LOVERS ROCK WEEK (Day 4): Hosted by Janet Mullany
UPDATE: The winner of IMPROPER RELATIONS by Janet Mullany is Margay. Please email your physical addy to contests(AT)knightagency.net.
When I was asked to blog about a pair of lovers for the Knight Agency’s Valentine’s Day celebration, I knew immediately who I’d write about—Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, the famous couple from Dorothy Sayers’ novels, which I’ve loved and admired for years.
First a word about Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957). She was one of the first women awarded a degree from Oxford, where she attended the prestigious Somerville College and graduated with a first class honors degree in modern languages. Like her friend C.S. Lewis she was a noted Christian scholar and wrote translations, short stories, reviews, poetry collections and translations, but she’s best known as one of the most brilliant detective writers of the twentieth century.
Her first novel, WHOSE BODY (1923) introduced Lord Peter Wimsey, an aristocratic dabbler in detection work, overbred, full of nervous intelligence, and shell-shocked from World War I. Harriet Vane enters the picture in STRONG POISON (1930), the fifth of Sayers’ novels; she’s a modern woman, an intellectual, who lives in sin with her lover, and has been accused of his murder. Peter solves the mystery, clears her name, and proposes marriage, having fallen in love with her.
She accepts, right?
No. Being dependent on a man, particularly an aristocratic and overbearing one, is against everything she believes in. Harriet refuses, but offers to become Peter’s mistress, thus insulting his name and honor and all he stands for. And so the relationship continues uneasily as would-be lovers but as successful detectives, for a couple more books.
Then we come to GAUDY NIGHT (1935), a novel set in Oxford, where Harriet is invited back to her alma mater for a college reunion to find out who’s behind an unpleasant attack of poison pen letters. This is possibly Sayers’ most brilliant book, and also the one maybe closest to her heart, set in her beloved Oxford, and debating the question of women’s roles in society, particularly that of unmarried women in academia. As one of the female college scouts (servants) says, But some of these clever ladies are a bit queer, don’t you think, madam? Funny, I mean. No heart in them.
Now Sayers had a bit of a problem with Peter. She’d originally invented him as a society man whose silliness masked a formidable intelligence and capacity for problem-solving. And he had a weak chin. He was in fact, pretty much asexual in the early books. Certainly by the time Harriet arrived, he was changing, and by GAUDY NIGHT he has become downright hot, if not hawt. And the level of sexual tension between him and Harriet is downright astonishing, even with all clothes on and formal address—Lord Peter and Miss Vane.
Here’s one of the most extraordinary and beautiful scenes I’ve ever read, when Harriet finally admits to herself that she’s in love with Peter (he’s been proposing marriage to her every month for some time, and she’s turned him down every time). She’s sitting on a riverbank, watching him read:
… she studied his half-averted face. Considered generally, as a façade, it was by this time tolerably familiar to her, but now she saw details, magnified as it were by some glass in her own mind. The flat setting and fine scroll-work of the ear, and the height of the skull above it. The glitter of close-cropped hair where the neck-muscles lifted to meet the head. A minute sickle-shaped scar on the left temple. The faint laughter-lines at the corner of the eye and the droop of the lid at its outer end. The gleam of gold down on the cheekbone. The wide spring of the nostril. An almost imperceptible beading of sweat on the upper lip and a tiny muscle that twitched the sensitive corner of the mouth. The slight sun-reddening of the fair skin and its sudden whiteness below the base of the throat. The little hollow above the points of the collarbone.
He looked up; and she was instantly scarlet, as though she had been dipped in boiling water. Through the confusion of her darkened eyes and drumming ears some enormous bulk seemed to stoop over her. Then the mist cleared. His eyes were riveted upon the manuscript again, but he breathed as though he had been running.
So, thought Harriet, it has happened. But it happened long ago. The only new thing that has happened is that now I have got to admit it to myself. I have known it for some time. But does he know it? He has very little excuse, after this, for not knowing it. Apparently he refuses to see it, and that may be new. If so, it ought to be easier to do what I meant to do.
She stared out resolutely across the dimpling water. But she was conscious of his every movement, of every page he turned, of every breath he drew. She seemed to be separately conscious of every bone in his body. At length he spoke, and she wondered how she could ever have taken another man's voice for his.
Isn’t that gorgeous? And when Peter does propose to her, it’s done in a way that brings together all the threads of the book, the debate on women’s status, the issue of equality between Harriet and Peter, and as a tribute to Oxford itself. Using the Latin of the ceremony that bestows a degree at Oxford, Peter asks:
Placetne, magistra? Do you agree, mistress?
Placet. I agree.
Without fail, that sends shivers down my spine every time I read it, which is what a good love scene should do. What do you think? Have you read GAUDY NIGHT and what’s your favorite scene?
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Janet Mullany’s next book, coming out this month, is IMPROPER RELATIONS, a Regency chicklit about annoying relatives and finding love where you least expect it. Leave a comment in the blog, and enter to win a signed copy of this book. The winner will be announced tomorrow afternoon.