Thursday, February 11, 2010

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.
You can purchase IMPROPER RELATIONS with free shipping worldwide at bookdepository.com and find out more at www.janetmullany.com.

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21 Comments:

Blogger LSUReader said...

What a wonderful column. I haven't read Sayers's books and now I'm wondering "why not?" Thanks for reminding us of these marvelous characters.

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 10:55:00 AM EST  
Blogger Jia Gayles said...

Hey Janet,

Thanks so much for blogging with us today! Like LSUReader, I haven't read Sayers before. You certainly make her books sound like something I definitely need to add to my TBR pile.

All Best,

Jia

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 11:20:00 AM EST  
Blogger traveler said...

Thanks for your wonderful post today. The excerpt was enticing and intriguing. I have not read Sayers but her books sound fascinating.

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 11:25:00 AM EST  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've always loved the Lord Peter Wimsey books but I've only read the ones with Harriet in them. I've always been fascinated by their relationship.

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 11:37:00 AM EST  
Blogger Caroline Storer said...

Great post Janet. Have to admit that I haven't read Sayers before either (feeling guilty now!). But I think a trip to the library is in order. Take care. Caroline x

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 11:45:00 AM EST  
Blogger Margay said...

That is an interesting excerpt. I'd never even heard of Sayers before, so thanks for sharing.
Margay

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 11:49:00 AM EST  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Hi everyone, and thanks, Jia, for having me blog. I was so tempted to read Gaudy Nights again--it really is a wonderful book.

Interestingly, Sayers wrote a final Peter/Harriet book, Busman's Honeymoon, in which the sexual tension is down to zero despite the depiction of, ahem, the wedding night. Maybe it was because it was adapted from an earlier stage version.

But I've read other fictional detective pairings where the zing went once they got together. One of the notable exceptions is the series by Laurie Moore about (a younger, hotter) Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell.

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 12:15:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Jamie Michele said...

Lovely article, Janet. My brother-in-law--who has excellent taste in commercial fiction--recently began reading Sayers's novels. I felt very ill-educated for having never heard of her.

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 12:24:00 PM EST  
Blogger Katrina said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 2:05:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Katrina said...

That's one of my favorite passages of any novel, Janet. Last year my New Year's resolution was to read all of the Wimsey novels. It was a magical year.

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 2:06:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Steph said...

This book looks fabulous. And what a striking cover.

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 2:22:00 PM EST  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Hey, Jamie! I hope you're planning to borrow the books from your brother-in-law.

And hi to Katrina and Steph. Yes, LBD has fabulous covers--it's a line that has many subgenres and they manage to achieve an individual feel for each author and keep the line's identity too.

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 3:01:00 PM EST  
Blogger Karin said...

I have never read anything by Dorothy Sawyers, but after reading that snippet you posted, I plan to start. You are right about that scene and how powerful and gorgeous it is.

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 3:10:00 PM EST  
Blogger Maureen said...

I have not read Sayer's books but I am interested after reading your post.

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 4:05:00 PM EST  
Blogger Virginia said...

What a great post! This book sounds like a fabulous read and I would love to read it. I have never heard of Sayers before either!

Happy Valentines day everyone!

lead[at]hotsheet[dot]com

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 4:43:00 PM EST  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Karin, Maureen, Virginia--thanks for stopping by! I'm beginning to think that Dorothy Sayers is not nearly as well known on this side of the Atlantic as she should be. I hope this inspires you to try her books.

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 7:42:00 PM EST  
Blogger Linda Henderson said...

I have never read any of her books. She sounds like a very interesting lady.

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 11:03:00 PM EST  
Blogger Bella said...

*clutches pearls*
Lord have mercy, that WAS hawt!
I've never heard of Sayer or her books but believe me, I'm gonna track me down a copy! lol
Thank u Janet for a wonderful post that has lead me to another series.
That latin proposal alone is worth me buying that book, and it really did make me shiver:) Love the perfection of everything it comes to mean between them.

Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 11:05:00 PM EST  
Blogger mariska said...

I haven't read any of Sayers' books infact this is the first time i heard about this author :)

would love to read another great books of yours, JAnet !

Friday, February 12, 2010 at 12:14:00 AM EST  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Linda, Bella, and Mariska--thanks so much for dropping by and I'm thrilled to think that you have Dorothy Sayers' novels ahead of you.

Just a note to whoever wins the book--I live outside Washington DC where we have major snow and I've had one mail delivery in the past week. So they're not yet in my hot hands but as soon as they are, I'll wade through the snowdrifts to the post office.

Friday, February 12, 2010 at 8:19:00 AM EST  
Blogger Kirsten said...

Hi Janet,
I've never read GAUDY NIGHT but after reading this post I'm going to check it out. It does sound wonderful. Take care, Kirsten

Friday, February 12, 2010 at 8:47:00 AM EST  

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