Dorothy Sayers wrote her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1931, in the title Strong Poison, she introduced his love interest Harriet Vane, writer of crime novels. Harriet was at the time on trial for the murder of her former lover. Of course Lord Peter uncovered the real culprit, but Harriet refuses his offers of marriage because she believes herself indebted to him and therefore the marriage wouldn’t work.
Over the next five years and four more novels, Lord Peter continued his pursuit. Finally, in Gaudy Night, in which Harriet stars, she accepts him. This title is one of my favourites.
Both Wimsey and Harriet are Oxford educated, as was Sayers herself, and this title is evocative of the cloistered life and the burgeoning romance as Harriet realises she loves her Lord and that marriage to him won’t ‘burn her up like straw’. It is also peppered with Latin phrases, which for those of us without a classical education can be frustrating. But it is the Latin that provides the wonderfully romantic and poignant ending where Harriet finally accepts him. While Harriet is struggling to provide the right tone for her answer Peter doffs his mortar board and says ‘placetne, magistra?’, to which Harriet replies ‘placet’.
And the translation:
‘It pleases, yes, mistress?’
This translation comes from Ellen Brundige, who has provided translations for all the Latin phrases in Gaudy Night. Well worth a look.
In the 1980s television series this scene was spoken in English for obvious reasons, and it loses some of its charm but only, I would imagine, for those who have read the book. Edward Petherbridge plays a very creditable and charming Lord Peter, resembling Sayers character closely in looks, manner and the upper class accent. Lord Peter Wimsey is no ordinary detective and Harriet Vane no ordinary writer of crime novels.
Following Gaudy Night comes Busman’s Honeymoon, The Attenbury Emeralds, A Presumption of Death and Thrones and Dominations, the last two very competently written by Jill Paton Walsh from Dorothy Sayers notes. These titles follow Lord and Lady Peter in their private lives and crime detection. They have more depth than most detective or romance stories, woven as they are in the context of the social and political changes between, during and after the Second World War in England. Sayers’ (and Walsh’s) touch is deft and subtle. These should be compulsory reading for romance writers and for writers who base their stories in this period of English history. Highly recommended. But don’t blame me if you fall in love with the absolutely delightful Peter Wimsey. Many other readers have done so according to the reviews on Goodreads.com