History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

04 November 2009

The Influence of Dorothy Sayers and Peter & Harriet

The great discussion following my recent blog on The Scarlet Pimpernel inspired me blog about another series of books that have had a huge influence on me as a writer and on my Charles & Mélanie books in particular. Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey series, particularly the books featuring Peter and Harriet Vane.

My mom introduced me to British “Golden Age” (twenties and thirties) mysteries when I was a teenager. They became some of my favorite books. In particular, those with an ongoing love story/marriage that unfolded across various books–Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion and Amanda Fitton, Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn and Agatha Troy, and above all Dorothy Sayers’s Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Typically for me, I read the books completey out of order. I started with Have His Carcase, the second of the four full books featuring Harriet which Sayers wrote (there have since been two continuations written by Jill Paton Walsh). I knew they ended up together, but I so wanted to read more. It was a Sunday, so the library wasn’t open. I still remember how sweet my father was, driving me to a bookstore that day where the only book I could find was the fourth, Busman’s Honeymoon. Then I read Strong Poison, where Peter and Harriet meet (Harriet is on trial for murdering her lover), and finally Gaudy Night.

There’s so much I love in these books. The finely drawn characterization. The interplay between the mysteries and the developing love story stretched out over multiple books. The nuanced look at the development of a relationship (which doesn’t stop evolving with marriage). The difficulties, particularly for a woman, of maintaining your own identity in a relationship. The risk of trusting and letting down emotional barriers. The wit and passion of the two main characters. The emotions which are all the more intense for being kept in careful restraint for so long. Strong Poison starts sets up Peter and Harriet and their emotional conflict perfectly. Have His Carcase is a wonderfully intricate mystery (probably my favorite of the four as a mystery) while at the same time revealing more layers to both Peter and Harriet and moving the relationship along. Gaudy Night is one of my all time favorite love stories. Purely as a mystery it’s not my favorite, but the thematic interplay of the mystery and the love story is brilliant and the character development is fascinating. Busman’s Honeymoon is a wonderful look at a developing marriage, by turns funny, wrenching, and heart-stoppingly romantic, and also a great study of the darker side of investigating a murder and proving someone guilty.

I’ve always loved romantic detective partnerships. And I find they offer wonderful scope for developing a story. The twists and turns of the mystery can echo the twists and turns of the relationship, the theme of the mystery can echo the theme of the issues the hero and heroine are confronting. The same elements that have me rereading the Peter and Harriet books have me rewatching episodes of The X-Files to analyze Mulder and Scully’s evolving relationship.

Of course Dorothy Sayers has been a huge influence on me as a writer. There’s a code-breaking scene in Secrets of a Lady that’s an homage to the wonderful code-breaking scene in Have His Carcase. And I started Beneath a Silent Moon with an image of the final scene between Charles and Mélanie, which was inspired by the final scene between Peter and Harriet in Busman’s Honeymoon.

Who else is a Sayers fan? (I know Lauren is, because we've talked about the books.) Writers, what books that particularly inspired you as a writer? Readers, what books have helped form your reading habits? And am I the only one who reads series hopelessly out of order?

Labels: , , ,


Blogger Tasha Alexander said...

Tracy, great post!

I adore Sayers--and it was reading GAUDY NIGHT that finally got me to stop saying I wanted to be a writer and finally sit down and write something.

I love the nuances of the relationship between Harriet and Peter. Sayers manages to address difficult women's issues (particularly in GAUDY NIGHT) without sacrificing the mystery.

And BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON--the scene where they finally get to bed? Best. Sex. Scene. Ever. And this despite there being no description, no discussion of what they're doing. Harriet calls him "My lord" (something ordinarily she'd never do), and he says, "...before I'm done I mean to be king and emperor." Sayers nails getting us to feel exactly what she wants us to feel in that moment by letting our imaginations fill in the blanks. Brilliantly done!

3:37 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Excellent post, Tracy! I have to confess that I have never read Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novels, though I was a fan of the BBC mystery series. For the past 20+ years her books have remained in my mental TRB pile. One day there will be world enough and time! :)

Between your post and Tasha's comment I'm tempted to shove aside my ROYAL PAINS research and just curl up with a Sayers' detective novel.

Tracy, you really nail the male/female partnership dynamic in your novels and I always love stories where the protagonists are partners in their professional and personal lives. That atmosphere can be rife with so much complexity and you mine that ore with such skill with Charles and Melanie (imagine the accent aigu!). A few years ago I created a pair of post-war (1947) ex-spouses in a mystery series set in NYC during the years when Stork Club patrons rubbed elbows with the denizens of Hell's Kitchen. I wrote the first of what I planned to be a trilogy, but it was my training wheels in mystery writing. Some day (probably the same day I crack the spine on a Sayers novel) I'll dig the ms. out of the desk drawer (or hard drive) and re-examine it to see what's worth salvaging and revising. It was the relationship between my ex-spouse detectives that spurred me to write the story in the first place, and that hasn't ceased to fascinate me.

