Why Dorothy L. Sayers Stopped Writing Lord Peter

I’ve never seen a coherent account written down of why Dorothy L. Sayers stopped writing Lord Peter when she did. There are plenty of bits and pieces, of course, but I’ve not seen them organized into a coherent account, so I will endeavor to do so here.

The last piece of hard evidence that I know of was an essay she wrote about Gaudy Night in the book Titles to Fame, first published in October of 1937. Presumably Ms. Sayer’s chapter in it was written not long before, as she quotes from Busman’s Honeymoon, also published in 1937. Though, to be fair, Busman’s Honeymoon was originally a play which came out in 1936. In this chapter she says that she is often asked if Peter’s career will end with marriage, and she says (with some regret) that she does not foresee Peter’s career ever ending while she is still alive. How is it, then, that no more Lord Peter was forthcoming?

Actually, it’s not quite true that none was. After Busman’s Honeymoon, three Lord Peter short stories were written. Striding Folly and The Haunted Policeman were published in something called Detection Medley (I do not know whether that is a magazine or a book, though I would guess a magazine) in 1939. The short story Tallboys was written in 1942, though only discovered and published in 1972. But why were there no more novels?

There was supposed to be. In 1936, she began work on the novel Thrones, Dominations, which was to explore the married life of Harriet and Lord Peter, in part by contrasting it with other marriages. She never got more than about six chapters into it. One theory, which I find compelling, is that the abdication of King Edward VIII so that he could marry a devorcée threw a wrench into Ms. Sayer’s plans because this new environment would cause the book to be read very differently than she had intended. It is very believable to me that she would find the whole thing a mess and need some time to sort it out, and the more she tried to sort it out, the more of a mess it became while she was still trying to salvage the original form. And unfortunately, she didn’t have all that much time to sort it out.

England entered World War II in September of 1939, shortly after Germany invaded Poland. This was three years after she had begun Thrones, Dominations, but with Gaudy Night having been such a turning point in adding depth to her characters and Busman’s Honeymoon having been a strong continuation of that, it’s believable to me that she got bogged down by the more difficult task of making drama with a working marriage that needs to remain a working marriage at the end and thus cannot materially alter. The thing is doable, but it is far from easy, which is why most people don’t attempt it. Once World War II came, Ms. Sayers put down Lord Peter, except from some wartime propaganda to bolster morale (letters ostensibly from the Wimsey family about wartime conditions) and the short story Tallboys which wasn’t even published until after her death.

I should note, in passing, that Tallboys is not a bad story, though it’s really not much of a mystery. It explores, though briefly, Lord Peter and Harriet as parents, by contrast with a prig staying with them for the summer who is vocally against disciplining children, especially physically. The mystery is simply who stole Mr. Puffet’s peaches off of the peach tree in his garden, which Lord Peter does with some investigation and a clue furnished by his 8 year old son about another child’s missing fishing apparatus. It is worth reading, especially for a few more glimpses into Harriet and Lord Peter, though the two barely interact with each other in the story. Unlike The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head, it’s not really a story that one would read merely for itself. Basically, it’s not entirely shocking that the story remained unpublished until after the authoress’ death.

It makes sense that in England in World War II, Miss Sayers found it impossible to write Lord Peter. The war was not a universal block to writing—Agatha Christie kept writing mysteries throughout it—but it makes sense that to Ms. Sayers, who had chafed under the constraints of writing detective fiction which was not also significant, in a literary sense, the pressures of World War II were overwhelming. How could she write a Lord Peter story during World War II without it being about what’s going on, but at the same time with things being uncertain and always changing, how could she write a Lord Peter story in that time period and be sure conditions would be the same when it was published as when it was written? She had already been bitten by this once with Thrones, Dominations and the abdication of the King.

So much for Lord Peter during the war, but what about after it? Dorothy L. Sayers lived for twelve years after the resumption of peace in England. From what I’ve read, though I can’t at present remember where in order to cite it, post-war England was just a very different place than inter-war England, and Lord Peter was a creature of the inter-war period. This was so in a number of ways; his defining characteristics were largely from the first world war, in 1946 he was now fifty six years old, and as the parent of several children and (with the plan to have Lord Saint-George die in the war and Gerald to peg out as well) with heavy responsibilities, his time would not be his own to run around investigating crimes in the same way as it used to.

This last part would not be so much of a problem if the goal was merely to preserve the character’s function in the story, but it would be a rather large problem with the humanization of Lord Peter that happened in the last few novels. In the end, I suspect that it was precisely the determination to make Lord Peter a fully human character that made Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon such great books which also made them the last books. The main concerns of the prime of Lord Peter’s life—his mid fifties—would be at odds with him being a detective, and moreover are not the sort of thing which lend themselves well to novels. Novels are a concentration of life; they are about moments which symbolize much larger patches of life. Simply put, novel-worthy events really should not happen to a successful man in his mid-fifties. They may happen to those around him, drawing him in to such a novel. He should have his life sufficiently well figured out at this point that he has fairly little personal growth to do.

That last point would not be generally fatal; it was not fatal to any of Agatha Christie’s detectives. Poirot kept detecting his whole life, and Miss Marple started detecting in her old age. Both were stable people who were swept into the troubles of others. Lord Peter got into detection because it was one of the few things which drew him out of the shell he grew in the shock of the first world war. I do not mean that this could not have been overcome, but it would have been difficult to overcome. Lord Peter novels almost entirely consisted in Lord Peter sticking his nose into other people’s business. The one major exception to this is Clouds of Witness, and even there it was, technically, his brothers’ business. People came to Poirot because it was his job; he hung out a detective shingle, as it were. To write Lord Peter mysteries in his fifties and beyond would require people to come to Lord Peter, since Lord Peter should no longer be seeking these problems out. I can say from experience that stories in which people seek out a detective are very different stories from ones in which a detective seeks out the problem; the structure of them is different. Someone must already have suspicions; something grave must be at stake to bring in a stranger. In short, to have kept writing Lord Peter stories after the second world war would have required significantly changing what a Lord Peter story was. I do not say that Ms. Sayers could not have done it. All I am saying is that it makes sense why she did not, in fact, do it.

2 thoughts on “Why Dorothy L. Sayers Stopped Writing Lord Peter

  1. Xavier Basora

    Chris,

    Don’t forget that Poiroit and Ms Marples never married. Consequently, it was easier for them to continue being dectectives. Peter and Violet would’ve had a much tougher time between the kids, the wartime responsibilities to be dectectives.

    Sure, Dorothy Sayers could’ve thrown in espionage or sabotage but 39 steps had already done it.
    So, in a way, she was at a dead end given the thematic and plot constraints she placed on the Whimsey mysteries.

    xavier

    Like

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