Tuesday Night Club: Dorothy L Sayers and THAT romance



The Tuesday Night Club is an informal group of crime fiction fans choosing a newSayers author to write about each month – and the finger has pointed at Dorothy L Sayers for February. We’ll all be producing pieces about her and her books on Tuesdays: new and occasional writers always welcome to join in – just send one of us the link to your piece. 

Helen Szamuely is collecting the links this month -
her blog is here.

Last week’s links are here.

Previously I wrote about the first four Wimsey books.  In the fifth book, there was an important new arrival…



 
 
Harriet Vane
 

Nothing divides Sayers fans like the romance between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet D Vane. (Well, Gaudy Night does – see Kate Jackson’s splendid defence, part of last week’s TNC – but that’s part of the whole deal).

Lord Peter and the reader first meet Harriet in the 1930 book Strong Poison, when she stands in the dock accused of murdering her lover, and with every chance of being found guilty and being hanged. Lord Peter decides she is the woman for him, and is ‘much taken aback’ when he finds out that many people have proposed to her since her arrest: ‘that makes 47’ she tells him. The jury fails to agree, a retrial is ordered, and Wimsey has a month to find the evidence to save her. I really don’t feel it’s a spoiler to say that he succeeds. But she won’t marry him – she has been miserable in love leading up to the murder, it has quite put her off, and she resents the gratitude she must feel for Wimsey.

She next appears in the 1932 Have His Carcase (‘yes yes’ you are all saying, ‘we know, you keep telling us, first book ever on the CiB blog’), where she comes across a corpse and then proceeds to investigate and solve the murder with help from Wimsey. I have described it thus:


Nobody's favourite Sayers book, but  the seaside resort is done very nicely, and Harriet, who is always a bracing if sometimes annoying treat, features a lot. (Yes of course a treat can be annoying, before you ask.)


 
Harriet clothes


And I have also claimed that the cipher chapter is jaw-droppingly dull (others disagree). Even Sayers seems unsure about the book – in the later Gaudy Night Harriet asks Peter, referring to the incidents in this book:
‘Do you remember that horrible time at Wilvercombe when we could find nothing to throw at one another but cheap wit and spiteful remarks? At least, I was spiteful: you never were.’
‘It was the watering-place atmosphere,’ said Wimsey. ‘One is always vulgar at watering-places…’
But in fact the wit and spite improve the book, and the atmosphere of a 1930s walking tour, and then the resort and the smart hotel, are beautifully done.

After this Harriet Vane is kept in the background for the next two books, then reappears in the divisive Gaudy Night (great blog favourite, all over the place). At the end of this book (again, hardly a spoiler) Harriet finally agrees to marry Lord Peter. The final full-length Wimsey book, Busman’s Honeymoon, starts with their wedding.


 
Harriet and Peter


I see the romance as being an important and intrinsic part of the series of books, and wouldn’t be without it. But, it is still at times excruciating.

In Strong Poison, Wimsey imagines his potential married life:
‘one wouldn’t be dull – one would wake up and there’d be a whole day for jolly things to happen in – and then one would come home and go to bed – that would be jolly, too - ’
I don’t know about you, but I find that just plain embarrassing. It would make Lord Peter completely hideous, except that it is totally unconvincing as a set of thoughts going through any real head ever, anywhere.

And then, by the end of Busman’s Honeymoon – 1937, seven years later in real life, six years later in Wimsey world  – Harriet and Peter are discussing capital punishment. They know that there was a very real danger that Harriet might have been hanged, and Lord Peter says:
‘If you had had to live through that night, Harriet, knowing what was coming to you, I would have lived through it in the same knowledge. Death would have been nothing, though you were little to me then compared with what you are now…’
I have never see anyone else mention this, but I read that as meaning he was going to commit suicide if she was hanged. That is utterly bizarre. And, yes, excruciating. Completely unbelievable. But in a strangely different way from the previous quotation – it is hard to see them as coming from the same character. (In addition, Sayers had very strong religious views which you would expect would militate against suicide.)

I love the first section of Busman’s Honeymoon, and before now have recommended it to anyone who wants to read about the social customs and etiquette of certain sections of British life at the time (yes, people do ask me - I once wrote a book on etiquette). And the Dowager Duchess always brightens things up when she appears (see Bev Hankins’ great TNC piece on this character here). In an early blogpost on the book I put it this way:
There seems a lot of wish fulfilment in Sayers’ description of the wedding of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. For a sophisticated Bohemian with academic pretensions, she certainly had an eye for a lord, a fairy-tale wedding, and – above all – a wonderful man who sees the inner glory of a plain poor girl. A man who could have anyone, but chooses an older lady with whom he can have an intellectual conversation. Even though DLS is at slightly embarrassing pains to point out that both Peter and Harriet are very sexy. And even though Lord Peter does not seem that wonderful to anyone else over the age of about 22. The word ‘insufferable’ comes to mind. The bride's gift to the groom, by the way, is a very valuable letter about love, hand-written by the poet John Donne.  A sister-in-law is reported as thinking  "a gold cigarette lighter  would be much more suitable", and after too much of the wedding preparations, one can start to agree with her, and long for a bit of honest flashy showing off. And what does the lovely bride wear in the end? Gold lame. Not so much in a position to criticize Jane Eyre.