4:21 AM  
Anonymous Lynn Spencer said...

Wonderful post! I love these novels, too, especially Gaudy Night. Sayers does such a good job of layering on the suspense in her books while still managing to keep the love story impossibly romantic. I didn't realize that you had Peter and Harriet in mind while writing your Charles and Melanie Fraser books, but now that you mention it, I can see where the dynamic between the one couple could inspire the portrayal of the other's partnership.

BTW, I read series out of order, too. I try not to, but sometimes I'll get a really good book for review and then I have to go back and cobble together the rest of the series!

7:11 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Tracy, you put me on the trail of Sayer's wonderful Lord Peter books (how did I miss these?). I just started reading them last year. So far I've read them in order (just finished Strong Poison, but the fact that I could only get the first two as ebooks really annoyed me! I haven’t reached Busman’s Honeymoon yet, and the urge to skip ahead is killing me . . .

7:36 AM  
Anonymous Jane O said...

Much though I love Sayer's Lord Peter books, I have to say that when I read Gaudy Night 55 years ago, I found it — or more specifically, I found Harriet — infuriating. I may have been only 14 at the time, but I could look around me and see that what marriage was like depended entirely on the people who were married. If she thought marriage to Lord Peter would turn her into a browbeaten ninny who could no longer write books or engage in any sort of intellectually fulfilling activity, she was an idiot.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Tasha, it's so great to know you were inspired by Gaudy Night! And reading your books I'm not the least surprised. You do such a great job of building the relationship and dealing with women's issues while unraveling the mystery.

Totally agree about the sex scene in Busman's Honeymoon. No details, but between the bits of dialogue and the thoughts they both have afterwards, your imagination fills in enough to make it scorching. I also love the scene by the river in Oxford in Gaudy Night where Harriet starts being aware that "if she gave way to Peter she'd go up like straw."

9:20 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Leslie, do try reading the Sayers books--they are quite wonderful. And selfishly I want you to have the inspiration to go back to the 40s series about the ex-spouses which sounds *fabulous*! As you say, relationships between couples who work together offer such wonderfully rich fodder for the novelist.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Lynn, "layering on the suspense while still managing to keep the love story impossibly romantic" is a great way to put it. In fact the books are wonderfully layered in general, with the mystery, the love story, the character arcs, the issues about the position of women as Tasha said. Charles and Mel are very different people from Peter and Harriet, but the whole idea of two people from different backgrounds, both a bit gun shy emotionally, trying to make their relationship work while investigating crimes was definitely a big part of my inspiration.

Glad you read series out of order sometimes too! I also read the early books in Laurie King's Mary Russell series (a series that has wonderful parallels to the Sayers book) completely out of order, starting with the fourth.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Oh, Kalen, I'm so glad you found these books! I wouldn't worry about skipping around if you want to (but then I'm also a hopeless end-reader). In particular, I think it would work fine to read the four Peter & Harriet books in order and skip the non-Harriet ones for the time being. In fact, it probably makes it easier to follow the Peter and Harriet arc that way.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Jane, I've talked to other readers who find Harriet frustrating. She never frustrated me--she's one of my favorite heroines--I think because marriage was quite different then, socially and legally. I could understand Harriet's fear of losing her identity in marriage (though I agree, I never thought it would happen observing the characters from the outside). And given what she's been through, I think it makes sense that she has a lot of emotional scar tissue and isn't perhaps analyzing the situation with the most detached eye (who does when they're in love?).

9:35 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

The Sayers books are my all-time favorite romances. I began them out of order, but luckily, Strong Poison was my first Harriet, after which I was very, very careful to read them in order, while fairly sucking on the erotic bits tucked below the skin.

God I love brainy heroes who turn out to be sexual dynamos. Wedding night is nothing, imo, to lardons like those occasional supporting quotes from classy prostitutes (in French, bien sur) about the younger (cadet) son of the duc anglais comporting himself like a grand Turque in bed. Just confessing it (here among friends) brings out my inner 11-year-old romance-writing partner...

No wonder I almost always write younger sons.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

I too adore Dorothy Sayers! I have all of her books and I read them regularly. I even adore the Author's Notes at the beginning of Gaudy Night, where she discusses the liberties (and why!) she took with Oxford. I swear one day I'll quote her on my research page.

