Thursday, March 20, 2008

Nine Notes on Dorothy L. Sayers and The Nine Tailors

1 I came to Dorothy L. Sayers last week as a reaction to the intellectual drama of Robert Musil: I was in search of something straightforward and cozy, a world where questions had answers and everything would ultimately find its place. I first seized on Gaudy Night (1936) because in Michael Dirda's appreciation of Agatha Christie in Classics for Pleasure (2007) he notes in passing, "I bow to no one in my admiration for Gaudy Night." I opened it with much anticipation.

The early pages were excellent. I enjoyed the company of the protagonist, Miss Harriet Vane, as she attended a reunion of her Oxford class, an occasion that allowed Sayers to offer some splendid observations of the early days of women's education there--including a complaint from a staff member that the young ladies had the previous spring taken to sunbathing in their underwear rather than the more concealing bathing costumes of the day. The observations at the heart of this bit of dialogue, too, were memorable:
"Yes," Miss de Vine smiled oddly. "If you were to listen at those windows, you would find it was the middle-aged ones who were making the noise. The old have gone to bed, wondering whether they have worn as badly as their contemporaries. They have suffered some shocks, and their feet hurt them. And the younger ones are chattering soberly about life and its responsibilities. But the women of forty are pretending they are undergraduates again, and find it it rather an effort. Miss Vane--I admired you for speaking as you did tonight. Detachment is a rare virtue, and very few people find it lovable, either in themselves or in others. If you ever find a person who likes you in spite of it--still more, because of it--that liking has very great value, because it is perfectly sincere, and because, with that person, you will never need to be anything but sincere yourself."
Page after page went by, however, and the only mystery to arise was the rather dreary question of which member of the college had been sending some poison pen letters. Instead, the focus of the book seemed to be rapidly settling on the question of whether Harriet would accept Lord Peter Wimsey's proposal of marriage. In the face of such a desultory mystery, that choice seemed far from unreasonably--but as I didn't know Lord Peter as anything other than a famed detective and was only just getting to know Harriet, the fact that their romance was dominating what was purportedly a detective novel began to chafe. With nearly four hundred pages still ahead, I decided to chuck it.

2 When I explained my plight to my friend Sarah, she pressed a different Sayers novel, The Nine Tailors (1934) into my hands, arguing that it was more typical of Sayers--and probably closer to what I'd been looking for. The title was familiar, but it wasn't until I got home that I realized that this novel had served as Exhibit A in Edmund Wilson's amused evisceration of the genre, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" (1945):
Well, I set out to read The Nine Tailors in the hope of tasting some novel excitement, and I declare that it seems to me one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field. The first part of it is all about bell-ringing as it is practised in English churches and contains a lot of information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopedia article on campanology. I skipped a good deal of that, and found myself skipping, also, a large section of the conversations between conventional English village characters. . . . There was also a dreadful stock English nobleman of the casual and debonair kind, with the embarrassing name of Lord Peter Wimsey, and, although he was the focal character of the novel, being Miss Dorothy Sayers's version of the inevitable Sherlock Holmes detective, I had to skip a good deal of him, too.
This did not bode well.

3 Having now read The Nine Tailors, I can say that Wilson was right about everything but the dullness . . . yet it doesn't really matter. Yes, the bits of campanology are too much. The bell-ringers' jargon is almost entirely unintelligible to the layman, and the interest of the passages is slight--they have nothing of the thematic force of the similar insertions of encyclopedic materials in Moby-Dick, to take a brutally unfair example. And, yes, the rustic dialogue is perhaps too cute at points, and Lord Peter is for much of the book a more blithe and amusing figure than is perhaps believable. Yet it works: the campanology fleshes out and roots the characters Lord Peter encounters; the rustic dialogue provides Dickensian verbal tics and some moments of genuine humor, and Lord Peter's breeziness in the early part of the novel serves to lend his harrowing experience at the novel's real power. To argue, as Wilson does, that the clever solution to the case is appropriate to the sort of story that Sherlock Holmes could have dispensed with in thirty pages is to utterly miss the point: Wimsey likes these people and their odd rural interests--and so do we, so neither of us is in a hurry to be shed of them. His having a mystery to solve gives us both an excuse to stick around for a while.

