Dorothy L. Sayers and the Lord Peter Wimsey novels

October 25, 2018 at 9:09 pm (Anglophilia, Mystery fiction)

This delightful visual appeared in a recent issue of the London Review of Books. It reminded me of how much pleasure I’ve received from the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, both in print, on audio, and in the two television versions. (Click twice on this image and you should  be able to read the text in the center.)

The first set of Wimsey episodes for television were aired on Masterpiece Theatre in the early 1970s. Starring as Lord Peter is the inimitable Ian Carmichael. Carmichael seemed eminently to the manor born, the ideal aristocrat of early twentieth century Britain, whose sometimes foppish ways and ready wit conceal a razor sharp mind and a firm sense of justice.

Here’s a trailer that capture’s the flavor of Carmichael’s performance (with apologize for the breakup at 32 secs).

Later, to this depiction of Wimsey, Edward Petherbridge added a vulnerable heart. First broadcast in the late 1980s, Petherbridge starred in three episodes: Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, and Gaudy Night. Together these comprise the story of Peter’s ardent pursuit of detective novelist Harriet Vane. The course of this true love ran anything  but smooth – in Have His Carcase, Peter and Harriet have an argument that almost breaks them both, it is so full of anguish – and yet, and yet…

To my mind, theirs is an exceptionally compelling  love story. And a surprisingly modern one as well. Told mainly from Harriet’s point of view, it treats of a woman who is desperate to retain her personal autonomy in the face of plenty of pressure, much of it coming, discreetly but relentlessly, from Peter. His is a love that will not be denied, but he is ever the gentleman, acting with restraint and deep respect. He does not wish to curtail Harriet in any way; rather, he wants to set her free to flourish in a world they both value. Only when  she finally acknowledges this fact – and acknowledges her love for him – can she at last relent and give him the answer he so desperately craves.

There are eleven novels in the Lord Peter Wimsey series.  I’ve either read or listened to all of them save Busman’s Honeymoon, the last, which was based on a play of the same name. I’ve enjoyed every one of them, but these three are my especial favorites:

I confess that the lengthy disquisition on campanology with which The Nine Tailors begins nearly stopped me in my tracks. I would have given up save for the fact that I was listening to Ian Carmichael’s marvelous reading. When once the plot got under way, I was captivated.

Due to an automotive mishap, Wimsey and his valet Bunter find themselves temporarily stranded in the little village of Fenchurch St Paul. This is a remote area in the East of England, flat and prone, at least at the time this book was written, to episodes of high water. Indeed, the novel’s climax features a flood of near Biblical proportion. Up until that point,, Peter has been investigating a crime – actually several crimes, with the added factor of assisting the local rector with the bringing off of a marathon bell ringing event – nine hours straight!

Here’s a short video of bell ringing at Westminster Abbey:

In the television version, Wimsey is played by Ian Carmichael and Bunter, by Glyn Houston. The Reverend Theodore Venables  is portrayed by Donald Eccles in one of the most endearing performances in the entire series.

Donald Eccles as Reverend Venables and Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter

When I wrote about The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie, I included a quote by John Curran that exactly described my feelings upon reading that work. There is in that novel, he asserts, “…“…a genuine feeling of menace over and above the usual whodunit element.” I feel that the same is true of The Nine Tailors.

There’s a very insightful commentary on this program on the blog In So Many Words.

Here it is, the fateful bringing together of Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey. It happens in a courtroom. She’s standing trial for murdering her erstwhile lover Phillip Boyes. She is naturally in fear for her life. Peter, who’s observing the proceedings, swiftly comes to two conclusions: one, she’s innocent; and two, she’s the only woman in the world for him.

This is the novel’s first sentence:

There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.

  Finally, there is Gaudy Night. Many are the pleasures of this fine work. Returning to her alma mater by invitation from the faculty, Harriet is filled with justifiable pride at being a graduate of Shrewsbury, an Oxford college. (The actual college is Somerville, named for mathematician and science writer Mary Somerville.)

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…, a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.

Despite Harriet’s success as an author, she cannot help longing for the insularity of the academic life:

As Harriet followed Miss Lydgate across the lawn, she was visited by
an enormous nostalgia. If only one could come back to this quiet place,
where only intellectual achievement counted , if one could work here
steadily and obscurely at some close-knit piece of reasoning, undistracted
and uncorrupted by agents, contracts, publishers, blurb-writers, inter-
viewers, fan-mail, autograph-hunters, notoriety-hunters, and com-
petitors ; abolishing personal contacts, personal spites, personal
jealousies, getting one’s teeth into something dull and durable ; maturing
into solidity like the Shrewsbury beeches — then, one might be able to
forget the wreck and chaos of the past, or see it, at any rate, in a truer
proportion Because, in a sense, it was not important The fact that one
had loved and sinned and suffered and escaped death was of far less
ultimate moment than a single footnote in a dim academic journal….

Alas, there is a serpent in this Eden. Although no murder takes place in Gaudy Night, there are a number of sinister and  very unnerving pranks being played on Shrewsbury residents. It is these that have brought Harriet back to the college. Can she locate the culprit, without involving the police? It remains to be seen.

Eventually Peter appears on the scene; he lends his support and unerring instincts to help her solve the mystery. And, inevitably, he and Harriet are  due for a final reckoning.

Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter and Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane

Novelist Jill Paton Walsh has written four novels which continue the story of Harriet and Lord Peter. Of these, I’ve only read the most recent, The Late Scholar. I enjoyed it very much.

 

 

5 Comments

  1. Angie Boyter said,

    You are making me want to reread them all! Gaudy Night would be a great way to relax!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Angie. And thanks so much for keeping up with Books to the Ceiling.

  2. starrmark said,

    Roberta,What an awesome edition of Books to the Ceiling! I’m not the

  3. starrmark said,

    Once again, my puter has gone off on its own tangent.To continue. I love this edition of Books to the Ceiling. I have a couple of friends who know the books back and forth. In 2001, Dick and I did a London Walk about Shakespeare’s London, and Edward Petheridge was our guide. He was wonderful; several places he stopped and recited some appropriate Shakespeare. At the Tate Modern, he whipped out his cell phone and spoke one of the sonnets into as a message for an answering machine. Alas, I do not remember the number of the sonnet.Cheers,Beth

  4. Emma John – Better Known said,

    […] 3. The Lord Peter Wimsey novels of Dorothy L Sayers https://robertarood.wordpress.com/2018/10/25/dorothy-l-sayers-and-the-lord-peter-wimsey-novels/ […]

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