The Dorothy L Sayers memorial lecture, given at Witham, 1st May 2002
Some time before 1923 a French diplomat was murdered in a London flat.
The repercussions were serious, and the authorities called on the services
of a great detective - Sexton Blake, and his youthful sidekick Tinker. In
1920 Dorothy L Sayers was in bed with mumps at Verneuil, where her position
was in many ways difficult, and she asked her friend Muriel Jaeger to send
her Sexton Blake mysteries to while away her convalescence. Sexton Blake
was at that time a kind of factory for ghost writers - paid to churn them
out and keep the brand alive, and Dorothy perhaps thought she could earn
a useful penny by writing a Blake herself.
You may easily imagine that Dorothy Sayers' efforts as a writer of someone else's detective is of considerable interest to me. Was she any good at it? I have to say truthfully that she was not successful. The story, very well described in Dr. Reynolds biography, is a farrago, Sexton Blake style, with wonderful disguises, ciphers, stolen jewels, chases across Europe, mysterious Italian contessas - one would think that the masters of the Blake syndicate would have been delighted. The problem is the intrusion of the colourful fellow who has lent his flat to the victim. He is one Lord Peter Wimsey, complete with his manservant Bunter, his overpowering curiosity, his suavity, his worldly wisdom and powers of decipherment which greatly exceed those of Sexton Blake - in short this is a grossly overpopulated story, with two great detectives, two sidekicks, and only one murder between them. It has also two wonderfully Dorothean touches, which are well out of key with the run-of-the-mill Blake factory products.
In one of these the villain in disguise is spotted in Westminster Cathedral during the service of Tenebrae. This is the service for Good Friday, in which the candles in the church are extinguished one by one, and the congregation leaves the building in complete darkness; a symbolic enactment of the Death of Christ on the cross. As the last lights go out, Tinker sees the man they have been following, who makes his escape in the deepening gloom. You would need, I think, an almost schizophrenic sensibility to find Tinker appropriate in this solemn and grandiose scene.
The other Dorothean touch is a point of French grammar, in which a man disguised as a woman uses the masculine form of an adjective describing "herself." This is a clever point, if you can assume some knowledge of French in your readers. Dorothy was already defining her audience, and it was a cut above the average consumer of Sexton Blake.
Now, this Lord Peter. The manuscript copy which I have seen shows him largely struck out, his name replaced by that of Lord Peterborough, the correction being in a hand which does not seem to be Dorothy's, but which Dr. Reynolds thought might be that of Mac. Fleming. Did someone think of trying to use the story while not intruding on the later triumphs of Lord Peter? Dorothy must have completely lost interest in it herself if she allowed such a project. Yet this must have been the occasion she referred to when she was looking for a detective, and Lord Peter stepped forward complete with spats, and applied for the job.
He got the job he applied for, and his cycle begins with Whose Body? I am going to linger over the Sexton Blake episode just long enough to make a comparison. Detective fiction of the Golden age is not notable for plausibility, and Dorothy's Sexton Blake story is about par for the course in that respect. But Whose Body? Has a different kind of realism altogether. Compared with French masters of disguise and Italian Contessas, the dissection lessons of a medical school are brutally real, not to say squalid. Dorothy is certainly not going to write like a refined lady - she means business. And the villain reveals himself intellectually, moving the story into the realms of thought, because he thinks that conscience is a kind of gland, which might be excised - and, as Lord Peter sees at once, a man who thinks that could have no conscience, and might do anything. There is a much greater degree of relevance in Whose Body? Than in Sexton Blake, because it raises issues, however melo-dramatically, which can be thought about in regard to the real world. From the start Dorothy's pitch is going to be unlike her competitors. Issues are about as relevant to an Agatha Christie as they are to a Times crossword. The only outside issue which occupies the thoughts of a Freeman Wills Croft detective is his prospects of promotion.