All this is, of course, without prejudice to Clothes in Books great love for the entire oeuvre of Dorothy L Sayers.
I think that last line might be the most important...

There was a BBC series of the Wimsey/ Vane books in the 1980s, and Harriet Walter played her first-namesake to perfection: I can never imagine any other actress in the role. And Edward Petherbridge was excellent as Lord Peter. The adaptations look very much of their time, and very clunky occasionally, but they aren’t bad. The photos are from the production.

The page of clothes for Harriet is from the infamous J Peterman catalogue (much featured in Seinfeld) of the 1990s. How curious and intriguing. I haven’t been able to find out more about this particular line of clothing…

























Comments

  1. Great post. Loved the bit about the Harriet Vane clothing line - an unexpected extension of Sayers wish fulfilment, as it seems readers can now dress like Vane. Wonder if they did a LPW clothing line?

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    1. Or plenty more detective outfit suggestions? You know, a Miss Marple page and a Poirot one. Mrs Bradley was very badly-dressed so perhaps not her.
      I do like those little ankle boots.

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    2. Not sure I would suit a Miss Marple outfit, but based on the clothes Tuppence wore in 80s adaptation of Partners in Crime, I think she would be quite fun to dress up as.

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    3. Yes indeed, and actually in some of the TV Miss Marple films there are some young women with very enviable outfits.

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  2. Also thanks for the mention!

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  3. I find it so interesting, Moira, how Harriet Vane really has divided the Sayers readers. As for me, I like her very much and I find her to be a great character. She's not perfect (even the best of us can annoy, after all), but I like her. And I love the scene in Busman's Honeymoon where Wimsey's mother recounts (in a letter, I think) Harriet's visit to her to ensure her approval of the match. There's something about that that really appealed to me.

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    1. Oh yes, totally agree, absolutely charming scene. And Harriet was always a good strong feminist character... far from common at the time.

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  4. Interesting take on the "night before the execution" speech. I never saw it as Peter suggesting suicide, that's too easy an out for him, he was never a coward. I saw it as him saying Death would be nothing to compare to the suffering he would endure knowing he had failed to save Harriet, although "you were little to me then compared to what you are now."

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    1. I'm fascinated to hear other people's takes on that. I keep looking at it trying to decide what she and he meant!

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    2. Like Colleen, I never would have seen Peter's comments as suggesting suicide before you posted (and, honestly, I still don't). I've always seen it as living through that night would be pure hell for him and he would suffer along with Harriet. Just as he suffers when the murderer faces execution at the end of Busman's. Peter's emotions are always engaged at that point--how much more would they be knowing the woman he loved (and believed to be innocent) was dying.

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    3. The thing is, if he didn't mean to imply suicide, then what he says is trivial isn't it? 'I would have lived through it in the same knowledge' - isn't that meaningless in the circs? He's saying 'If you were about to die I would know that'.... Well, YES, he would.

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    4. I don't see Peter's comments as suggesting suicide. We are talking about someone who has had crippling shell-shock (a factor in some of the earlier books) - what we now refer to as a kind of PTSD. What he is saying is that it would be worse than death for him to know that the woman he loved had died because he had failed to come up with the evidence to save her. That is a harrowing image to me, at least, and probably more terrifying than talk of suicide which, as others have noted, he would probably consider an easy way out (remember the ending of "Murder Must Advertise").

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    5. LP is not in the slightest bit suggesting that he would have committed suicide. He is simply saying that her death would have been like death for him too, by making his life meaningless. It's the equivalent of saying, "I'd die without you"--a phrase not to be taken literally.

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    6. I don't see Peter's comments as suggesting suicide. We are talking about someone who has had crippling shell-shock (a factor in some of the earlier books) - what we now refer to as a kind of PTSD. What he is saying is that it would be worse than death for him to know that the woman he loved had died because he had failed to come up with the evidence to save her. That is a harrowing image to me, at least, and probably more terrifying than talk of suicide which, as others have noted, he would probably consider an easy way out (remember the ending of "Murder Must Advertise").

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    7. You're not convincing me. What about the ending of Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club? It plainly isn't ruled out. And as I say above, that sentence is meaningless otherwise.