But I can see why Harriet was so afraid of yielding to Lord Peter. The earlier Lord Peter had a very polished social shell, which let nobody see what was going on inside. Having somebody like that approach her during a murder trial - well, she must have thought he was daft! And doubted herself for responding to him.

I've always felt sorry for Peter's older brother when he compares his son to Peter in terms of managing the succession, and wistfully realizes how much better Peter would have done.

Lovely thread here!

9:56 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

But I can see why Harriet was so afraid of yielding to Lord Peter.

I get it too, but I think this hesitation and the utter reasonableness behind it is one of the hardest things to convey to modern readers. If you know enough about history and the law and the tragedies that befell real people, it’s easy to understand why a woman might not want to marry (esp one who had some kind of independence and means of her own). But I’m sure all of us have heard (or have a friend who’s heard) “Why doesn’t she just get a job?” or “That’s a stupid reason for not marrying him.” when in fact the heroine’s motivations are utterly period and in view of the law utterly understandable. Explaining the intricacies of the law however isn’t something most of us want to undertake in our fiction.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I've always felt sorry for Peter's older brother when he compares his son to Peter in terms of managing the succession, and wistfully realizes how much better Peter would have done.

Ah, but the brother's son dies, Diane, in some later stuff Sayers wrote (I don't remember how I know this, but I do know that I followed all of this out once -- no doubt when I should have been writing).

So eventually (perhaps in some of her WW II vintage stories or radio shows or whatever), Peter and Harriet do become duke and duchess. (Though actually, I've got to say I think that's a little cold -- I liked Peter's nephew. So much so -- and so obsessive a Sayers reader was I -- that in The Slightest Provocation I named Kit's nephew after him.)

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Jane O said...

"But I can see why Harriet was so afraid of yielding to Lord Peter.

"I get it too, but I think this hesitation and the utter reasonableness behind it is one of the hardest things to convey to modern readers."

My problem has always been that Harriet and Lord Peter belong to my parent's generation. The marriages of them, their friends, their relatives all had very little to do with the inequities of the law. There wasn't a downtrodden, browbeaten wife among them, and there were quite a few wives holding down jobs. In short, their marriages were very little different from the marriages of young people I see today.
In the 1820s or 30s, "Why doesn't she just get a job?" is indeed an unreasonable question. By the 1920s or 30s, it is far more reasonable, and one that any of my aunts or great aunts would have asked.

11:34 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Pam, from your books I'm not at all surprised to know the Sayers books are favorites of yours too. I so agree that there are moments that are intensely erotic, despite the fact that there's nothing explicit. I still remember trying to translate Paul Delgardie's French with my schoolgirl French.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Diane, I think that sums up Harriet's hesitation very well. It takes several years and books for her to get beneath the surface with Peter and see that he's as vulnerable as he is. One of the delights of the books is both Harriet and Peter learning more about each other. To Harriet, I think, there's a real inequity in who needs whom more, which isn't really balanced until the end of Busman's Honeymoon.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Pam, I think Sayers mentioned in letters or something that she thought Gerry (the nephew) wouldn't survive the war. I agree that it's sad, because Gerry is a delightful character. And in some ways I prefer to think of Peter and Harriet going on with their lives and not being duke and duchess. But then I'm not sure I take authors' musings as "cannon."

11:55 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Jane, women did have more options in the 30s and working was more an option. But I do think for a number of couples the expectations were quite different from today, so personally I can understand Harriet's trepidation, on that account and also because of the difficulty getting beneath the surface with Peter that Diane brought up. I'd love to hear other people's takes on this.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm not sure that I entirely buy Harriet's long hesitation on its own terms. Certainly part of it is there for the pleasure of watching Peter try harder and still harder as he suffers through this courtship.

While another part of it was Sayers trying to say something about how Harriet's artsy-bohemian life and "new-woman" sexual relationship with Philip Boyce (was that his name?) had injured her -- this being an aspect of the deep cultural Toryism Sayers shared with Georgette Heyer and, I gather, quite a few other popular British writers between the wars.

More interesting to me, though, was how jealously Harriet cherished her status as an independent, university-educated female intellectual, which is explored at length in Gaudy Night, and which I've always enjoyed reading in tandem with Virginia Woolf's remarks on women an university education for women in A Room of One's Own.

12:51 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Pam, maybe it's my own biases, but I always thought Harriet's hesitation had more to do with her worrying about losing her autonomy as an independent, educated woman. There's that wonderful exchange she and Peter have toward the end of Gaudy Night about harmony versus counterpoint. The fear of losing oneself in a relationship isn't just a historical construct. It also runs through A.S. Byatt's Possession (another of my favorite books) for both the historical and the modern couple. Relationships are tricky, particularly for two independent, fiercely intelligent people who both have lots of emotional baggage. As Miss DeVine says to Harriet , "you can hurt each other so dreadfully."

