“I may say his views on women and the stage were such as I should have expected of a man who would smoke with your lordship’s port.” – Mervyn Bunter
This essay will be as heavy with spoilers as a scone is with raisins, jam, and clotted cream.
Many consider the 1920s and 1930s as the golden age of British mysteries – Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Michael Innes, Josephine Tey. But though we’ll be speaking about that time period, that is not the golden age I mean. The one I’m thinking of is not so much a temporal slice of publishing genre, but something far more personal, and as it always is, mellower, nacreous, suffused-with-beauty-and-regret.
One either falls in love with Lord Peter, or one walks away to sit by a less babbling brook. But if you feel yourself open to it… well, when we meet his young lordship, in Whose Body, Sayers’s first novel, he wastes no time in enchanting us with his words, words, words. Some series characters take time to grow into themselves; Lord Peter stepped out firmly onto the stage as Athena sprang full-grown from the head of Zeus. He is a man who can’t stop talking, and though he apologizes for this from time to time, we sense that beneath his exquisite manners is an absolute confidence that eccentricity is allowed him. He is, after all, not only a lord but the younger son of a duke; free to be irresponsible. And his position could not have been bestowed on a more appreciative object, as one of Peter’s most endearing qualities is his great capacity for enjoyment – of music, of poetry, of breakfast. (“I have not regretted paradise lost since I found it contained no eggs and bacon.”) And what Peter enjoys, the reader can enjoy – an invaluable quality in a character.
When his police friend, Inspector Parker, comes round to see him about a murder, Peter begins by singing a happy ditty about “a body in a bath,” and ends with:
“‘Gloves? Here. My stick, my torch, the lampblack, the forceps, knife, pill-boxes – all complete?” “Certainly, my lord.” “Oh, Bunter, don’t look so offended. I mean no harm. I believe in you, I trust you – what money have I got? That’ll do. I knew a man once, Parker, who let a world-famous poisoner slip through his fingers because the machine on the Underground took nothing but pennies. There was a queue at the booking office and the man at the barrier stopped him, and while they were arguing about accepting a five-pound-note (which was all he had) for a two-penny ride to Baker Street, the criminal had sprung into a Circle train, and was next heard of in Constantinople, disguised as an elderly Church of England clergyman touring with his niece. Are we all ready? Go!’
They stepped out, Bunter carefully switching off the lights behind them.”
Bunter carefully switching off the lights is as much a delight to me as Peter’s nonsense. And the surrounding characters – Sir Impey Biggs, the shamelessly dramatic barrister, who filled his summations with literary quotations he expected his audience to recognize, and got any number of murderers off scot-free; old Mr. Murbles, the solicitor, a leftover of Victorian times who had his old-fashioned hats specially made (“Mr. Murbles was very slowly rotating his hands over one another with a dry, rustling sound — like an old snake gliding through the long grass in search of prey.”) Inspector Charles Parker, whose comfort reading was theology (“When he worked with Wimsey on a case, it was an understood thing that anything lengthy, intricate, tedious, and soul-destroying would be done by Parker.”) And of course, that fizzy drink of delight, Honoria Lucasta, Dowager Duchess of Denver, Peter’s mother (it is clear where Peter gets his verbal tangents from). Even the passersby get their moments (“Miss Findlater spoke with the air of a disillusioned rake, who has sucked life’s orange and found it a dead sea fruit.”).
Let us understand their world, through our distant and plainer window. It is a world that begins nearer WWI than WWII; a world in which Lord Peter can wear a silk dressing gown with “jazz-colored peacocks” in his Piccadilly flat while sipping Napoleon brandy brought to him by “his man” Bunter, surrounded by rare volumes and beside a roaring fire. It is a world alien to us – a world in which nearly everyone who wasn’t a servant had a servant (or two, or ten, or more). In Agatha Christie’s memoirs she talks about how her family, who couldn’t afford a car or more than one dress for her to wear to every gathering, would not think of living without help. E.F. Benson’s books describe how most of the upper-crust society in Tilling, a small town by the sea, re-sew and re-dye and re-make their clothing, because they can’t afford to buy a new skirt or dress – but they get sewing assistance from their maids in doing so, and they all have cooks. In Whose Body, we learn that Wimsey’s friend Parker, who is a simple police inspector, has both a live-in cook to make his breakfast in the morning and a woman who comes in to take care of the heavy cleaning.