It is an interesting exercise to revisit Whose Body? because of the surprising completeness of the portrait of Lord Peter it contains. Famously, he enters the printed record with the words "Oh, damn!" He is on his way to a sale of antiquarian books, and he has forgotten the catalogue. And in this book he is almost fully developed in one jump. His flat, his piano-playing of Bach, his affection for his dotty mother, his profound friendship for his servant Bunter, his nerves shattered by war-service, his man-to-man friendship with Inspector Parker, who passes the time reading Origen, the man we know and love is laid out to view the first time we meet him - all here.
This brings me to the main subject of my disquisition tonight, which is a reflection on human character, in fiction and in life. I would like to make a distinction between three different ways of explicating character in fiction. In one kind we are told at once all there is to know about the character. As the story unfolds we can refer back to this knowledge. In the second kind there is a progressive discovery of someone's nature. They may themselves be unchanging, but little by little we discover what they are like. Not the character him or herself, but our understanding of them expands and develops. Thirdly there is the kind of fiction in which the character changes, so that at least some of what we know about them is different as the story advances.
You will rightly expect me to provide examples, and I am going to offer them from Pride and Prejudice, about the best known novel in the classical corpus. Examples from the Wimsey canon can then be set in context. The character about whom we are told at once all there is to know would be Mr. Collins. He is egregiously absurd from the first moment he enters the story, writing to Mr. Bennet. He continues egregiously absurd, without self-knowledge, and all the comic scenes in which he appears are elaborating the same joke. Compare him with Mr. Wickham. Mr. Wickham has been a deep-dyed villain, a seducer and a liar from the first moment he enters the story, but at first we do not know this. Little by little he is unmasked to us - a progressive discovery. The third kind of fictional explication occurs in the character of Elisabeth Bennet, who actually learns about the world of men, and changes as we watch her, so that it would be true to say of her that she is not exactly the same young woman at the end of the story as she was at the beginning. Mr. Darcy changes too, even more radically. He comes to understand that he cannot have what he wants simply by asking for it; that to have Elizabeth as his wife he must put himself through a mill of repentance and enlightenment More of that train of thought later.
Now there is something rather odd about the three-part schema I have just outlined. In real life, and considering our understanding of the people we know, only the latter two of these three schemas occur. It is a commonplace experience to learn gradually increasing amounts about people. It is a commonplace experience to watch people change, under the pressures of different circumstances, with increasing age and wisdom, in success or failure. Most people change for the rather better as they accumulate experience. One could apply this also to self-knowledge; many people spend rather difficult early years discovering who they are; and most people change with age, and are aware of their changing selves. The thing that, it seems to me, happens quite often in fiction, and doesn't happen at all in real life, is that one learns all one needs to know about someone in one go, and that's that - you know about them, and can simply mentally refer to the knowledge whenever you need it.
The frequency with which this rather unrealistic mode of appreciation is used in fiction reflects its usefulness to writers and readers, not its approximation to real life. And perhaps it isn't a very common way of writing about characters in high literary fiction, either. But it is the method of introducing Lord Peter that Dorothy used in Whose Body? And it is far from uncommon as a way of presenting a great detective.
You want to use his superiority as an engine of discovery of CRIME. A crime novel is not a novel of character about the detective, although it may be about the character of the victim, the suspects and the murderer. I believe that Dorothy set out her stall, so to speak, on Lord Peter, expecting him to be a formal great detective like those of her contemporaries, and to take it from there.
So what qualities did she attribute to the original pattern of Lord Peter? I'm sure this is a subject much trodden over before me, so I will be brief. Lord Peter is an eccentric English aristocrat with a dazzling galaxy of qualities, like Sherlock Holmes, one of his originals, which will come in handy solving crimes. Fair enough. He is very good at absolutely everything - cricket, incunabula, firsts at Balliol, heroic war service, code-breaking, bell-ringing, disguises, piano-playing it goes on and on. He doesn't seem to be bad at anything. Now somewhere I have read an article pointing out that detectives are perfect because they are angels - angels of vengeance, angels of justice. Many crime writers have tried to counter this chilly superhuman quality by equipping their Great Detective with human faults; usually faults which in no way impede the course of the enquiry.
