On Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey: An Essay with Personal Interruptions -The Toast

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Mo Moulton’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

“Peter, what did you mean when you said that anybody could have harmony if they would leave us the counterpoint?’” 

“Why,’” he said, shaking his head, ‘that I like my music polyphonic. If you think I meant anything else, you know what I meant.’”

This conversation between Lord Peter Wimsey, the hero of Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective fiction, and Harriet Vane, Sayers’ fictional alter-ego, takes place toward the end of Gaudy Night (1935). If he sounds a little prickly, perhaps it’s only fair. He’s spent five years dismantling and rebuilding his sense of self in order to be worthy of Harriet’s love, and at this point he still doesn’t know if she will reject him in favor of a life dedicated to literature. Of course he did mean something else, and not only Harriet but the reader understands exactly what: that his ideal relationship, like his ideal music, is produced by the combination of equals rather than the hierarchy of melody and harmony, or man and wife.

In March of last year, my partner and I celebrated twenty years together. We had both recently discovered Sayers, and my anniversary gift to her was a complete set of the Wimsey novels—mostly hardbacks from the 1940s; I wanted to echo Wimsey’s book-collecting hobby, but my finances are rather more modest than his. (Thrillingly, the books arrived from a second-hand shop in the UK to my Massachusetts office in a huge blue bag stamped “Royal Mail.”) I read many of the books out loud to her over the following months, and it struck me that the entire Wimsey-Vane courtship can be read as an extended meditation on the question: how does one build an egalitarian relationship in an unequal, indeed misogynist, world?

51ktHkoJWLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I should say here that I don’t know what Sayers thought about homosexuality, and I suspect I don’t really want to know. An early Wimsey novel, Unnatural Death (1927), is the only one that deals at length with homosexuality. There’s a moving description of a butch-femme couple, beloved by their rural community, but on the other hand, several key plot points hinge on the most vile stereotypes about the seductive, amoral lesbian. The fact that Sayers’s initial title for the novel was The Singular Case of the Three Spinsters gives the flavor. Sayers was fond, too, of offering up crude stereotypes about money-grubbing Jews and Scots; the Scottish jokes seem quaintly bizarre now, while the anti-Semitism is nearly unbearable. The wisdom is mixed in with damaging foolishness. But especially in a world of limited representation of queer relationships, I’ve learned to be a magpie. In the slowly unfolding dynamic between Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey, I found a representation, not of a queer relationship exactly, but one in which the partners don’t take their gender roles for granted and must therefore work out for themselves how to love in an ethical fashion.

Any kind of relationship raises inescapable existential dilemmas, and the more intimate the relationship, the higher the stakes. Harriet is keenly aware of the predicament faced by women, particularly, in navigating choices around marriage and intimacy. She describes a ‘predatory hag’ waiting for her ‘gigolo’ in a seaside hotel, then notices the wedding-ring: “Marriage did not save one, apparently. Single, married, widowed, divorced, one came to the same end.” But in the next room, she finds “three stout women … engaged in an interminable conversation about illnesses, children and servants.” “ ‘And these,’ thought Harriet, ‘are the happy ones, I suppose.’” She turns away from these depressing options and returns to her writing table.

But is work, however satisfying, an adequate alternative to intimacy? Harriet spends much of Gaudy Night in residence at a fictional women’s college in Oxford University. The question of marriage and its effects on women recur here in multiple guises. Early on, for example, Harriet encounters an old classmate who has forsaken her brilliant intellectual potential for a life of hard physical labor as a farmer’s wife: “a Derby winner making shift with a coal-cart,” as Sayers puts it. But the woman is adamant that her role is to support her husband’s work, one of many restatements of the novel’s central problem: which should prevail, brain or heart? As Harriet later thinks to herself: “To subdue oneself to one’s own ends might be dangerous, but to subdue one’s self to other people’s ends was dust and ashes. … Could there ever be any alliance between the intellect and the flesh?”

Most of the women at the College have chosen the life of the mind. The historian Helen De Vine is perhaps the most striking example, a brilliant scholar whose incisive commentary on those around her captivates Harriet from the start. Miss De Vine’s name sounds a lot like “Miss Vane,” and that, of course, is a clue, and not only in the mystery-novel sense. Miss De Vine is what Harriet both longs and fears to be: dedicated to her excellent work and able to detach herself from human entanglements. Harriet dreams of being an individualist. So she takes seriously Miss De Vine’s warning that even a marriage between equals is no guarantee of happiness: “A marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences seems to me reckless to the point of insanity. You can hurt one another so dreadfully.”