Where we have possessions, they had leisure – as long, of course, as you were not in service yourself, which going by the numbers you might well have been. Even middle-class people with jobs went home at a reasonable hour, had friends to dinner often, and slept well (on average, one or two hours more than we do today*). House and babies were cared for by others.
Above all, though, it was a world of style.
Oh, Lord Peter, how you could dress. A young medical student describes Wimsey’s clothing as “a sort of rebuke to the world.” Bunter, that magical Jeeves of detection, once blocked Peter’s exit from a room and refused to allow him to leave before he changed his trousers. And what dressing meant in those days! Oh for when a woman could wear a tiara without looking like a fool. When fancy-dress balls were common enough that ladies and gentlemen kept costumes in their wardrobes. When young people were as foolish as they ever were, but managed it in evening clothes and with an air of studied and practiced grace. And who could forget that dramatic night when Lord Peter, in his harlequin’s costume, risked his life diving off a fountain, in service of a case?
This is all bathed in the glow of the past for us, a past none of us remembers at this point. But you can taste the ice cream when Sayers says, in one short story, “It was a Sunday afternoon in that halcyon summer of 1921.”
And it feels, in these stories, as though life would always go on this way – or at least, for longer than it actually did. Oh, there’s talk of socialist revolutions – Peter’s sister is something of a radical – and Peter acknowledges he’ll be one of the first up against the wall; but there is still a golden afternoon sunlight about it all. Peter’s older brother, Gerald, Duke of Denver, is a boring but dutiful soul who takes his role seriously, trying to preserve the land and the people on it; and Peter, when troubled, returns to his ancestral home because at Denver, nothing changes, and nobody dies but the occasional ancient dog.
Gaudy Night – a favorite book of many people, myself among them – is more drenched in that idyllic sunlight than any other. Harriet Vane, a writer of mysteries who was on trial for her life in Strong Poison, returns to visit her college in Oxford to help solve a string of poison pen letters.
Written in an age where women in universities had to perpetually justify themselves, where female scholars were considered a bit touched in the head, Gaudy Night is a love letter to learning and a defense of the Ivory Tower, in which scholarly integrity is put ahead of personal ambition. And of course, this particular vision of Oxford is also tied to a world in amber – a university that has sent generations into the world since medieval times – but where sufficient leisure can always be found to punt a boat on the river. Near the end, Peter and Harriet walk out on the turret of Radcliffe Camera, and after a lovely, unabashedly romantic description of the college towers below them, Sayers even quotes the famous Hopkins poem:
Towery City, and branchy between towers,
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmed, lark-charmed,
The dapple-eared lily below.
Really, who would not read this and say, “I divorce my alma mater! I want to go to this Oxford! Preferably in 1935!”
And it is at this magical Oxford that Harriet, carrying a bag of meringues, runs into (literally) the Viscount St. George, Peter’s beautiful nephew, the son and heir of the Duke of Denver – handsome, charming, and full of mischief.
“‘Hell!’ said a voice which set her heart beating by its unexpected familiarity, ‘have I hurt you? Me all over – bargin’ and bumpin’ about like a bumble-bee in a bottle. Clumsy lout! I say, do say I haven’t hurt you. Because, if I have, I’ll run straight across and drown myself in Mercury.’
He extended the arm that was not supporting Harriet in a vague gesture towards the pond.
‘…Was there anything unbreakable in the parcels? Oh, look! Your bag’s opened itself wide and all the little oojahs have gone down the steps. Please don’t move. You stand there, thinkin’ up things to call me, and I’ll pick ‘em all up one by one on my knees sayin’ “mea culpa” to every one of ‘em.’”
This is an Oxford where it was fashionable for young men to make a pretense of not studying, but to study anyway; the point being to make it all look effortless, like Fred Astaire. More importantly, Oxford, Cambridge, and all they implied, offered a set of studies that most educated people were at least glancingly familiar with; so that Harriet and Peter could play their game of quotations with each other without anyone accusing them of putting on airs. People actually read Pope and Milton, and knew Latin and Middle English and sometimes Greek, and that was all perfectly normal.
