Further Preliminary Thoughts on Dorothy L. Sayers on Gaudy Night

This is a continuation of my post from yesterday, giving some prelimary thoughts on Dorothy L. Sayers essay Gaudy Night in the book Titles to Fame. Today something Ms. Sayers said about the development of a character over many books caught my attention. I’m going to quote it here because I think that the expression of Ms. Sayers own words are necessary to understand the thing she is trying to communicate:

I had from the outset, of course, envisaged for Peter a prolonged and triumphal career, going on through book after book amid the plaudits of adoring multitudes. It is true that his setting forth did not cause as great a stir as I had expected, and that the adoring multitudes were represented by a small, though faithful, band of adherents. But time would, I hoped, bring the public into a better frame of mind, and I plugged confidently on, putting my puppet through all his tricks and exhibiting him in a number of elegant attitudes.  But I had not properly realized—and this shows how far I was from understand what it was I was trying to do with the detective novel—that any character that remains static except for a repertory of tricks and attitudes is bound to become a monstrous weariness to his maker in the course of eight or nine volumes.

I cannot contradict Ms. Sayers from my own experience, yet, as I’m only beginning work on my third Brother Thomas novel. However, there is something here on which I think she is mistaken, or, rather, about which she is over-generalizing.

Before saying what, I also think it’s worth considering the Lord Peter bibliography, bearing in mind that Ms. Sayers had tired of Lord Peter and set off to retire him in Strong Poison:

  1. Whose Body?
  2. Clouds of Witness
  3. Unnatural Death
  4. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
  5. Strong Poison
  6. The Five Red Herrings
  7. Have His Carcase
  8. Murder Must Advertise
  9. The Nine Tailors
  10. Gaudy Night
  11. Busman’s Honeymoon

The eight or nine volumes in which Lord Peter had become a monstrous weariness to his maker was, in fact, four volumes. It’s worth considering what those four volumes were like. In Whose Body? we (and the authoress) meet Lord Peter, and everyone is interesting when you first meet them. Clouds of Witness was an excellently crafted mystery, and there was some character development in it, though in the sense of revealing the character of Wimsey rather than changing it. In Unnatural Death we see a great deel more of Miss Climpson and not nearly as much of Wimsey, and that quite often to serve the plot. In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, we see more of Wimsey, but his personality has largely retreated. Over the stories, we also see the diminution of Charles Parker, in whom Sayers seemed to initially place some personality and intend character development.

What we see, when we look at him, is that he became somewhat more of a puppet in these stories; he was there because someone had to investigate the mysteries, and Sayers balked at introducing a new detective in each story after her experiment with doing so in Unnatural Death. The problem, though, is not really that Lord Peter wasn’t changing. The problem is that Lord Peter didn’t have much of a personality (yet). You can see this in what Ms. Sayers said she needed to do in order to humanize him in order to pull off the romance which was started in Strong Poison but which didn’t work there:

If the story was to go on, Peter had got to become a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook.

None of this requires Peter to change throughout the books. All it requires is to actually do it.

To give an example of what I mean, in the first four books we do learn that Lord Peter likes music, but he never says anything about it. We don’t know what he likes about which pieces. He collects first editions, but we don’t know why he collects first editions, and rarely which things he collects first editions of. He has read literature, but we don’t know what he thinks of it. And then, of course, he’s the sort of pointlessly non-religious character which was extraordinarily common amongst golden age detectives, for no discernible reason.

I don’t mean to keep harping on this point, but it is closely related to the problem Ms. Sayers has with Lord Peter—that he can’t articulate a reason for anything that he does other than sheer curiosity is a massive problem to him being a flesh-and-blood human being. All human beings have curiosity; the detective merely being curious is not enough. He must also either overcome the inhibitions which people have to investigating murders, or he must simply lack them. A religious reason for risking death and people disliking you can overcome this inhibition, as they did for Father Brown. The other detectives of the time seem to merely lack this inhibition. This may partially be why they are all eccentric, but they are mostly eccentric without being interesting because of it.

While there was still the thrill of working out the form and nature of the mystery novel, this could be overlooked. One detective might do as well as another when the reader wasn’t much paying attention to him anyway. As Chesterton showed, however, this was in no way necessary. And I think that this is what Ms. Sayers discovered when she finally started putting flesh onto her detective.

