Volume XXVIII · Number 1 · Summer 1974
Dorothy Sayers and Peter Wimsey*
Two relatively recent events cornbine to inspire this discussion of Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novels. One is the appearance of Lord Peter, a one-volume collection of all the short stories detailing the exploits of the noble sleuth. The other is far more spectacular, the television adaptation of Clouds of Witness and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, originally done by the BBC and rebroadcast on Public Television among all those endless panel discussions of Gross National Product and horsey ladies telling you just what to do about the blight on the jolly old gingko tree.
The television productions displayed wit and elegance, good acting, and some fidelity to the events and atmospheres of the novels; they no doubt sparked a renewal of interest in Lord Peter's exploits, the works of Miss Sayers, and perhaps in classic English detective fiction in general, all of which seems to be a good thing. We may even find ourselves in the midst of a revival of Dorothy Sayers' works. The most enthusiastic readers of Lord Peter and the most devoted followers of detective fiction can probably project a rosy future. Perhaps we will see more BBC adaptations of the Wimsey books (as well as others of the period), perhaps a commercial television network will risk a continuing series, a couple of movies will appear, the usual plethora of imitations will arise, and our movie and television screens will glimmer with the faded splendors of Georgian England and echo the brittle dialogue of upper-class Englishmen confronted with murder most foul and other miching mallecho.
It all sounds rather strange and wonderful, especially for mystery buffs, doesn't it? Well, it is, no doubt, mere wishful drooling, I am quite happy to say. I don't think I'd care to see a wholesale revival of the Sayers novels or of the kind of detective fiction they represent, and I hope that the unlikely scenario (as they call such projections nowadays) I've adumbrated never comes to pass.
Unlike most readers of detective fiction, I have never found Lord Peter Wimsey or the books he inhabits an unqualified delight. For one thing, just a little elfin charm goes a long way with me, especially when it is displayed by a presumably intelligent fully grown male well over the age of fifteen, which I would consider the extreme limit of archness. Depending on the particular novel or story, I find him by turns amusing, fatuous, tedious, or merely insufferable. In general I prefer early Wimsey to late, both on the grounds of his fallen archness and because he at least occasionally becomes an object of fun and satire in his early exploits. In the later ones he turns into the "priggish superman" that Auden finds quite unacceptable.
I am also perhaps somewhat more interested in what Lord Peter represents than in what he actually is; I cannot tolerate easily the idea of an aristocratic detective with an airy manner investigating serious crimes, while I can appreciate the notion of a comic fop from traditional English literature solving puzzles of great complexity to help a number of people straighten out their lives. If I am to take Miss Sayers seriously, then I must accept this silly little man, who behaves like a schoolgirl's fantasy of an aristocrat, as a genuine and desirable hero; but even the most sympathetic critic of the novels has found Lord Peter somewhat hard to bear, describing him as an example of "what God could have done with men if only He'd had the money." He is, however, quite acceptable as a literary hero, perhaps even the last wholly English literary hero; he is, consequently, a throwback to a time and place which, if it existed at all, chiefly lived in the British imagination, the man Orwell called "the titled ass who always turns up trumps in the moment of emergency." The time and place can be roughly located no later than about a hundred years ago, at the height of English power, before the sun began steadily to set and the lights to dim all over that empire that the Briton thought belonged to him.
I come, however, neither to praise nor to bury Lord Peter, mainly to say a few words-I hope vaguely intelligent-about him, his books, and his creator. He inhabits a considerable body of work -- eleven novels appearing from 1923 to 1937, and twenty-one short stories -- which itself constitutes only a portion of Dorothy Sayers' really prodigious literary production. In addition to the Wimsey mysteries, she wrote other detective stories, a great many essays on detective fiction, literary and theological topics, and innumerable journalistic pieces; compiled a bibliography of Wilkie Collins for the CBEL; published two volumes of verse, and translated into English poetry that most difficult of great poems, Dante's Divine Comedy. Like a great many English writers of her time, she caught what I am tempted to call a fatal case of High Anglicanism, which developed the usual symptoms in her works, including the detective fiction. She became an aggressive Christian apologist, a lucid and readable lay theologian and theological critic, and then, in the final, familiar stages of the disease, broke out in a number of closet dramas and verse plays on religious subjects, joining her fellow sufferers Eliot, Auden, Charles Williams, and C. S. Lewis. There is no doubt that the adjective her admirers constantly apply, "massive," (she was, we are told, a rather large woman), is well deserved. In the best spirit of the English amateur, she accomplished a body of work any professional would have been proud to have called his own.