This struck a melancholy chord in me; years ago I read that officials in ancient China could be tested and rise through merit because there was a central trunk of learning that everyone was taught. Someone could quote a couplet of poetry, and another person from a far province could give the response. A brotherhood of words. All we have in common today, I thought at the time, are things like the theme song to Gilligan’s Island. This was, of course, back before the proliferation of channels made even the commonality of network television impossible.
Worse, there are now those disheartening people who think a reference to poetry could not possibly stem from loving poetry – ick, that awful stuff! – no, it must be someone “showing off.” Stop talking that highfalutin’ phony talk, you. Of all the strange and poisonous plants that have grown since those days, reverse snobbishness is one of the most irritating.
So there we are. The 1920s through the mid-30s, the golden age of a young man: Lord Peter. Leisure, style, facility with words… let’s trace him backwards, shall we? A man born in 1890, who, when he meets a temperamental French courtesan in Clouds of Witness, can be reminded of “Vienna before the war – that capital of incredible follies.” A man who can take Harriet to his palatial childhood home, where he admits, a bit embarrassed, that there are indeed peacocks on the terrace – “all the storybook things” – not to mention occasional friendly ghosts in the library and the halls, because of course the house is old, and the family is old. There is a reassuring permanence to it all. How comforting it seems to those of us living in a time where the average length of home ownership is seven years, and where one often cannot return to visit your grammar school or high school, because it no longer exists.
Of course, temperamental courtesans, as a class, as well as peacocks and palatial homes that outlast the centuries, are all supported by wealth and leisure.
Now let me pause here and state the obvious. Don’t let this talk of sunlit boating parties deceive you; I very much doubt anybody wants to return to the 1920s or 30s. What we have here is a bit of a fairy tale; in which those in power happen to be noble in character and don’t abuse those under their thumb, and hardly anybody resents the class system, and people of color are almost entirely absent. (And when they do appear in British fiction of this era, they seem regarded as an entirely different species.) Just as a reality check, let’s take a look at the original cover of Agatha Christie’s And then there were none.
So to be clear: when I speak of a golden age, I mean it strictly in a storybook sense, and most particularly as it applies to Lord Peter. As regards the lure of history in general – as I once wrote elsewhere, “There is no other age in which I wish to live. We may not have civility, but we have anesthesia.”
Nevertheless, to those of us who love the books, Lord Peter’s past is still a golden daydream of style, of jazz, of the Blue Train to the Riviera, of the first freedoms and jobs for women (imagine how it felt in the 1920s, going off to London or the new skyscrapers of Manhattan to seek your fortune – and you’re not limited to being a prostitute), of piano music in the flat next door, of dresses that women didn’t have to hold up with one hand when they climbed stairs**, of what we like to pretend was innocence. ***
The only real darkness of the books – and there are two that twine about each other – are in Lord Peter’s psyche. It must have been quite a surprise to those first readers when Peter suddenly woke Bunter from a sound sleep to say he could hear German guns. To learn that what Peter calls his “silly ass about town” persona is to a degree manufactured, a protective shell; that he came out of the nightmare of the Great War with a nervous breakdown, and that it was Bunter, his sergeant, who returned to care for him – and who still cares for him with an authority that, when pushed, Peter does not dispute. As writing, this is an inspired touch; the joyful nimbleness of an archetypal Jeeves-and-his-young-gentleman pattern, deepened and complicated by a darkness any person living at that time would recognize all too well. Peter can distract himself happily with a new case, but once it’s solved the responsibility descends on him – the responsibility of an ex-officer, a survivor who regularly ordered young men out to die, and now must watch as the game turns real and his exposed criminal is taken off for execution. His apparent equilibrium is in fact a balance of opposing forces, as Sayers makes plain.
Sayers (and Austen) have long been on my list of those authors whose (surely much longer) oeuvres, in some alternate universe, ought to be made available. (For several years, in fact, long after I ought to have known better, I would wander by the Austen patch in bookstores, as though expecting a new one to magically appear.) I would also think, “Someday, when I am quite grown-up, and have money and time, I will try to go to Wheaton College, where they are supposed to have the beginning of Sayers’s last Lord Peter manuscript (Thrones, Dominations) and I will get permission to read it.”)