Dorothy L. Sayers on Gaudy Night, Preliminary Thoughts

As I mentioned, I’ve gotten a copy of Dorothy L. Sayers essay in the book Titles to Fame, in which she discussed the creation of her novel, Gaudy Night. I’ve read it over twice, and will be writing a more in-depth analysis of it, but at the moment I wanted to give some preliminary thoughts.

One of the things which leaps out at me is that she described the nature of detective stories in the early 1920s as being very focused on plot, to the exclusion of character. They were not supposed to be “serious”. Especially interesting to me is that she gave, as the exception that proved the rule, G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. He introduced philosophy into the detective story, but he was also an acknowledge master of paradoxes, and popular detective stories which were philosophical were simply one more paradox in his rather large bag of them.

She goes on to describe a trend, from the twenties into the thirties, of detective stories becoming more fleshed-out stories and less pure puzzles. This trend I find interesting, because, depending on whether you count the detective story as starting out with Sherlock Holmes or C. Auguste Dupin, it didn’t really start as a pure puzzle. In fact, even if you count the detective story as starting out with C. Auguste Dupin, you can still observe the trend of moving more toward pure puzzles, with the final Dupin story being entirely about reasoning from newspaper articles.

Be that as it may, it does raise an interesting question: why would people prefer detective stories that were pure puzzles, without real characters?

Before attempting to answer that, I think it worth noting that I’m not sure that Ms. Sayers was entirely correct. My evidence for this is hardly conclusive, but for example I can find no major support for it in the book Masters of Mystery, published in 1930. That was a few years too late to be in the full sway of what Ms. Sayers is describing, so it does not suffice. On the flip side of the 1920s, the 1907 The Red Thumb Mark and 1911 The Eye of Osiris Dr. Thorndyke novels were both almost as much love stories as they were detective stories. They are even further in time from the early 20s than Masters of Mystery was, though. The only thing with which I am familiar and which is right about that time is The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was published in 1920 (in the United States; early 1921 in England). I am afraid I must confess that I haven’t actually read the book—I’ve only read a handful of the Poirot stories—I’ve only seen the David Suchet TV production of it. While it certainly is not a novel of manners, nor is it Gaudy Night, neither is it merely a crossword puzzle in literary form. That said, a handful of further exceptions will not disprove a general rule, and most of the detective fiction of the time period has been lost to us in the mists of time.

To return to the question at hand, I think that there is an excellent reason for detective stories to have moved, for a time, in the direction of pure puzzles: they were new and people had not yet worked out how to do the puzzles. This was true both of readers as well as writers; both were figuring out what the puzzle inside of a detective story was.

When something is new, there is, of course, the pleasure of novelty, but there is also the difficulty of novelty. The structures which make up the new thing are unfamiliar, which makes initial learning easy, but the unfamiliarity of the structures of the new thing also makes it hard to do anything else other than learn them. Accordingly, it makes sense to prefer the things in a purer form.

To give an example of what I mean, early on a person may not be suspected by the reader merely because his presence seems obvious, though it might not have been necessary. Once this is learnt, however, it becomes possible to trick the reader by casting suspicion on a character by the trick of obviously diverting suspicion from him. Once this trick is learnt, it becomes unclear what sort of trick is being played, and so the reader knows to suspend his judgement merely because a character appears innocent.

There are many such examples that can be given; writers and readers have gone through bluffs and double bluffs and triple bluffs, until finally the rules of the game have been pretty well learnt by both and it is interesting rather than taxing to add in other elements.

To put the thing in another way, it took a while for Fr. Knox’s Decalogue to come about. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the issue with fair play is not really about a guessing game between reader and writer, but rather that it keeps the writer honest and makes the story a much better detective story. Once the rules of detective fiction were worked out, the detective story became good enough to make alloys of it with other sorts of stories.

I do not know that this is what happened, of course, and still less do I know, if this did happen, that this is why it happened. If it did happen, though, this does seem to me the most likely reason why.

Pride & Prejudice and Gaudy Night

My favorite novel is Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Among my favorite mysteries is Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. I don’t know how often they are connected in other people’s minds but they are connected strongly in mine, and in case this is not universal, I’d like to explain why. (Spoilers will follow, so if you haven’t read both, go do that now.)

Both novels are, fundamentally, stories of reconciliation. Pride & Prejudice includes the incidents which separate Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, but the real story is that of them coming together. Gaudy Night does include a bit of the strange and strained relationship between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter—and, if one wants to be tedious, a mystery—but it too is a tale of the fixing of a relationship.