She remains, however, like many who write both detective fiction and other sorts of literature -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and C. Day Lewis, for example -- best known for her mysteries, especially those that present the investigations of Lord Peter. These novels are regarded by many devotees of crime as worthy of a place beside the greatest efforts in the genre -- even worthy of mention in the same breath with the Sacred Writings of Conan Doyle. The books have much to commend them, either to the general reader or the more bloodthirsty type who likes a knotty problem, a dash of excitement, and a nice gory murder or two in his fiction. For one thing, Miss Sayers writes with a great deal of verve, grace, and elegance, rather remarkable in a genre that all too rarely displays these qualities. They are eminently worth reading, if only for their wit, good humor, and careful style. But for aficionados there is more; the cases Lord Peter undertakes would satisfy even the most hardened reader of detective fiction. The puzzles are wonderfully complicated and employ all the staple paraphernalia of the best-loved detective stories -- grotesque murders, rare poisons, infernal machines, deceptive clues, mixed-up timetables, properly fiendish and clever villains, astounding demonstrations of deductive ability, and, of course, successful conclusions of even the most perplexing cases.
The world of the novels is authentically detailed, inhabited with a familiar cast of both major and minor characters who appear often enough and fully enough to ripen and develop into old friends. Peter Wimsey's circle includes his family -- his dull and irritable older brother, Gerald, Duke of Denver, his flighty but attractive sister Mary, and his charmingly vague mother, the Dowager Duchess. The Honorable Freddy Arbuthnot, a genial aristocratic imbecile, appears in several of the books and even manages to help Peter out now and then. Inspector Charles Parker of Scotland Yard does Wimsey great service by allowing him full access to the resources and secrets of the police department; he also stands around quite a lot holding Peter's notebook or something while showering him with admiring comments during the investigations. Parker is rewarded for his devotion by being allowed to marry Peter's sister, a considerable break with honored tradition, but the blood was getting a bit thin anyway. The characters are generally amusing, interesting, and even occasionally endowed with a modicum of life, another departure from the standards of contemporary detective fiction.
Next to the hero himself, the most interesting and engaging character of all is Mr. Mervyn Bunter, Lord Peter's valet, butler, trusted assistant, and arbiter of taste, the complete gentleman's gentleman. He is surely the most Protean and gifted manservant since the Admirable Crichton. Mr. Bunter can bid successfully at Brocklebury's on the 1481 Folio Dante or the Caxton folio of "The Four Sons of Aymon" ("unique in possessing the colophon") as easily as he can chat up a cook or a servant girl to gain some information for his employer. He is an expert on photography and fingerprints and can advise his master on the proper occasions to wear his mauve tie or to serve Cockburn '80 port. He has the scientific skills of a trained criminologist, the unerring eye of an expensive gentleman's tailor, and the discretion of a sage. He combines all these faculties with the hauteur of an archbishop and the conversational style of the later Henry James. If he were given just a bit more space in the novels he would probably dominate them. In the television production of Clouds of Witness, by the way, he was all wrong-they, played him with a Cockney accent. Mr. Bunter, I am happy to inform you, would no more drop an aitch than he would drop his trousers in public.
The dominant figure, as we all know, is Lord Peter Wimsey himself, who begins interestingly enough in the best traditions of detective fiction but soon develops into something very different from the usual literary sleuth. From his first book, Whose Body?, published in 1923 when Sherlock Holmes (of sainted memory) was still practicing at 221B Baker Street, to his last, Busman's Honeymoon (1937), Lord Peter undergoes a substantial metamorphosis. He changes from an eccentric, intelligent, even charming young fop into a man of almost superhuman powers, generally becoming less and less interesting as he develops greater abilities.
