Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

To the Heart of Rest …

oxpan

The location is 1930s Oxford. At the edges of the story the clouds of war are starting to gather, but they are of no immediate or direct relevance to the plot of the book – that of an unhinged mind disturbing the tranquillity of an all-female college with a hate campaign of poison pen letters, obscene graffiti and vandalism.

Women’s further education is a contentious subject in the 1930s and the Dean of  Shrewsbury College is unwilling to call in the police lest it attract unwelcome attention and publicity, so she turns instead to a former Shrewsbury graduate – a writer of detective fiction with a colourful past and an aristocratic admirer who has a reputation as an amateur sleuth.

The writer is Harriet Vane, the aristocrat is Lord Peter Wimsey and the book is Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night.

Gaudy Night was Sayers’ tenth Wimsey novel and the third to feature Harriet Vane – the woman he saved from the gallows when she was falsely accused of the murder of her lover. Lord Peter’s dogged but courteous pursuit of Harriet has been a long, drawn out affair: starting in Strong Poison andcontinuing through Have His Carcase, the courtship reaches its climax as the pair work together to uncover the author of the letters. In fact, their mating dance – more pavane than tango – is a powerful, even erotic, sub-plot played out against the beautiful backdrop of the ancient university city.

Harriet at first attempts to solve the mystery of the poison pen alone and, using the excuse of wanting to research the life and works of Sheridan le Fanu at the Bodleian Library, moves into the college. In the peace of Oxford and away from the pressures of everyday London life, she finds something unexpected  happening:

The singing voice, stifled long ago by the pressure for existence, and throttled into dumbness by that queer, unhappy contact with physical passion, began to stammer a few uncertain notes. Great golden phrases, rising from nothing and leading to nothing, swam out of her dreaming mind …

The outcome is a poem – or more precisely the first eight lines of a sonnet:

Here, then, at home by no more storms distrest,
Folding laborious hands we sit, wings furled;
Here in close perfume lies the rose-leaf curled,
Here the sun stands and knows not east or west,
Here no tide runs; we have come, last and best,
From the wide zone through dizzying circles hurled,
To that still centre where the spinning world
Sleeps on its axis, to the heart of rest.

Unable to take the image of Oxford being at the calm centre of a stormy and confusing world any further, she lays the poem to one side and applies herself to  narrowing down the list of poison pen suspects. As the trouble escalates however, culminating in the attempted suicide of a mentally over-wrought undergraduate, Harriet writes to Wimsey to ask for advice.

Inevitably, as Shrewsbury is an all-female college, the possibility that the crimes are being perpetrated by a sexually frustrated female don cannot be ignored, and the whole investigation causes Harriet to re-examine both her tempestuous and (by the standards of the time) deeply scandalous life and her ambivalent attitudes to love, academia and Peter Wimsey. Then, out of the blue, into this rather over-heated soup steps the man himself:

Peter Wimsey. Peter, of all people. Peter, who was supposed to be in Warsaw, planted placidly in the High as though he had grown there from the beginning. Peter, wearing cap and gown like any orthodox Master of Arts, presenting every appearance of having piously attended the University Sermon, and now talking mild academic shop with two Fellows of All Souls and the Master of Balliol.

Harriet hands Peter her extensive file of notes on the problems at the college, containing the poison pen letters, the whereabouts of everyone in the college at crucial moments and all the background information she has managed to gather. He reads it all and returns the file to her, then vanishes off to York for no immediately apparent reason. Curious to see if he’s made any notes in the dossier, she opens it up and realizes, to her slight consternation, that she accidentally included her unfinished sonnet with the papers. Not only that, but Wimsey both found it and completed it for her.