Lord Peter's hand of qualities, however, unless you count the silly-ass upper-class act he has been known to use to deflect any suspicion that he is dangerous, does not include faults. And it does include many matters, like his love of Bach, or literary quotations which have absolutely nothing, helpful or unhelpful, to do with the course of the detection. So that even when we first encounter him he is extra-generic - there is more to him than he needs to be a detective; he is offered for our admiration and enjoyment not merely as an agent of justice, but as a superb and superbly amusing character.
And of course, that has greatly annoyed many people. It is necessary, in assessing whether Lord Peter is the hero of a snobbish author, to remember that he starts out as a literary character of a certain kind -an unofficial detective. I have never forgotten that when I first intended to write a crime novel of the old fashioned kind, I asked the advice of Peter Dickinson, who is a friend, and he said very firmly that nobody could now do it. "At the first sniff of a crime," he said, "people call the police, and nothing but police procedurals has the slightest chance of being credible today."
I'm sure he is right; it is very difficult to make the reader accept any detective, however great, who is not a member of a police force. That is why detective fiction is often about an Adam Dalgleish, or a Morse. Or about someone who is a private investigator, a pathologist, or a lawyer. It is coming up eighty years since Whose Body? was published, and the manoeuvre that occurred to Dorothy in that long ago social setting was to give her amateur the kind of rank which opened doors, and secured respect, sometimes grudging, from almost everyone, even the police. Lord Peter's title does not reflect a snobbish set of social values on the part of his author, it is a literary device to enable her to run him as a detective. And his sterling qualities were not given him because his author thought the British upper classes were paragons of any kind - but rather because she needed an unlikely sort of person, and she thought an aristocrat of Lord Peters tastes and dispositions was just that - unlikely.
Friends, we do need to remember what kind of person Lord Peter is - I say is, because literary character inhabit the eternal present, the time of the angels. Lord Peter is a literary character. He has the limitations of a literary character. However much fun it may be to pretend that he is or was real, that is essentially a game. It is a hugely amusing pretence that has entertained many of you present for some time. Treating him as real, and extracting marginal information from stories about him - the floor plan of his London flat, or his house at Talboys for example, expecting from his author the kind of consistency in minor detail that might be expected of a consciencous biographer, and constructing elaborate explanations when she failed in consistency is good fun. The fact that this game is still being played with enthusiasm through growing piles of the output of the Dorothy L Sayers society, coming up 80 years on is a very clear testament to the liveliness of Lord Peter to his readers. Drawing deductions of a fictional kind is fine. Drawing deductions about the flesh and blood author from the literary character, without taking any account of the literary constraints that bore upon what she wrote is out of order and very silly. To have an aristocrat as detective does not mean the author was a snob. Very likely Agatha Christie loathed Belgians, especially foodies. Colin Dexter does not have to like Wagner. A great detective is a literary artefact, only partly reflecting what his author might admire or hate.
Lord Peter as a literary artefact went on his way happily, prospering, and making money and fame for his author for some time. Only once in the corpus does he begin to thin, and seem preposterous, to lose his power to convince us. That moment is in Murder must Advertise, published in 1933. In this story Dorothy was playing a triple game with him. He is still, of course, himself. But he is also Mr. Bredon, working in an advertising agency not entirely unlike Bensons, and he is also a mysterious Harlequin, whistling a nursery rhyme, and taking that notorious dive into the basin of a fountain.
Since Peter was born in 1890, at the time of this reckless plunge he was 43. The entirely plausible description of our hero as an under-cover copywriter, who can nevertheless be seen through by an observant colleague, is in painful contrast to the Harlequin thread of the story. I am interested in what is wrong with it. Partly of course, the world of drug peddling and drug taking was not as familiar to the author as that of advertising, but lets concentrate on that climb and dive. It isn't completely impossible that a man of 43 who has kept himself fit and agile, and happens to be a skilled diver could do it without injuring himself. But for once Dorothy, who knew her Aristotle perfectly well has abandoned his precepts. He enjoined writers to prefer the impossible probable to the possible improbable. The dive is possible, but improbable.
