Exactly a hundred years ago this October, Dorothy L Sayers published Whose Body? It launched her career as an illustrious author of eleven novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey that changed the detective genre forever.
Sayers was, quite simply, unique. There had been other detective novelists who displayed intelligence, energy, literary playfulness and wit before her, most notably Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, but the Golden Age of Crime was striking because it brought four women to prominence as its so-called Queens. Two of them, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, have faded in the present day, but Agatha Christie remains one of the best-selling authors of all time, and Dorothy L Sayers one of the most loved and respected. She was brilliant, both academically and artistically but what especially interested me is that her series of intellectual puzzles involving murder became a uniquely romantic love story that addressed a dilemma still familiar to many today: how can an independent, intellectual woman find a mate?
The duality between mind and body is one celebrated by Sayers’s favourite metaphysical poet, John Donne. But for an emancipated woman in the first half of the 20th century, and indeed one of the first women to graduate from Oxford in 1920, it must have been exceptionally hard. It’s this that I want to examine in her work.
Intellectual courtships, unlike the physical variety, tend to get a poor press these days, perhaps because even with intimacy co-ordinators, it doesn’t choreograph well in films. But for a reader, witnessing what Shakespeare called in his famous Sonnet 116 “the marriage of true minds” is a rare treat.
In many ways, Sayers laid down a kind of road map for generations of women writers who came after her. Aged fourteen, Gaudy Night gave me hope that being an intelligent girl was not like having a pair of horns sprouting from my forehead. Wimsey falls in love with Harriet not because of her looks, which we are repeatedly told are plain, but because of her brain.
Of course, I was electrified. The notion that if you were academic, and bookish, you could be admitted to a world of people as interesting as Lord Pater Wimsey was like a trumpet blast from paradise. I took Harriet Vane so much to heart that not only did I, too, win a place to read English Literature (at Cambridge rather than Oxford) but when I graduated, I took my first job in advertising, thanks to Murder Must Advertise.
I need hardly tell you that life does not conform to the expectations set up by fiction. My 1980s Cambridge was considerably less glamorous than her Oxford 1920s one. I had a miserable time grappling with the idiocies of Structuralism, I loathed advertising, and although I married a lovely, brilliant man who had coincidentally been to Eton and Balliol, he was neither rich nor titled. I also fell in love with the crime genre, which, even though I write what is now called State of the Nation novels, is usually the engine of my plots. Sayers’s own fiction also has some claims to be State of the Nation fiction too. Her novels contain many sharp contemporary details concerning the poverty of the 1930s, and the rise of both Communism and Fascism. “What we need,” as one man observes, chillingly in Gaudy Night (published in 1930), “is an ‘Itler.” Her enchanted world of Bright Young Things, Bloomsbury Bohemians and the era in which a successful author can afford to take a six-month holiday is now steeped in nostalgia, but she, too, was commenting on Britain in the 1930s.
But just as important is the emotional journey she takes us on. Although Sayers will always be treasured for the ingenious and novel methods her murderers use – injecting their victim with an air bubble, or feeding them arsenic to which they, as killers, have made themselves immune – it is the courtship of Lord Peter Wimsey and the feminist detective Harriet Vane, that is unique.
Sayers was born in 1893 in Oxford, the only child of a middle-aged, middle-class Anglo-Catholic couple. Imaginative, robust, fluent in French and such a talented musician that her father thought she might choose this as her profession, Dorothy was clearly gifted. But there was little money. She is in the line of brilliantly bright but poor daughters of the clergy that stretches from Jane Austen to the Brontes to (in spirit at least) Barbara Pym.
Such daughters occupied a difficult place. They knew the manners and forms of good society, unsurprisingly considering how many had aristocratic forebears – but they usually had little beyond their education. Sayers knew all about this world of genteel female poverty, for besides Harriet Vane she has a minor character, Miss Climpson, a spinster of the kind cruelly termed in Unnatural Death a “superfluous woman”. Like Miss Marple, Miss Climpson is a clergyman’s daughter whose seeming impotence and invisibility is turned to advantage in detection. It is she who does the crucial leg-work in Strong Poison that saves Harriet Vane’s life. If Harriet is Sayer’s ideal avatar, Miss Climpson is what Sayers herself might have turned into had not sex and an Oxford education intervened.