But these are not merely reconciliations. Reconciliation can be done in many ways, such as the revelation of information which fixes a mistake, as in the movie Top Hat or the Shakespearean play, Much Ado About Nothing. But both Pride & Prejudice and Gaudy Night are reconciliations in which the characters reconcile with each other by improving themselves.

Also curious about both is that this improvement is effected both through the help of the other, as well as by the help of someone else acting viciously. The improvement thus becomes a push-pull. The protagonists are both pulled toward virtue but also pushed toward it by the bad example of the witness of vice.

It only takes a few sentences but I think it is a very important part of Pride & Prejudice when Elizabeth hears her sister say that Wickham didn’t care two farthings for Miss King—who could about such a nasty little freckled thing, and that though incapable of such coarseness of expression, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had harboured and fancied liberal. This was one of the first moments of true self-knowledge for Elizabeth, though it was led up to, certainly, by previous realizations.

It reminds me very greatly of how Harriet saw a picture of herself in Violet Cattermole’s desire to bite the hand of her friend toward whom she was always having to be grateful. Harriet’s advice in this case was quite interesting and also a piece of self-insight; she advised Violet that if she disliked being grateful she should stop doing things that would require her to be grateful to others.

Harriet’s being tried for murder was in a sense bad luck, but it was bad luck that she had let herself in for by living with the poet on terms other than marriage. Had she done what she ought, she’d never have been tried for murder. Had Violet Cattermole not went out without leave and gotten drunk, she’d not have had to be grateful to her friend for helping her into her room and nursing her. Though Harriet didn’t say it, I think she realized in the moment of giving advice that her own bitterness at gratitude was not, in fact, bitterness at being grateful. It was bitterness at her own misbehavior. Genuine gratitude is a pleasure; what Harriet disliked so much was having to acknowledge her own bad judgment.

There is a curious aspect to repentance: it is difficult not because one must do something differently, but because one must admit that one was formerly wrong. The meaning of hell is that it can be so painful to admit that one was wrong that people can cling to it instead of letting themselves be happy. Curiously, the feeling which attends admitting that one was wrong is a freeing feeling. It’s also, interestingly, freeing in social circumstances. If one announces a mistake oneself, most people don’t care past whatever trouble is now involved in fixing it. It can be amazing how much, if one takes all of the blame one is due, no one else bothers to give it to one. There’s probably something in here related to, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.

Gaudy Night

I recently finished re-reading Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. It is the second to last of her Lord Peter Wimsey novels and, in fiction at any rate, may reasonably be considered her magnum opus. (As a warning, this is not a review but just the jotting down of some thoughts. It is meant for those who have read the book or who don’t mind spoilers. If you’re neither person, you would be best advised to put his post down and go read Gaudy Night. As the standard joke runs: go do it now. I’ll wait.)

Reading Gaudy Night is always a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, it’s a a triumph of a book. It’s got some of the most vivid, living characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. It’s got an excellent plot which is excellent both as a mystery and as a story of the characters who are caught up in the mystery. It has an excellent setting. It is very well told. It has fascinating and important themes. It handles the long-running romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane with great skill and brings it to a very satisfying conclusion.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is related to why the atheistic children of atheists can’t tell good stories. This might sound strange to the people who know that Dorothy L. Sayers was a very well educated and intelligent Christian woman. There are better examples of it, but her book The Mind of the Maker, for example, is none the less a good example of the fact.

The problem is that there are limits to how good a story even a Christian can tell with atheistic characters. The atheistic child of atheists is far more limited because he simply has no good stories to tell. Atheism is the supposition that life is not, in fact, a narrative, but merely a meaningless set of coincidences. Such a person can suspend his disbelief, but he will simply have nothing to suspend it for. His parents will not have told him any really human stories, and being an atheist himself he will not have encountered them, either.

A different, but related, problem faces the Christian who is writing a story entirely about atheists. It is that all good stories must flow out of the characters in them. Characters who do not generate the story but to whom the story simply happens are not characters but mere props, possibly of the seen characters and possibly of unseen characters. And the most you can get out of atheistic characters is seeing the problems of life.

Atheists cannot have answers to any of the problems of life for the very simple reason that atheism does not allow for the possibility of meaning in life. (They will whine to you about “the meaning they give their life”. It is nothing but awkward when an adult tells you about the games of pretend they like to play. I mean that literally, by the way. The meaning an atheist chooses to give to life exists only in his mind and goes away as soon as he stops creating it. This is no different than pretending to ride a giant seagull named Harry.)