1:55 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

[M]aybe it's my own biases, but I always thought Harriet's hesitation had more to do with her worrying about losing her autonomy as an independent, educated woman.

This was my take (she didn't seem at all damaged by her bohemian lifestyle and relationship to me), though my experience with the books is not as full as yours or Pam's. I think I'm going to have to get the next few books ASAP!

2:42 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

She was indeed damaged by the bohemian relationship, or felt herself to be. The man being weak, a twit, and (it is implied) not a gentleman about his own inadequacies in bed (and oh geez, I'm chagrined to realize that I used that one too for the first husband in Almost a Gentleman)

3:38 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Maybe I haven't got there yet, or maybe I just didn't get that. Not sure.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I think definitely Harriet thinks she's "damaged goods" in the eyes of society. I also think she feels gun shy about other relationships because that one was a bit of a disaster. He talks her into living with him, rather than getting married, as a matter of principle, and then turns around after a bit and proposes, and she decides it wasn't principles at all, he was just testing her before committing. And as Pam says it's definitely implied that he was less than adequate in bed. But to me it still read as though it was the fear of losing her autonomy that made her reluctant about marriage, with the fact that the other time she'd committed herself to someone it had been a disaster playing a major role in her reluctance to commit again. If that makes any sense!

4:50 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Ah, Tracy remembers the Philip Boyce thing much better than I do, and I agree: it's true that Harriet has no fears of Peter being the sort of twit Philip was. But it made such an impression on me, I guess, becaus of the rather nasty conservatism of the setup: Of course, the guy who urged Harriet to live in sin claimed principle but was really the unprincipled one (not to speak of lousy in bed), while (on the other hand) the guy who respects the traditions...

For all that I loved loved loved these books, I can't help see it as part and parcel of Sayers' veneration for tradition, hierarchy, religion -- contemporaneous not only with Heyer, but, say, T. S. Eliot.

And I guess that because I can see an author setting up an argument (or An Argument), this particular aspect rather overshadows the personal dynamic for me. (Though again, I love all the women's college stuff.)

7:26 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Totally agree, Pam--there are definite implications in the Bohemian radical being the unprincipled guy and the aristocrat being the hero (not to mention the better lover :-)). For me the fact that Philip is faux radical Bohemian softens it a bit, but it's still there. My mom warned me about those implications in the books, actually, at the same time telling me how much she loved them. But I do think, ultimately in the books, it's questions of autonomy that Harriet dwells on the most in her angsting about Peter and whether or not the relationship would work. That's what they focus as I recall in their scene before last in Gaudy Night, where they rehash the course of their relationship (and he apologizes for going about things the wrong way).

I also think there's an inherent inequity in their relationship because they meet when she's on trial for murder and he saves her life. I don't think the scales are completely balanced until the end of Busman's Honeymoon, when he can turn to her for comfort.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I find that so moving, Tracy, the way you and your mom read (and of course wrote) together. And yes, ultimately I agree with you about Peter and Harriet.

Except... what do you (and others) think of this, that I once read somewhere in a study of Sayers -- a critic's assertion that along the way of writing him the author fell in love with her hero, and ultimately married him to... herself?

The thought's been buzzing around my mind like a nasty little gnat for years now...

7:05 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Was the critic saying this of Sayers and Lord Peter, or of authoresses in general?

7:12 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Of Sayers and Lord Peter. Sorry if I didn't make that clear.

7:17 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

No, I think it was clear. My brain just shot off in the other direction . . .

11:08 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I've heard some critics say that, Pam, but I've never seen what all the fuss was about. I fall a little bit in love with every hero I write. And not just my heroines, but all my characters have a little bit of me in them (since they all came out of my head). There was almost certainly some of Sayers in Harriet, but I never had the sense that Harriet was her exactly. I'd love to hear other people's takes on this!

2:03 PM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

Here's Linda, coming in late as usual. I loved the Lord Peter mysteries, and especially the stories with Harriet. When I was a kid I was starved for stories about strong women who went their own way, took their lumps, and came up victorious. Too often, a woman who defied society's narrow definition of what was acceptable for a woman was beaten down and succumbed to society's pressure. And the book implied this was all right! This was the way life is supposed to be! Endings like that always angered me. Harriet wasn't like that. She not only survived, she thrived, and Peter loved her precisely because she was the way she was. Both a man and a woman after my own heart.

10:05 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Free Web Site Counter
Kennedy Western University Online