Sex and love are what turbo-charges Sayers’s fiction, and lifts it above the clever intellectual puzzles of her contemporaries. The first meeting between Wimsey and Vane is electric. He falls in love with her in Strong Poison, when he sees her on trial for her life, accused of murdering her former lover. Wimsey is convinced she is innocent, and he’s right – but how to prove it against overwhelming evidence? Genius that he is, he manages it, but Harriet refuses to marry him out of gratitude, and the clash of their wits and personalities is marvellously done.
The dance between repulsion and attraction is as old as the myth of Beauty and the Beast, but that between Wimsey and Harriet is not about physical attraction/repulsion – indeed, it is one of the first things he asks her in prison (““Do I repulse you?” “No,” she answered sadly”). It is a much more interesting one, that between two independent minds which must, if they fall in love, come into harmony.
Sayers’s hero and heroine fascinate us partly because the author had too much honesty and humour to make them both handsome, as well as clever, posh and witty. Harriet is described several times as plain, and Wimsey’s early appearances are described with a frankness verging on the satirical, (“His long amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola”). Even in later books he is described as “all nerves and nose.” No brooding Heathcliff or sulky Darcy, he is bubbling with jokes, and is energetic, fanciful, vulnerable, brave and rather fabulously camp. Always exquisitely dressed by Bunter, he is on the small side; it’s only later that he proves himself adept at physical combat, and we learn that he is both a cricketing Blue, an accomplished punter, an acrobat, an excellent driver, a pianist, a genius copywriter, a scholar, and even a spy for British Intelligence. There’s nothing, including bell-ringing, that he cannot do, but what might be irritating becomes strangely affecting. Initially too short to be a policeman, he somehow grows several inches until, by Gaudy Night, he is tall enough to stand out in a crowd.
Lord Peter Wimsey begins as a mixture of Bertie Wooster and the Scarlet Pimpernel – a rich, blond, toff who conceals his brilliant mind behind a bumbling façade – an English archetype which Boris Johnson deployed during his career. We must admit that we do enjoy his being rich, and he was a fantasy figure for his author too, for as she put it in an essay, she gave him a large income “because it cost me nothing and at that time, I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room, I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence…I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all discontented with their incomes.”
His noble birth is a more awkward matter for the modern reader. One forgives him a lot on learning in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club that some of his affectations may be due to shell-shock, and it’s a humanising detail that Bunter is not just his faithful Jeeves but the Sergeant who saved his life in the trenches. (I am so glad that Jill Paton Walsh, who completed Thrones, Dominations gave Bunter a happy marriage of his own.) But he is, in the present day, the kind of hero who makes modern hackles rise. We no longer love a Lord, or, indeed, Etonians. But we can’t help loving Wimsey, as we love Mr Darcy, because he has the great good taste to fall in love with an intelligent heroine.
But he is genuinely flawed too. The casual anti-Semitism of Whose Body is shocking, especially as, when she wrote it, Sayers herself was hoping to marry a Jew, an American novelist John Cournos. You may say that she was merely reflecting the social attitudes of her time. However, if George Eliot was intelligent enough to perceive the stupidity of this deplorable prejudice, so too should Sayers have been.
Unnatural Death is also marred by racism. Even though its Black suspect turns out to be both innocent and the deserving inheritor of a fortune, it’s hard not to recoil from the N-word, which is used by Wimsey himself in this novel and in Murder Must Advertise.
So when Wimsey falls deeply in love with Harriet Vane, a poor, plain and serious-minded woman with none of his advantages, this appearance of frivolity is what he and his author have to work very hard to overcome. How can he turn himself into a man who deserves our intellectual, independent, attractive and thoroughly autobiographical heroine? How can that ideal marriage of true minds be brought about?