In the intervening years, I have never had both money and time, together – my, how the themes of this essay dovetail – and so I was delighted by the sheer convenience of it when Jill Patton Walsh received permission from the Sayers estate to continue the Lord Peter books, using whatever scraps Dorothy Sayers had left. Thrones, Dominations was the first, and that has been followed by several others, picking up in time from the late 1930s, when Busman’s Honeymoon left off.
I have enjoyed the books. They don’t feel to me, except in brief glimmers, as though they were written by the same hand; but we are handicapped by the fact they were not, in fact, written by the same hand. I’m not convinced anybody could continue these books in a full Sayers vein but Sayers herself. From that point of view, my bar is not so high that it’s unclearable. More to the point, the books are written by someone who loves the material and is as familiar with it as anybody in the world. (The lengths Walsh goes to in order to make the Attenbury diamonds/emeralds make sense are worthy of applause.) This is someone who can have Peter seek to persuade Harriet to have tea with him by saying, “Be like Anna, whom three realms obey.” If I say these books are good fan fiction, those of you who know my feelings in that area will see I am not damning with faint praise.
Busman’s Honeymoon, the last book by Sayers herself, is lapped in that mellow, golden-age light. Bunter driving the car with the port in the trunk; the meeting between the Dowager Duchess and Harriet, and the story of how Bunter first took over Peter’s postwar life; Peter singing French songs as he chops wood on his wedding night… Bunter’s letter to his mother. My god, such gifts to the long-time readers. (And I will pause and say in passing that the Wimsey series reminds me of the Vorkosigan series by Lois Bujold, in its way of seducing readers to become entangled with the characters and wishing to see what becomes of their family over time.)
And then in the new books by Walsh, as the years pass, afternoon fades to evening, and the gold tarnishes.
Now, Peter and Harriet are not fools. They, like many others, can see the future coming, and they welcome a world in which (for instance) education is no longer the privilege of a few. As early as Whose Body, Peter questioned Bunter as an equal, accepting his point of view as legitimate, sometimes more so than his own. By Walsh’s A Presumption of Death, during WWII, Harriet asks how things can ever go back to what they were – after the nation has sacrificed together, what justifies such a class system?
The lovely ivory dominoes all go down. That young charmer Jerry, the Viscount St. George, who knocked the bundles from Harriet’s arms, who blew his allowance and got into car accidents, who nearly lost Lord Peter’s ring at the wedding… becomes an RAF pilot and dies in the Battle of Britain. Peter’s delightful mother, the Dowager Duchess Honoria Lucasta, full of malapropisms and wisdom, who so enlivened the earlier books, is old and frail, and Peter lives with the knowledge she could go at any time. His brother Gerald, the Duke, watches most of Bredon Hall burn down, and dies of a heart attack. The land he and his ancestors were responsible for for so many centuries is sold for death duties. Peter inherits a title he never wanted, and must spend his days carefully trying to preserve what he can. Titles themselves mean less and less. Upon the Duke’s death, Peter’s son asks, “Am I a lord now?” and is told he can now be “Viscount St. George,” as his uncle Jerry was. “Do I have to?” asks the son. Who, by the way, is not the too-intelligent-for-their-own-good sort his parents are, and who does not want to go to Oxford at all. (Bunter, never a fool, is helping his own son toward the London School of Economics.)
We see Peter and Harriet walking down the street in London. It’s 1953. Peter’s wearing a hat, but fewer and fewer men are doing so. That tiny detail, and it says so much.
The golden age is being swallowed up by the age of brutalist architecture and shirtsleeves at all occasions, when older manners can be mocked. And death and aging begin to surround our characters – as they inescapably do all of us as the years pass.
I thought I would hate this part of the story for the color it would suck out of Peter’s life – because, let’s face it, if Peter’s Piccadilly flat and family pile are wish-fulfillment for the reader, this is not – but honestly, I found it the most fascinating part of Jill Patton Walsh’s continuation. When I picked up The Lord of the Rings again a few years ago, after a couple of decades, I was shocked to see how shot through with loss it is from the very beginning. (I’d remembered the end, and the appendices, and all the death and leave-taking and irrevocable choices; but my god – right from the starting gate is that note of piercing sadness.) Here is the same pattern of decline, an old world lost, and the same sense that the new generations will never understand the old or their struggles and regrets.