The difficulty with it is really that there isn't the smallest reason for it. It is undertaken to attract the interest of a debauched and wealthy young woman, whom Wimsey could have attracted in dozens of less showy, and less life-threatening ways. Someone is showing off here - if it is Wimsey, it is not really very like him; a becoming modesty is more his style about anything except his power to quote poetry. If it is Dorothy, beguiled by the visual beauty of a lamp lit garden full of ball-gowns, a splashing fountain, the diamond patterns of the costumed diver, the elegance of his trajectory, then it is a mistake.
And it is Wimsey who pays the price. The dive does injure him; it injures the most prized possession of an imaginary character, his plausibility in the eyes of the reader. Super-human abilities are very well in a detective, if they are abilities to detect. If they are abilities to find something elementary which we and Watson are deeply baffled by. But extra super-human abilities not sanctioned by the role of detective, sap the flesh and blood of the character. A flesh and blood Wimsey would likely have broken his neck, and therefore would have had more sense. The passage is beautiful, I know.
I think nothing about Lord Peter has surprised me more than realising, when I made a list of the titles in which he appears, that Strong Poison was written before Murder Must Advertise. The costumed diver was already in love with Harriet Vane. How complex a matter human personality is! Because once Harriet Vane enters Lord Peter's life, the whole picture is transformed. Admittedly, he is not transformed at once. One might like to compare his offering to grow a moustache or discard his monocle, or part his hair on the other side, with the conduct of Mr. Darcy, offering to overlook Elisabeth Bennet's low origins. Both gentlemen are performing to their own complete satisfaction. Both are due for a rude awakening.
If we are to believe Dorothy herself, writing in an article entitled "Gaudy Night", Strong Poison was supposed to get rid of Lord Peter, by marrying him off. Dr. Reynolds doesn't believe her, and neither do I. You should note, incidentally, that your speaker tonight does not believe that authors are on oath to tell the truth about their own work! The very oddest thing about this statement is the idea that marrying Lord Peter would finish him off. Why would it? The classic detective story is not a story about the detective's personal life. We need know no more about Darcy, once he has reformed himself, and Elisabeth has accepted him; but there seems to be no essential reason why Lord Peter married to Harriet Vane should not continue detecting away into the clear blue yonder, and in the event, in Busman's Honeymoon, and in the fragment of Thrones Dominations, he is shown doing just that.
But Dorothy had perceived, she tells us, that no self-respecting woman in Harriet's position could possibly accept him, and so instead of finishing anybody off, other than the odious murderer, Strong Poison initiates a new sequence of books. Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman's Honeymoon are all love stories, and in all of them we see Lord Peter in a different mode entirely from that in which we first met him. We met him, you remember in Whose Body? as the type of literary character about whom we are told all we need to know all at once. But from Strong Poison on, he is the kind of character who changes under our eyes, and whose changes are an essential part of the story; he has taken on a dimension of reality usually found in characters in serious literary fiction.
The alchemist who brought this change about is of course the character of Harriet Vane, a character forged in the heat of Dorothy's own experience of life, not, I think a conscious self-portrait, but someone whom Dorothy understood deeply, and about whom she could be deeply perceptive. Harriet has been bitterly humiliated by an objectionable arrogant lover. Her self-defence seems so counter to the mores of the time (she has left her lover, you remember, when he offers to marry her) that it has put her in the dock as a murderess. She has been betrayed in pretty much the way in which the abominable John Cournos betrayed Dorothy. But her vivid reality to us does not come from a simple autobiographical account, it arises from Dorothy's thought. She had wrestled with the question of mutual self-respect between man and woman; with the limits of the compromises involved in marriage. Harriet is blazingly real and alive to us, because she is situationally real.
In one way, of course, a love story is not, whatever else it may be, an original device. And yet in the Harriet Vane sequence Dorothy made a strikingly original use of it. And this use is connected with a difficulty about Bunter. Once Harriet is on the scene the discourse of detection in the novels takes place in conversation. The analysis of the present state of the investigation which forms the argument of a detective story is suddenly transformed from the I-have-already understood this posture which Holmes is always adopting, from the mysterious activity of little grey cells about which we shall know nothing till the denouement, from the professional talk between policemen always moderated by rank - to a sparkling dialogue - a conversation between equals. Peter has more experience of detection in real life, Harriet has a more flexible imagination.
