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.
At least three Bookfoxes are devotees of Dorothy L Sayers and all things Wimsey and Vane. What could be better than an equally devoted author, of great skill and inspiration, continuing their life story? Jill Paton Walsh was invited by DLS’s late son, Anthony Fleming, to complete the unfinished novel Thrones, Dominations, which was published in 1998. Subsequently, she published three novels, one more with diminishing amounts of DLS material, and two of her own composition. So, what could be better? Discuss… which is just what Moira and Hilary have been doing (with SPOILERS aplenty).
Hilary: My starting point with these continuations is a particularly perverse one. Experience has taught me not to enjoy sequels and prequels and spin-offs of books and authors I idolise – and yet, like an addict, if the author taking on the task is excellent, I cannot resist. I read them, and find much to enjoy, but cannot prevent myself from making ‘odorous comparisons’. In fact, as I’m sure most DLS admirers did, I fell on Thrones, Dominations with undisguised delight, only to find it disappointing – so disappointing that even after the publication of A Presumption of Death and The Attenbury Emeralds I left them alone for some years. Only later did I find out what a challenge JPW had picked up: DLS had started Thrones… and put it aside because she could not make it work to her satisfaction. So, a difficult decision by the literary executor, don’t you think?
Moira: I do. As you say, Sayers gave up on it herself and I believe she came to detest it, so the decision to pick up the pieces and put them back together seems a little odd anyway. DLS had essentially let Wimsey go. Having satisfactorily (very satisfactorily even) concluded the Peter/Harriet storyline, there was really nowhere else to go with it. She tried, and failed, to write a follow-up story – and abandoned it. You have to question the wisdom of finishing something that its originator didn’t apparently consider to be up to snuff. I wasn’t really (whisper it) that impressed with Thrones, Dominations either to be honest. I found it just a little bit pedestrian – okay, but lacking in the sparkle I expect from Sayers.
(Imagine here, if you will, rummaging sounds off stage.)
Hilary: Well, for starters, I can’t find my original copy of Thrones…. I must have been disappointed enough to include it in a recent purge. I couldn’t find it where I thought it was, and, Freudianly, it is not hiding behind my DLS novel collection. Ah well – off to buy the eBook….
Moira: Oh how funny … I don’t keep Thrones with my main DLS collection either … Isn’t that telling?
Hilary: (Later ….) So – I have been reading Thrones… again, I and think I’ve remembered why I was not delighted with it. We have about a third of the novel before the mystery is unleashed, and much of it is the portrait of the new Wimsey marriage. And, woe is me, Harriet seems to be having such a miserable time. I wish she’d just do what any of the rest of us would do: sit back, relax, and be joyful that money does in fact buy you bushels of happiness. In fiction.
She’s under scrutiny from Wimsey’s friends and relations, and doesn’t have so much as a third cousin herself to come and give them a similarly insolent once over (it’s a relief when she goes out to lunch with her stroppy lower middle class bohemian friends, but even then there is an atmosphere of mild discomfort and alienation from them). The other aggravation is an overdose of the dread fin-de-siècle Uncle Paul Delagardie, who in DLS’s skilful hands appears sparingly, and who, like dried rosemary, is wonderful as the merest hint, but in quantity gets stuck between one’s teeth. Now, how much of all that is DLS, and how much JPW? I’m beginning to wonder if DLS gave up on this because she was finding it so hard to reintroduce joy into Harriet’s life (let alone Wimsey’s – they’re always so scrupulously careful around one another). But the mystery is a goodie, if a little below par for Wimsey – a classic affluent thirties murder, in a classic affluent thirties location, with locked doors and dodgy alibis, and Bunter taking photos.
Moira: Another part of the problem, which it’s taken me a while to pin down, is that when DLS wrote the original Wimsey stories, she set them in the present day – HER present day. Short of uprooting Peter and Harriet from their allotted place in history – the middle of the 20th Century – JPW has no choice but to write the follow-ups as historical novels, with the benefit of knowing how things would transpire with Edward VIII, World War II, et al. And sometime she tries a little too hard to place the stories accurately in a specific period … having the characters going off to see ‘The Robe’ in the local cinema, or picking up the latest must-read novels like ‘The Go-Between’. For me it feels artificial and interrupts the flow of the narrative.
