A hundred years of Lord Peter Wimsey
Updated: Mar 20
The other day I decided to read all Dorothy L. Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels again. Except for those featuring Harriet Vane, they can be read as standalones and I’ve done that often, but I’ve never read them in order. Sorting them into that order on the shelf meant that I had to look at the dates they were published and I found that the first - ‘Whose Body?’ - came out in 1923. A hundred years, and I don’t think any of the Wimseys have been out of print since.
The stories are of their time. They reflect the language, attitudes, aspirations and prejudices of that time so, naturally, one encounters characters who express views which are chauvinistic, racist, class-ridden. But – and sensitivity monitors please note – it is clear over and over again that these are not the views of the author. Again and again, through Wimsey, she exposes these attitudes for what they are – unworthy of any decent person. Sometimes she is comedic, as with Wimsey’s delight in showing up his sister-in-law for the snob she is. Often she is sensitive, sympathetic, non-judgmental.
Wimsey, in ‘Whose Body?’ is, as one would expect in this first of the series, still unrefined but, embryonic though his character is, it embodies what he will become. That development can be traced through the sequence of novels to its apogee in what I consider to be Sayers’ finest Wimsey novel, ‘Gaudy Night’.
All the novels tell stories of criminal investigation, but all deal, too, with human frailties. This, I think, is why they work so well. Wimsey, well acquainted with his own weaknesses, has understanding and empathy. In ‘Gaudy Night’ Sayers runs her mystery in parallel with the matter of integrity: personal, professional, academic, interweaving and balancing the two strands in masterly fashion. I wouldn’t want to be without any of the Wimsey novels, but if I could only have one, it would have to be this.