Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dorothy L. Sayers, Men, and Lord Peter Wimsey

Elizabeth Zelvin

Over on the DorothyL e-list, they’ve been discussing Sayers’s Gaudy Night, in which Lord Peter Wimsey courts Harriet Vane amid the dreaming spires of Oxford, while she struggles with her ambivalent feelings not only about Lord Peter but also about love and work. Someone inevitably mentioned the widely held belief that Sayers herself fell in love with her protagonist, a charge often used to criticize the high ratio of romance to mystery in this book and its sequel, Busman's Honeymoon. If so, I’d argue that it doesn’t hurt the book. Besides, it’s understandable, given what we know of Sayers’s life, that she chose to create an ideal mate for an intelligent and independent woman.

Sayers’s husband was an unemployable invalid and an alcoholic whom she cared for and supported during their 25-year marriage. Co-founder of the Detection Club with G.K. Chesterton, she evidently ruled the group of Golden Age mystery writers with an iron hand. The juxtaposition of rescue and control in Sayers’s life makes perfect sense to me as an alcoholism treatment professional with 20 years of clinical experience and publication credits on the subject of the spouses and partners of alcoholics. Or I could explain it in terms of family systems dynamics. When one partner (in this case, Sayers’s husband) is increasingly dependent and incapable of responsibility, the other becomes overresponsible: a caretaker and enabler. Sayers put a lot of energy into propping her husband up, which could only have increased his dependence. At the same time, she developed her taste for being in control and exercised it in other areas of her life, like being bossy about the rules of writing detective fiction.

Sayers’s marriage was not her first bad relationship. She had an affair with a man who refused to marry her, claiming not to believe in marriage but later admitting he was “testing her,” like the lover Harriet Vane is accused of murdering in Strong Poison. She also had a child with a man who left her when he learned she was pregnant. Wish fulfillment through fiction is one of the rewards of writing fiction. I hope Sayers got some satisfaction out of killing off Philip Boyes—and skewering him again in Busman’s Honeymoon, when Lord Peter has the opportunity to observe that Harriet has not experienced sexual generosity before.

How can any reader resist a passage like this:
“He knew now that she could render back passion for passion with an eagerness beyond all expectation—and also with a kind of astonished gratitude that told him more than she knew....Peter, interpreting phenomena in the light of expert knowledge, found himself mentally applying to [Boyes] quite a number of epithets, among which ‘clumsy lout’ and ‘egotistical puppy’ were the kindest.”

Why do critics give Sayers such a hard time about making Lord Peter a human being of depth and complexity yet a little larger than life? She’s not the only writer to project a yearning for love—transference, to use a psychoanalytic term—onto a fictional character. If it’s done well enough, the character will become so vivid, memorable, and appealing that readers will do the same. For example, if Diana Gabaldon’s not in love with Jamie Fraser, I can’t imagine why so many readers are. Although her Outlander books aren’t mysteries, a remarkable number of subscribers to DorothyL admitted on the e-list that they’d be glad to go to bed with Jamie. I bet the sentiment is shared by many other readers of this wonderful series of historical time-travel romances. (I won’t say they transcend their genre, which is always an insult to genre fiction, but they are fine and satisfying novels.)

Would Sayers be as popular as she is today, fifty years after her death and seventy since she stopped writing mystery novels, if Lord Peter and Harriet were not in love and their love story so richly and passionately presented? I don’t think so. So stop picking at them, and leave them alone.

And Happy Valentine's Day!


Paul Lamb said...

I haven't read them, but I wonder if the Twilight series of novels explores this vein if gentlemanly lovers. Anyone?

Sheila Connolly said...

I adore them both. I often cite the entire series as an example of how a writer develops over time, with characters who grow in depth and complexity. And there are many passages, including the one you cited, that ring in my memory--a beautiful use of language.

If ever I get back to London, I plan to visit Dorothy's grave and leave a fitting tribute (if I can think of one).

caryn said...

My goodness I didn't know all of this about Dorothy Sayers! I was too busy when Gaudy Night was discussed to get involved so if all of this was discussed on list then I missed it. A more recent version of this story is Madeleine L'Engel, the author of the Wrinkle in Time series. Her husband was also an alcoholic and invalid for many years as well. (I think I am remembering that he was some well known soap opera star...)
Anyway, I think it's in readers blood to want to "fix" characters to the way they want them to be instead of enjoying them for what they are and trying to reason out why the author made them that way.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

In London at the National Portrait Gallery, there's a magnificent portrait of Dorothy L. in full Oxford regalia, ie academic gown, with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. If you can't get to London, you can google the picture.

Theresa de Valence said...

Liz, what a wonderful post! (And I, for one, have always been in love with Peter Wimsey).


Kaye Barley said...

Liz - this is a terrific post! From one who loves all things Peter and Harriett - Thank You.

I did not know about this portrait of Dorothy L. Sayers, and need to look it up right now.

Sandra Parshall said...

It's interesting to note that PD James's husband, while not an alcoholic (to my knowledge), suffered from mental illness through much of their marriage. So she's another woman who had to attend to a dependent spouse while creating her own identity as a writer.

Vicki Lane said...

Right on, Liz! Who wouldn't be in love with Lord Peter? My own Elizabeth Goodweather is -- just a tad. And when you consider that Bunter is part of the package (he cooks, he cleans) . . . and that Peter respects Harriet's abilities and never tells her not to go poking her pretty little nose into things that don't concern her . . . well, the man's right near perfect, IMHO.

Leslie Budewitz said...

I suspect it helps make the romance a little deeper and more memorable if the writer IS a little in bit in love with the leading man.

Me, I’m in love with Bunter. Whenever I’m a little rough with a bottle of wine, I remember how tenderly he cared for Lord Peter’s collection, and how he worried in Busman’s Honeymoon when Peter and Harriet were moving into the cottage and the car got stuck and the wine badly jostled.

Great post, Liz!


Meredith Cole said...

Thanks for illuminating Dorthy L's life for me, Liz. It's no wonder she created her ideal man in her books, since the men in her life let her down so much.

I love the relationship between Harriet and Peter, and I reread the books regularly for both comfort and inspiration.