Lord Peter*

Every so often, unpredictably and in no particular order, I reread the whole of Dorothy L. Sayers' series of Lord Peter Wimsey novels. I cannot remember ever intending, once I had read them all, to sit down and systematically read them all through again. It's just that, suddenly, I'm in the mood for one of them in particular--this time I think it was The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), the last time I think it was Murder Must Advertise (1933)--and, gradually, over a week or three, I make my way through the lot. This is not the way I tend to reread, say, Elizabeth Peters' or Terry Pratchetts' novels. With theirs, I tend to start at the beginning and read all the way through to the end (although, in the case of Pratchett's books, I may do this in lots--first the witches, then the guards, then Death & Susan, then the wizards), but with Sayers' stories, the compulsion to read is somewhat different and I'm never really sure, until I get to the end, that this time I'm going to want to read all of them.

Perhaps this is, in fact, why I enjoy her novels so much: there is nothing predictable about them. I don't mean so much in story-line or plot twists (although, unless you've read the books over and over, there's nothing predictable there; every book's structure is totally different), but, rather, in characterization or mood. Which Lord Peter are we going to have this time? The slightly foppish intellectual or the consummate athlete? The common man coming to work every day as a copywriter (Murder Must Advertise [1933]) or the local celebrity hanging about checking train times while others work (Five Red Herrings [1931])? The aesthete knowledgeable about wines and books and women's haircuts and dresses or the volunteer organizing the games and drills to occupy the school-children of Fenchurch St. Paul during the flood (The Nine Tailors [1934])?

But, then, again, one of the greatest delights of the novels is that Sayers allows (often, but not always, for the sake of the plot) Lord Peter to be so many things: bibliophile, motorist, bell-ringer, Francophone, sleight-of-hand artist, cricketeer, entrepreneur (Miss Climpson's "Cattery"), copywriter, poet, musician. To be sure, not every reader has enjoyed this development of Lord Peter's character; how credible is it that he could be excellent at so many things? It is as if he refuses to stay fixed. He even changes his language at will, speaking sometimes as a near Bertie Woosterish boob, others as a well-travelled gentleman of the world, others as a middle-class working man, others as a bookish intellectual, others as a habituee of the law courts and Scotland Yard. Of course, it is as Harriet's lover that Lord Peter is arguably best-known and, at a guess, best-loved. I don't meet quite as many men who like Sayers as I do women, although no one I've talked to is really sure how much she (that is, we ourselves) likes Harriet. But we do love Lord Peter's love for her.

I'll tell you what I love most about Lord Peter: the fact that the characters who know him or to whom he reveals himself (typically, discretely, by way of his visiting card) call him "your lordship" or "my lord". A relic of an outdated, oppressive, inegalitarian social system? Perhaps, but it is nevertheless interesting that one of the things that this privileged scion of the aristocracy is best at is passing as, if not precisely common, nevertheless an ordinary, working man. Nor is he very good-looking, as true noblemen are (at least in romances) supposed to be. It is his servant Bunter who keeps him dressed properly; otherwise, Lord Peter never seems to care much about his clothes, except for the effect that they have on other people. He uses them, in other words, to set up expectations, to assume a role, not because he thinks they are necessary to define who he is as himself. Indeed, the only thing that Lord Peter seems to use to define himself is his passion for detecting. All of his many (and they are many) skills are only so many tools to deploy at will in discovering what kind of wrong, precisely, has been committed.

I wonder if you can see where I'm going with this. Perhaps it will help to add a few hints. Sayers herself, as I am sure many of you know, was a great scholar of medieval literature. Once she managed to get Harriet and Lord Peter married and off on their honeymoon (Busman's Honeymoon [1937]), she abandoned them (although never definitively until 1947) to start translating Dante. During the last twenty years of her life, she also wrote plays and, among other essays, The Mind of the Maker (1941), a book which literature scholar Carolyn Heilbrunn has called "one of the most insightful books ever written on the creative process," but which I would also call one of the most insightful works ever written on the theology of the Trinity.

In The Mind of the Maker, Sayers discusses the appeal of the detective novel as one of justice: such novels are comforting, however horrific the crimes they describe, because the perpetrators are identified and, in one way or another, brought to take responsibility for their crimes. But everyone who has stayed with Lord Peter and Harriet through to the end of their honeymoon knows what a toll bringing criminals to justice took on Lord Peter himself. The man whom we first meet in Whose Body? (1923) exclaiming, "Oh, damn!" to a taxi driver because he has carelessly left behind the catalogue for the book auction he is about to attend, we last see saying, "Oh, damn!" to his wife and beginning to cry on her knees, on her breast, in her arms, lest he hear the bell for eight-o'clock--and the murderer's execution--beginning to strike.

I can think of only one other figure in our literary tradition who shares all of these traits with Lord Peter: happening upon the scene when one least expects aid to come (why is he up there in Scotland hanging out with the painters in Five Red Herrings? who are the mysterious friends whom he is going to visit before his car runs into the ditch in The Nine Tailors?); able to adjust his speech to suit every social circumstance; driven to anger by injustice and yet weeping over those whom he has brought to judgment; apparently foolish in the eyes of the world, particularly those of his brother, the Duke; urged to his first public display of his abilities by his mother (in Whose Body?, Lord Peter, of course, never makes it to the auction; the Dowager Duchess calls him to help identify a dead body that has been found in their parish architect's bath); falling in love with a most unsuitable woman, a working woman, not at all of his social class, whom he first sees in the dock accused of murdering her former lover and who, when he asks her to marry him, refuses for years because she cannot bear having to feel so grateful to him for saving her life.