On one level, this is a familiar problem. Harriet is a professional writer and an independent woman; can she nevertheless marry and ‘have it all’, to use an anachronistic phrase? If the books stayed on this level, they might be interesting, but they wouldn’t have the compelling power that turns readers into devotees. Instead, Sayers lifts the lid of the problem and shows us the strange human mechanisms working underneath. She does this in a brilliant series of moves that prevent Peter and Harriet from being “Everyman” and “Everywoman” acting out a standard script of gendered power.

300x300Partly this is a result of Peter’s character. Unlike Harriet, he’s never an individualist. In the very first Wimsey novel, Whose Body? (1923), Peter divines the identity and motive of the murderer in a late-night session alone in his library. But the process so unmoors him that his shell-shock is reactivated; he wakes up his faithful valet and former Army comrade Bunter in the midst of a hallucinatory flashback. The next day, blank and drained, he’s bundled off for a weekend in the country by his mother and Bunter, leaving the next stages of the case to his Scotland Yard friend Parker. In an ending sequence shadowed by trauma, friendship and love are the bulwarks against despair and self-destruction. Where Dr. Watson is Sherlock Holmes’s foil and straight man, Bunter and Parker are Wimsey’s mainstays and anchors.

So it’s not surprising that it’s Peter who first falls for Harriet, Peter who instantly proposes all manner of connection, Peter who is bewildered by Harriet’s need for distance following her own traumatic experience. For Peter, salvation has always been through connection. The problem, though, is that the sort of connection Harriet and Peter would require is no easy thing. In Strong Poison (1930) he falls in love from afar, watching her testify while on trial for the murder of her lover, and comes crashing confidently forward. But his precipitous proposal is rebuffed with Harriet’s deathless reply: “Oh, are you another of them? That makes forty-seven.” Made notorious by her trial, she’s become the target of bizarre attention, like so many women in the public eye. And so Harriet, despite her imprisonment, is no princess in a tower. In classic babbling fashion, Peter immediately seeks to reassure Harriet that he, too, is no typical sexist:

“I wish you wouldn’t sound as though you thought it was rather funny. I know I’ve got a silly face, but I can’t help that. As a matter of fact, I’d like somebody I could talk sensibly to, who would make life interesting. And I could give you a lot of plots for your books, if that’s any inducement.”

“But you wouldn’t want a wife who wrote books, would you?”

“But I should; it would be great fun. So much more interesting than the ordinary kind that is only keen on clothes and people. Though, of course, clothes and people are all right too, in moderation. I don’t mean to say I object to clothes.”

Well, alright, then. It’s a clear enough statement of the basic feminist principle that animates Gaudy Night, too: a woman must be permitted to pursue something other than the work of supporting her husband’s endeavors. But it’s hardly a satisfying exchange. For one thing, Harriet is literally imprisoned; for another, Peter’s reference to ‘the ordinary kind’ of wife interested only in clothes and people is still a bit dismissive of women in general. And perhaps most of all, it’s entirely about what Peter wants: though he offers ‘plots for your books,’ it’s plain he hasn’t yet thought at all about what the world might look like from Harriet’s perspective.

My sweetheart and I fell in love as teenagers. Are there any greater egotists than teenagers? There’s something miraculous about teenage love. There you are, at the height of absolutely crucial self-centeredness, the ego-engine that’s going to propel you into adulthood, and you are also jumping right into romantic love, which at its core demands a partial surrender of ego and the profound, sincere attention to another person’s point of view. Being in love at sixteen boils the struggle of intimate love, the balance between self and other, down to its purest essence. And being in love and in the closet at sixteen only adds the vertiginous sense that there is nothing, really, but self and desire, in infinite recursion.

