In this article from issue 17, Chris Willis takes a look at Dorothy Sayers’ classic character Lord Peter Wimsey, one of the archetypal British gentleman detectives.
“‘Oh, Damn!’ said Lord Peter Wimsey at Piccadilly Circus.” These are the first words uttered by Lord Peter on his initial appearance in Dorothy L. Sayers’ first Wimsey novel, Whose Body? (1923). Sayers reveals many aspects of Lord Peter’s complex personality in this novel, showing that he is not, as many of his detractors would have it, some sort of scatterbrained sleuth in the mold of Bertie Wooster (a judgment which in turn begs the question about Wooster, who is a published writer, an able musician, chivalrous, and not as stupid as some might think). In an article entitled “How I Came to Invent the Character of Lord Peter Wimsey” (Harcourt Brace News, July 15th 1936), Sayers says of her creation, “I do not as a matter of fact remember inventing Lord Peter Wimsey . . . He walked in complete with spats and applied in an airy don’t-care-if-I-don’t-get-it way for the job of hero.” And later, in The Mind of the Maker (1941), she states, “He is what he is . . . He exists in his own right and not to please you [the reader] . . . I will not ‘make’ him do anything.”
When Wimsey says “Oh, Damn!” at Piccadilly Circus, he is on his way to a sale of incunabula (early printed books). Sayers ensures that readers don’t consider this a dilettante pursuit, by making us aware of Wimsey’s scholarly approach to the subject. Book dealers know his reputation and in a later short story he instructs his nephew, Viscount St. George, in the intricacies of typefaces and dates. In 1927 he writes “a very scholarly little monograph” called “Notes on the Collecting of Incunabula” and visits the British Museum “to collate a 12th century manuscript of Tristan“-work which Sayers herself engaged upon for her 1929 translation of Tristan in Brittany.
And so, like Sayers, he is a scholar. He is a Balliol man, with a First in Modern History. A Fellow of All Souls says of him in Gaudy Night (1935) that his knowledge of the printing and distribution of Reformation polemical documents is expert. Also in that novel, he shows he is quite able to hold his own on High Table at Shrewsbury College, discussing with Miss Hillyard her paper on Henry VIII’s divorce and the appropriation of monastic funds. Sayers’ scholarship found its culmination in her latter years when she translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. Wimsey was a Dante scholar as well, as we see at the outset in Whose Body? and also in Unnatural Death (1927).
Wimsey is not conventionally attractive. In Whose Body? Sayers says of his appearance, “His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat . . .” His narrow, rather beaky face generally wore a supercilious expression, while his arched and lean nose gave him a parrot-like profile. He had a receding forehead and a long, narrow chin, grey eyes with drooping lids, a wide and flexible mouth, and sleek, flat, straw-colored hair. While he is interviewing Harriet at the police station after she has stood trial for poisoning her lover in Strong Poison (1930), he says, “I know I’ve got a silly face, but I can’t help that.” To complete the picture of the typical aristocrat, he wears a monocle. It is a powerful lens which not only corrects his sight but is also, as he says in Whose Body?, “. . . jolly useful when you want to take a good squint at somethin’ and look like a bally fool all the time.” But, he adds, “. . . it don’t do to wear it permanently . . .” He frequently plays up his silly-ass appearance to deflect suspicion of his true intentions. At times, though, people wonder-as does a fellow club member in “The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker” (1928)-whether his “incredible fatuity was the cloak of ignorance or the mask of the hardened poker player.” In Gaudy Night, he describes his technique to Harriet in this way, “I’m the professional funny man of the Foreign Office . . . . Some turn goes wrong and they send on the patter-comedian to talk the house into good humour again. I take people out to lunch and tell them funny stories and work them up to mellowing point.”
To consider Wimsey as a detective we need to look at his reasons for detecting and his attitude towards criminals. First of all he enjoys playing the part, dressing up with the eye-glass and his specially made walking stick-as he says in Whose Body?, “Enter Sherlock Holmes disguised as a walking gentleman.” He also enjoys matching wits with wrongdoers. In Whose Body?, he recognises and appreciates the intelligence of his opponent early on in the investigation, saying, “. . . we’re up against a criminal-the criminal-the real artist and blighter with imagination . . . I’m enjoyin’ this . . .” It is not long before a darker element of Wimsey’s personality is introduced in the story, though it is, as he says, “cloaked in the sacred duty of flippancy,” which he calls “the correct attitude.” He goes on to say of the case, “Here’s a poor old buffer spirited away . . . such a joke . . . I don’t believe he’d hurt a fly himself . . . that makes it funnier. D’you know, Parker, I don’t care frightfully about this case after all.” His mixture of pleasure and revulsion is summed up later in the novel in this way: “It’s a hobby . . . excitin’ . . . I enjoy it . . . I feel as if I oughtn’t to find it amusin’ but I do.” And here lies the crucial dilemma which he is still trying to come to terms with fourteen years later in Busman’s Honeymoon (1937), in which he asks, “If there is a God or a judgment-what next?”
