Favorite Fictional Characters: Lord Peter Wimsey

Marie Meaney

At first sight, Dorothy L. Sayers’ character Lord Peter Wimsey, does not strike one as a particularly Christian gentleman. Not only were affairs part of his life before his marriage to Harriet Vane (having been initiated to the gentleman’s “rules” of love by his wayward uncle, Paul Delagardie), but his church-going is tied to the responsibilities of his class, rather than to any strong faith. Furthermore, he advises Dr. Penberthy in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club to commit suicide rather than stand trial and be executed. And yet, he displays virtues that only caritas and humility can bring to flower.  

The mishaps that happen to him on his honeymoon in Busman’s Honeymoon (the last of the Wimsey series, published in 1937) would throw the meekest man into a rage. Even he, passionate sleuth that he is, would have preferred not to have to indulge in his main hobby of solving a murder during the first days of his married life. But it is less the crime-solving itself that is trying, than the contretemps and general upheavals coming down upon his house.

Everything that can go wrong does: upon their arrival at their newly bought house in Hertfordshire, its former owner, Mr. Noakes, who should have let them in, is strangely absent, the house locked up and unprepared for them. They manage to get hold of a key and make do in the cold, unwelcoming house with the help of their butler Bunter. Instead of being able to enjoy their domestic bliss the next morning, they are invaded by half the village, it seems: Mr. Puffet coming to sweep the chimneys, pastor Goodacre making a morning-call and eventually clearing the living-room chimney with his shot-gun (in consequence of which dead birds and various items come clanging down, covering everything in soot). The crusty charwoman Mrs. Ruddle has to have her say, while the gardener, Frank Crutchly, potters about. As if there were not enough visitors, Mr. Noakes’ niece, the spinsterish Miss Twitterton, appears to express her dismay at her uncle’s absence. Next, a certain Mr. MacBride arrives, upsetting everybody with the news that Mr. Noakes is 900 pounds in debt and that he will not be leaving until he has been paid. Everything is set now for a comedy of errors minus the romantic confusion. The cherry on the cake comes when Mr. Noakes is found in the cellar, having been dead for a week.

Harriet and Peter weathered more mishaps in the first twenty four hours of their married life than others do in a year; but finding a corpse is the acid test. Peter is concerned about Harriet’s feelings regarding their first night together with a dead man under their roof. Paradoxically, his comparing it to what this would have been like with a mistress testifies to his understanding of marriage and the depth of his affection for Harriet: “Supposing I’d come here to disport myself with somebody who didn’t matter twopence, I should be feeling a complete wart”. If a casual romance is broken by something as distasteful as a murder, then there is indeed nothing left. Marriage, on the other hand, blossoms on the basis of true love purified of its egoism precisely by weathering daily difficulties. Hence Peter and Harriet come out of this first crisis stronger than before: Peter by showing his concern for his wife while pointing out that his love for her is much greater than Noakes’ base spirit (“if anything could sweeten the atmosphere that the wretched old man left behind him, it would be … the feeling I have for you…”). And of course Harriet wants to stay, despite her initial discomfort.

The next potential crisis is overcome once Harriet (whose outstanding concern for everybody in this situation is admirable) accepts that her husband wants to solve this murder. As she points out, he hasn’t been called in and it’s such a brutal, in many ways, uninteresting case. But she realizes not only that sleuthing is his passion, but that it satisfies his sense of justice and gives him a purpose in life other than cultured idleness that could easily be his fate otherwise. Since they can’t be “eating lotus-leaves” together, nor can Harriet “strew his path with rose-leaves”, they will investigate this crime side by side.

How important this is becomes clear when two unlikely people become the prime suspects: Miss Twitterton, who would have had much to gain (not just money, but also an attractive younger husband), and the local police-officer who was blackmailed by Noakes. Either of them could have been wrongly convicted and hanged while somebody quite different committed the crime. The real criminal, once uncovered, fits the profile of a dirty murderer much better.

Though the interest in the murder-investigation now comes to the forefront, Dorothy Sayers can’t help herself but provide comic relief in the form of more strain on the newlyweds. The police, of course, descend on them with all the usual upheaval, but Sayers doesn’t stop there. As luck would have it, Miss Twitterton, deeply upset at being jilted by the young Frank Crutchley in the Wimseys’ living-room, dashes out only to find herself trapped in their bedroom, where she gets to overhear the one brief romantic scene we are granted between the newlyweds (like Jane Austen, Sayers understands how to convey romance whilst barely letting us overhear the lovers). In view of this, Lord Peter feels like a “bloody fool”, as he had during their entire courtship, when he had to make light of his fruitless marriage-proposals by comparing himself to a figure out of comic opera. His genuine humility allows him to shake off such humiliations.

What really rattles him however, is the news from Bunter (who, for the first time in his life, it seems, has lost his calm) that the precious port-bottles have been shaken by the meddling Mrs. Ruddle, and hence have become undrinkable for the next few weeks. Lord Peter is only human after all. When you think that matters couldn’t get worse, MacBride comes with another creditor at his heels, each one wanting to confiscate exclusively for their clients the complete furniture in the house. The Wimseys can only delay being turned out of the very chairs on which they sit by inviting the two men to their dinner and mellowing them with some good wine, even though this means foregoing any chance of a romantic tête à tête.

There are more moments of crisis, for example when Harriet’s first reaction is to prevent Peter from following his lead when it seems to be pointing to Miss Twitterton, only to realize that by doing so, she is undermining his integrity. Or when the murderous Crutchley (unrepentant and ungrateful though Lord Peter pays for the best lawyer and takes financial charge of his unborn child and its unwed mother) refuses to forgive Lord Peter when the latter explicitly asks for it.

Where does Lord Peter get his seemingly infinite capacity to give attention to and show concern for others? A sense of noblesse oblige alone does not account for it. Unless transformed by caritas, this would merely manifest itself in the bumbling self-importance of his elder brother, the Duke of Denver, or (a greater temptation for the sensitive, artistic Wimsey) in the form of a snobbish, ruthless aestheticism (like that of a Grandcourt in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda). So where do Lord Peter and his bride get their deep-seated, practical Christianity? For this quality in them cannot merely be explained by the residual Christian values of an otherwise much secularized society.

It is Dorothy L. Sayers’ own worldview that she attributes to the character of Lord Peter Wimsey, even if she is not able to explain his virtues. Whilst in a tragedy this incongruity might have been jarring, it works within a light-hearted comedy. Despite bloody murder and Peter’s shot nerves from the trenches of World War I, flaring up each time he brings a criminal to the gallows, there is a deep-seated happiness present. As in Dante’s Divine Comedy, it shines through everything because of God’s infinite love, assuring us that despite hell and the reality of damnation, all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well (to paraphrase Julian of Norwich).  We can thank Lord Peter for illustrating why we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, laughing at our own foibles and follies, whilst graciously overlooking them in others.

Dr Marie Meaney is an academic and author who has written on topics ranging from Simone Weil to fertility issues. She lives in France with her husband and daughter.