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Just One of Those Things: Dorothy Sayers at the New York Public Library
“As Abelard said to Heloise, ‘Don’t forget to drop a line to me, please.’ As Juliet cried in her Romeo’s ear, ‘Romeo, why not face the fact, my dear?’”
— Cole Porter, Just One of Those Things
Is love “just one of those things?” Now that the Godiva chocolates have been eaten, the frilly greeting cards opened, and the Vermont Teddy Bear-gram forgotten on a dusty shelf, is the spirit of Valentine’s Day dead? Maybe for everyone else, but for the true librarian, whose very profession is embedded in the soul of romanticism, it lives on. Some time ago, for an article in an online magazine, librarians were asked to name what we considered the world’s most romantic love stories. With yearning hearts, raging hormones, and brains overloaded with dopamine, we arrived at ten titles (Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, Romeo and Juliet, Casablanca, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Doctor Zhivago, Sense and Sensibility, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Pride and Prejudice, Hunchback of Notre Dame). Some of these responses were predictable: Romeo and Juliet, Cathy and Heathcliff, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. Others were less so: Did Les Liaisons Dangereuses ever really give someone a warm inner glow? Did no one realize that Casablanca is not strictly-speaking one of the most romantic reads ever?
My belated nomination for this list is the quartet of novels by Dorothy Sayers featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane (Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon). These novels should be read in sequence, as they chart the developing romance between the characters, a theme woven like a plangent motif through a musical composition. Since these are colorful stories of mystery and detection set in 1930s Britain, they might to the uninitiated suggest Agatha Christie, but that would be like comparing French brie to Kraft cheese spread.
In Sayers, the writing is of a literary quality seldom achieved in popular crime fiction, the background is an impeccably drawn portrait of multi-layered English society between the wars, and the characters are pulsatingly three-dimensional. Harriet is a resourceful, independent woman of strong feminist attitudes; a graduate of the fictional all-female college of Shrewsbury, Oxford; a writer of popular detective fiction--very much reminiscent of her creator. Lord Peter, the aristocrat who solves crimes, is witty, erudite, and passionate. He is besotted with Harriet from the first and expresses his desire in no uncertain terms. In Busman’s Honeymoon, Lord Peter interrupts a post-theatre conversation with Harriet to proclaim, in a husky voice, "Tu m'enivres!" (You inflame me!) It is the sort of thing many men might think of saying but few actually do.
Moving beyond the four novels--and possibly Thrones, Dominations, a work found among Sayers’ papers and finished by Jill Paton Walsh--a reader will likely be tempted to explore the life of Dorothy Sayers herself, a fascinating figure of the early twentieth century, very much an example of what was called the “new woman.” Although there is a great deal of literature about Sayers and her work, a good place to start might be the biography by David Coomes, titled Dorothy L. Sayers: A Careless Rage For Life, or perhaps Conundrums for the Long Week-End, a work which seeks to place both Sayers and her creation, Wimsey, in the cultural context of postwar Britain. The two-volume collected Letters is available and includes a preface by P. D. James, who finds that "Dorothy L. Sayers, novelist, poet, dramatist, amateur theologian and Christian apologist, is one of the most versatile writers of her generation; she is also one of the most controversial." Dorothy L. Sayers: the Centenary Celebration is a unique anthology of essays by other mystery writers explaining what the work of Dorothy Sayers has meant to them.
The puzzles which drive these plots mirror the even more compelling mysteries of the heart. The relationship between Lord Peter and Harriet is a complex and often difficult one, which must overcome many emotional hurdles before Harriet can finally accept Lord Peter’s proposal of marriage in the third and richest of the novels, Gaudy Night. I admit now to never having read any of the other mysteries focused exclusively on Peter Wimsey. While I’m sure they are as fine as crime novels can be, for me it is Harriet Vane who gives Lord Peter his true substance and character. I keep coming back to their relationship, a mature union of strong, intelligent, witty and independent equals which is clearly not “just one of those things.” Although I began with Cole Porter, I will end with Wimsey’s favorite poet, John Donne, and the epigram Sayers has chosen for Busman’s Honeymoon:
Now, as in Tullia’s tomb one lamp burnt clear Unchanged for fifteen hundred year, May these love-lamps we here enshrine, In warmth, light, lasting, equal the divine. Fire ever doth aspire, And makes all like itself, turns all to fire, But ends in ashes; which these cannot do, For none of these is fuel, but fire too. This is joy’s bonfire, then, where love’s strong arts Make of so noble individual parts One fire of four inflaming eyes, and of two loving hearts.
— John Donne, Eclogue for the Marriage of the Earl of Somerset