The Lord Peter Wimsey Companion
To a card-carrying member of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society, nothing could be more exciting than this month's long-awaited launch of the online Lord Peter Wimsey Companion, which is the wiki version of a previously published compendium of inside facts on the series: sources and historical context for the quotations, allusions, poetry, etc., that are the hallmarks of Lord Peter's overeducated, ever-wanderin', patrician motormouth style and Dorothy L. Sayers' capacious brains. Up till now this heavyweight tome (776 pages) has been available only via hardcover, which goes for between $550 and $745 (used) at Amazon.com. Much like the Wizard of Oz or Angela Gheorghiu after opening night, it was oft referred to but seldom seen. I never truly believed it existed.
Yet here we are! With a paid membership and verified account in hand, the first thing a smart reader like me does is look up all the sexy parts, because Lord Peter woos in French and Latin and I'm not really on this ride for the mysteries. (I say! I hope this is not a surprise to you.) For 18 long months I've waited to fill in the blanks on the following conversation, which occurs early in Busman's Honeymoon as our long-suffering newlyweds struggle through yet one more obstacle on their way to enjoying the actual "honeymoon" part of their honeymoon. In this case said obstacle is a malfunctioning oil-stove:
"It's a nice, clean smell," said his wife, soothingly, "much more original than all the powders of the merchant. And I expect Bunter will manage to get it off you."
"I hope so," said Peter. He remembered that it had once been said of 'ce blond cadet de famille ducale anglaise'*—said, too, by a lady who had every opportunity of judging—that 'il tenait son lit en Grand Monarque et s'y démenait en Grand Turc.'** The Fates, it seemed, had determined to strip him of every vanity save one. Let them. He could fight this battle naked. He laughed suddenly.
"Enfin, du courage! Embrasse-moi, chérie. Je trouverai quandmême le moyen de te faire plaisir. Hein? tu veux? dis donc!"***
"Je veux bien."
Which comes out as:
* French for "the blond younger son of the English ducal family."
** French for "he kept to his bed like the Grand Monarch (Louis XIV) and conducts himself there like the Sultan of Turkey (a sexual reference)." (!!)
*** French for "At last, courage! Now kiss me, darling, and I will show you the ways of pleasure. Would you like that? Tell me." HV responds, "Yes, I would." (!!!)
(Compare this to what Google Translate coughs up: "Finally, courage! Kiss me, darling. I still find a way to make you happy. Huh? you want? Hey!" and "I am willing.")
Anyway: saucy! The site as a whole is a little tough to crawl through, usability-wise, since there's no obvious start point and no navigation, but I've already stumbled upon the very best factoid, under the entry "Damn! Oh":
These are the very first words uttered by PW in his first recorded adventure (Whose Body?) and are an excellent example of the axiom that states the opening sentence of a novel should immediately grip the reader’s attention and encourage further involvement. DLS uses this device elsewhere, most notably in Nine Tailors where the opening line is, “That’s torn it!”
It is also of interest to note that the last words PW utters in a DLS novel are “Oh, damn” at the end of Busman's Honeymoon. Some critics might consider this a further signal of her intent to end the sequence of Wimsey stories. Closing a story or even a series of stories with some bit of business from its beginning is a common device. The opening sentence of Strong Poison describes “crimson roses on the bench” while there are “golden chrysanthemums on the judges’ bench” to open the final chapter when Harriet is cleared of all charges. Even the colours herald the nature of what is to follow. While “Oh, damn”, is a common enough expression, it seems highly unlikely that the expression’s use as PW’s final utterance in BH is a coincidence.
Starting and ending the series on the same line of dialogue isn't a detail I would have caught on my own, because it doesn't announce itself in any way, but being aware of it wraps such a fine bow around the whole package and makes the journey that much more rewarding. Plus I'm a huge sucker for narrative symmetry, and here it so clearly highlights the way Sayers developed and evolved her leading man.
Whose Body? begins in a taxi, with Lord Peter a thoroughly insufferable dandy-about-town on his way to a rare book sale ("Oh, damn!" said Lord Peter Wimsey at Piccadilly Circus. "Hi, driver!"). He tells the driver to turn around because he's forgotten his sale catalogue back at the Piccadilly bachelor pad, where he happens to answer the phone when his mother calls to tell him that the little fellow who's fixing the roof of her church has found a dead body in his bathtub and could use some help. Early Lord Peter is responsible to nothing and no one, a man of luxury who leads a life filled with expensive hobbies and zero concerns. He's an amateur detective because he's bored, curious, and easily amused. At the close of the story he's planning a dinner party and ordering his manservant to bring him a Napoleon brandy.
Busman's Honeymoon takes place worlds away and some 13 years later, and he's a completely different character. It ends with Peter a married man now painfully aware of both his own weaknesses and his own mortality, as well as the consequences of his habitual meddling, as he awaits with Harriet the execution of a murderer he helped catch and convict. His every action is an agony, and all the more so for knowing it's self-constructed: this is the life he chose and now can't turn away from. Understanding who he was when it all started only makes it more painful to read, and ultimately more resonant.
"They hate executions, you know. It upsets the other prisoners. They bang on the doors and make nuisances of themselves. Everybody's nervous. ... Caged like beasts, separately. ... That's the hell of it. ... we're all in separate cells. ... I can't get out, said the starling. ... If one could only get out for one moment, or go to sleep, or stop thinking. ... Oh, damn that cursed clock! ... Harriet, for God's sake, hold on to me. ... get me out of this. Break down the door. ..."
"Hush, dearest, I'm here. We'll see it out together."
Through the eastern side of the casement, the sky grew pale with the forerunners of the dawn.
"Don't let me go."
The light grew stronger as they waited.
Quite suddenly, he said, "Oh, damn!" and began to cry—in an awkward, unpracticed way at first, and then more easily. So she held him, crouched at her knees, against her breast, huddling her head in his arms that he might not hear eight o'clock strike.
p.s. The Dorothy L. Sayers Society does not actually hand out cards, so I guess I'll have to make my own. It will probably involve a crown and a hot dog.