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."(Very specific!)

** 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, UX-wise, since there's no obvious starting 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.

Beginning 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 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.

The Mitre

We went to the Mitre; the Mitre came to us. We fell upon it, actually. A salvation on a chilly day. Inside, we looked for Lord Peter, tuned to that small part of our brains that believes, still, somehow, that it must, they must, he must be real. Don't you sometimes believe it too?

"Have I been asleep?"

"Getting on for two hours," said Harriet, with a pleased chuckle.

"Good Lord, what disgusting behaviour! I am frightfully sorry. Why didn't you give me a shout? What time is it? My poor girl, you'll get no dinner to-night if we don't hurry up. Look here, I do apologise most abjectly."

"It doesn't matter a bit. You were awfully tired."

"That's no excuse." He was on his feet now, extricating the punt-poles from the mud. "We might make it by double-punting — if you'll forgive the infernal cheek of asking you to work to make up for my soul-destroying sloth."

"I'd love to punt. But, Peter!" She suddenly liked him enormously. "What's the hurry? I mean, is the Master expecting you, or anything?"

"No; I've removed myself to the Mitre. I can't use the Master's lodgings as a hotel; besides, they've got people coming in."

"Then couldn't we get something to eat somewhere along the river and make a day of it? I mean, if you feel like it. Or must you have a proper dinner?"

"My dear, I would gladly eat husks for having behaved like a dog. Or thistles. Preferably thistles. You are a most forgiving woman."

Magdalen Bridge

The traffic made it impossible to actually photograph the bridge, but again: I did what I could! Anyway, we learned that it's pronounced "Maudlin," which seemed pretty important.

"It's a beautiful night—far too good to waste. Don't go back yet. Come down to Magdalen Bridge and send your love to London River."

— Lord Peter to Harriet in Gaudy Night, Chapter XXIII

Gaudy Night at The Millions

Props from a writer at one of my favorite book sites:

Another book I loved was Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers. It’s a mystery set at Oxford University and follows Harriet Vane and the irrepressible Lord Peter Wimsey as they try to unravel the meaning behind a series of obscene and threatening notes someone has been leaving around Shrewsbury College. Harriet struggles with her attraction to Peter and her desire to remain independent, and actually there’s a lot of wry commentary about just that—the pressure to marry and make house and the desire to get an education and contribute to society. Also, it’s great to read about Oxford in the thirties because it just seems so different from here.

— A Year in Reading: Emma Rathbone

London for Thanksgiving

Random Vacation Notes

It was very cold. 

Our hotel was the Base2Stay Kensington at 25 Courtfield Gardens. The towel racks were heated yet nothing spontaneously combusted. Crazy!

I was lucky to be traveling with three ladies who love posing for pictures, there's none of that "For fuck's sake, not again" exhaustion or even feigned exhaustion, they are all good fakers and complete hams even when they're truly exhausted. And so pretty! If you stacked the two things Sarah loves best—laughing and being photographed—on one of those justice scales, it's tough to tell which side would pull her down first. She would hire her own private paparazzo if she could.

Also, this was Chelsea's first trip to London—in fact her first international trip ever—and although she rejected all of our suggested nicknames, I would say she passed the test. 

Day 1

We had Thanksgiving breakfast at Balans. For the record I will trade a turkey dinner for the full English anytime.

Thanksgiving's big activity was a ride on The Eye, which I've wanted to do for ages and ages. I guess it's a little like going to the top of the Empire State Building or visiting the Statue of Liberty, but I love those things, too. I mean, let's call a nerd a nerd.

That afternoon we spent a lot of time on the Golden Jubilee Bridge at near-twilight, being loud and American. Oh, but I repeat myself!

Thursday night, Roxie and I saw the other two off to the prom (opera), then went for dinner at Bumpkin in Notting Hill. We split a bottle of rosé and enjoyed a long lovely chat, and that is all I have to say about Bumpkin in Notting Hill.

Day 2

Friday was our Gaudy Night field trip to Oxford. There are 39 separate colleges spread out through this little town and we passed maybe 10 of them, most of which are closed to visitors. You would need 18 pairs of legs to see everything in one day.

Day 3

Saturday morning Sarah and I had lunch at the Tate, which was the best part of the Tate aside from Rodin's The Kiss, which I plan to follow around the world. I enjoyed the slow-cooked pork shoulder sandwich, the view from the restaurant on the top floor of the Tate, and Rodin. I ate a lot of pork on this trip; it was an almost exclusively piggy week. Nobody knows why.

In the afternoon I strolled around Borough Market and then headed east towards Tower Bridge and then north to  Brick Lane where I strolled right off the map and feared I'd have to pee in a corner until finally I stumbled upon Liverpool Station. Stop and think before you decide to walk everywhere alone, that's all I'm saying.

Day 4

On Sunday we wandered through Bloomsbury searching for the ghost of Dorothy L. Sayers and found her just where we thought she'd be, on a quiet little street in a tidy little building watching cable TV.

At least one of us has a copy of Gaudy Night with her at all times. You would call it a talisman, I believe, which according to some dictionary is both a lucky charm and something called a "juju," which is essentially witchcraft. I can't really argue with that. Roxie brought her special carryalong version, which she can never toss because I made her underline all the good parts.

We found the actual street where Harriet Vane lives in Gaudy Night, or would have lived if she were an actual person (which let's face it she kind of is). In modern times Harriet Vane would ride the Swamp Rat, still dressed in her cozy tweeds and little cap and Magical Blouse of Vulnerability. 

On Sunday afternoon a girl we passed on a deserted street in Bloomsbury pointed us in the direction of a local pub and we followed the direction of her pointing down an even more deserted street and at the end of it was The Duke, which is how I came to spend Sunday afternoon with three friends in a corner booth in a corner pub in Bloomsbury drinking a glass of cider and watching the room turn gold as the sun fell around us, and I got that feeling I always connect to my family, of being happy and safe and home, no matter where we are, and a couple of times it came at me so intensely I thought for sure it would shoot right out through the top of my head. Yet I managed to hold it in. This was my Thanksgiving.

One ivory chess set

This is actually marble, I believe, but we did the best we could.

"I'm sorry, Peter. That was ungenerous and beastly of me. You shall give me something if you want to."

"May I? What shall I give you? Roc's eggs are cheap today."

For a moment her mind was a blank. Whatever she asked him for, it must be something adequate. The trivial, the commonplace or the merely expensive would all be equally insulting. And he would know in a moment if she was inventing a want to please him...

"Peter — give me the ivory chessmen."

St. Cross Church: where Peter marries Harriet

"Well! Last Monday evening, when we were down at Denver, we got a wire from Peter, which coolly said, "If you really want to see me married, try St Cross Church, Oxford, tomorrow at two.... We went to Oxford and found the place — an obscure little church in a side-street, very gloomy and damp-looking."

— Helen, Duchess of Denver, to Lady Grummidge, in Busman's Honeymoon, Prothalamion