Thursday, March 10, 2011

Chilly, ain't it?

In a recent post ('Rue de la Paix') and accompanying comments, aspersions were cast on Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957). I highlighted what I saw as an anti-Semitic aside in one of her novels, and a scathing review by Edmund Wilson of a later novel was quoted in a comment.

I do not warm to Dorothy Sayers. She interests me only to the extent that any intellectually active figure of the time does. It is the period which fascinates me more than the individual. Sayers seems to have been an intelligent person with much energy and independence who (sadly to my way of thinking) was ensnared by religion, becoming in her later years an apologist for Christianity.

As a young women, however, she was (pace Wilson) a gifted writer with a quirky and interesting mind. Here are some extracts from one of the wittier passages of the novel Clouds of witness which Sayers wrote when she was in her early thirties. The book features Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayer's amateur sleuth, who manages to be at once extremely aggravating and - if you can look past the outmoded class perspective and linguistic mannerisms - rather funny. (Even likable at times.)

Wimsey makes his way to a farmhouse in the wilds of Yorkshire, past ...

... a stretch of rough, reedy tussocks, with slobbering black bog between them, in which anything heavier than a water-wagtail would speedily suffer change into a succession of little bubbles. Wimsey stooped for an empty sardine tin which lay, horribly battered, at his feet, and slung it idly into the quag. It struck the surface with a noise like a wet kiss, and vanished instantly. With that instinct which prompts one, when depressed, to wallow in every circumstance of gloom, Peter leaned sadly upon the hurdles and abandoned himself to a variety of shallow considerations upon (1) The vanity of human wishes; (2) Mutability; (3) First love; (4) The decay of idealism; (5) The aftermath of the Great War; (6) Birth control; and (7) The fallacy of free-will. This was his nadir, however ...

Continuing on his way, Wimsey reaches a farm gate:

A man was leaning over it, sucking a straw. He made no attempt to move at Wimsey's approach. 'Good evening,' said that nobleman in a sprightly manner, laying his hand upon the catch. 'Chilly, ain't it?'

The man made no reply, but leaned more heavily, and breathed. He wore a rough coat and breeches, and his leggings were covered with manure.

'Seasonable, of course, what?' said Peter. 'Good for the sheep, I daresay. Makes their wool curl, and so on.'

The man removed his straw and spat in the direction of Peter's right boot.

Wimsey finally gets the man to tell him the name of the man who lives in the house:

'Mester Grimethorpe.'

'No, does he now?' said Lord Peter. 'To think of that. Just the fellow I want to see. Model farmer, what? Where ever I go throughout the length and breadth of the North Riding I hear of Mr. Grimethorpe. "Grimethorpe's butter is the best"; "Grimethorpe's fleeces Never go to pieces"; "Grimethorpe's pork Melts on the fork"; "For Irish stews Take Grimethorpe's ewes"; "A tummy lined with Grimethorpe's beef, Never, never comes to grief". It has been my life's ambition to see Mr. Grimethorpe in the flesh. And you no doubt are his sturdy henchman and right-hand man. You leap from bed before the breaking day, To milk the kine amid the scented hay. You, when the shades of evening gather deep, Home from the mountain lead the mild-eyed sheep. You, by the ingle's red and welcoming blaze, Tell your sweet infants tales of olden days. A wonderful life, though a trifle monotonous p'raps in the winter ...

A certain anarchic energy, no?


  1. Yes, better than I had expected.

    Detective stories, I think, require an interest that has little to do with the plot, strictly speaking. They need an interesting setting and central characters who are alive irrespective of their role in the action.

    Thrillers, by contrast, rely on the action to do the work.

  2. Yes, Alan, I agree with what you say about detective stories.

    The writers (of whatever kind) I tend to like are those who share my general perspective on the world. (Bleak!!)

  3. A list of some of these writers would be interesting to see.

    For myself, bleakness is not appealing. I can't think of any writer I like for their capacity to convey bleakness. The most bleak novel I ever read was perhaps Sartre's "La Nausee", and I don't intend to read that again.

    I have just finished Trollope's "Phineas Finn", and I found its absence of bleakness no problem at all.

  4. There is bleak and bleak. Sartre I cannot abide. What about Chekhov-bleak?