He slipped away along the gallery and was gone. Harriet was left to survey the kingdom of the mind, glittering from Merton to Bodley, from Carfax to Magdalen Tower. But her eyes were on one slight figure that crossed the cobbled square, walking lightly under the shadow of St. Mary’s into the High. All the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them.
–Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night, Chapter XXIII, 1936.
…Harriet; I have nothing much in the way of religion, or even morality, but I do recognize a code of behavior of sorts. I do know that the worst sin–perhaps the only sin–passion can commit, is to be joyless. It must lie down with laughter or make its bed in hell–there is no middle way.
Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L. Sayers, “Gaudy Night”
Harriet Vane, P (While driving or in/around a car)
The saga of Harriet and Peter and cars is something I couldn’t resist adding to; thanks for the prompt! (List here.)
“Don’t growl, Peter dearest,” said Harriet Wimsey, without taking her eyes from the road.
“Mmmm,” returned his lordship. His wife decided to interpret the noise charitably. For some time they proceeded in silence, Mrs. Merdle humming with her customary dignity.
“You’re very fortunate, you know,” added Harriet, navigating a bridge that had not been designed for automobiles, let alone for those of Mrs. Merdle’s magnificence.
“Mmmm,” said Peter Wimsey again, and clarified the remark with: “In the quality of my wife, or that of my car?”
“In neither,” said Harriet firmly, and ground the gear lever. “That is, in both – that is, oh damn! Sorry,” she added contritely, resuming her entente cordiale with the Daimler.
“What I meant,” said Harriet, “is that I know you hate being driven, but if you growl at me I will have us over in a ditch, and dent things, and probably break your other arm, and then you’ll be sorry.”
“Do you know,” said his lordship musingly, “I think the boys have had a deleterious effect on your vocabulary. But it’s all right; I’ve as many lives as a cat, and the utmost confidence in your driving, though it be not as the driving of Jehu, the son of Nimshi.”
“Idiot,” said Harriet. “And cats don’t go chasing after dangerous criminals in the autumn of their days.”
“Season of mists,” returned Peter indignantly, “and mellow fruitfulness. Close bosom friend of the maturing sun, conspiring with him how – ”
“It’s the conspiring,” said Harriet darkly, “that worries me.” After a few minutes’ silence and a roundabout, she added: “I was afraid for you, Peter.”
“How very conjugal of you, Harriet!”
“Yours to command – ow!”
“And don’t try to kiss my hand while I’m driving. It’s bad for you. And very distracting.” Glancing over at him, she was relieved to note that the lines around his mouth had lost their pinched whiteness. “You may,” said Harriet, “quote Keats at me, if you like.”
“Oh good,” said her husband. “Away! away! for I will fly to thee, not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, but on the viewless wings of Poesy, though the dull brain perplexes and retards: Already with thee! tender is the night…”
One First of April, the question had arrived from Paris in a single Latin sentence, starting off dispiritedly. “Num…?”- a particular which notoriously “expects the answer No.” Harriet, rummaging the Grammar book for “polite negatives,” replied, still more briefly, “Benigne.”
Yesterday I attempted this scribble of one of my favorite literary couples, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. My husband thought it was supposed to be a portrait of him and me in the 1920s. I enjoy either interpretation.
Ruth Negga is my current favourite potential Harriet - she’s very very subtle (brittle irony no problem) and has got the necessary sort of ‘aura of power’.
Rocks short hair amazingly? Check. Dark eyes? Check. The ability to convey oceans of suppressed ideas and emotions through clipped dialogue and a low-key, put-together demeanour? Check. Ms Negga is a very strong contender.
“Harriet,” he said, suddenly, “what do you think about life? I mean, do you find it good on the whole? Worth living?” […]
She turned to him with a quick readiness, as though here was the opportunity to say something she had been wanting to say for a long time:
“Yes! I’ve always felt absolutely certain it was good—if only one could get it straightened out. I’ve hated almost everything that ever happened to me, but I knew all the time it was just things that were wrong, not everything. Even when I felt most awful I never thought of killing myself or wanting to die—only of somehow getting out of the mess and starting again.”
