It's the new black.
I learn something each time I read Gaudy Night. Sometimes I learn about British sartorial language in the 1930s. Sometimes I learn about political analysis and pre-feminism and the nature of women’s choices. Sometimes, as I did when I reread The Scene today, I learn about reading.
To the lovers of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night it is The Scene. The Isis glistens. “Love in Bloom” squeaks from riverbound gramophones. Harriet catches herself watching the aristocratic detective. Wimsey breathes. Wimsey naps. Harriet searches his pockets for a match. Harriet finds a book. Wimsey wakes, and the conversation turns to his reading selection.
“My tastes are fairly catholic. It might easily have been Kai Lung or Alice in Wonderland or Macchiavelli –“
“Or Boccacio and the Bible?”
“Just as likely as not. Or Apuleius.”
“Or John Donne?”
He was silent for a moment, and then said in a changed voice:
“Was that a bow drawn at venture?”
The Scene reveals much about Peter’s character, his vulnerability, his love of John Donne. Yet this time around, I realized it is an important moment for us in understanding how Peter reads. Throughout the series, the detective dazzles us by weaving quotations and references and novelties into his marvelous piffle and presenting the verbose cocktail to lady and reader with a wink behind the monocle. Here on the riverbank we learn two entwined secret keys to his magic, ones that we more or less knew already: Peter reads everything, and he remembers more than most.
The first non-secret has been obvious since Whose Body because Peter’s “catholic tastes” form a great part of his spell. Yet I find it gratifying after adoring this man who calls his butler “a-man-of-infinite-resource-and-sagacity” to have Wimsey acknowledge that he recognizes few mental boundaries between The Classics and the stuff of popular consumption. It’s a bit like having the Biebster acknowledge his bill at the barbershop. Hair is important to Justin, and reading widely is important to Lord Peter Wimsey.
And then there is his memory. Mourning the death of memorization, and in particular the memorization of poetry, belongs to the ritual lament of the educated classes. People don’t read anymore; they don’t write thank-you notes; they wear flip-flops in church; and they don’t memorize poetry.
Yet Peter does, and it seems that that these memorized lines of poetry and prose shape the architecture of his brain. He responds to novel situations with a quote from Donne and speaks to his butler with words from Kipling. These quotations are not as much to impress his audience – I think – or to show off he speaks – though he does – as much as this is the way the aristocrat reads, and the way he reads has conditioned the way he remembers, and the way he remembers shapes the way he thinks, and thus the way he speaks. For Peter, the words of others don’t stay on the page. As Milton put it, they clothe “the naked thoughts that rove about / and loudly knock to have their passage out” in his mind.
It’s risking pedantry to pin down exactly what Peter teaches me about reading here, but I’ll try: It’s important to read widely. It’s important to read books that are silly and serious, for children and for rabbits and for investment bankers, books you wouldn’t be caught dead reading at the pool as well as books you thought you’d die without. Old books. New books. Middle-aged books. Reading widely expands the mind. Reading narrowly creates mental claustrophobia, even if it is a classical kind of claustrophobia.
But if I want to learn from Peter, and not just adore him, I must also memorize what I read. It forms part of what David Brooks calls “emotional education” in A Social Animal; it is akin to what Christians do in teaching children Bible verses in Vacation Bible School; it’s an echo of the Mosaic injunction to bind the Word to our hands and feet. Despite our era of digital memory and Google, there is an irrevocable act of wonder in knowing that precise line of Donne at the moment when you need it. That moment might be in the attic upon discovering a grandfather’s copy of Oscar Wilde, or on the bleachers when you watch a daughter lose her first basketball game, or on an Oxonian riverbank, listening to the passing of punts and gramophones, watching an aristocratic detective sleep as you fall ever so gently in love with him. – Gabrielle
Lord Peter Wimsey was the winner of our first Twitter battle of the bachelors, #AGentlemansWar. His competition was none other than Fitzwilliam Darcy of Austenian fame. #AGentlemansWar will return soon with another contested literary match-up. What has Peter taught you? Or do you have suggestions for future editions of #AGentlemansWar?