Throughout his career he exhibits some very muddled thinking about the morality of what he is doing. In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), he leaves Penberthy in the library to commit suicide, and in Murder Must Advertise (1933), he allows Tallboy to walk to his certain death. He experiences no regrets at committing either Norman Urquhart or Mary Whittaker to trial, the former in Strong Poison and the latter in Unnatural Death, although he does agonise with Fr. Tredgold in Unnatural Death over the possibility that his “interfering” could do worse harm than the crime he is investigating has already done. He suffers similar doubts over the case of Frank Crutchley in Busman’s Honeymoon, to the point of engaging Sir Impey Biggs to defend him.
Is he a good detective? In that he out-thinks both the police and the criminals he must be considered masterly. He has acute powers of observation, demonstrated most clearly at the scene of the crime. See his examination of the body in the bath after Thipps has left the bathroom in Whose Body?, his reconstruction of General Fentiman’s last hours in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, and his search of the area around Riddlesdale Lodge in Clouds of Witness (1926). He does most of his own legwork, although he does leave some of it to his manservant Bunter and Chief Inspector Charles Parker, who says in Whose Body?, “You’ll never become a professional until you learn to do a little work.” By his own admission he is an amateur. He solves his cases by deduction, thought, and intuition, but is not above using his wealth and position to take shortcuts. He is able to consult directly with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and several Chief Constables, whom he knows personally. In Clouds of Witness, he even interrupts the King at dinner in order to speak to the American ambassador, and in The Nine Tailors (1934), he makes a direct approach to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
He respects Parker both for his biblical knowledge and his detective abilities, but he treats Inspector Sugg as the incompetent that he is and frequently mocks him, as he does with this gibe from Whose Body?: “The golden mean, Sugg, as Aristotle says, keeps you from being a golden ass.” In Sugg’s case, if anywhere, the accusation of Wimsey being a snob is valid, for he taunts the poor man with allusions which he knows Sugg will not understand. However, he does show some fairness to Sugg, saying, upon hearing that Sugg is to make the arrest in Whose Body?, “He can’t help being a fool . . . it may do him some good to be in at the death.”
What else do we know of Lord Peter’s talents and character? Not only is he a book collector, but he is a literary expert who can quote from material ranging from the Psalms and Hymns Ancient and Modern to Catullus, Shakespeare, Donne, Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and a host of others. He wears perfectly tailored clothes, always chosen to suit the occasion, and he entertains with panache. He is a fine musician who plays Bach, Scarlatti, the Beggar’s Opera, and, as stated in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, “an odd, noisy and painfully inharmonious study by a modern composer in the key of seven sharps.” He frequently sings Bach, notably madrigals, with Harriet in the Oxford antique shop. He is a fluent linguist, drawing his facility with French from his mother’s Delagardie family. He also knows German, which enabled him to go behind the lines in disguise in 1917, and Italian, as shown by his ability to discuss the Abyssinian situation with an Italian minister in Gaudy Night. He is a connoisseur of food and wines as was Sayers’ husband, Mac Fleming, who wrote Gourmet’s Book of Food and Drink (1935) under his pen name Atherton Fleming. He is knowledgeable about painting (as too was Mac Fleming, who was an amateur artist), recognising the absence of a particular tube of paint in The Five Red Herrings (1931).
He possesses remarkable physical strength and agility. In “The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey” (1931), he spends fourteen weeks during the winter in primitive conditions in a hamlet high up in a remote part of the Basque country. He holds Reggie Pomfret’s wrist in an iron grip in Gaudy Night, as he does with Farmer Grimethorpe’s in Clouds of Witness. In Unnatural Death he swarms up Mrs. Forrest’s drainpipe. And in Murder Must Advertise, he knocks down a policeman after being arrested on the cricket field, trips up Charles Parker, jumps from the running board of a police car, races down Whitehall, and dodges through the traffic around the Cenotaph.
He is experienced in reading ciphers, which feature prominently in Have His Carcase (1932) and The Nine Tailors, and to a lesser extent in Murder Must Advertise Sayers was a great enthusiast for crosswords as well. She made up a number of them for her own amusement, and also created one for the short story “The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will” (1925).