Philip wasn’t the sort of man to make a friend of a woman. He wanted devotion. I gave him that. I did, you know. But I couldn’t stand being made a fool of. I couldn’t stand being put on probation, like an office-boy, to see if I was good enough to be condescended to. I quite thought he was honest when he said he didn’t believe in marriage – and then it turned out that it was a test, to see whether my devotion was abject enough. Well, it wasn’t. I didn’t like having matrimony offered as a bad-conduct prize.
She’s got a sense of humour too - one wouldn’t be dull - 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 -
Peter & Harriet: character sketches from Busman's Honeymoon
It is unknown whether the following descriptions, taken from a manuscript found among Sayers’s papers, were intended for casting the play Busman’s Honeymoon, or aiding the actors once cast; in any case they are rather better suited to being read.
Peter will be 45 next birthday; & though his small bones, whippy figure & fair colouring give him a deceptive appearance of youth, his face, in its rare moments of repose is beginning ot show the marks set there by time & experience. At first sight one would say that the lines of brow & chin ran back rather alarmingly; but this, too, is largely an illusion, due to the dominance of the high, beaked nose which is, one feels, a tradition handed down from the Norman Conquest or thereabouts & somewhat exaggerated in the transmission. The steadiness of the grey eyes & long, humorous mouth is reassuring, & there is certainly no lack of physical health or vitality; yet the acuteness of the facial angle, the silvery pallor of hair & skin, the slight droop of the eyelids, the sensitive & restless hands, & above all a certain nervous tautness of gesture & carriage—these signs perhaps convey a warning that the family blood will not stand very much more of this kind of thing, & that in marrying a commoner he has shown no more than a proper consideration for posterity. HIs social poise is inborn; but his emotional balance appears to be rather a matter of discipline applied partly from within & partly by training and circumstances; his outbursts of inconsequential gaiety are the compensation for the exercise of a rigid control in other directions. A natural sweetness of disposition, allied to a freakish sense of humour & assisted by a highly-civilized upbringing, makes him easy enough to get on with, but to get within his guard is difficult. The light, high, over-bred voice is his own; but the drawl, like the monocle, is part of the comedian’s make-up which he can & does put off when he is in earnest. Being above the necessity for standing upon his dignity, he is ready enough to play the fool if it suits his whim or his purpose—a fact which some people find disconcerting. To the villagers, however, he presents no problems; they recognize him at once as a hereditary ruler & are not embarrassed by his eccentricities, which are exactly what they would expect from a gentleman of his condition. Nor does he hold any surprises for Bunter, who has known him from his teeth to his toe-nails for twenty years. How far Bunter has it in him to surprise Peter is a matter for infinite conjecture.
Harriet is 30 years old, tall, strongly-made and rigorous in speech, movement & colouring. She has dark hair & eyes & a skin like honey; her face has more character than beauty, but the older she grows the handsomer she will become. Her first meeting with Peter took place under painful circumstances, & his courtship of her has been a prolonged & patient fight against a set of stubborn inhibitions. Past unhappiness has matured but not tamed her; she has not learnt, & never will learn, self-discipline as Peter has learnt it. What she has got & what he loves her for, is an immense intellectual sincerity. She will commit endless errors of judgment & hold to them in the face of any emotional attack; but if her reason can be persuaded, she will admit the error freely & without rancor. It is evident that she will never be happy unless her passions & her reason can march side by side; & she is lucky to have found a man honest and unselfish enough to refrain from using her heart as a weapon against her conscience. Indeed, in this respect he is the more vulnerable, & it is her honesty that will prevent him from turning the same weapon against himself. The fact that they both have the same educational background is probably a considerable factor in the establishment of a common understanding; & though you might think that they are the last people who should ever have married one another, Oxford will in the end be justified of her children.
We may sympathize with this curiously-assorted couple over the disturbances attending their honeymoon. Peter, in particular, see-sawing between emotional & intellectual excitement, may be excused for a variability of mood lacking in that repose which marks the caste of Vere de Vere. At the opening of the play, both of them are rather absurdly astonished to find themselves happy. This is not the kind of treatment to which life has accustomed them; consequently, when the upheavals begin, they are less disconcerted than younger & less experienced people would be under such distressing circumstances. This, after all, is life as they have always known it—one damned thing after another—& they are able to preserve a sense of humour & proportion which, all things considered, is highly creditable to both of them.
Reproduced in Love All & Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers, edited by Alzina Stone Dale