Saturday, December 09, 2006

Reading. Sayers.

I have been fascinated by England and all things English from a very early age, much to the chagrin and disgust of my parents. It is their own fault, for giving me books like The Secret Garden (with beautiful color-plate illustrations by Tasha Tudor, of rose-covered walled gardens and young wild animals and the three children of the story) and a starter three-pack of Agatha Christie novels (a Christmas present one year). A love for E. M. Forster followed. (One winter in London - I was sixteen - I met a very charming Englishman, all breeding and education and no money, who told me, "You're very well-read. For an American." What else could I do but laugh as he kissed me on both cheeks in farewell?).

Nothing is more English than the English mystery novel, full of tea parties and titles in between murder in London streets or stately country homes. The Peter Wimsey series, by Dorothy Sayers, stars the second son of the duke of Denver as the Oxford-educated, John Donne-quoting, Bach-playing, cricket-champion detective, all "nerves and nose," arrogance and breeding. To ground him Sayers introduced another character, the mystery writer Harriet Vane, whom he promptly falls in love with and spends five years (and three novels) pursuing until they finally marry. I read the stories out of order, and it is disconcerting to follow the course of a love story out of order, like being lost in a labyrinth somewhere between the entrance and the heart of the maze, unsure of whether to follow the thread of the story backwards to the beginning or forwards to its conclusion. They met while she was being prosecuted for murder (which she didn't commit) (Strong Poison), he wooed her over a dead body (Have His Carcase) and a sinister poison-pen mystery (Gaudy Night), and on their honeymoon (Busman's Honeymoon) the dead body of their home's former owner is discovered in the basement.

I have married England, thinks Harriet Vane (now Wimsey), as she sees herself and her husband and a motley assortment of country characters in the living room of their honeymoon house, doctor's daughter, duke's son, country vicar, chimney sweep, like pieces on a chess-board. The mysteries are sometimes, it seems, merely background for the complexity of their relationship, her stubbornness and insistence of being independent, his ardent pursuit of her. It is in Gaudy Night when they find their way back to a common ground - Oxford, where both were educated - and thereupon into a life together, and it is in Busman's Honeymoon where Harriet comes to realize that all that she had resisted in him - his title, his life of privilege - is integral to why he is a detective (or as others would put it, an interfering nosey-parker who can't keep out of other people's business). I can't find the page, but it is something about how he sees it as a duty to see that justice is done, and that his title and money and privilege put him in a position to do so.

There is a part somewhere - I can't remember where - where Harriet thinks that one of the things she loves most about Peter is how he caught and returned literary allusions, like tossing a ball back and forth. And this is one of the things I love most about Sayers, how she in turn throws these literary allusions between her characters, references to Donne and Shakespeare and obscure sonnets and quotations. But because I love music, and I love Bach most of all, and I began reading Sayers around the time I was working my way through his Inventions, this is my favorite passage of her works (from Gaudy Night):

...two famous violinists twisted together the fine, strong strands of the Concerto in D Minor...He was wrapped in the motionless austerity with which all genuine musicians listen to genuine music...She knew enough, herself, to read the sounds a little with her brains, laboriously unwinding the twined chains of melody link by link. Peter, she felt sure, could hear the whole intricate pattern, every part separately and simultaneously, each independent and equal, separate but inseparable, moving over and under and through, ravishing heart and mind together.

Sayers, Dorothy. Gaudy Night. Harper Paperbacks, 1995. p. 499.

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