4 And now on to the fun bits. Sayers's Foreword begins:
From time to time complaints are made about the ringing of church bells. It seems strange that a generation which tolerates the uproar of the internal combustion engine and the wailing of the jazz band should be so sensitive to the one loud noise that is made to the glory of God.
Though anyone who has spent a quiet Sunday morning in the deserted streets of the City of London, with no accompaniment but the occasional church bells, can appreciate Sayers's point, she severely weakens her case by opening the novel with a scene of a rural vicar organizing a series of peals to be rung on New Year's Day for nine hours--from midnight until nine in the morning! Enduring such an ordeal while I was trying to sleep would be more than sufficient to shift me to the side of the bell-haters.

5 I've written before about a certain strain in English writing, both fiction and nonfiction, of casualness about ghosts and apparitions. Such an attitude appears in The Nine Tailors in a throwaway line by an uneducated housewife, a friend of whose daughter has been scared by a ghostly light (which turns out to be entirely explicable in earthly terms) in the graveyard at night. Lord Peter questions the woman:
"Did she tell her mother and father?"

"Not then, she didn't. She didn't like to, and I remember well, as a child I was just the same, only with me it was a funny sort of thing that used to groan in the wash-house, which I took to be bears--but as to telling anybody, I'd ha' died first."
My knowledge of the natural history of England is far from perfect, but I don't think bears have been groaning in wash-houses there since at least the days of Elizabeth I. Clearly it was a ghost.

6 I also enjoyed the following exchange between Lord Wimsey and his manservant, Bunting:
[Wimsey] put aside the vest and pants, filled a pipe and wandered down the garden, pursued by Mrs. Venables with an ancient and rook-proof linen hat, belonging to the Rector. The hat was considerably too small for him, and the fact that he immediately put it on, with expressions of gratitude, may attest the kind hear which, despite the poet, is frequently found in close alliance with coronets; though the shock to Bunter's system was severe when his master suddenly appeared before him, wearing this grotesque headgear, and told him to get the car out and accompany him on a short journey.

"Very good, my lord," said Bunter. "Ahem! there is a fresh breeze, my lord."

"All the better."

"Certainly, my lord! If I may venture to say so, the tweed cap or the grey felt would possibly be better suited to the climatic conditions."

"Eh? Oh! Possibly you are right, Bunter."
Surely Bunter later shared a quiet laugh about that moment with his friend Jeeves over brandy at the Junior Ganymede Club?

7 For Wimsey's appreciation of rustic pleasures, you can't do better than the somewhat ironic enthusiasm he expresses to a waiter in a rural restaurant about the festivities anticipated for the opening of a new drainage system for the fens. The waiter explains that it is hoped that the Duke of Denver--who, unbeknownst to him, is Wimsey's brother--will come to kick off the party:
"I'll make a point of jogging old Denver up to his duty. We'll all come. Great fun. Denver shall present gold cups to all the winners and I will present silver rabbits to the losers, and with luck somebody will fall into the river."

"That," said the waiter, seriously, "will be very gratifying."
Come the event itself, the pleasure is more than trebled:
The weather was perfect, the Duke of Denver made a speech with was a model of the obvious, and the Regatta was immensely successful. Three people fell into the river, four men and an old woman were had up for being drunk and disorderly, a motor-car became entangled with a tradesman's cart and young Gotobed won First Prize in the Decorated Motor-Cycle section of the sports.

8 Late in the book, Sayers offers up a string of headline phrases that would, I think, amuse any fan of the newspaper honor box:
The public memory is a short one. The affair of the Corpse in Country Churchyard was succeeded, as the weeks rolled on, by so many Bodies in Blazing Garages, Man-Hunts for Missing Murderers, Tragedies in West-End Flats, Suicide Pacts in Lonely Woods, Nude Corpses in Caves and Midnight Shots in Fashionable Road-Houses, that nobody gave it another thought.
If only we could get copies of Sayers's lurid imaginary newspapers into the hands of Michael Lesy or Felix Feneon!

9 Potty Peake, a man who could uncharitably be described as the village idiot, is described by one of Sayers's characters as a "natural." I'd never encountered that meaning of the word, but sure enough, Merriam-Webster's offers as the first definition of the noun form of natural, dating from 1533:
One born without the usual powers of reasoning and understanding.
--while the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary offers, as sense four,
A person mentally handicapped from birth.