It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that, through Peter’s dogged investigation, Harriet is not hanged for murder at the end of Strong Poison. This brings us to the next of Sayers’s brilliant moves. Rather than having Peter and Harriet merely rehearse issues of gendered power imbalances, Sayers displaces the imbalance onto another issue entirely: the circumstances of the start of their relationship. In another prison interview, Harriet pleads with Peter not to propose marriage again, and he backs off: “I won’t worry you. Not fair. Abusing my privilege and so on. You can’t say ‘Pig’ and sweep out, under the circs., so I won’t offend again.” The prison regulations stand in for the restrictions of patriarchal society here. Released after her acquittal, Harriet doesn’t fall into Peter’s arms. Instead, she’s greeted by her two best friends, Eiluned and Sylvia, who explain that Peter is far too decent to impose himself on Harriet at this juncture. It’s a potent bit of realism and a reminder that, even while narrating a love story, Sayers continues to recognize the significance of friendship and of female community.

So Peter has saved Harriet’s life: must her gratitude, now, overshadow everything else between them? How can they embark as equals, if she owes her very life to him, to his intelligence, his influence and his power? Five years elapse between Strong Poison and Gaudy Night, mirroring the gap in publication. In between, Sayers wrote three full Wimsey novels, only one of which, the spiny, argumentative Have His Carcase (1932), featured Harriet Vane. Murder Must Advertise (1933) makes only a single coy allusion to Wimsey’s private life, while The Nine Tailors (1934) retains its focus entirely on the mystery unfolding in the watery fens. It’s surely not accident that these are two of Sayers’s best novels. I imagine her spinning these tales while at the same time slowing down to work out what a genuine relationship between two characters endowed with ‘independent and equally irritable intelligences’ might look like.

have_his_carcaseIn Have His Carcase, Harriet finds herself in another awkward position, this time as a result of discovering a corpse on the beach while on a walking holiday (a far better remedy for a bruised heart, Sayers remarks, than “repose upon a manly bosom”). Once again, Peter swoops in to sort things out. There are some sweetly romantic moments as Peter and Harriet work together to solve the mystery, but their interactions are repeatedly poisoned by the recollection that Harriet owes something to Peter—that, indeed, his presence is due to Harriet’s needing saving yet again, this time from negative publicity at being associated with yet another possible murder. As Harriet puts it: “Of course everybody will say, ‘Look at what he did for that woman—isn’t it marvellous of him!’ Isn’t that nice for you? … I suppose every man thinks he’s only got to go on being superior and any woman will come tumbling into his arms. It’s disgusting.”

By transferring the power imbalance in this way, Sayers disables her readers’ preconceptions. We must confront this dilemma as the particular human problem than it is, rather than having it already freighted with all of our own notions about gender roles. Harriet and Peter must navigate an uneven topography, but they do it as two people, rather than as a Man and a Woman. Sayers explained her approach in the wonderful essay “Are Women Human?”, which describes, in part, her answer to a man who asked how she possibly managed to write such convincing dialogue between men.

I replied that I had coped with this difficult problem by making my men talk, as far as possible, like ordinary human beings. This aspect of the matter seemed to surprise the other speaker; he said no more, but took it away to chew it over. One of these days it may quite likely occur to him that women, as well as men, when left to ourselves, talk very much like human beings also.

They think like human beings, too, which brings me to another way Sayers subverts the traditional gender narrative. The conflict thus far has been framed as brain versus heart, but it’s also, of course, mind versus body. Extraordinarily, Harriet is identified with the mind, and Peter with the body. If you’ve read the novels, ask yourself quickly: what does Peter look like? How about Harriet? The first question is much easier to answer, and not just because he features in more of the novels than she does.

The Wimsey/Vane novels revel in the straight female gaze, commenting at length on Peter’s appearance and only glancingly on Harriet’s. In their first meeting, despite having just deprecated wives who think only of clothes, Peter displays a rather girlish anxiety to be pleasing in appearance: “Any minor alterations, like parting the old man, or growing a toothbrush, or cashiering the eye-glass, you know, I should be happy to undertake, if it suited your ideas. … I’ll come in a different set of garments each time, so as to give you a good all-round idea of the subject.” In Have His Carcase, Peter’s deep knowledge of the finer points of masculine attire and grooming, including an extremely exclusive barbershop, are pivotal to the solution of the mystery. When they go swimming together, Harriet appraises Peter’s body coolly.

“And he strips better than I should have expected,’ she admitted candidly to herself. ‘Better shoulders than I realised, and, thank Heaven, calves to his legs.” Wimsey, who was rather proud of his figure, would hardly have been flattered could he have heard this modified rapture, but for the moment he was happily unconcerned about himself.