All themes raised in a book with only atheistic characters—or where the only non-atheists are fools—can thus never say anything about the themes it brings up except to point out that some false answer or other is not true. This can be valuable but it cannot be satisfying. It’s going to dinner and being told that the ham is poisoned. It’s good to know. One leaves just as hungry as one came, though.

One of the great themes of Gaudy Night is that principles hurt people. But it leaves unexplored—or only implicitly explored—that a lack of principles hurt people even more. And, more to the point, that it is only principles that make living worthwhile in the first place.

For example, when Annie was complaining that the lie her historian husband had told never hurt anyone, no one pointed out to her that the only reason he had even had his job in the first place was because he was trusted to tell the truth. If they were to abandon the principle that the truth mattered, he’d have lost his job, instead of by being the wrong man for the job, but by there being no job at all.

Instead they talked of how the truth is more important than personal attachments. And so it is; anyone who loves father and mother more than Christ is not worthy of him. But this is a Christian idea—as is, really, the university. I don’t mean that students coming to wise men to learn is Christian—one obviously finds that throughout time and place. Rather, the idea that all of the truth is sacred is a uniquely Christian attitude. You simply don’t find it outside of Christianity; everyone else takes the far more reasonable position that there are big truths and little truths and the latter are inconsequential compared to the former. Most people hold that here’s one truth of overriding importance and everything else should give way beside it. It is not the love of some truth that Christianity elevated. To love some truth is simply to be human. It is the elevation of little truths that is uniquely Christian. Christianity is unique among the religions and philosophies of the world for raising up the lowly. All sane men agree that life is a hierarchy; the unique contribution of Christianity is not the obvious fact that the lower should serve the higher, but rather that the higher should stoop down to serve the lower. The very strange thing about Christianity is that the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

And this is what is uniquely Christian about a university. It is the attitude that facts which don’t matter, do matter. Which is why in our own time the universities are disintegrating before our eyes. Some take refuge in engineering; others take refuge in pretending that their incredibly minor disciplines are central to life. Most are simply taking advantage of the shade while the building is still standing. But anyone with eyes can see that the thing won’t be standing for many more decades.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ time the conclusion was not yet so obvious, but the problem was certainly visible. The thing which prevents Gaudy Night from being a complete triumph is that, in the end, no one answered Annie. They didn’t answer Annie because no one had an answer. They didn’t have an answer for her because they didn’t have an answer for anyone. Atheists have no answers. It’s why they always feel so daring when they ask questions. They know, on some level, that merely asking questions will take a sledgehammer to the foundations and it will be discovered that the whole edifice is painted cardboard.

In the end, I think it’s very symbolic that the problem was dealt with “medically”. They had no arguments, they had only force. But they didn’t even have the courage of their convictions to use the force; they had to pay someone else who would soothingly pretend that they weren’t using force.

In a sense this conclusion was merely true to life. The events of the story take place in its year of publication: 1935. World War II was four short years off, but you could hear it coming in Gaudy Night. The project of living a Christian life without being Christian was coming to a close. Which ultimately makes Gaudy Night a book about failure. It’s a very good book, and a very important book. But this limits it. Failure is, in this world, only a prelude. The true story of life is, ultimately, about victory.

If you like Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, consider checking out my own murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

The Disclaimer on Gaudy Night

Most every work of fiction has at the beginning a disclaimer that it is a work of fiction and should not be read as being about any real person. This is primarily for legal reasons since most fools and all non-fools can figure out that a work of fiction is fictive. However, sometimes a work of fiction touches on real things and this is when the disclaimers can become interesting.

My favorite disclaimer is at the beginning of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. So you can see what I mean, I’m going to reproduce it interspersed with my commentary:

It would be idle to deny that the City and University of Oxford (in aeternum floreant) do actually exist, and contain a number of colleges and other buildings, some of which are mentioned by name in this book. It is therefore the more necessary to affirm emphatically that none of the characters which I have placed upon this public stage has any counterpart in real life. In particular, Shrewsbury College, with its dons, students and scouts, is entirely imaginary; nor are the distressing events described as taking place within its walls founded upon any events that have ever occurred anywhere. Detective-story writers are obliged by their disagreeable profession to invent startling and unpleasant incidents and people, and are (I presume) at liberty to imagine what might happen if such incidents and people were to intrude upon the life of an innocent and well-ordered community; but in so doing they must not be supposed to suggest that any such disturbance ever has occurred or is ever likely to occur in any community in real life.