Harriet never adopts towards him the posture of a sidekick. Once she is there he doesn't need one. He does still need a gentleman's gentleman. But the essential narrative purpose of Bunter in the early works is over. Bunter is supplanted. Harriet is very tactful about it, and the new author has supplied him with a wife and child to soften the blow; but a blow it must have been.
The pursuit of what I have called the discourse of detection, by means of conversation produces, I think a dazzling advance in technique. The detective loses the status of super-expert, know-all, divine agent or angel, and acquires that of a questing human intelligence. The effect is like that of the arrival of the second actor in the development of classical Greek drama; everything is less formulaic, more truly dramatic. What is going on is a representation of a way of thinking about problems that we all know. Some few of us have encountered a great detective, and been dragged along in the dark by a superior mind talking down to us - there were episodes in my undergraduate life when I felt exactly like Watson - but all of us have experienced daylight as a result of talking things through with a friend. And although Peter and Harriet's story is a love story, it is also a representation in fiction of friendship. Love stories are two a penny compared with friendship stories.
I am opening to you now the chief reason why anybody wants me to deliver a lecture about Lord Peter. I am one of his more recent friends, and many people here know him better than I do, and have known him more intimately and for longer. But the question that now arises is whether a character can change authors in the way a traveller can change trains, or jump ship, without being denatured. Can a character survive the death of his or her author?
Of course, of course, in the minds of readers. Is Hamlet dead? Is Elisabeth Bennet dead? Or David Copperfield, or Silas Marner, or Peter Rabbit, or Sherlock Holmes? As I said earlier, literary characters inhabit an eternal present. But that they can live in the minds of readers born even centuries after the death of their authors, is not quite the same question as whether they can get themselves a new author in the way in which real people can get a new doctor, a new lawyer or a new wife. And it is Harriet Vane, really who made Lord Peter the kind of character who could do that.
Let's take a look at what it takes. The novels in which Harriet Vane appears present a single story - a love story of considerable interest and complexity, published in parts. The detective story in each book is complete, - it snaps shut in the classic way when the crime is cleared up. But the detective is no longer an angel of any kind, nor is he any longer a literary persona of the first kind - the static, now we know all about him kind, about whom essentially more would be more of the same. Come to that, he is not a character of the second kind, either - the kind whose development is an uncovering of what they are and have always been. He has become one of those whose changing nature is the story. That is, he has become fully human. Such a person can find a new author, just as such a person can make a new friend.
The story, moreover has a plot which is not the plot of any of its parts - may I call it a metaplot? This is the over-arching story that was left unfinished where the fragment of Thrones, Dominations broke off, and this it was which could be continued, as real life relationships are continued through the changes of circumstance of life. I had a lot of trouble completing the detective story in Thrones, Dominations. The reconstruction was a tissue of guesses about what had been meant, and there were not enough suspects, and the fragment and the plot diagram Dorothy left were hard to bring into agreement, and so on and so on. I talked to an audience at Witham at the time about that. What was not unduly difficult was picking up the threads of the metaplot of Peter's relationship with Harriet. Those two had been written so well; we all knew them so well, along any trajectory one could project them, using what one knew about real people, and understand how it would be for them to be married and happy.
I'm sure you realise that writing a second posthumous Lord Peter book is a very different matter from completing Thrones Dominations. The detective part of the story - the part that snaps shut when the crime is discovered - was freehand this time, which is in some ways easier for me. Continuing that meta-plot is deeply interesting. I have been discussing the project with a small group of internet friends, one of whom recently posted to me the opinion that there is no point in taking over another author's characters unless they stay the same in the new work. My own view is the exact opposite, I can see no point in producing more of the same. The more-of-the-same demand is the one which gradually dilutes characters, grinds down the authors, loses authenticity by slow degrees, brings the whole process into disrepute.