And the way in which he completed it was more revealing than anything the guarded and self-deprecatory man had ever said or done before:

If she wanted an answer to her questions about Peter, there it was, appallingly plain. He did not want to forget, or to be quiet, or to be spared things, or to stay put. All he wanted was some kind of central stability, and he was apparently ready to take anything that came along, so long as it stimulated him to keep that precarious balance. And of course, if he really felt like that, everything he had ever said or done, as far as she was concerned, was perfectly consistent … If that was his attitude it was clearly ridiculous to urge him, in kindly tones, to stand aside for fear he might get a rap over the shins.

He had tried standing aside. “I have been running away from myself for twenty years and it doesn’t work.” … Even in the five years or so that she had known him, Harriet had seen him strip off his protections layer by layer, till there was uncommonly little left but the naked truth.

Any number of other writers – indeed probably MOST other writers – would have brought about the sea change in Harriet’s attitude to Peter by means of an emotional scene, by having him do something that causes the scales to fall from her eyes so she can see him as he truly is.  Not Dorothy L Sayers. She did it with a sonnet – a beautiful and accomplished sonnet of her own composing:

Here, then, at home by no more storms distrest,
Folding laborious hands we sit, wings furled;
Here in close perfume lies the rose-leaf curled,
Here the sun stands and knows not east or west,
Here no tide runs; we have come, last and best,
From the wide zone through dizzying circles hurled,
To that still centre where the spinning world
Sleeps on its axis, to the heart of rest.

Lay on thy whips, O Love, that me upright,
Poised on the perilous point, in no lax bed
May sleep, as tension at the verberant core
Of music sleeps; for if thou spare to smite,
Staggering, we stoop, stooping, fall dumb and dead,
And, dying so, sleep our sweet sleep no more.

Harriet’s peaceful humming top has become, for Peter, a whipping top – kept spinning and in balance only by the sometimes painful stimulus of emotion … It’s not only a  poignant and vivid image, it’s also one of the classiest plot devices in the whole of detective fiction.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

About Moira

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9 comments on “To the Heart of Rest …

  1. Kate
    June 13, 2013

    Divine. Sublime. I’ve always wondered about ‘that me upright’ because ‘me’ isn’t quite right. It sounds suitably Renaissance, but it’s the grammar that rings alarm bells. Would ‘That I upright … may sleep’ not have been better?

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings
    June 13, 2013

    *Wonderful* piece on what is not only one of my favourite detective books, but novels per se!

  3. Moira
    June 13, 2013

    Thank you,both. And you’re absolutely right of course Kate, that ‘me’ is ungrammatical … but reading it out loud several times, I’ve come to the conclusion that DLS (who was no grammatical slouch) probably decided that ‘me’, being a much heftier word than ‘I’, simply sounded better and – being divorced as it is from the ‘may sleep’ it belongs to – the lack of agreement didn’t clang on the ear.

  4. Jackie
    June 13, 2013

    Wow, what a terrific sonnet & though the two sections are so different, they mesh. You’ve spoken of this novel & series before, but this is your most persuasive one yet about the romance of the book. I’m really going to have to read it at some point, hopefully soon.

  5. Hilary
    June 13, 2013

    Thank you for this gorgeous piece, Moira, and for the reminder of the frisson this sonnet gave me when I first read it, many decades ago. I actually made life decisions based on reading this book, I think. I have to say, it’s Harriet’s octet that I prefer, simple soul that I am – Lord Peter’s sestet I have to read and reread to extract the (very clever) meaning, so tortured is its structure (and thanks for the observations about ‘Me’, which I have probably never been able to parse correctly until now!)

  6. heavenali
    June 15, 2013

    Lovely piece, I love Dorothy L Sayers and Gaudy night I have read twice – even though there are some I’ve not read at all.

  7. Pingback: Digging a little deeper: June’s classic crime in the blogosphere | Past Offences

  8. Pingback: Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L Sayers – The Heart Of Rest, and beyond. | Vulpes Libris

  9. lila ralston
    August 8, 2014

    Surely “me” is a misprint for “we”. “We sit”, “we have come”, “we stoop”; therefore it should be “we…may sleep”.

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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