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    8. I stand with the non-suicide party.

      Some years ago I had to acknowledge the fact that my husband was embarking on something that statistically speaking offered a pretty good chance of him being killed. It was no longer a hypothetical; it had become real, and although I'm not very emotional the thought of that link being severed hit hard.

      Perhaps as one grows older 'one comes to such thoughts colder' but at thirty-five envisioning living the rest of my life without him was grim.

      Suicide, however, didn't occur to me.

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    9. That's a deep moment in your life: I hope the story had a happy ending.

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  5. I agree 100%, the cipher is jaw-droppingly dull. Nothing is more boring than watching other people do a puzzle to which you are barred from contribution.
    I also note when Harriet says she's had 47 proposals, I think the specific word she includes is from "imbeciles". And this to Lord Peter's face. Hardly an elegant start to their grand passion.
    And finally -- gold lame. I can't even. To me this is the equivalent of Kim Kardashian deciding to get married in a cathedral in a dress that shows her ass to the world. Perhaps I have the wrong idea of what "lame" meant contemporaneously but the only people I know who currently wear gold lame have drag names like Pristine Condition and wear size 14 shoes.

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    1. Oh dear, I will never be able to get that image of her wedding day out of my head now! ONe of her biographers says Sayers always wanted to include what was most up-to-date, and that gold lame was a new fabric at the time. But that's no excuse! And IIRC, her 'bridesmaids' were all wearing tweed suits and foxfurs. There's a wedding photo I'd love to see.

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    2. Yes. Gold lame. Ick.

      Perhaps Sayers was thinking of cloth of gold?

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    3. Is cloth of gold different? The biographer I read definitely implied it was a new and very fashionable fabric.

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    4. I'm operating off memory but cloth of gold has been around since medieval times (Henry VIII and the Field of the Cloth of Gold? English history is not my strong suit). It used to be woven with silk to make a fabric that was iridescent rather than shiny. It is the ancestor of gold lame. I think the terminology may have been changing about the time the book was written. I follow an art deco tumblr and coincidentally it had a dress on it a few days ago made from black and gold lame brocade.

      http://36.media.tumblr.com/e1769e1115b4e6e47fbd2582fa2178b6/tumblr_o1859oirf91rt0ya9o2_1280.jpg

      When Letitia Martin says of Harriet that "Yesterday she looked like a Renaissance portrait stepped out of its frame," I thought of this dress, by Jeanne Lanvin, from 1936 (from the same tumblr. Serendipity).

      http://41.media.tumblr.com/e2bf7f4621c7fdb407940c62aeb4f3f2/tumblr_n5ev6k8A5M1qcddvlo1_500.jpg

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    5. Also...sorry to be a pedant...but the bridesmaids were wearing their Sunday best. In the US, at least, in the 1930's, one did not wear tweed suits to church. One wore what over here was referred to as an afternoon dress, suitable for church, informal receptions (informal by pre-War standards, anyway), matinees, and teas. For a lady don I would hope that this dress would be sombre and distingue rather than frilly.

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    6. Very beautiful dresses, Shay. Helen, Peter's sister-in-law, refers to the dress as being made of cloth of gold. But the Oxford academic says lame. I think tweed may have been my imagination, but I think suits/costumes/two-pieces (not sure of US terminology) would have been more likely than dresses: especially as one of them has her 'new furs', which would go with a suit but not really an afternoon dress. It's a pity no-one questioned Sayers closely when they had the chance. I was sure there was a reference to Harriet's dress having a square neckline, but can't find it...

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  6. And you make a VERY interesting point about Peter's talking about suicide. That had never occurred to me. My first instinct was, "Oh, he's saying 'My life would be over,' but ... it actually could be as you say. Well done to notice that!

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    1. I'm hoping more people will tell me what they think of that passage. It's when he says 'Death would have been nothing' - that's where I get the strongest clue from.

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  7. I'm another who thinks the cipher-solving is dull as ditch water. There are a few (very few) comments in between that make it slightly less excruciating, but it really is a bit too much.

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    1. Yes, I suppose to be fair she does warn the reader. But as Noah says before, it's not a puzzle we can take part in - apart from being unimaginable that the people involved would go to so much trouble. And who DID post those letters from foreign capitals...?

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  8. I really like Harriet, too, even though some of what passes between her and Lord Peter is cringe-making.
    I think that passage is an awkward bit of writing, not really clear, but I don't think he means suicide, but something more like 'after that to die would be nothing.' Gold lame and tweed! Yes, I'd love to see that photo, too.

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    1. Well no-one has managed to convince me yet, but I think we can all agree that it is excruciating.
      Now I really want someone to stage the Wimsey/Vane wedding photos.

