Saturday, 14 April 2018

Lord Peter Death Wimsey

It rhymes with “stairs”. At least, this is how Dorothy L. Sayers preferred it. And she also preferred to be considered not as a writer of light crime fiction but as a serious scholar, with her translation of Dante her masterwork. Readers will perhaps know her in both these guises but might never have made the connection. This was the case with the present author, anyway. Her rendering of the Divine Comedy in the Penguin Classics series has been on his bookshelf for decades, and at a later point he became acquainted with her novels and stories, but without at first realising that these were the work of the same author. Indeed, the two undertakings are, on the face of it, very different: a serious, elegant, scholarly translation of Dante, and curious detective tales set in 1920s England. One can appreciate that Professor Tolkien, a northern European philologist, was the author of Lord of the Rings – the two undertakings are clearly related – but in the case of Miss Sayers there is no such obvious relation. It takes a stretch to see any connection. One might be inclined to dismiss her crime fiction as a mere hobby. 

Yet there is some connection to be made. Her medievalist concerns are not entirely remote from her contemporary tales. This is especially true regarding her most famous literary creation, the unlikely sleuth Lord Wimsey. The connection, in a word, is chivalry. It is with predictable tiresomeness that critics – that over-rated snob George Orwell being the most notable of them - have attacked this character in terms of popular sociology. They say, apart from his name being “embarrassing”, that his “classist pretensions” are ”appalling.” They dismiss Miss Sayers hero as a “caricature” of the British upper class. Certainly, he is not for democratic tastes, and those who are irredeemably poisoned with disdain for the British aristocracy will despise him without a second thought. Lord Wimsey, with his side-kick man servant Bunter, is a toff, an upper class twit, an anachronism, an unwelcome representative of a dying class system from another era. For many readers this is enough to doom Miss Sayer’s stories from the outset. The Lord Wimsey mysteries have been and continue to be analysed and understood – or misunderstood - through this narrow and claustrophobically modern lens.

But let us remember that the character’s creator was steeped in medieval literature, the medieval romances, tales of knight-errantry. Aside from her life-long dedication to Dante, Miss Sayers wrote extensively of the Song of Roland, the Arthurian cycle, Chaucer and more. Just as we need to understand Professor Tolkien’s tales of hobbitry through the lens of his dedication to Norse saga and northern European epic, so we need to understand Miss Sayer’s fictive creations through the lens of her immersion in medieval romance. For Lord Wimsey – eccentric and resoundingly British and modern though he might be in other respects - is assuredly a deeply medieval character. It is obvious especially in his relation to the heroine Harriet Vane. We see it at once in the foundation story ‘Strong Poison’. Lord Wimsey – as per the conventions of courtly love, and very much reminiscent of Dante’s entrancement by Beatrice – falls madly in love with Miss Vane on merely glimpsing her photograph in a newspaper. She has been accused of murder and is set to be tried and hanged. Instantly, like a medieval knight, he determines that she could not possibly be guilty and sets out to rescue her. This is the whole premise of the tale. The novel concerns Lord Wimsy’s efforts to find the true murderer and to save his beloved from the gallows.

Moreover, like Dante’s love for Beatrice, this is an enduring, instant, eternal love, not a mere infatuation. Lord Wimsey seeks an audience with Miss Vane in prison and proposes marriage to her two minutes after their first meeting. She, being a modern woman – she has had a long and “irregular” affair with the lover she is accused of murdering – declines. Thereafter, Whimsy persists with uncommon patience. He proposes marriage again and again, throughout these novels, for a period of over five years, never once wavering. This constancy is again deeply medieval. In terms of any realistic characterisation of British aristocracy his character might seem overblown (this is what irked Orwell, whose real name was the working class name of "Blair") but in fact what we see in his character is an elaborate, chaste, transcendent chivalry shaped by the conventions of medieval courtship, suitable recast in a modern form. Such a character could only have been created by a medievalist. Lord Wimsey’s gallantry is medieval through and through. This is what makes him such a wonderful creation – and also what makes him so despicable to modernists who are constitutionally unsympathetic to the whole medieval mode. 


This, at least, is one useful way to approach the crime fiction of Miss Sayers. Critics similarly despise Miss Sayer’s Christian themes and are inclined to find them in her stories. But again, her Christianity is thoroughly medieval – as we see in her scholarly work on the Divine Comedy especially – and it is wrong to cast it as excessively or exclusively modern. There is not much of it in Lord Wimsey, in any case. He is not an overtly Christian character, except that his virtues are transmuted by courtly manners in the way of the medieval knight. He has been damaged (psychologically) by service in the First World War. He is thus like the knight who has returned from the Crusades. And his bond with Bunter – a splendid character indeed! – is entirely akin to the knight’s feudal bond with his servant. Modernists and Marxists will hate it, for sure. The great thing about Dorothy L. Sayers, though, is that she recasts these medieval themes into faithfully modern forms. There is no nostalgia or moralism. Harriet Vane – a portrait of Miss Sayers herself, surely – is an altogether modern woman. Yet a medieval lady too. 

One is always reminded of Barbara Tuchman’s parallels between the calamitous XIVth century and the early XXth in the celebrated study A Distant Mirror, and similar observations in the work of the Dutchman Johann Huizinga. Miss Sayers, on these grounds, should be placed in this same company. It is remarkable that she has been able to draw such unstrained parallels and render them into the murder mystery genre. 

We are missing the keys to Lord Wimsey’s character if we overlook his deeply medieval background. The present author has remarked previously that the British were the last remaining chivalrous culture to extend into the barbarous chaos of modernity. No doubt, by Miss Sayer’s day it was all in tatters, and this is not by any means glossed over in her stories. Yet Lord Wimsey is a medieval man as much as he is modern. His creator provides many clues to this. Amongst his numerous hobbies, for instance, is his predilection for illuminated medieval manuscripts. He hones his skills as a sleuth on the puzzles presented by such documents. And then, perhaps best of all, we find that his middle name is “Death” – Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey. He remarks in one tale – “Murder Must Advertise” – that those afflicted with the name usually pronounce it “Deeth” but he thinks it is “rather more interesting if it rhymes with ‘breath’.” It is surely a medieval touch – the gallant hero, in pursuit of the distant damsel, marked with the momento mori. More generally - contrary to the critics - if Miss Sayers has anything to say about that most dreary of modern obsessions, gender, it is through the lens of her medievalism.

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There have been two very different portrayals of Lord Peter Death Wimsey in popular culture. He was played ably by Ian Carmichael in the BBC’s Lord Wimsey series in the 1970s. Decades later he was played by Edward Petherbridge. For the tastes of the present author, the latter portrayal is the better. The earlier portrayal is too jolly. The latter captures better the knight-errantry remarked upon above. 

Lord Wimsey and Bunter

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