Recently I read my first two Lord Peter Wimsey novels. An acquaintance has long held Gaudy Night to be an exceptional work, so I settled down to indulge a period mystery, only to discover a very different sort of work full of surprises of remarkable relevance. Finishing that, I picked up Whose Body?, the first Lord Peter novel. What I found between the two was a substantial exhibition of intellectual and emotional growth.
It is always striking to encounter a character at two far-removed periods. Reading novels in a series in the order of their appearance can have a leavening effect of the profound changes visible. You grow along with the characters, if there is growth (and too often, it seems, in murder mysteries there is little growth in the principle character—but then that’s not what such series are about, is it?), and what may be striking changes seem natural, depending on the author’s skill. In this instance, Sayers’ skill was masterful in that the older Wimsey of Gaudy Night is so believably one with the much younger and more frivolous portrayal in Whose Body? even while the experiences of a life spent finding murderers and other assorted criminals have eroded the finely-modeled lines of youthful enthusiasm, allowing the layers beneath to rise, transforming as they emerge into a new kind of intellectual sensitive.
The real story in Gaudy Night is not the solution of the mystery driving the plot—which Wimsey solves in a fairly short time—but the demonstration of honest love rooted in genuine respect. Demonstration rather than revelation since the latter has already been done. It’s reception and acceptance are at question, hence the demonstration.
The hang up? Harriet Vane, subject of Lord Peter’s amorous devotion, cannot get past the suspicion that she is in fact merely an object of his devotion. She is invested, wholly, in being her Own Person. Their meeting (in the novel Strong Poison) was one more likely to elicit profound gratitude and a sense of obligation rather than the congeniality of equals, and Harriet has fended off his protestations of love and repeated offers of marriage since. She does not trust either her own feelings about him nor his motives toward her, even though she is willing to take him at his word regarding their sincerity. It is a delicate set of problems, a minefield around her heart, and in order to successfully consummate what is likely to be a fine companionship Wimsey is required to demonstrate time and again that he will not dominate her, will not coddle her, will not in any way treat her as lesser in any respect. All this while wanting above all else to protect her.
This is the classic conundrum of true love. In order for it to be true, one must not only allow but genuinely enjoy the independence of the one loved, even at the cost of letting them go.
Harriet Vane wants to be, and has worked very hard at being, her own person.
Sayers sets the story at a women’s college attached to Oxford, Vane’s alma mater, where a series of ugly, often childish, increasingly destructive acts of vandalism threaten to spoil the reputation of the school. This is all the more threatening because this is at a time when serious public debate over the utility of women’s education is ongoing and scandals add fuel to the fires of reaction. Harriet herself is emblematic of the pitfalls of living a life consistent with education and independence. The man she had lived with—not married—had been murdered and suspicion fell on her. This was the incident that first brought Wimsey and her together. Wimsey proved her innocent, hence the weight of obligation that causes Harriet to distrust the sincerity of her own feelings. She was held up as everything bad about the New Woman. She knows the problems a woman has making her own way without a man, yet she has persevered and made for herself a successful career as a novelist. Independence hard earned and not lightly surrendered, especially after having been nearly hanged for killing her lover.
What Sayers gives us turns out to be a thoroughly-considered examination of the problems of emancipation. It is astonishing how the arguments, pro and con, seem as fresh today as they doubtless seemed radical in 1935. Condescension is absent, questions of class and personality are examined, and the difficulties of maintaining individuality and pursuing ambition are laid out, all within the context of a thoroughly engaging mystery.
Harriet Vane is asked by the Dean of the college to come and help them discover the culprit. Calling in the police has its drawbacks as the events could become very public to the discredit of the college. Something, as it unfolds, the culprit very much wishes. Harriet, frustrated by the intractability of the case, finally sends a letter to Wimsey. The assistance she asks for is not what she gets. Instead of advice or a suggestion, he arrives.
Here it becomes tense. It would be easy for Wimsey to take over the case. He is the experienced detective, Harriet only writes about detectives and detecting. But Wimsey has far too much respect for her to simply butt in. And he knows that would lose her forever. He believes she can solve it. He provides assistance and no more, although he does give her some needed distraction, and renewed attention.
The dance Wimsey undertakes is as finely-performed as any solution to any murder. His object is to be what Harriet needs him to be and no more. He is clearly bursting to just do for her, but he knows he cannot, because the fragile bridgework between them must be based on equity and sharing and mutual respect. In some ways, it is a one-sided effort.
Gaudy Night is very much a comedy of manners. It is also a disquisition on self-possession. It is also a feminist critique. And it is a romance. All at once and successfully achieved.
Whose Body? on the other hand is a straight-forward Who-Done-It, an introduction to the character of Lord Peter Wimsey. Serviceable. The pleasure of the novel is the characterizations involved, which are ample and sophisticated. Sayers portrays Wimsey as someone very much in need of distraction. He is damaged by service in WWI. He is too intelligent by far to be satisfied with the usual and stereotypical distractions of his class. He is a rare book collector, a fair pianist, a gourmand.
He is also impatient with a tendency to be judgmental. He is in a hurry. Too lengthy an immersion into a case threatens to open old psychic wounds. Therefore, what patience he exhibits in the course of solving a case must be an act of will. He seems shallow to some. This is a side effect of his aversion to too-deep an introspection, although he cannot avoid it. At the end of the book, we are left with the impression of someone who needs to unravel and solve his own self as a way toward healing, but he can only do so indirectly. Solving murders is his way of occasionally showing a mirror to himself, finding another piece. Had he met Harriet then, they could never have worked together, they would never have found each other. He would not have survived her rejection, she would never tolerate his insistent perceptions.
In Gaudy Night there is a long discussion of principles and morals. Principles, Wimsey maintains, are inherently destructive, morals possibly a chimera. Yet he clearly has both and knows it. In Whose Body? the question arises as to why he bothers with criminal investigations and clearly the answer is that a principle is at stake. He can do this, he has the skill and talent, so how could he—morally—not do it? It’s never asked quite so baldly, but it threads through the entire book. It does, in fact, put the question forward. By Gaudy Night it seems Wimsey has answered it, at least for himself. And the evidence for the principle is the way he is willing to walk away from Harriet rather than impose anything on her. The imposition of one’s will on another is abhorrent to Wimsey, and what is murder if not the ultimate imposition, the total denial of self?
But even without murder, the principle maintains. Even built in to the crime being enacted at the college, there is the question of imposing wills on others. At the heart of the vandalism is a different sort of crime, or perhaps the same sort at a different level, a lie, a libel. Choices are all we have, really. To be able to make a choice freely is a kind of ideal state. But it is what we strive for, one hopes as a civilization. Wimsey goes to impossible lengths to guarantee that freedom. It is fascinating to see the answer to the questions he poses himself emerge between these two novels.