I really love the first sentence. Sometimes one can invent whole universities and cities, as I did in The Dean Died Over Winter Break, but even when one does it can be necessary to put them inside of larger places that are real.

It’s a delicate balance but intruding somewhat upon real places can be extremely interesting. I think that Ms. Sayers is quite right that murder mysteries are especially interesting when examining murders in places that they shouldn’t be. Technically that’s everywhere, but there are places that are, in this fallen world, more conducive to murder than others. And it’s the places which are least conducive to it that can be the most interesting.

Certain apologies are, however, due from me: first, to the University of Oxford, for having presented it with a Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of my own manufacture and with a college of 150 women students, in excess of the limit ordained by statute. Next, and with deep humility, to Balliol College—not only for having saddled it with so wayward an alumnus as Peter Wimsey, but also for my monstrous impertinence in having erected Shrewsbury College upon its spacious and sacred cricket-ground. To New College, also to Christ Church, and especially to Queen’s, I apologize for the follies of certain young gentlemen, to Brasenose for the facetiousness of a middle-aged one, and to Magdalen for the embarrassing situation in which I have placed an imaginary pro-Proctor. The Corporation Dump, on the other hand, is, or was, a fact, and no apology for it is due from me.

I can relate to the initial apology since in the course of writing my own mysteries I’ve had to saddle certain diocese with Bishops of my own manufacture. It’s all in good fun and I think that everyone understands the unreality of the thing, but I also understand the impulse to apologize. There is a certain reality, however thin, to the characters in novels. There’s a tension, there, which I think cannot be fully resolved and is just one of the penalties of living in a fallen world.

To the Principal and Fellows of my own college of Somerville, I tender my thanks for help generously given in questions of proctorial rules and general college discipline—though they are not to be held responsible for details of my discipline in Shrewsbury College, many of which I have invented to suit my own purpose.

This is a real advantage to making up a place, even when modeled on a real place—it is so much more convenient to be able to make up details to suit one’s story. On the other hand there’s great value in getting things right where one can.

As I’ve been working on Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral, I’ve been asking some priests and religious questions about religious life (especially with regard to the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office, or the prayers priests and religious say throughout the day).  There’s a real pleasure—at least I find as a reader—to being able to learn real things in the course of having fun. (Though, of course, one must be careful because the novelist never labels which things are real and which changed to suit the story; however, it’s often a good starting point for further research and a decent novelist will be careful to change things in ways that at least preserve the spirit if not the details of the thing he’s changed.)

Persons curious in chronology may, if they like, work out from what they already know of the Wimsey family that the action of the book takes place in 1935; but if they do, they must not be querulously indignant because the King’s Jubilee is not mentioned, or because I have arranged the weather and the moon’s changes to suit my own fancy. For, however realistic the background, the novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland, where they do but jest, poison in jest: no offence in the world.

I find this entire section quite interesting. Consulting detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, or my own Brother Thomas, are unrealistic. For reasons I think largely owing to the limited creativity of murderers, they simply don’t exist in practice. They exist, then in a world much like ours but a little different. It is, in a sense, a world where creative people are less timid. But it is not this world. It follows, then, that one would arrange things such as the weather, the changes of the moon, and even some current events to suit one’s story. It does, after all, take place in a different world.

The final line is very curious. It’s borrowed from Hamlet, prince of the Danes, in the second scene of the third act of the Shakespearean play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. It’s something that Hamlet says in response to the King asking, “Have you heard the argument? Is there no offense in ’t?” Hamlet replies, “No, no, they do but jest. Poison in jest. No offense i’ th’ world.”

It’s a great line, and I assume that Ms. Sayers was changing the meaning when she borrowed the line. But it is very curious that in the original this was a lie that Hamlet told the King, his uncle who replaced his father as king after secretly murdering him, because the play was designed to cause great offense to the King and his wife, Hamlet’s mother. In fact, it was intended to cause them to reveal their guilt.

But it does ring quite true that the novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland. Coordinating events affected by many living people is too complicated for a mere mortal.

Only tangentially related to the last line but interesting: it’s a few lines later that the King asks Hamlet what he calls the play and Hamlet replies, “The Mousetrap”. That’s the name of the murder mystery play written by Agatha Christie which opened 1952 and has been running continuously to this day. It is by far the longest initial run of any play in history, with over 25,000 performances in the same theater.