08 July 2020

Widdershins



People have commented about what kind of entertainment is appropriate - if appropriate is even the word - for this odd time. Do we embrace it, Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, or Camus, or turn to escapism? Conventional wisdom has it that screwball was so popular during the Depression because it didn't reflect actual living conditions. On the other hand, during the polio epidemic, there was a brief vogue for the iron lung as a story element. Noir mirrors a specific postwar unease, which overlaps Cold War nuclear anxiety. Kiss Me Deadly or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Godzilla is the atomic metaphor writ large and reptilian.

I seem to be in retreat, myself, falling back on comfort food. Instead of post-apocalyptic, I set sail instead with Dorothy Sayers and her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.

Now, right up front, let's admit some of these are pretty lightweight. Whose Body?, the debut, is contrived and gimmicky. Clouds of Witness is stronger, mostly because the stakes are higher. Unnatural Death seems labored, to me, and basically unconvincing - although it introduces the estimable Miss Climpson. I don't think Sayers (and Wimsey) really hit their stride until The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, and I think also this is because Bellona is to some degree about the effects of the Great War on Wimsey and his generation.

Sayers wrote novels of manners; contrivance is less important than character. Wimsey is himself nowhere near the foppish dilettante he affects to present - this is a Scarlet Pimpernel device. (You can easily imagine Leslie Howard in the part, deceptively languid.) Wimsey was a major in the Rifles, and was invalided out. There's a scary moment in Whose Body? when he imagines hearing German sappers digging below, and Bunter has to talk him down and put him to bed. The relationship between Wimsey and Bunter is the spine of the stories.

The other thing we have to acknowledge, which for some readers could be a deal-breaker, is that the language of the period singes the present-day ear. You remember that the books started in the 1920's, so astonishingly, they're almost a hundred years old. This isn't to apologize for Sayers' vocabulary, or rather, the accuracy with which she reports the vocabulary of the British class structure. She doesn't necessarily share their prejudices, but you doubt she's inoculated against them. Then again, Wimsey seems to be playing a part, 'Lord Peter' a kind of self-parody, so how much of this is affectation? It's hard to distinguish between the narrative conventions and Sayers' personal feelings. She herself was apparently quite astonished when somebody suggested anti-Semitic tropes in her work.

The three strongest books are the late-runners, Murder Must Advertise, The Nine Tailors, and Gaudy Night. Murder Must Advertise because it's so effectively mannered - as a novel of manners ought - and because Sayers makes fun of her own successful career as an advertising copywriter. The Nine Tailors because the mystery is so elegant, the bell-ringing so exact, and the surrounding fen country so beautifully evoked. Gaudy Night is an outlier, granted, because it's of course Harriet's book, not Peter's, but the atmospherics are extraordinary, overheated and claustrophobic.

I also recommend The Documents in the Case, which is a standalone, without Wimsey, but the forensics reveal at the end is worth it all by itself.

The other thing about the language in the books, though, is how much it represents a world of the past. Not the late Victorian era of Holmes, but a time we think we can almost reach, from our own experience. Not that many degrees of separation. The period between the wars could be our parents, or theirs. You remember hearing an expression, as a kid, that made no sense whatsoever, because the context belonged to a previous generation. "Clean your plate," my grandmother might say, "think of those starving children in Belgium." Her reference is the First World War.

My personal favorite in the novels is widdershins, which means counter-clockwise, but Wimsey uses it in a particular way, "We do no harm in going widdershins, it's not a church." This puzzled me, until I unearthed a more sinister definition, invoking malign spirits. Originally, however, it seems simply to describe a cowlick or a case of bad hair. And there's the charm.  

7 comments:

janice law said...

I'm another fan of the Sayers novels, despite her snobbery, but I am most partial to the Harriet Vane ones, especially Strong Poison, her debut. Nice she eventually married him, but that, sadly, was the end of Whimsey as detective. Still, nicer than killing him off!

Eve Fisher said...

I love the Sayers books and short stories. I too enjoy Harriet Vane, although I also love The Nine Tailors and Murder Must Advertise. (BTW, Miss Meteyard in MMA is obviously Dorothy Sayers - "He tried to blackmail her once, about some man or the other. You wouldn't think it to look at her, would you?" said Tallboy, naïvely.) And an interesting point is that throughout MMA, until the very end, Wimsey only appears in disguise, no matter where he is.

The anti-Semitic tropes are jarring and disturbing to the modern ear, but they are as nothing compared to Fagin in Dickens, or almost every Jewish character in Anthony Trollope whom I love, but who wrote, “a nasty, greasy, lying, squinting Jew preacher; an imposter,” and far worse than that. Most pre-WW2 novels are full of anti-semitism, going all the way back to Chaucer. We read or we don't. I do. It doesn't taint me, any more than watching WW2 movies makes me a Nazi.

Leigh Lundin said...

Eve, that arrogance of superiority each modern generation goes through seems worse than ever, willing to throw out babies with the bathwater because… _______. (Fill in the blank.) Cultural Revolutions didn't begin or end with Mao.

Leigh Lundin said...

Harriet Vane was not a popular addition at the time. Some critics noted that Sayers had fallen in love with Lord Peter, and vicariously sent in Harriet as a surrogate for herself and others. Harriet has become more popular over time.

I highly recommend the complete collection of Lord Peter short stories. Many consider her novels her crowning achievement, but I think the short stories are little gems.

David, a university course I took on Dante's Inferno required purchase of two different translations. John Ciardi's version focused on poetry, while Dorothy Sayers excelled in literary and historical research.

NB. When SleuthSayers' board collaborated to bring SS to fruition, we debated a number of names. Rob's suggestion of SleuthSayers clicked for its multiple implications. Readers may notice the second half of our name, which harks back to that golden age.

Melodie Campbell said...

I was just emailing a friend about the fact that I seem to be rereading Christie, Sayers and now, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Patricia Wentworth. There is indeed comfort in reading the golden age mysteries, in part I think, because we know the world went on after them. A pandemic didn't end their lives. I'm going to look for the Lord Peter short stories now, thanks to your post!

Anonymous said...

You have to read the short stories to find out about Harriet and Peter's children!

Eagle said...

Articulate as usual. Great lesson.