Those times of transition fascinate me. They’re triumphant for some, even at times the majority, while others get dragged beneath the chariot wheels. I once read of a Chinese girl whose mother had seen to her agonizing foot binding – with good reason, as it was the only path to beauty and thus the power and security of a good marriage. But the timing was not fortunate; not long after, foot binding was made illegal. The girl then had to go to school with contemporaries who mocked her; to them her role in society was no longer seen as that of a beauty sailing toward the future, but as damaged goods, physically and symbolically out of step. Transitional times create collateral damage.
Setting the stage in Unnatural Death, Sayers comments that “Chamberlin and Levine had just crossed the Atlantic,” and “the electric hare had consented to run in the White City.” How impenetrable the sentences are now. Investigation tells us the White City was a dog-racing track, long-gone and forgotten but for a few; and that Charles Albert Levine was the first passenger in a nonstop transatlantic flight. He narrowly missed being on the first nonstop transatlantic flight, period, but a court battle delayed things long enough for Lindbergh to leave, from the same airfield, hours before him.
It’s worth noting that Levine was a pugnacious individual who got into all sorts of trouble, and was charged over the years with counterfeiting, with “smuggling an illegal German/Jewish alien into the US from Mexico,” and with smuggling 2,000 pounds of tungsten powder from Canada – don’t ask me – and only had his debts to the government forgiven in 1948. He died at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington DC in 1991, at the age of 94. 1991! Post-moon, post-television, after the dawn of personal computers. And he was a man of action when a flight across the ocean was a leap into heroic danger, when ships and a telegraph line were all that held Europe and the US together. ****
Only seven years younger, there’s no reason that Lord Peter might not live well into the 1980s. If he were healthy enough to travel from what remained of Denver, it would be to a London almost wholly alien to him. And there he might die, hooked to machinery in the sterile hospital rooms we offer now to the unlucky old, his death a quaint footnote to some obituary writer.
But all stories end unhappily if you prolong them far enough. That’s why romantic comedies end with a kiss. If Hamlet; had been a charming wordfest about his courting of Ophelia, we would leave the theater with smiles. What is one to do with all this reality seeping in under the door? Friends die, ways of life die, the river moves on; and as Edna St. Vincent Millay says, “I am not resigned.” Even were he real, a man born in 1890 will exist only as a fading memory.
But Peter, in my heart you will be forever playing Bach in your flat, while a taxi waits downstairs.
* You can see the results of a questionnaire from 1939 here, showing that 60 percent of British respondents slept 8-9 hours a night, and less than one percent regularly slept less than 6 hours. Compare that to today – our sleep-deprived cycle of work, work, work, and our grand accumulation of things that require more and more storage. A single wardrobe-closet was sufficient for most people, in those days. That being said, they will pry my iPhone and laptop from my cold, dead hands.
**Try going upstairs for the evening carrying a candle in one hand, a baby in the other, and your third hand to hold up your dress, and you begin to appreciate the safety issues. Of the three, the most dispensable would be the candle, so I imagine a great many women of the past groping their way along banisters and hallways.
***Of course, how innocent were those times? Gentlemen wore poppies in their buttonholes on Armistice Day, and everyone stepped outdoors to observe the two-minute silence in remembrance of the dead. That has the whiff now of a quaint sincerity most modern nations are too self-conscious to indulge in, but coming as it did after the traumatic mass killing field that was WWI, it seems less like innocence and more like therapy.
****In Clouds of Witness, Peter is also a passenger on a transatlantic flight, carrying evidence that will save his brother who is on trial in the House of Lords. Sir Impey Biggs, defending, asks the court to wait for Peter’s arrival, adding solemnly, “My lords – the barometer is falling.” The difference between that and our present day airport cattle call could not be more stark. I’m not advocating for greater danger in travel; I’m simply impressed at how we’ve taken something so miraculous and made it both routine and unpleasant.