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  9. The J. Peterman Company sells "Vintage Inspired Women's and Men's Clothing, Accessories," et cetera.

    http://www.jpeterman.com/

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    1. Thanks Ann - I was surprised to see they were still in business, as they went bankrupt at one stage. They used to have a shop in Seattle, but I think all the shops went for good...

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  10. I had a look at the catalogue. Some nice clothes where they stick to straight copies, but mostly "vintage inspired" means "nothing like the real thing"! That skirt isn't right for the 30s, and tweed with a floral skirt? And ankle boots? (I rather like the cipher chapter - it's better than all that soppy love stuff.)

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    1. I think it is very much the J Peterman style, rather than 30s style, and actually she would look like someone in a 1980s TV drama set in an office - with big permed hair. I do like the boots though.

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  11. I own one or two things from Peterman's pre-bankruptcy days as my late mother loved them and frequently gave catalog items as gifts. Nice enough, but they never did quite live up to the old money/new Bohemia glamour in the catalog copy.

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    1. No - I was quite taken with the idea, but somehow the items I saw or considered were never quite right. And in the end the catalog copy lost its charm I thought. Still, the idea of clothing lines based on fictional heroines is one to challenge the imagination.

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  12. Tuesday already.....that soon rolls around.

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    1. You should push for a different kind of author for one of the upcoming months...

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  13. Except for Gaudy Night, all the books with Harriet are my favorites in the series. I am not sure I have ever reread Busman’s Honeymoon, though, so might not like it as much on a reread. Glen and I were just talking about rewatching our sets of both the series with Edward Petherbridge and the one with Ian Carmichael. It has been so long since we watched them.

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    1. That's what I really fancy doing right now! They didn't do Busman did they?

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    2. I don't think they did, but my memory is failing and I am not at home to check. We did see a movie from 1940 with Robert Montgomery and Constance Cummings and it was fun. Glen says we still have a copy but I am not so sure.

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    3. I would so love to see this. Did you see Sergio above saying he saw a stage performance with Edward Petherbridge?

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    4. Sergio *below* - I have lost track of where I am in this highly enjoyable plethora of comments.

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  14. Oh how I wish I was responding to my first Sayers/Wimsey reading with as much vim and verve as your posts on the subject are infused with...but am finding it very hard going. It's Murder Must Advertise (for 1933) - probably not a good idea to start near the end of a series but needs must...I'm about a quarter of the way in and right now I'd be quite pleased if Lord Peter topped himself but I don't suppose that is the right sort of response. There are lots of clothes though :)

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    1. Oh what a shame! I had the opposite experience - it didn't stand out when I first read it, but now I find it one of my favourites.

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  15. I always much preferred the 80s TV versions to the books actually as I thought Walter and Petherbridge were truly splendid. Shortly after the TV show, Petherbridge and his wife, Emily Richard, revived the fairly creaky stage version of BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON, which I greatly enjoyed.

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    1. Oh my goodness lucky you - that must have been a fascinating experience, even if it wasn't the best play in the world...

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  16. Moira, thanks for taking me through Dorothy L. Sayers' novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet D. Vane. You know, one of these days I'm going to honour Sayers and your blog by reading and reviewing one of her books.

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    1. You really are going to have to one day Prashant!

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  17. No, he wasn't going to kill himself, just be very very very upset. Also, 1930s gold lame is gorgeous, and anyway the point is that Harriet wasn't going to fluff around like a juvenile. And finally, whoever wrote the J Peterman blurb had certainly read the books (and I am a sucker for ankle boots).

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    1. I'm tempted to make a bad-taste joke about the millions of people telling me I am wrong, and that it was a cry for help, not a suicide threat. But I won't, it would be bad taste. I enjoyed your comments very much, and hope you will come back and comment here often. I love ankle boots too, but can just see they were designed for the fine Italian feet the copywriter describes, not for me with my big old peasant feet.

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  18. Harriet's clothes? Oh, yes please, now, immediately, and loads of others too, yum, yum! Miss Fisher's and even some of Miss Marple's for I am catholic in my tastes and who do I want to play at being today.
    I adore both the Carmichael and Petherbridge....with a slight preference for the latter...but have never read any of the books.
    What puts me off is how often I have read about them being rather tedious with pages of explanations of various things, like bell ringing etc.
    Bit like Tolstoy's banging on about Levin's...his own...musings on agricultural developments and practices etc or military theory in War & Peace. I tend to skip them it must be said, after the first reading anyway.

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    1. Women detectives' clothes is a very fruitful area. I knitted myself a sweater once based on one Harriet Walter wore in the TV series... My preference is definitely Edward Petherbridge. Do try the books - as you say, you can skim the boring bits. I think Murder Must Advertise is a good starting place.

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