Lord Peter also shows courage, risking his life in Whose Body? by venturing into Freke’s consulting room where he nearly receives a lethal injection, and in Unnatural Death, where he nearly drink’s Mrs. Forrest’s lethal cocktail. In Murder Must Advertise he shows himself to be a natural athlete, making a spectacular dive into a shallow fountain. Later in the same novel, he also proves to be an excellent cricketer-an Oxford Blue who reveals his skill as a batsman in the Pyms-Brotherhood match.
He is a warm person who has a close relationship with his mother and an easy friendship with Parker. His most important relationship, however, is with Bunter, his manservant, who served as Wimsey’s batman during the war. They have a bond which goes far beyond the master/servant relationship. The true friendship between the two allows manservant to reprove master when necessary, as in the scene in Whose Body? where Wimsey wants to hurry to Lady Swaffham’s lunch without changing and Bunter says, “Not in those trousers, my Lord.” Wimsey entrusts Bunter with purchasing interesting lots at sales and he accepts Bunter’s selection of reading material and book reviews. From saving Wimsey from the crater at Caudry in 1918 to rescuing him from the mire at Grider’s Hole in Clouds of Witness, Bunter is often called on to help Wimsey out of a scrape.
In Whose Body? he is charming to Lady Swaffham and flirts with Mrs. Tommy Frayle. He shows pleasure in the company of Pamela Dean in Murder Must Advertise and Marjorie Phelps in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. He plays around with the dangerous Diane de Momerie in Murder Must Advertise and the even more dangerous Mary Whittaker in Unnatural Death. And he is overwhelmed by the beauty of Mrs. Grimethorpe in Clouds of Witness.
We know that he was badly let down during the war by his first love, Barbara, and decided at the time that the idea of marriage was a washout. But this didn’t prevent him from engaging in several close amourous affairs, including the one with the Viennese singer mentioned in Gaudy Night, and the one with the mistress in the apartment on the Avenue Kléber mentioned in Busman’s Honeymoon. However, it is not until he meets Harriet Vane that he realises the importance of showing respect for the other person in a relationship. Part of what drew him to Harriet was his respect for her intellect. In her article “Lord Peter Wimsey” (published in the Dorothy L. Sayers centenary tribute Encounters with Lord Peter, 1991), critic Jessica Mann writes that what made Lord Peter Wimsey attractive “was the fact that he liked clever women.”
Is Lord Peter Wimsey too perfect to be true? Of course not. He is humanised by a fault, a weakness which Fr. Tredgold recognises in Unnatural Death-that he is much more nervous and sensitive than people think. It is a condition which was brought about by the war and asserts itself at crucial times. He had suffered from nightmares since he was a child, but after the war they became full of images from the trenches and of being buried in the crater at Caudry. The condition also (as Julian Freke reminds him in Whose Body?) at times makes it difficult for him to deal with the crushing weight of his responsibilities. After the failure of psychiatric treatment in Whose Body?, he returns to the Dower House at Denver and sits in a darkened room until he is saved from the depths of depression by Bunter. But the condition continues to recur at particularly stressful moments, such as when a criminal is sent to the hangman as a result of one of his investigations and he is hit with the full weight of his responsibility for the person’s death.
Sayers had made a good start on Thrones, Dominations (the sequel to Busman’s Honeymoon) in 1936, as we can tell from her letters to Helen Simpson (with whom she discussed several points of interest), but she was distracted from this work by an invitation to write a play (The Zeal of Thy House) for the 1937 Canterbury Festival. After that she wrote no more Wimsey tales apart from the early wartime Wimsey Papers (published in The Spectator in 1939/40), one or two short stories, and a 1954 BBC radio play entitled “A Tribute to Sherlock Holmes on the Occasion of his 100th Birthday” in which a young Wimsey consults Holmes. She told enquirers during World War II that Wimsey was engaged in Intelligence work, and she told her friends Muriel St. Clare Byrne and Barbara Reynolds that his nephew, Viscount St. George, had been killed in the Battle of Britain.
Lord Peter Wimsey is still alive and well in the imaginations of his fans. On October 8th, 1985, The Times of London announced the Golden Wedding anniversary of Wimsey/Vane in its Society page. In 1986 The Times published a letter written by Peter Wimsey to Dorothy L. Sayers’ friend and biographer Barbara Reynolds clearing up the confusion over the jewels sometimes described as the Attenbury diamonds and other times as the Attenbury emeralds. To celebrate the 100th birthday of Lord Peter on November 24th, 1990, a portrait of a 21-year-old Wimsey was presented to Balliol College. On accepting it, the Master of Balliol congratulated the Dorothy L. Sayers Society on its celebration of “Lord Peter Wimsey, a graduate of this college.”