Hilary: Yes, I know just what you mean. It’s really hard to find a way of having your characters talk about period details without making it sound forced. But at the moment, I’m seeing prophecy everywhere, and it gave me a bit of a shock to read a passage in which Lord Peter is speculating on the impossibility of a terrorist outrage on the streets of London, while watching the funeral procession for King George V.
I think I have started to isolate my beef with these continuations, and I reckon it’s one I’d have had if DLS had lived longer and written more, as it began to kick in with Busman’s Honeymoon. It’s the same gripe I had with Death Comes To Pemberley. Our beloved hero and heroine are now married. They are a unit, they share so much and are living in one another’s pocket, and what is missing is that tiny charged gap between them before they marry, across which the sparks fly. Also, their personal mystery is solved (will they, won’t they?). That gap closes up, and the matters they have to face together are different, and are mostly brow-furrowing. Then, in writing about Wimsey and Harriet as two independent people, DLS focuses on their equality, while in describing their marriage, however hard DLS and JPW try, they accentuate for me an inequality that was not there before. On the other hand, kudos to DLS for bringing them together at a satisfactory point after a wonderful convergence – not like an Archers plotline that stretches on and on, way beyond plausibility, patience and interest. But, like Jane Austen, best to leave them at that point perhaps.
Moira: You know, you’ve set me thinking about Busman’s Honeymoon – and I realized that I’ve always thought of it as being separate from the main body of Wimsey stories, but until you made the comment about the Wimsey/Vane spark and the importance of it in their three major stories, it hadn’t really registered with me that I’d put it in its own little category which, if I’m being honest, should be labelled ‘slightly sub-standard Wimsey’. (It was already in a category by itself anyway, for another reason – that it started life as a stage play, which DLS turned into a novel.)
Hilary: However, both of us have found much to enjoy in the latest of the JPW continuations, The Late Scholar. It was giving this a try that sent me back to A Presumption of Death and The Attenbury Emeralds, and I think it is an improvement on both. What has struck you most about this one, Moira?
Moira: I thought it was easily the best of her sequels – and I have to thank you for steering me towards it, because having read the preceding novels, I had no particular desire to read the third one … but I galloped through it in under 24 hours.
I believe one of the reasons it’s better than its predecessors is that she took the action back to Oxford. I’m going to take a wild punt here and guess that JPW’s favourite Wimsey story is Gaudy Night and that she, like many (but not me, obviously *cough*) has read and re-read it, absorbing the atmosphere, the rhythm and the pacing, so that when she came to write The Late Scholar she captured the spirit of DLS quite naturally. The relationship between Peter and Harriet rings true. It’s a convincing portrait of a marriage in which the partners have finally found their point of equilibrium. And it’s an involving story line too: convoluted enough to keep you guessing, but not so arcane that it leaves you perplexed and thumbing back through the pages to see if you dozed off and missed something …
Hilary: Ah yes – back to Oxford, taken there by a writer who, like you and me, is in thrall to Gaudy Night. At the end of Thrones… in the acknowledgements she says as much:
Jill Paton Walsh read Gaudy Night in her early teens, and was inspired by it with an ambition to study at Oxford, the achievement of which has put her life-long in debt to Dorothy L Sayers.
Amen to that. Peter and Harriet are so at home there, and so am I.
Moira: JPW is an excellent writer, and all of the sequels are eminently readable in their own right … but, for me, The Last Scholar is the only one that feels – and reads – like the ‘real thing’. It’s the only one with the authentic sparkle.
Dorothy L Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh: Thrones, Dominations. Pbk ed. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014. 384pp ISBN 9781444792959 (f.p. 1998)
A Presumption of Death. Pbk ed. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014. 384pp ISBN 9781444792911 (f.p. 2002)
Jill Paton Walsh: The Attenbury Emeralds. Pbk ed. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2011. 352pp ISBN 9780340995747 (f.p 2010)
The Late Scholar. Pbk ed. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014. 386pp ISBN 9781444760873 (f.p. 2013)
All available in eBook formats.