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!