Friday, July 4, 2014

Three (or four) More Points about Paton Walsh

So, there were a few more points I ought to make about Jill Paton Walsh's new Peter-and-Harriet novel, THE LOST SCHOLAR.

(1) I think this was much the best of the four books she's written so far featuring Sayer's characters: I enjoyed reading it, and will probably be getting a hard copy in addition to the Kindle version. I don't know how much is judgment is affected by the fact that this is an Oxford novel, and I'm disposed to think well of books set in Oxford, and how much it's her finally making the characters her own.

(2) It's disconcerting to find that all the novels published by Sayers in the real world (e.g. THE NINE TAILORS, STRONG POISON, GAUDY NIGHT) also exist in the fictional world Peter and Harriet inhabit, except that there they're "Harriet Vane" novels rather than "Dorothy L. Sayers" novels, with titles such as "MURDER BY DEGREES" (= GAUDY NIGHT, I suppose) and "TWIXT WIND AND WATER" (= ?HAVE HIS CARCASE). The only difference seems to be that in Harriet's novels, the mysteries are solved not by Lord Peter Wimsey but by her series detective, Robert Templeton. We're told that the plots of these follow the events of Peter's actual cases very closely, even including having a Harriet Vane analogue (whose name I don't think is ever mentioned). All this seems rather strange, especially when it becomes a plot-point, with a prospective murderer lifting plots from Harriet Vane books as templates for his own attempted murders. That last point is an interesting idea, but Van Gulik did it better (in the last Judge Dee book, MURDER IN CANTON).

(3) I was startled by Paton Walsh's depiction of Peter Wimsey as an atheist ("most of the time").  I can't think of any passage in the original Sayers books to support that characterization, and it struck me as very unlike Sayers.

(4)  Finally, there was an odd scene where a student hoping to become a medievalist explains to Wimsey his course of study: Old English, Middle English, and literature up through Milton, only to have Lord Peter incredulous that anyone would submit to a course of study that failed to include a single Romantic poet. That seems in line with what students like Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis and John Betjeman felt, yet Sayer herself was deeply interested in the medieval, and seems to have had far more interest in Dante and ROLAND and Donne than Wordsworth or Shelly.

So, an entertaining book, but not to be taken as a guide to the personalities or actualities of the time and place. This is a fictional Oxford, where the descriptions of buildings are more true to life than those of the people.

--John R.

1 comment:

Brer said...

Dorothy L. Sayers says: "Well-meaning readers who try to identify the writer with his characters or to excavate the author’s personality and opinions from his books are frequently astonished by the ferocious rudeness with which the author himself salutes these efforts at reabsorbing his work into himself. They are an assault upon the independence of his creatures, which he very properly resents. Painful misunderstandings of this kind may rive the foundations of social intercourse, and produce explosions which seem quite out of proportion to the apparent causes….

“I am sure Lord Peter will end up as a convinced Christian.’

“From what I know of him, nothing is more unlikely.”

“But as a Christian yourself, you must want him to be one.”

“He would be horribly embarrassed by any such suggestion.”

“But he’s far too intelligent and far too nice, not to be a Christian.”

“My dear lady, Peter is not the Ideal Man; he is an eighteenth-century Whig gentleman, born a little out of his time, and doubtful whether any claim to possess a soul is not a rather vulgar piece of presumption.”

“I am disappointed.’

“I’m afraid I can’t help that.”

(No; you shall not impose either your will or mine upon my creature. He is what he is, I will work no irrelevant miracles upon him, either for propaganda, or to curry favour, or to establish the consistency of my own principles. He exists I his own right and not to please you. Hands off.)" (The Mind of the Maker)