No, I don't think Sayers ever consciously intended Lord Peter to be nothing more than a stand-in (or allegory) for Our Lord Jesus Christ, anymore than she intended Harriet Vane to be nothing more than a stand-in for herself (I didn't know this until I started looking for links for this post, but Sayers, like her character Harriet Vane in Strong Poison [1930], was also persuaded by her first lover to live with him for a year without marriage so that, he said, he could test her devotion for him. N.B. that Lord Peter never puts Harriet through such a test. He just asks her, over and over again until she says yes, to marry him.) But Sayers herself was too great a writer not to be aware of the impact of the words she was using to describe the leading man of her stories.

If we use words like "lord" and "saviour" and "beloved" and "judge" to talk about God, it is not, she would insist, because God is anything like the lords and saviours and beloveds and judges whom we encounter in everyday life. Rather, it is because it is the only language that we have. As she argues in The Mind of the Maker (pp. 17-18):

This ["God created"], we may say, is a metaphor like other statements about God. So it is, but it is none the worse for that. All language about God must, as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, necessarily be analogical. We need not be surprised at this, still less suppose that because it is analogical it is therefore valueless or without any relation to the truth. The fact is, that all language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors. We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things.... In particular, when we speak about something of which we have no direct experience, we must think by analogy or refrain from thought. It may be perilous, as it must be inadequate, to interpret God by analogy with ourselves, but we are compelled to do so; we have no other means of interpreting anything.

I worry when I hear people (including many at my church, including our priest!) resisting the language of lordship to address Our Lord God. Not because I think it is bad to talk about God as mother or wisdom or sustainer, but because we need every metaphor we can find. Sayers argues in The Mind of the Maker for the governing metaphor of God as maker of things. It is the first image of God that the Bible (Genesis 1:1) gives us; moreover, it is the only image that the Bible gives us before going on to say that God created human beings "in the image and likeness" of God. It would seem, therefore, that to be made in the image of God is to be made in the image of, well, a maker of things. So what if, working according to the likeness in which she was made, an author created a character who bore titles and character traits frequently associated with God under His titles "beloved" and "lord"? I'm not sure that we wouldn't do well to read her stories, and her characters, in this light.

Lord Peter is stern when confronting those whom he has reason to suspect of wrong-doing, but always generous with those who appeal to him for aid. He appears beautifully dressed by his servant, but completely indifferent to what happens to his clothes (okay, so he's rich; he doesn't have to make a fuss, but he might). He holds a particular place in society, but can disguise himself as Everyman. He is not handsome to look at, but women fall for him easily and find him beautiful to watch. We occasionally see him succumb to drunkenness--for example, when his brother the Duke is acquitted of murder--and he can use physical force when necessary. Although many make the mistake of thinking him soft and concerned only for his own comfort, he has served in the Great War and still has the strength of a farmer when it comes to pulling bells.

I know, I know, one could easily ascribe these characteristics to any Victorian-style, Digbyite gentleman; Lord Peter is, in his own way, a knight. Although he is usually seen driving "Mrs. Merdle," the Daimler, Harriet has the first glimmerings of the thought that she might actually fall in love him when she sees him in Have His Carcase (1932) riding a horse.* All I'm saying is, what do we do with the fact that this character, so versatile and unpredictable, proper and generous, strong yet unassuming, is addressed throughout the books as "my lord"? And that the one thing he wants most in life is for the woman whom he has found, to all intents and purposes, mired in sin, to marry him?

Of course Harriet Vane is Dorothy Sayers, just as she is all of us. That's why we have so much trouble liking her. She (Harriet) is the image of the Christian soul, loved unconditionally by God, who asks of her only that she love Him but will never force himself upon her nor claim, that if she does not love Him, it will make Him desperately unhappy. As Lord Peter--whom Harriet calls simply Peter--says to her: "Desperately? .... My dear, I will not insult either you or myself with a word like that. I can only tell you that if you will marry me it will give me very great happiness" (Gaudy Night [1935]). And so he asks her, one more time: "Placetne, magistra?" How hard it is for our soul to return to Our Lord Harriet's response: "Placet."

*Here's what it actually says (it's before Harriet has seen Lord Peter capture the horse and mount it). Lord Peter has promised that when she marries him, she will learn to ride, too: "Harriet was silent. She suddenly saw Wimsey in a new light. She knew him to be intelligent, clean, courteous, wealthy, well-read, amusing and enamoured, but he had not so far produced in her that crushing sense of utter inferiority which leads to prostration and hero-worship. But she now realised that there was, after all, something god-like about him. He could control a horse."

P.S. Just so there's no confusion: I'm not imagining Lord Peter as an analogue for the historical Jesus, but rather as an analogue for the Lord God as we encounter Him in life. Some of this depends upon our willingness to see Him as the same as the One who became incarnate historically, but given that we only meet Lord Peter after the Great War, one could say that we really only meet him after he has "died" for the first time. But, please, if there are any questions about how strictly to take this analogy, read the quotation from The Mind of the Maker again. Everything we say about God is an analogy because everything we say about God is in human language. It's all in the Song of Songs.

Comments

  1. Beautiful. Thank you.
    ~Comfy Chair

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