Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Thrones, Dominations" Dorothy L. Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh

This is the next to last novel in the Lord Peter Wimsey series and the first of the two completed by Jill Paton Walsh from notes left by Sayers after her death.  "A Presumption of Death", the final novel, finds Harriet Vane Wimsey raising three sons during WWII, while Lord Peter is mostly off on a secret foreign mission.  "Thrones" gives us the beginning of their marriage, so long delayed, now so completely fulfilling.  I intend to go back and re-read some of the earlier books, both to recapture my initial pleasure in them and to see how they compare--in style and in substance--to the co-authored ones.

I suppose all readers have fairly particular qualities they look for in the books they read; I know I do.  I love a novel that has intelligent, interesting characters--at least some of them, a plot that pulls me in and keeps surprising me, substantive ideas that make me think and/or see things in new ways, arcane information about lines of work (mining, ship-building, medicine, crime) and interesting subjects (archaeology,  diamond cutting, psychology, mountain climbing), and, most of important, because without it I read no further, good writing.  I lean toward domestic realism, small English country towns, the clash of cultures, and some love interest.

"Thrones, Dominations" pretty much fits the bill.  It's interesting to observe a marriage of equals, where both partners are highly intelligent and respect each other's gifts.  It's also interesting to watch as Harriet navigates her husband's upper class world, complete with long-time family servants and a snobby sister-in-law.  In English novels the clash of cultures often occurs within the broader English milieu and involves class.  A yeoman farmer might feel as alien in a lord's drawing room as a Tahitian at an American southern barbecue.  Harriet refuses to be cowed, and we admire her for her resolve, especially her determination to keep writing mystery novels despite her new role as a married woman.  In pre-war England (and America) a woman was expected to give up working when she married, unless she was a servant or a laborer.  I will have more to say about the role of class in the novel shortly.

In Chapter 9, there is a fascinating discussion between Harriet and Peter about fiction in general and the mystery novel in particular.

Harriet says, "Things have to be connected or the reader would not believe them."

"It's odd, that, isn't it?" said Peter.  "If unconnected and spur-of-the moment things keep happening in the real world, why shouldn't they be plausible in novels?"...."But in real life random things occur, and there may actually be no plot, in that sense of the word."

"I think a novel has to deal in a different kind of truth," said Harriet.

At a different point in the novel, Harriet explains that a mystery has to be about a murder, not a robbery, a forgery, or the like.  It has to involve life and death: two lives, two deaths.  Because in England at this time the penalty for 1st degree murder was hanging.  A Lord Peter mystery may be arch and amusing, but serious matters are at stake.  I enjoyed seeing this kind of literary discussion woven into the fabric of the novel.  It lifts it above the level of the run-of-the-mill who-dunnit.

Front and center, of course, is the matter of class and decorum.  This is perhaps what is most difficult for Americans to understand, let alone sympathize with.  Lord Peter is the second son of an earl.  He won't inherit the estate and title, but he occupies a very high place in society indeed.  He does not work for a living, only out of a sense of duty (in the foreign service) or for fun (solving crimes).  He has all the tics of his class--the clipped accent, the precious locutions--and it is fun to see Harriet parry them with her own middle-class common sense.  These two are beyond class, at least with each other, which shows it's possible if one has sufficient courage to shrug off others' expectations.

When I was a freshman in college, my composition professor told the class that the great subject of literature is the war between men and women.  "And I do mean it's a war," he said.  I don't want to agree with him completely, but there is some truth in that he said.  Harriet and Peter are aware of this eternal tension as well, and it makes their marriage more interesting.

A silly woman has been murdered, and Harriet says, "...I want to see the stupid woman avenged!"

"A woman, however stupid, being on your side?" [says Peter]

"In what conflict, Peter?  Are men and women at war?"

"We are not," he said.  "At least WE are not."

"No, indeed," she said.  "I think what I meant was that I wanted to see the weak protected against the strong, and stupidity is a form of weakness."

"A potentially lethal form," he said.  "Nothing is weaker than a murdered corpse..."

All too often, when it comes to love, weakness is the silent partner in a game played with power as an opponent.  Peter remarks on the long years he wooed Harriet to no avail, and she acknowledges her reluctance to admit she needs him.

"That was my fault.  All that peacocking and manoeuvring.  I was overbearing; trying to win you by overpowering your resistance.  Every attempt I made made it harder for you to accept me, because acceptance would have been surrender.  In my own defence all I can say is that I eventually realised that I could not win a free spirit like yours in such a way."

Harriet describes the war between men and women as a game, even if it is not their game.  Women put up a show of reluctance.  The man is enflamed by her resistance and "storms the citadel."  She gives in from "pity or love or mercy for his need and must be paid in gratitude.  It's a dangerous game; it contaminates love with power."

Perhaps even more interesting is the relationship between Lord Peter and his man-servant Bunter.  They are very much master and man, and they would never think of crossing the line with each other, yet there is genuine love between them--real friendship that rivals even familial ties.  How can this be?  How can two men from such unequal backgrounds, with such divergent lives and opportunities, where one almost literally controls the other, possibly find a common ground upon which to meet as friends.  And yet they do.  At least in the novel.  Although she never says so explicitly, I believe Sayers is a subversive when it comes to upholding the class system.  Her heroine is a self-made, professional woman with a mind that is very much her own.  She makes it possible for Bunter to marry--with dignity--by arranging to have the stables done over into a cozy apartment for the newlyweds.  She befriends Bunter's wife in a way that makes it clear she considers this servant's wife an equal.  It is Harriet who shows up the class system for what it is: an unfair categorization of people based not on merit but on circumstances of birth. 

One shouldn't sneer at the English for their traditions, nor even for some of their prejudices.  They come by them honestly.  Whiffs of the feudal system still linger in their air.  Americans never had anything like English history to shrug off.  Before we feel too smug about our supposedly classless society, let us remember we have our own problematic history to reckon with.  "Thrones, Dominations" may be a satire on the upper class, but it is not a screed.  Only Peter's older sister is genuinely unpleasant, but she isn't dangerous.  Peter's older brother may be the heir, but he's a bit of a buffoon.  Peter, who embodies every upper-class mannerism, is nevertheless entirely fair and genuinely concerned about others' welfare.  It is clear that Sayers likes him very much; she may make light of his oversights from time to time, but she never scorns him.

There are plenty of other readers who have read and studied Dorothy Sayers more than I, so I shall not presume to offer a well-developed analysis.  I enjoyed the book and would recommend it, though even now many of the details are fuzzy.  The plot is the first thing I forget about a novel I have read, and it doesn't take long for this to happen.  But in mysteries it's never the crime that interests me; it's the reactions and relations among the characters that stand out.  Best of all, though, is when an author says something true about life that seems both original and familiar.  Harriet's and Lord Peter's discussions of art and love do both.