Oh, to be in Oxford….The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh, based on the characters created by Dorothy L Sayers

October 30, 2014 at 8:40 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)


Visible from the cupola is a southerly vista of extraordinary beauty. Fist the little Gothis lancets on the roof of the Bodleian; then the large rounded mass of the dome on the Radcliffe Camera, which convinces the eye at once that every city should have a dome; then the airy Gothic spire of the university church, St. Mary the Virgin, the square tower of Merton. And Tom Tower off to one side and beyond it all in every direction soft and gently rising vistas of green hills.

This view of Oxford, seen from the cupola of the Sheldonian Theatre, is at that moment being taken in by by Harriet Vane and her son Paul. Harriet Vane, that is, aka the Duchess of Denver. Paul is one of two sons she has had with her husband Lord Peter Wimsey.

Peter has been called to St. Severin’s, a (fictional) college at Oxford, to mediate a dispute that has arisen among the fellows of the college. When he arrives upon the scene. one of his earliest discoveries is that the Warden of the college has gone missing. In fact, he has been missing for weeks, and there’s been almost no action taken to ascertain his whereabouts. Ergo, there’s already a mystery brewing. The fellows themselves are evasive; the signs are troubling. In classic detective fiction fashion, things get far more dire before any kind of resolution presents itself.

If you’re thinking that I’m being deliberately vague about this novel’s plot, I plead guilty. I finished several weeks ago, and I would be hard pressed to provide any details concerning the crimes and the subsequent investigation. What has stayed with me, however, is the pleasure I derived from being in the company of Lord Peter and his beloved Harriet. In addition, I enjoyed tracking down the classical and poetical allusions that flowed freely in this novel – even one this poignant:

VEN such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
These proved to be  the opening lines of “Even Such Is Time,” a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh, which I intend henceforth to cherish:
VEN such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days:
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.
(Found on Poetry Archive)
There are occasional reverences to the original Sayers novels. In this scene, Peter experiences a turmoil of feelings upon his return to Oxford:
Peter was far from immune to this bitterly intense nostalgia; he too had lain in a punt with his friends on more than one dewy morning, and heard the song, and adjourned to eat breakfast cooked on a campfire in the meadow below the bridge. Thinking of punts he remembered sleeping in one, overcome with weariness, while Harriet watched him, and when he awoke something unspoken and irrevocable had happened between them.
Here is that same scene, from the novel Gaudy Night, told from Harriet’s point of view. As Peter dozes, she makes a minute study of his face:
The flat setting and fine scroll-work of the ear, and the height of the skull above it. The glitter of the close-cropped hair where the neck-muscles lifted to meet the head. A minute sickle-shaped scar on the left temple. The faint laughter-lines at the corner of the eye and the droop of the lid at its outer end. The gleam of gold down on the cheekbone. The wide spring of the nostril….
And so goes on this remarkable catalog, until one wishes to jump up and shout ‘Woman, you are so in love with this man – Give it up already!’  (And, so she ultimately though not immediately, does.)
Finally, there is the novel’s wonderful sense of place – and what a place! Oxford, “city of dreaming spires,” so called by the poet Matthew Arnold. I have only been there once – in 2006 – but I long to return….
The Dining Hall at Oxford's Somerville College. Our tour group had the honor of lunching there.

The Dining Hall at Oxford’s Somerville College. Our tour group had the honor of lunching there.

The famous Bridge of Sighs, modeled on the original in Venice

The famous Hertford Bridge, more commonly known as the Bridge of Sighs

The famous Eagle and Child Pub, est. 1873 and still going strong  [That's me, in the center, wearing sunglasses and a red sweater set.]

The famous Eagle and Child Pub, est. 1873 and still going strong (That’s Yours Truly, in the center, wearing sunglasses and a red sweater set.)

Meeting Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, was a highlight of the tour.

Meeting Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, was a highlight of the tour.

Shrewsbury  was the stand-in for Somerville College in Gaudy Night. (Dorothy L Sayers  earned her degree from Somerville.) Early in the novel, as Harriet Vane is arriving at her alma mater, she reflects on the terrible ordeal of having being tried for murder some years earlier (as described in Strong Poison). Her graduation from Shrewsbury is  an immense source of comfort, pride, and strength:

They can’t take this away, at any rate. Whatever I may have done since, this remains. Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University (statutem est quod Juniores Senioribus debitam et congruam reverentiam tum in privato tum in publico exhibeant); a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.

Jill Paton Walsh has thus far written four novels that serve as a continuation of the story of Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey:

51AqUIBZy7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  DEATH

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Of these, I’ve only read the first and the most recent. You can probably gather from what I’ve written that I thoroughly enjoyed The Late Scholar, and I recommend it, especially to those who, like me, relish crime fiction that hearkens back to a more genteel era.

I seem to recall Jill Paton Walsh stating that after reading Gaudy Night, she was fired with a desire to attend one of the Oxford Colleges. (She graduated with honors from St. Anne’s College in 1959.) She’s also the author of  mysteries featuring Imogen Quy, a nurse at St. Agatha’s College, Cambridge.  There are only four entries in this series, the last, The Bad Quarto, having been published here in 2007. I wish she’d write more; I really enjoyed them.

Jill Paton Walsh

Jill Paton Walsh

1 Comment

  1. Martin Edwards said,

    I haven’t read this one, but I’m encouraged to do so by your excellent review. I did enjoy Throne, Dominations.

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