The examples could be multiplied: whether it’s his straw-colored hair, his unfortunate nose, or his elegant hands, Peter’s looks are fair game for all sorts of use in the novels, while Harriet remains supremely unobjectified, an intellect and a spirit whose physical appearance is more or less irrelevant. On the rare occasions when Harriet’s looks are described, it’s usually in the terms offered by Peter’s mother: “so interesting and a really remarkable face, though perhaps not strictly good-looking, and all the more interesting for that, because good-looking people are so often cows.”

One of the pleasures of detective novels is that they offer a portal into an improved world. It’s a recognizable, realistic world, but the mystery is solved and the heroes are never in really mortal danger; the train timetables and alibis might be complicated, but the moral compass is generally less complex than in real life. Lord Peter Wimsey offers us a world of rare books, black-and-primrose libraries, and endless care from a butler who makes splendid coffee and draws hot baths in the morning. This is a world where things really are cricket, or at least they end up that way. And here, Peter’s body is the one on display, and the relationship proceeds at Harriet’s pleasure.

But ultimately Sayers is describing the real world, or something close to it, not writing feminist utopian fiction. (Though it’s tempting to fantasize about what she might have written in that vein, as a kind of counterbalance to Margaret Atwood’s dystopias.) Even though the narrative structure deflects our attention onto other sources of power imbalance, Peter and Harriet still move through a gendered world. Indeed, at times they seem to be haunted by the very gendered stereotypes that they’re both trying to transcend.

Sayers loves doubling: Harriet herself is Sayers’s own double, the vehicle for many a humorous aside on the foibles of life as a detective novelist. But she creates a variety of alter-egos, or perhaps Jungian shadoow-selves, for her characters, too. In Have His Carcase, Peter and Harriet are shadowed by the hateful Mr. Weldon, “a gentleman-farmer, who was not quite a gentleman and not much of a farmer.” The brawny, chauvinist, stupid Weldon is the opposite of the brainy, feminist, intelligent Wimsey, yet he threatens to supplant him. First, in the obvious way: Harriet affects a flirtation with Weldon (for detective purposes, of course), and Weldon gets the kiss that a reader might have expected would be Wimsey’s. For Weldon, Harriet produces “a latent strain of sweet womanliness” quite at odds with the “curious inhibitions which caused her to be abrupt, harsh, and irritating with Lord Peter.” In fact, she and Weldon even laugh at Peter together—his affectations, his famous monocle:

“Oh!” Harriet wriggled her shoulders. “If you mean Lord Peter—he’s all right, of course, but he’s a little—you know what I mean.”

“La-di-dah!” said Mr. Weldon. “What’s he want to wear that silly thing in his eye for?”

“That’s just what I feel. It isn’t manly, is it?”

But even more interesting, Weldon also seems to affect Wimsey, transforming him, briefly, into exactly what he loathes. Quizzing Weldon later in the book Wimsey rebukes him for calling Harriet a “little hussy”:

“Manners, please!” said Wimsey. “You will kindly refer to Miss Vane in a proper way and spare me the boring nuisance of pushing your teeth out at the back of your neck.”

“Oh, all right, just as you like. But I’d like to see you try.”

“You wouldn’t see it. It would happen, that’s all. But I’ve no time to waste in comparative physiology.”

It’s something out of a macho spy novel or adventure tale, James Bond avant la lettre. Has he been reading too much Rider Haggard? As satisfying as it is, in one way, to see Harriet’s honor defended, Peter’s threat is as ludicrous as Harriet’s wriggle.

Analyzing the dynamic between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the classic film Adam’s Rib (1949), Michael Wood writes of Tracy: “He was always going to win, sooner or later. That is what gendered power is about.” As a child I remember hating the movie, with its ritual scenes of putting Hepburn back in her place. Yet as an adult I found myself on the opposite side of the equation. My butch masculinity causes me plenty of trouble and occasional terrifying moments, but it also gives me enormous privilege. I don’t know which street corners are bad for sexual harassment until my partner tells me; my expertise is overrated and hers is undervalued; my shoes are warm and comfortable and my graying hair earns me jokes about becoming a ‘silver fox’, not recommendations for colorists.