Now that I've settled into the Sayers sensibility, any fans out there want to offer an opinion on whether I should once again attempt Gaudy Night?


  1. Yes! Certainly attempt Gaudy Night again, but perhaps after a few more books?

    The interesting thing (for me) is the way these series have a longer narrative that stands outside of each book, for which one would need to read in serial order. Which is why it would be disastrous to read GN first.

    One other interesting thing is the way in whihc Elizabeth George (whois American but writes Brit tec fic) uses the whole PEter Wimey-Harriet Vane narrative as a template for her (also aristocratic) detective, Linley. Reading those books gives one a sense of deja vu.

    Also, did you know that one of Peter Wimsey's many names is Death? I've not read anythign so far that explains it (read Death Must Advertise).

  2. When I read this book, I felt like I was either missing something or I really just didn't like Sayers that much. I think Edmund Wilson is a little hard on her, though. Girl can write, but she's got a style that takes getting used to. I feel like I'll give her another chance at some point, but I'm not about to run out right away and grab as many of her books as I can (as I did with Ross Macdonald and Georges Simenon). But then again, my first experience with Josephine Tey left me lukewarm, then I read The Franchise Affair and then I loved her forever. Apparently it's better to read Strong Poison and Have His Carcase before reading Gaudy Night (a Spinster Aunt commenter told me so).
    Let me know how it turns out ...

  3. Yes, one should read Strong Poison and Have His Carcase before trying Gaudy Night again, as they are the earlier novels with Harriet Vane and help make sense of Wimsey's relationship with her. GN was also my first Sayers novel, but I suppose I enjoyed the romance and feminism enough to forgive the lacklustre mystery. I'm still working on reading all her novels (I haven't got to The Nine Tailors yet) and trying to take my time rather than gorging on them one after the other.

    Wimsey's depth of character is there, but it isn't apparent in every book -- his delight in solving the mysteries disappears when it comes to sending the murderer to the gallows. Sayers said that she was trying to "kill off" Lord Peter by marrying him to Harriet, thus ending her obligation to keep writing novels about him, but she had to humanise him over the course of three novels in order to make their marriage believable. It's difficult to appreciate Wimsey by reading just this later book -- it's quite the contrast to the younger, goofier Wimsey in the earlier novels.

  4. Thanks, everyone. You've convinced me to add a couple more Sayers books to the stack.

    Spinster Aunt: I don't think you're missing something; I just think her style and approach really are that idiosyncratic--and could easily be off-putting. If The Nine Tailors is typical, she shows little interest in getting down to business, working instead at a pace that is almost bizarrely leisurely. There really is too much in The Nine Tailors about campanology, and later there's too much impenetrable discussion of sluice gates and fen drainage--yet once I accepted the pacing, and the way that the mystery--essentially very small--was woven in with everything that was going on in the hamlet of Fenchurch, I felt at home.

  5. Here's a second vote that you have to take the Wimsey-Vane romance in proper order--beginning with Strong Poison, then on to Have His Carcase. Gaudy Night is one of my favorite books, but I can understand the frustration of encountering no murder in what one supposed to be a murder mystery.

    I took _your_ advice and am embarking on a new Compton-Burnett...

  6. I love Dorothy Sayers and her Peter Wimsey stories.

    But in "Busman's Honeymoon," there are many passages in French. Does anyone know where a translation of those passages would be?


  7. Gaudy Night is my absolute favorite book. I read all the Sayer's books in order and by the time I got to Gaudy Night I was in love with Peter Wimsey and anxious for him and Harriet to finally get together. The proposal near the end of the book is awesome, especially for a Latin teacher like me. Nine Tailors was my least favorite of her books. I agree, the details of the bell ringing are a little much.

  8. Sadly, I think you picked the two hardest Sayers novels to start with.

    I concur that Gaudy Night must be contextualized by familiarity with Strong Poison where Harriet unwittingly, and unwillingly, puts Lord Peter into her thrall. Then Have His Carcase should show the two working effectively as a team.

    Harriet is an easy woman to dislike, whereas Lord Peter always struck me as a merry-fellow-well-met. I love Harriet as I love my own daughter, but I won't deny the thorns among the blooms. The game is definitely worth the candle.

    I took Gaudy Night as more of a feminist romance than a mystery. That and a love-note to Oxford--the town & university.