Between Wimsey and Vane, quotation and literary allusion act as a kind of mating call. They exhibit the same kind of playful ease with literature when they each quote from Kai Lung, a series of novels about an itinerant Chinaman by an English author, Ernest Bramah. Today, Bramah is utterly forgotten, but his books were not just about imaginary Oriental sages. He also wrote a series about a Blind Detective that were given higher billing than Conan Doyle’s in their time, and were credited by Orwell as influential on 1984. But when Wimsey and Vane first meet and quote from the same book, you know they are made for each other. By the end of Gaudy Night they are not just quoting Donne but writing poetry together.
That this attraction develops over the course of four detective novels and several murders, adds to its charm. Have His Carcass contains a series of almost Socratic dialogues about love and detective fiction, and Harriet’s resentful resistance to Peter’s exuberant proposals gathers a spiritual, emotional and an erotic charge. Her pride, her wit, her independence and her vulnerability all make her an extraordinary modern heroine. Peter is forced to become less whimsical, and his persistence, insight, daring and wit make him a genuinely romantic hero – if only Harriet will have him.
Harriet Vane is full of prickly pride, having been duped and wounded by her awful lover, Philip Boyes – modelled, of course on Sayers’s own John Cournos, whom she refused to have sex with because he would not marry her. Harriet, however, does have sex with Boyes, then feels humiliated when, having overcome her scruples, he proposes as a kind of good conduct prize. By Have His Carcass, the reader is panting for Harriet to admit that she is in love with Wimsey. They dance together, they swim together, they follow clues and break a coded letter together. But he won’t kiss her without permission, and this, too, feels very modern.
Have His Carcass not only feels richer and more fleshed-out, it’s a comedy of manners. Unlike Agatha Christie’s cardboard creations, even Sayers’s minor characters are convincing, from the suspicious old Army officer who asks Wimsey why he doesn’t breed spaniels instead of detecting crime, to the cynical yet pathetic world of the hotel gigolos. She is genuinely interested in a wide variety of people and is one of the first novelists to depict, affectionately and uncritically, what are quite clearly lesbian couples as Harriet’s friends. Like her hero, she seems equally at home among burglars and dukes, journalists and policemen.
Sayers herself was serious about her craft. Her introduction to “The Omnibus of Crime,” an anthology of stories that she edited in 1929, remains one of the best essays ever written on detective fiction. She argued that the question of how to unite intricate plots with characters who read like “real human beings” was itself a mystery that writers had yet to solve, adding, “At some point or other, either [the characters’] emotions make hay of the detective interest, or the detective interest gets hold of them and makes their emotions look like pasteboard.” It’s a challenge that many great subsequent detective novelists from PD James and Ruth Rendell to Mick Herron and Nicola Upson have risen to.
If Victorian novelists were full of admonitions about women marrying below their social caste, Sayers almost single-handedly warns intelligent women against marrying below their intellectual one. Harriet is far more intelligent than her former lover, just as Sayers was than either Cournos, or the father of her secret son Bill White, or Mac Fleming, whom she married. Yet in the world of her imagination, her hero was not only unfailingly brilliant, rich and adoring, but he triumphs in her masterpiece, Gaudy Night.
“What are you going to do about the people who are cursed with both hearts and brains?” Harriet asks. It’s a question the author clearly asked herself, torn between her strong intellect and her equally strong appetite for the physical life, from food and motorcycles to sex.
Today, nobody would find it remotely odd that an attractive twenty-nine year old virgin in good health would wish to experience sex. What is strange to us now is that Sayers kept her son’s birth a secret, supporting, encouraging and educating him so that he ultimately went to Balliol, her hero’s Oxford college and also took a First. Although Sayers explicitly rejected feminism, everything she protested about through Harriet Vane was addressed by it.
“”The rule seemed to be that a great woman must either die unwed … or find a still greater man to marry her. … The great man, on the other hand, could marry where he liked, not being restricted to great women; indeed, it was often found sweet and commendable in him to choose a woman of no sort of greatness at all.”
Lacking the perfect man, she invented him. Wimsey’s evolution into a human being is quite as thrilling as the plots. His flippancy, and seeming frivolity are eventually seen by Harriet as his armour, which he painfully strips off in order to show his true self.
