited.” She quotes Virginia Woolf’s diary entry, which she had “tended to agree with”:

I am reading with extreme greed a book by Vera Brittain. Not that I much like her. A stringy metallic mind, with I suppose, the sort of taste I should dislike in life. But her story, told in detail, without reserve, of the war, and how she lost lover and brother, and dabbled her hands in entrails, and was forever seeing the dead, and eating scraps, and stting five on one WC, runs rapidly, vividly, across my eyes.

As she then explains at some length, Castle found her rereading of Testament of Youth quite a different experience, coming to appreciate how “phobic and self-critical” Brittain is,and especially  how she struggles against her fears (which Castle too was doing, post-9/11). She finds in Brittain a rare model of a woman who fought against the way women are “imprinted” with cowardice:

By coddling and patronizing its female members, society enforced in them a kind of physical timidity; then, with infuriating circularity, defined such timidity as effeminate and despicable. Both practically and philosophically, Brittain rebelled against the linkage. . . . Had I resisted her for so long–cast her off as an important Not-Me–precisely because, deep down, I felt so much like her? I found out now, with a sudden embarrassed poignancy, precisely how much I sympathized, both with her anxiety and with the florid hope that the men she knew might infect her, so to speak, with physical courage. Not very butch of me, I know. Not very feminist. But I had to confess it: I admired and coveted–quite desperately at times–the insane, uncomplaining, relentless bravery of men.

That’s not where I expected her to take the discussion, but it’s interesting and certainly provocative, as I expect the rest of the book to be.

Also pictured above is a handy little book about the MFA collection. This comes from a particularly rich but obscure book source in leafy Jamaica Plain. It was a special privilege to scavenge in the collection there! More about my experience at the MFA itself, as well as other touristy impressions of Boston, when I’ve caught up on some of the work that has been waiting for my return.