starlady: Peggy in her hat with her back turned under the SSR logo (agent carter)
[personal profile] starlady
I said when I started reading the Wimsey books that I was reading them explicitly by way of an obituary for the United Kingdom, for whatever it will be post Brexit is not what it was before, which admittedly has probably put a different spin on these books than many people bring to them, but which for me highlights the fact that Sayers is, by the era of MMA and T9T, cropping the action of the books very carefully, in a way that can't help but draw attention to what's going on outside the frame. I imagine her readers didn't need to be reminded, and frankly as a historian and a person with a heart and a brain in 2016 I don't need a reminder either. But by T9T, even for a book that is isolated and insular, things far outside England are shown to be on everyone's minds: Mussolini and the Showa Emperor are name-checked explicitly, and the much-maligned League of Nations is the subject of a running joke between Wimsey and the nameless sluice-gate keeper.

These explicit references to international politics also highlight the fact that the novel itself functions as something of a historical pivot. On the one hand, it is explicitly about bidding farewell to an earlier era of English history—Queen Elizabeth I (and at the time of this writing she was the only ruling queen of that name in British history, which is wild), Oliver Cromwell, and the Dutchmen who built the dikes and canals in the Fens, presumably after the Glorious Revolution which briefly united England and Holland, are all name-checked, the latter repeatedly. Queen Victoria also figures, via mentions of her Jubilee, as a historical personage for the first time, as opposed to just being a byword for the mores of her reign. The flood that inundates the Fens at the end of the book sweeps all these things away (and particularly the Dutch-built system of sluices and canals), and the allusion to the story of Noah and the Flood is also made explicit, both by Peter in a sing-song and also by other people describing him thus. And while the story of the Flood is usually spun hopefully—the rainbow is the sign of God's covenant that he won't do that again—the astute among us have long realized that promise means precisely jack. In the words of the folk song: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign:/No more water, but fire next time." In other words, the flood at the end of the book does not bring in a new kind of golden age; it simply signifies that what comes next will not be what came before.

I like to read the flood at the end this way because to me it ties in with another aspect of the book, which is its explicitly bidding farewell to WWI and looking forward to a very uncertain future. This is the first book since TUatBC in which WWI has rated more than a passing mention, and it's also the only book in which we get any description of the actual events of the war—significantly, those events are in fact the jewel-thief Cranton's description, second-hand, of the murderer Dawson's bad few days as a Tommy before he escaped the retreat over the Marne. Wimsey and his fellow veterans unfolded only a tiny bit of their war experiences in TUatBC, given the gap of comprehension between them and the club's senior members, and the person whose war experience we did hear a little bit about was also proven to be a fraudster in the course of that book. But T9T, in conflating the Great War and the era in civilization that it murdered, is deliberately bidding goodbye to all that—Dawson the murderer and ersatz veteran returns home to England and is himself killed in turn for his misdeeds, while the person who bears the most responsibility for his death dies while failing to rescue another man. Peter, meanwhile, is shown to be dealing with his wartime experiences; though he can't abide closed cars, he is able to pass over his own memories merely by observing that it's lucky that the ersatz Jean Legros can't remember his. Fifteen years after the war, it is put to rest at last—and none too soon, because there's a new one coming up behind.

Hilary Thorpe is a wonderful character in this respect, because she is, bluntly, identified with that rising conflict. Born in 1919, Peter predicts that she will make a splash in five years or so, when she's 20—or in other words, in 1939. Sayers can't have intended this, of course, but it's impossible to avoid this reading, because Hilary is one of the postwar generation upon whose growth to maturity politics had to wait: for as most historians and political scientists will tell you, it's no accident that WWII began precisely 21 years after the armistice that ended WWI, as everyone involved needed time to grow up another crop of young people to slaughter when they resumed hostilities.

There's another level on which I quite enjoy Hilary, to say nothing of her own merits, as she's pretty great, but in T9T we find again a doubling of Harriet and Peter just as we did with Mrs. NAME and Paul Alexis in HHC. Peter explicitly considers and rejects the idea of having become like Hilary's Uncle Edward, while Hilary herself—young, ambitious, an orphan and a new woman who wants to go to Oxford and to support herself by being a writer—clearly recalls Harriet even before she assists Wimsey in the case in this book. His prevailing on her to accept the Wilbraham estate and his explicitly telling her that being rich is enjoyable also augurs for his eventual success with Harriet. I'm also extremely tempted to assume that the French inspector pronounces his name, which Sayers renders as "Vainse," to sound like "Vane's."

All of which is part of why I don't quite agree with Sarah Monette's decision to call T9T a tragedy. It certainly has tragic elements, but it's much more about the end of a certain kind of golden age, or maybe in another light a story about finding out that Death (who is, of course, on one level Peter Wimsey) is in Arcadia too. It is, of course, a stupendous novel; the bell-ringing operates on so many levels at once, as both the thing itself and, via the chapter-titles, as an elaborate series of metaphors for the action, and also as the cypher, the key to the location of the stolen emeralds, and the means of the murder, if murder it be.

