Friday, September 28, 2018

Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers

So, things have been really busy around here. I will give a brief summary.

1. Watchers of Outremer! I've shared about Outremer several times before on this blog. Well...*drumroll* baby will finally see the light! Book 1, A Wind from the Wilderness, will release on October 29 and the cover, people, the cover is G O R G E O U S.



2. Sadness! One of the reasons I've been kind of busy lately is that there's been some illness in the family and that has taken up a lot of my time and energy, as you can imagine. A sister has been sick for several months, although we now have some good help and hope to see some recovery soon. Meanwhile, I have stepped in to help keep her business running. She sells lovely gemstone and sterling silver jewellery on Etsy, and if you would like to support her during this time you can see the shop here.

3. Podcasting! I'm still not quite sure how I got roped into this, but somehow I was volunteered to join with a bunch of other amazing women to start The Monstrous Regiment, a roundtable of Christian women tackling topics from singleness and calling to human trafficking and #MeToo. 

This is relevant to today's review because one of the first topics I proposed for the podcast was a discussion of the life and works of Dorothy Sayers. I read Gaudy Night earlier this year and found it so inspiring that I wanted to share it with everyone I could (which is really why I started this blog, anyway). I'd never researched Sayers' life and thought in any depth prior to this year, but the more of her books and essays I read, the more excited I became. Eventually, we'd dug up so much gold from her works that we were forced to split the material into two episodes, and you can listen to them here:

One of the books I read to prepare for these podcasts was Busman's Honeymoon, the last complete novel in her Lord Peter Wimsey series. The books are, of course, whodunits - but as I've been re-reading them this year, I've become convinced that they are by a significant margin the very best whodunits to come out of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. The only detection writer who even approaches Sayers would have to be Chesterton, and his works - delightful as they are - never quite approach the subtlety and maturity of Sayers' novels. As for Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey and the rest of them, they simply never approached this class. 

At her best, Sayers wrote marvellously complex plots featuring fully realised characters, often dealing with mature real-life scientific or social problems from campanology or cryptanalysis to the debates over women's education or the predicament of war veterans. Gaudy Night is probably her very best, but Busman's Honeymoon continues and completes many of the the discussions begun in that book.

Lord Peter Wimsey has finally convinced Harriet Vane to marry him, and after evading the attentions of officious family members, to say nothing of the Press, they whisk off to enjoy a quiet honeymoon in the Hertfordshire village where Harriet grew up. Everything goes wrong almost from the start - the previous owner of their newly-acquired farmhouse doesn't show up to let them in, the pantry is empty and the fires won't light. But things really go wrong when a body turns up in the cellar.

Adjusting to married life is already quite a challenge for the eccentric Peter and Harriet, but with their peace and quiet shattered by the intrusion of policemen, suspects, and corroded soot, they'll have to solve the problem of marriage at the same time as the problem of murder.

Sayers subtitled this book "A love story with detective interruptions" and that puts it rather neatly. The murder in this novel is as clever as always, but really takes a back seat to the new marriage and the demands it puts on the characters.

The book is, in tone, very much an epithalamium. If you're not familiar with the term, it's a lyric poetry form written to celebrate a marriage, and the most notable example in the English language is probably Edmund Spenser's wonderful 1595 ode written to his wife Elizabeth at their wedding, although the Song of Songs in the Bible is a much earlier example. Of course, Busman's Honeymoon isn't actually a poem - but it very much borrows from epthalamium not just in the subject matter and tone but also in the long passages in which Harriet and Peter trade songs and endearments. And of course, this was completely intentional on Dorothy Sayers' part.

In Gaudy Night, we saw Harriet coming to terms with the idea of marriage. This is really the book in which Peter must adapt to it. I enjoyed that the conflict in this book didn't involve the pair of them doubting their love for each other (as might happen if it was ever filmed) but figuring out how to live their lives and carry out their callings as equal partners in a whole new undertaking. There's a fine line between helping someone in their work and interfering with them in it, and that's the line Harriet has to walk with Peter. Meanwhile, Peter is bitterly disappointed that the idyllic honeymoon he wanted to provide has been derailed by (yet another) murder investigation. The temptation they both face - and this is deeply connected with Sayers' highly developed theology of work and calling - is to prioritise each other over their own duty. Peter, intoxicated by love, doesn't want his work getting in the way of his honeymoon. Harriet, who has fallen for Peter just as hard as he first fell for her, is eager to leave the village and the murder mystery behind if that's what Peter wants - but she can't help suspecting that that would be the worst thing she could do to him. 

"You married my work and me," Peter admits at the climactic scene of the novel, and the words are highly significant. As we see in Gaudy Night and many, many of her essays (including Are Women Human?) Sayers believed that one's calling was what defined one as a human being. Most people don't think of marriage as being a marriage of work and calling, and even those who might would almost never put work first, as Peter does: "my work and me". I believe this is a great insight. Vocation, calling, or just work - whatever you want to call it, it was part of the dominion/cultural mandate, the very first commandment ever given by God to man, even before the fall. It is pretty much what humans are for, and any time you impair a person's ability to serve in his own calling, you dehumanise him. Or her.

This is the intellectual underpinning beneath Busman's Honeymoon, and I loved seeing Sayers' vision for what must have been to her a near-ideal marriage unfold. For Dorothy Sayers, marriage was something that should be entered into only when it benefited one's calling. Marriage was a means to serving God, not an end in itself (Peter and Harriet are not convinced believers, but I think Sayers would argue that any good service is service rendered to God). And because God gives calling individually to every man and woman, there can be no debate over which of them is more important. Busman's Honeymoon paints a picture of marriage as a purposeful meeting of equals - and what better epithalamium could there be?

At the same time I was reading this "love story with detective interruptions", I was reading another more recently-written novel which turned out to be a romance novel thinly disguised as something else - I don't want to point fingers, but I'll say I was reading it for a specific market research purpose. Anyway, it was very much a genre romance novel, and I couldn't help comparing the two. In the second novel, although far more up-to-date and outspokenly feminist, the romance was characterised by coercion and encroachment on personal boundaries. It was kind of horrible, and all the more obvious when read side-by-side with Dorothy Sayers. Busman's Honeymoon was a refreshing shot of sanity in a world that has been insane from the beginning. I thoroughly recommend it.

Find Busman's Honeymoon on Amazon, the Book Depository, or in the public domain in Canada.


Anonymous said...

It is fascinating that it is her own 'novelization' of her play-version of the story, and (if you get the chance one way or another) to see how well it works on stage, as well as how nicely it's enriched as novel.

Somebody who was only a famous name to me until recently, but whose work I am getting delightedly acquainted with, is Margery Allingham. She corresponded at least briefly with Charles Williams, and I think she is probably interacting with some of his fiction in some of hers.

Congratulations with A Wind from the Wilderness - hurrah!

And good wishes and prayers for your sister.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Suzannah said...

David! Greetings! I'm so sorry it's taken me this long to get around to replying to my blog comments.

I would love to see the play of BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON on stage sometime, but I've never heard of it being performed in our area.

Margery Allingham is definitely a name I've heard of! If you recommend her I'll have to make the effort to read some of her books.

I'm happy to say that at long last, my sister seems to be beginning the long uphill climb :)

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