In Whose Body? Lord Peter appears to be a fresh addition to the roster of eccentric amateur sleuths. He lives in bachelor splendor at 110A Piccadilly, collecting old books, playing fine music, drinking good wines, and doing nothing in particular; he pursues that peculiar English occupation of "man about town" -- and occasionally indulges a hobby of detecting. A second son who did not inherit the family estates traditionally went into the Church or government service; by rights Peter really should be languishing somewhere in the tropics, smashing down large pink gins, dressing for dinner in the middle of the jungle, and deploring the climate, the natives, the state of the crops, or those wretched drums every night, Carruthers. Instead he has taken up crime, using his pose as a silly-ass aristocrat to mask what we are told is a first-class mind and a deep sense of justice, as well as to settle his war-damaged nerves.
Since a Great Detective in fiction (compare Sherlock Holmes or Father Brown) chiefly consists of a set of attitudes and mannerisms, with some memorable epigrammatic phrases, Lord Peter seems at first fully satisfying. Called upon to investigate a mysterious corpse which turns up in an innocent man's bathtub clothed only in a pair of spectacles, Lord Peter says," 'Uncommonly awkward for him. . . I think I'll send Bunter to the sale and toddle around to Battersea now an' try and console the poor little beast.' " Using a great deal of ingenuity and large dollops of good humor, Wimsey manages to trap the diabolical murderer, chiefly because he senses the man's satanic and inhuman system of values. Wimsey's career is off to a good start; he is a refreshingly different detective with a strong moral concern hidden by some rather curious quirks of manner and personality.
He develops still further in the second novel, Clouds of Witness (1926), in which Miss Sayers begins to explore fully the comedy of manners that provides the real structure for her fiction. In this book Lord Peter must defend his brother, the Duke of Denver, against a charge of murder before a jury of his peers; since Gerald is in fact a Peer, the trial takes place in the House of Lords. The novel is quite a bit more complex than the first and Lord Peter is much more fully and lovingly presented:
. . .to Lord Peter the world presented itself as an entertaining labyrinth of side-issues. He was a respectable scholar in five or six languages, a musician of some skill and more understanding, something of an expert in toxicology, a collector of rare editions, an entertaining man-about-town, and a common sensationalist. He had been seen at half-past twelve on a Sunday morning walking in Hyde Park in a top-hat and frock-coat reading the News of the World. His passion for the unexplored led him to hunt up obscure pamphlets in the British Museum, to unravel the emotional history of income-tax collectors, and to find out where his own drains led to.
Probably the most satisfying of the early Wimsey novels is The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, which was also the better of the two television productions. This book, published in 1928, captures some of the dreadful sadness and suffering of England after World War I, where an entire generation was profoundly and horribly damaged by the war. Everyone in the novel constantly alludes to that war, which never stops happening for them, and everyone seems psychologically or physically afflicted by the terrors of the recent past.
The book also describes with a real sense of verisimilitude -- for an outsider anyway -- the stuffy and comic character of a typical English club. The murder of old General Fentiman fulfills the punchiine of a joke which echos grotesquely throughout the book-the one about the denizen of a club reading his Times, who turns out to have been dead for three days. The villain is that favorite Sayers nemesis, the man of science, in this case a brilliant and inhuman physician who -- perhaps because he is a paid-up member of the Bellona Club -- is allowed to shoot himself in (where else?) the library after writing a full confession.
Peter, who has displayed some of the compassionate aspects of his character in the past, now very sweetly effects a cure of Ann Dorland, a confused young woman who has been badly treated by a variety of rotters, bounders, and cads. Like a true comic hero, Peter manages to unite her with the right man at the end of the book and save her from a nervous breakdown.
For me, these are the satisfying and readable Wimsey books. From Strong Poison (1930) onwards, Lord Peter deteriorates considerably. In that novel he falls in love with Harriet Vane, whom he defends against a charge of murder, and pursues her off and on through a number of rather boring books until he wins her in Gaudy Night, an academic novel mostly about Harriet, and weds her in Busman's Honeymoon, subtitled "A Love Story With Detective Interruptions." In the process of the pursuit, Miss Sayers seems to have fallen in love with Lord Peter; he proves himself a virtuoso performer in every conceivable field of activity and gains considerably in gravity and presence, losing some of his satirical qualities and more of his attraction. Thus he is revealed in Murder Must Advertise as an adept copywriter, a graceful acrobat, and a champion cricketer. In The Nine Tailors, a lovingly detailed nostalgia piece about the fen country of East Anglia-which makes me desire neither to live in nor to visit the place -- he turns out to be an extraordinary bellringer; that novel, by the way, tells us more about the art of campanology than anyone could possibly ever want to know. InGaudy Night he courts Harriet in Latin, writes the sestet to complete a sonnet she has composed, and travels about Europe on secret and delicate diplomatic missions for his country, rather like Henry Kissinger; his efforts appear to have been unsuccessful, since war broke out two years later. By this time the worst of Lord Peter is ascendant and there are no more Wimsey books after Busman's Honeymoon, although a novel called Thrones, Dominations was promised for many years.