The emeralds, and the mention of Inspector Sugg early on in the book (and the contrast of Inspector Sugg's obstreperousness with the fact that Peter and Sugg's friend Blundell get along like a house on fire), are also a key telling us to look back at Peter and how far he's come since his early exploits in WB? and CoW, a decade and more ago. Peter of course first made his name as a detective in the affair of the Attenbury emeralds, which is alluded to but never actually described in the Sayers Wimsey efforts; his finding the Wilbraham emeralds, which have been hidden for nearly 20 years in the church, reflects back on his own personal history and his achievements in his chosen career. Note too that at the inquest, in which he gives evidence, his occupation is ostentatiously put down as "gentleman." But the metaphor of bell-ringing also explains some of the circularity in Peter's self-doubt, which he last faced so explicitly in UD, which bears comparison with T9T for the explicitly religious content and also for the question of the endings. In UD Peter sought advice from the rector of the church he was at; in T9T he eschews Mr. Venables' advice and instead winds up getting counsel from Hezekiah Lavender, the old man who rings Tailor Paul:

"Make righteousness your course bell, my lord, an' keep a-follerin' on her an' she'll see you through your changes till Death calls you to stand. Yew ain't no call to be afeard o' the bells if so be as yew follows righteousness."
   "Oh, quite," said Wimsey, a little embarrassed.
   He left Hezekiah and went into the church, stepping softly as though he feared to rouse up something from its sleep. Abbot Thomas was quiet in his tomb; the cherubim, open-eyed and open-mouthed, were absorbed in their everlasting contemplation; far over him he felt the patient watchfulness of the bells. (T9T, 308)

Between the medieval atmosphere and the constant invocation of Sherlock Holmes (never far from Wimsey, to be sure, but even more commonly mentioned in this book than in some of the others) I found myself thinking a little of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, which shares a somewhat similar concept on some levels: Sherlock Holmes the detective with the explicitly modern mindset dropped into an older world structured by religion. The Sherlock Holmes-Peter-God question that was brought up in UD is also revisited in T9T with a slightly different answer, when Peter tries to leave Fenchurch St. Paul:

"My dear boy," said the Rector, "it does not do for us to take too much thought for the morrow. It is better to follow the truth and leave the result in the hand of God. He can foresee where we cannot, because He knows all the facts."
   "And never has to argue ahead of His data, as Sherlock Holmes would say? Well, padre, I dare say you're right. Probably I'm tryin' to be too clever. That's me every time. I'm sorry to have made so much unpleasantness, anyhow. And I really would rather go away now. I've got that silly modern squeamishness that doesn't like watchin' people suffer. Thanks awfully for everything. Good-bye." (307)

I'm not quite sure that this passage is saying that God is a detective, but it surely comes close; another answer to the question of the proof of God and murder in UD, perhaps, which Peter failed to find. The by-now uncharacteristic dropping of Peter's gs is also something of a giveaway here, as is the very Victorian "unpleasantness," which of course directly recalls TUatBC and its concerns with a similar sort of decorum. Peter, in other words, is not being entirely true to himself, and it should not come as a surprise when Hilary (i.e. Harriet Jr.) gets him to come back to Fenchurch St. Paul for Christmas, which gives him the opportunity to be himself again, and also to comprehend the import of his own actions.

The bells' vaunted perspicacity, and their being unable to abide evil, to me also undercut what Monette identifies as a tragic element in the book, namely that Peter nearly shares Dawson's fate of being killed by them. Monette says this is random; I think it's less so if we consider that Dawson couldn't escape the bells because he was tied up for being a thief, a murderer, and a bigamist, whereas Peter is free to stagger up to the roof in the rain because he is, as Hezekiah correctly reminds him, a servant of righteousness and has not committed any such crimes or sins. It's only fitting that Peter's moral advice comes from Hezekiah, because there is also a resonance between the bell Paul and Peter himself, just as there was a resonance between Peter and Paul Alexis. There's also the equally circular fact that Peter and the other ringers' New Year's Eve peal is what kills Dawson, and Peter in his alliance with Death is already shown to have the capacity—the judgment—to send people to Death, most explicitly and cold-bloodedly in his chilling interview with Tallboy at the end of MMA. There is, in other words, a level at which the bell-ringing is also Peter's passing a righteous judgment on Dawson, because Peter's participation is what makes the peal possible, via Tailor Paul and company. In the midst of life we are in death; Peter's telling Bunter not to talk about hanged men on the day the novel opens, New Year's Eve 1932, is thus in retrospect a superb bit of dramatic irony. Peter setting the murder itself in motion is also a capstone to his increasing propensity to do things, starting in T5RH.