Like many of our friends, we have a partnership that is homosexual but heterogendered. There is no magic pass to a world free of misogyny; in our world, the landscape of gender is the landscape of power. It used to be fashionable to accuse butch-femme couples of ‘aping’ heterosexuality. (I trust it is no longer fashionable to do so, though maybe I just hang out with better folks now.) I love Harriet and Peter for capturing the way that we all end up ‘aping’ our genders. Trying to relate as gendered human beings, they ditch again and again into being parodies of themselves—not only in the Weldon subplot in Have His Carcase, but also in connection with Reggie Pomfret in Gaudy Night. It is very pleasant to dance together, she in a claret dress of my choosing, my arms around her; as Harriet and Peter know, these are erotic identities.

It’s easy to assume that Peter will ‘win’, just as Spencer Tracy did in Adam’s Rib. He does win Harriet’s hand, but only by not ‘winning’ in the traditional sense. As my partner put it in her comments on this essay, “the radical bit is how he doesn’t do it—he works himself over into consciously giving up that privilege.” Sayers enacts, not the ritual humiliation of a woman, but a remaking of masculinity that allows us to envision a marriage of equal intelligences and different genders in an unequal world. In Gaudy Night, Peter admits that his initial proposal smacked of entitlement. In the intervening five years, he has been forced to undertake the work of setting aside his own ego and coming to understand the world from the perspective of his beloved. When Harriet and Peter first dine together again at the start of Gaudy Night, Peter is literally bandaged around the heart; having cracked his ribs, he is unable to retrieve what Harriet has dropped at the dinner table. What better metaphor could there be for the need to restrain the egotism of love and allow the beloved the space to remain an autonomous being? Suffering, in other words, has improved Peter Wimsey.

The romantic climax of Gaudy Night happens, of course, in a punt on the river.

“Would you now prefer to be independent and take the pole? I admit it is better fun to punt than to be punted, and that a desire to have all the fun is nine-tenths of the law of chivalry.”

“Is it possible you have a just and generous mind? I will not be outdone in generosity. I will sit like a perfect lady and watch you do the work. It’s nice to see things well done.”

“If you say that, I shall get conceited and do something silly.”

He was, in fact, a pretty punter to watch, easy in action and quite remarkably quick.

And just like that, Sayers tugs at the knots of gender, power, and inequality, and they come loose. Honesty and a competition for generosity make a reasonable recipe for interpersonal happiness. And Harriet, though playing the ‘perfect lady’, is no passive object of desire, but the consumer of her pretty punter: balance through subversion.

We got married, for the first time, before it was legal. (Like many queer people, we’ve married each other a few times now, once you add in the domestic partnership and the legal form-signing.) We didn’t write our own vows; we took them, with minor adaptations, from the Book of Common Prayer. In an old-fashioned Unitarian sanctuary in Boston, I said: “With this ring I thee wed; with my body I thee worship; with my worldly goods I thee endow.” I still love the layers of meaning in this line: symbolic unity, sex, and practicalities. We were young, and we wanted to build a bulwark against the world. What I didn’t know was that being married (or being in an intimate, long-term relationship) would change me so profoundly. In her excellent biography of Samuel Pepys, The Unequalled Self (2002), Claire Tomalin writes about Pepys’s wife, Elizabeth, as one of the pieces of “grit” that caused him to produce his pearl, the great diary. Marrying a beloved seems like a consummation of desire, but it’s also, and perhaps more centrally, an embarkation on a journey that will forever change both parties. I have altered my life’s trajectory, again and again, to fit her evolving dreams and desires, and she has done the same; I have expanded my imagination to make space for her perspective, and in the process my own sense of self has been reshaped into something more grounded and empathetic. We are individuals, as Harriet knew, but we are formed and sustained in relationship, as Peter always sensed.

After their first meeting, in the prison in Strong Poison, Peter fantasizes about marriage: “one would wake up and there’d be a whole day for jolly things to happen in—and then one would come home and go to bed—that would be jolly, too—and while she was writing, I could go out and mess round, so we shouldn’t either of us be dull…” As the reader of the last Wimsey-Vane novel, Busman’s Honeymoon: A Love Story with Detective Interruptions (1937) learns, it’s just like that, with more misunderstandings, compromises, chimney sweeps, unexpected guests, social obligations, and personal transformation. And it’s always polyphonic.

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