Though it may seem somewhat unfair, I have been moving toward those worst aspects of Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Sayers' fiction throughout this paper. I feel that the Wimsey books, Miss Sayers, and English popular fiction in general have much to be ashamed of and attacked for; had they been written more recently, they would be subject to some justifiable abuse that their comparative quaintness and antiquity help us to neglect. The novels display some of the most offensive aspects of British life, manners, opinions, and traditions imaginable, many of which still survive and cripple that great nation even in these more enlightened times.
To begin with, they are permeated with what could be termed class hatred or class contempt, if it were not simply so casual and ordinary a thing, without any perceptible malice aforethought. Being an aristocrat, Lord Peter is usually condescendingly kind to servants and peasants; aristocrats always are, for the highest and lowest classes are mutually dependent and noncompetitive.
The class Lord Peter and his chums most despise is the broad middle class, from its lower to its upper reaches, and often as far down as the respectable working classes and the "deserving poor." The middle classes are not only beneath Lord Peter socially and financially, but also a very real threat to his way of life; their values and ambitions are dangerous to him. Virtually no member of the middle class survives unscathed by mockery in a Wimsey novel, from poor little Thipps the architect (who tries pathetically to hide his origins but always drops an aitch at some point) to the physicians (who must, after all, work for a living) to the coroner's jury the Dowager Duchess describes for us: "'What unfinished-looking faces they have -- so characteristic, I always think, of the lower middle-class, rather like sheep, or calves' head (boiled, I mean).'" When he wants to make a conquest of a working girl (strictly emotional and only for the sake of information) Peter consults the infallible Bunter about the proper equipage:
"I wish to appear in my famous impersonation of the perfect Lounge Lizard -- imitation très difficile."
"Very good, my lord. I suggest the fawn-coloured suit we do not care for, with the autumn leaf socks and our outsize cigarette holder."
"As you will Bunter . . . we must stoop to conquer."
In addition to the constant snobbery, the books are full of the casual, reflexive anti-Semitism that seems inevitably to accompany High Church and Neo-Catholic orthodoxy in the best British circles -- we need think only of Chesterton, Belloc, Eliot, among others -- and which also distinguishes almost all English popular and serious fiction of the 1920s and 1930s. I have suggested in another place that the High Tory in England is virtually indistinguishable from the Low Fascist; I think such novels as Miss Sayers' help to explain why England slept and why Munich became synonymous with appeasement. There are dozens of slighting references to Jews and other foreigners throughout the Wimsey books, but Have His Carcase may be the most programmatically anti-Semitic. Lord Peter practices his powers of deduction on a note:
"Very dainty. As supplied by Mr. Selfridge's fancy counter to the nobility and gentry. . . Olga Kohn -- who sounds like a Russian Jewess -- is not precisely out of the top drawer, as my mother would say, and was obviously not educated at Oxford and Cambridge."
The rest of the novel is populated with a variety of Jews, most of whom are objects of amusement or scorn, and certainly never out of the top drawer.
A further curiosity about the Wimsey books is the general detachment of their events from the world in which they are assumed to occur. Although they take place during the Boom and the Crash, during a period of explosive social, political, and economic upheaval, we are given almost no sense of the times. In 1924 Ramsay Macdonald became, briefly, the first Labour prime minister of England; in 1926 thousands of upperclass young men volunteered their services in keeping order during the General Strike; in the 1930s the Depression put millions out of work; through all this, Lord Peter doesn't even notice a decline in his stocks. The only references to the rapid and frightening social changes seem to be in the large number of Socialists, Bolsheviks, and "conchies" (conscientious objectors) whom Peter and others abuse and conquer regularly. These men, who are much criticized for their cowardice, pretentiousness, and revolutionary designs, may represent the genuine fears of the upper classes about the future of their England; perhaps Peter's easy victories over them are more of the wishful thinking of the fantasy world.