The bells are the subject of one of my three favorite passages in the book, when Peter goes to look around the bell tower:

Meditating thus, Wimsey let himself into the church, and, unlocking the door in the tower, made his way up the spiral stair. As he passed through the ringing-chamber, he noticed with a smile that a new board had made its appearance on the wall, announcing that: 'On New Year's morning, 19—, a Peal of 15,840 Kent Treble Bob Major was Rung in 9 hours and 15 minutes, the Ringers being: Treble, Ezra Wilderspin; 2, Peter D. B. Wimsey; 3, Walter Pratt; 4, Henry Gotobed; 5, Joseph Hinkins; 6, Alfred Donnington; 7, John P. Godfrey; Tenor, Hezekiah Lavender; Theodore Venables, Rector, assisting. Our Mouths shall shew forth Thy Praise.' He passed up through the great, bare clock-chamber, released the counter-poise and climbed again till he came out beneath the bells. There he stood for a moment, gazing up into their black mouths while his eyes grew accustomed to the semi-darkness. Presently their hooded silence oppressed him. A vague vertigo seized him. He felt as though they were slowly collapsing together and coming down upon him. Spell-bound, he spoke their names: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul. A soft and whispering echo seemed to start from the walls and die stealthily among the beams. Suddenly he shouted in a great voice: 'Tailor Paul!' and he must somehow have hit upon a harmonic of the scale, for a faint brazen note answered him, remote and menacing, from overhead. (256)

The Nine Tailors tells us repeatedly that the titular nine tailors are what makes a man; Peter has now had nine cases meriting novels, and we have followed him through his changes to what he is shown to be at the end of the novel: a fully human being who can pity even a rank scoundrel his unpleasant and lingering end. The contrast between his behavior at the end of MMA and T9T is instructive; in MMA, a book in which he explicitly spent most of it playing only carefully edited aspects of himself, he has no human feeling about sending Tallboy to his death. T9T also makes clear that he is at best ambivalent about his own position in society; the carefree, London-centered Lord Wimsey of the earlier books is no more. The first five novels all take place in and around the capital, with the quite consciously Golden Age-parody exception of CoW, which is of course mostly set in Riddlesdale; of the second five books, only one, MMA, is set in London, and there we see Peter at his least humane and most uncharacteristic. In T9T Peter "joyfully" cancels his social engagements in town to attend the inquest in Fenchurch St. Paul, and we are told that he explicitly hates spending Christmas at the family seat of Duke's Denver, which is what lands him in the flood on Boxing Day 1933. The picture we get of Peter, looking back, is that his twenties were dominated by the war, his thirties by his having lit upon the idea of becoming a detective (note the affectation of the specially made walking stick, which disappears entirely after HHC, while the monocle is also no longer a magnifying glass, but just a lens), and his forties by having finally managed to integrate all the aspects of his self and his experiences, beginning with T5RH in the summer of 1930. After nine tales, he is finally a complete man; as he tells Harriet in Gaudy Night, he has stopped running from himself.

Fittingly for this having come full circle, in T9T we see Bunter at his most character-like for a good long while; there's the business of doubling between him and Dawson (and him and Peter) that Monette points out, but there's also his wholly uncharacteristic interlude with Emily Holliday over the beer-bottle, which is so close to him almost having emotions over photography in WB? that it really does bear closer consideration. It's notable partly because it's a rare instance of Peter and Bunter's roles reversing—their relationship, which mostly involves Bunter taking care of Peter (recall that Paul Delagardie, who seems kind of like a creep tbh, says that Bunter and Honoria basically jointly put Peter back together back after the war, which says mothering to me), is here reversed, with Bunter having a rare attack of petulance (i.e. childishness) and Wimsey playing the adult for a change.

There is also the most explicit scene of equality between Wimsey and Bunter yet seen in the books, which provides us the occasion to observe that Sayers strategically lapses into dialog to avoid explicitly stating actions which might be somewhat improper.

"My family," observed Lord Peter, "have frequently accused me of being unrestrained and wanting in self-control. They little know me. Instead of opening the letter at once, I reserve it for Superintendent Blundell. Instead of rushing off at once to Superintendent Blundell, I remain quietly at Walbeach and eat roast mutton. It is true that the good Blundell is not at Leamholt today, so that nothing would be gained if I did rush back, but still—it just shows you. […] Can we deduce anything further from the envelope?"
   "If I may be allowed to say so, my lord, it is possibly a little remarkable that the name and address of the sender does not appear on the back."
   "That is well observed. Yes, Bunter, you may have full marks for that. […] No matter. This is very excellent port. Be good enough to finish the bottle, Bunter, because it would be a pity to waste it and if I have any more I shall be too sleepy to drive." (T9T, 194-97)

Peter's family doesn't know him, but Bunter does; in this sequence, in which they double each other at the post office, they both arrive at the same deductions almost in sync, and they top it off by sharing a bottle of port in easy camaraderie.
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