What we now call agency, or the freedom to make your own choices in life, is even more central to Sayer’s fiction than love, or money, or truth. Being murdered is the ultimate loss of agency. I think this is one reason besides sheer enjoyment why she continues to be taken seriously. Sayers’ fiction is full of women who have fallen victim to helplessness, from the beautiful wife of a violent farmer in Clouds of Witness, to the blameless mistress of a jealous sculptor who gets murdered in the short story The Man With Copper Fingers. Her ingenious methods of murder are remarkable, but it is being trapped that is the real horror. A plot strand of my own 2017 novel, The Lie of the Land, was incidentally very much inspired by Sayers’s short story The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey, which imagines what a doctor could do with a wife who has a thyroid deficiency. I myself had just survived thyroid cancer, and though being temporarily turned into a cretin is not quite as Sayers describes, it was very unpleasant because it does indeed make your brain slow right down.
Sayers claimed, perhaps tongue in cheek, that she introduced the character of Harriet Vane in Strong Poison to “put an end to Lord Peter via matrimony”. Harriet herself is quite different from other Golden Age of Crime heroines, in that she is a rare portrait of a woman as a professional person. She can not only afford to support herself but also buy a smart dress, a car and a room in the Resplendent Hotel on her walking holiday.
Moreover, she is a detective writer who, in a metafictional manner, understands the kind of story she is in. Everyone in Sayers’s novels is obsessed by detective fiction, right down to Ginger the office boy in Murder Must Advertise, but Harriet and Lord Peter allude to their precursors, from Sherlock Holmes to Bulldog Drummond. Peter is as much of a writer as Harriet.
“Do you find it easy to get drunk on words?”
“So easy that, to tell you the truth, I am seldom perfectly sober.”
You can’t tell who is talking to whom in this exchange, because really, they are the two halves of Sayers’s own mind.
Sayers not only married the detective novel to the literary novel, but she made her fiction into a dialogue between body and mind, freedom and bondage, women and men. We tend to overlook how original she was, and how fiercely the battle between men and women was dramatized by her. But we also tend to overlook how she understood the tremendous power of cheerfulness. Her detectives could not be further from the gloomy, drink-sodden, macho types in so much other classic crime.
“If anybody ever marries you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle” Harriet tells him, but it is just as likely to be the other way about. They both piffle for England.
Wimsey is a hero who could talk the hind leg off the proverbial donkey. Yet is he an ideal husband? Can Harriet trust someone who is not just as clever as she is, but more so? Will he, conversely, ever give her a moment’s peace?
Gaudy Night is, by a country mile, Sayers’s best novel. Partly it’s because the setting, the story and the themes are so beautifully intertwined, at the time when women’s emancipation and education was being confronted by the Nazi propaganda for Kinder, kirche, kuche. Partly this is because its humour and its seriousness are perfectly matched, with the detective plot complimenting its literary aspects. And partly it is so very much a love story not just about two people but about two intellectual people.
Gaudy Night’s theme revolves around the choices women still find themselves torn between – the life of the mind, and that of the body, the single life and the married one. The poison pen in Gaudy Night turns out not to be a frustrated academic spinster but a widowed college cleaner, who blames one of the dons for her husband’s disgrace and suicide. Annie’s inability to value truth strikes a huge chord now that so many real-life women academics and writers like Professor Kathleen Stock and Helen Joyce find themselves embattled in the wars over gender in the very places where debate is most needed. However, Harriet, like Wimsey, grasps the essential point that truth must come above all personal feeling. It is in this world of intellectual integrity that Harriet understands she can “stand free and equal with Peter, since in that sphere she had never been false to her own standards.” They can, at last, marry.
Sayers never found her ideal, but in creating Wimsey she certainly told readers some of the real-life qualities to look out for – which are not wealth, good looks and a title but rather courage, kindness, brains, cheerfulness and truthfulness. She continues to inspire new generations to aspire to the best education, to independence, to equality – and to that joyful marriage of true minds.