Similarly, and surprisingly in a writer and scholar of Miss Sayers' obvious and remarkable learning and ability, the author demonstrates imperviousness or outright hostility to the experimentalism and progress that mark the modem period, which may be the most richly creative era since the Renaissance. The victim of Strong Poison, Philip Boyes, obviously gets done in because he leads a rather Bohemian life and writes experimental novels. Although Lord Peter occassionally goes out slumming with his arty friends, he absolutely detests any new explorations in the arts as much as he recoils from researches into science, medicine, and psychology. (Miss Sayers fills her works with slighting references to Freud, another symptom of the literature of the time so common that it is worth a study of its own.)
In general then, the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, like a great many works of modern English popular fiction, subscribe to a daydream view of English life, rooted in the past, conservative in politics, orthodox in religion, and attentive to snobbish social customs, manners, and behavior. They are, as I said earlier, dedicated to a picture of just such an English lord as a schoolgirl would imagine, and, I am afraid, just such an English lord as an American would like to imagine, too. In short, they pander to some often objectionable fantasies which would be harmless and forgivable if their presence in real life were not so crippling and destructive.
Probably the least forgivable thing about this vision is that Miss Sayers surely should have known better. But, as gullibly as anyone else, she seems to have swallowed her own notion of what an aristocrat is and does. We have only to read Dickens, Arnold, Orwell, Waugh, or some British history of the last hundred years, or simply to observe closely present English life to know better ourselves.
The gentleman amateur, if he exists in England at all, is still a rather specialized case, though he seems necessary to the popular English novel. Given the centuries of breeding and our knowledge of the great English families, however, we can get a pretty good idea of what Lord Peter would really be like. He wouldn't be a horseman, a gentleman, a scholar, a musician, and so on. He would probably have been a wealthy imbecile, retarded and sickly by years of inbreeding, illiterate, decidedly not clever (the English detest cleverness), like one of the many congenital idiots sitting in the highest house of the English Parliament. He may have been a handsome, inarticulate young giggler like the man who married Princess Anne -- a match clearly made in heaven -- one of the members of the foxhunting country gentry, Wilde's "unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable." He may have been one of those incredibly stupid British officers who sacrificed thousands of brave men through bungling and blundering, from Crimea to Gallipoli to the Irish Revolution to World War I. Given his training at Eton and Balliol and his foppishness and carefully cultivated air of effeminacy, he may have turned into one of those young men who acquire questionable tastes at exclusive boarding schools, practice the higher sodomy at Oxford, graduate to the pursuit of muscular Guardsmen, then wind up in some important post like Prime Minister. Again, Miss Sayers should have known better.
Therefore, although I am happy to see that all of her books are in print and that Lord Peter Wimsey is enchanting millions on television, and that the classic English novel of detection seems headed for at least a minor revival, I remain unenthusiastic about the return of Lord Peter. He represents what far too many Americans mistake for high culture, which is to say British culture. His presence on American television is a tribute to our public channels, which are currently more relentlessly Anglophile than any other American institutions, with the possible exceptions of the Harvard English Department and The New York Review of Books. The BBC can send anything over here and have it accepted, watched, and praised -- witness The Last of the Mohicans, which interestingly featured Indians speaking in quite acceptable Etonian accents, or The Golden Bowl, which looked like one of those snooty English magazines set to music. If they ever did Moby Dick the title character would turn out to be a kipper, after all.
The Wimsey adaptations were stylishly done and deserved our attention, perhaps even more than some of the books. But their tone and the tone of the books in our own age is aimed at those people who equate culture with English culture, whom Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim calls "the Merrie Englande crowd" -- the recorder-playing, madrigal-singing, Morris-dancing, brass-rubbing-collecting bunch who can accept a vision of life that would be ludicrous if it were not so insidious.
They can have Lord Peter and all his elfin charm; I hope most of us would prefer something a little more vital, a little more democratic, a little more honest, a little more real. Our escapes and our fantasies, necessary as they are, should be, I think, healthier and more fulfilling than what Lord Peter Wimsey can provide. As Whitman says of Swinburne (who is rather like Wimsey), "Ain't he the damnedest little simulacrum?"