But once Peter and Harriet have started on the meta-plot, once they have started interact and to change each other, then more means more change. And that is a real challenge. Dorothy understood the self-respect of an author craftsman exceedingly well. She would have detested, I do believe, a resurrection of Lord Peter as a re-iterated formula. The formula, moreover, simply would not work as it used to work, in our greatly changed world.
Of course I do not know how she would have felt about the continuation of Peter and Harriet which I have rashly undertaken.
All that I can say about that is that the terms of her will did not proscribe it. I fancy she would rather have been remembered as the translator-scholar of Dante, and as the writer of religious plays. But Lord Peter's irrepressible survival keeps her name alive, and people follow her through from one kind of work to another. The love and respect I require to be so intimate with Peter and Harriet as to be their current chronicler includes a love and respect for her. I know her only as one writer knows another, but that is a deep mode of knowing.
Now the new book -to be called "A Presumption of Death" and to be published this November does not start from zero. There is no more fragmentary fiction about Peter and Harriet, although there is the short story called Talboys, apparently set in 1943, which gives us a glimpse of their family life as parents. But although it was not written as fiction, there is some authentic Dorothy about the populous cast of characters of the Wimsey novels. In the early years of World War II Dorothy contributed to the Spectator a weekly column of letters between members of the Wimsey circle. These, now known as "The Wimsey Papers" were in effect light-hearted propaganda, intended to cheer up the public, and brace them to their various duties - pulling together, putting up with the black-out, volunteering for war work, keeping cheerful. Those of you for whom there can never be enough Dorothy Sayers, will probably have found and read them.
By the end of January, 1940, the editor of the Spectator had put a stop to them. In a darkening, not to say terrifying prospect, Dorothy had become a little heavy handed and solemn, and was trespassing on the editorial functions of the front of the paper. Who could blame her? They were hard times. But before she was stopped, she had laid out for us what everybody was doing in 1940. Harriet had closed the London house, and taken her own children and their Parker cousins to the country. Peter was abroad on a secret mission. The horrible Helen, Duchesse of Denver, was in the worlds least favourite new Ministry - the Ministry of Morale. Lord St. George has become an RAF pilot. And so on.
So I am in the position of someone taking over a game of chess after the first few moves. The pieces are all on the board, and the position has started to develop. The game is all to play for. The Wimsey Papers cannot be used in their entirety in a novel. They were not written to be read all in a continuous lump, and parts of them have lost the interest that immediacy gave them, and would now need footnotes to make them plain. Would you know offhand who Langsdorf was, for example? But they can be used as a starting point, and anything which Dorothy published in her lifetime about her characters has a hallmark of authenticity.
Something she said, but did not publish - like the death of Lord St. George in the Battle of Britain, only too likely, I'm afraid, must be taken fairly seriously. I might say, well, if she really meant that why didn't she publish it? But you would hear the note of special pleading entering my voice. There are also wild rumours flying around which are very troublesome to me. I have heard such a rumour that the Horrible Helen was killed in an air-raid, and Peters elder brother the Duke married again, and had offspring, thus keeping Lord Peter from the metamorphosis into a Dukedom which he would so have hated. It sounds a bit wild to me, although I can see it arises from the tender concern of his friends for his happiness.
As for those industrious fans who have treated the subject like history, geography and biography; who have listed Lord Peters wardrobe down to his pyjamas, drawn up floor plans for his houses, calculated distances from one village to another, worked out which books were on his shelves, etc. etc. - a plague on them! The innocent fun they have been having all these years, like the superior knowledge of anyone who has known your friend longer than you have, is plain infuriating, and ties me up in knots. A new story needs new things - extra outhouses at Talboys, a manor house where none was known before, a farmer's boy to play with young Charlie Parker if such things as these are to be counted mistakes I shall have to say testily that my guess is as good as yours. If you insist that Lord St. George was posted to the south coast somewhere, I shall have to contradict you, or blur things a bit, because I want him to come and go freely to the house in Hertfordshire. I love him dearly, and knowing that he is doomed I want to spend time in his company while there is still time.
When it comes to spending time with the characters in the Wimsey family saga, I find I have the deepest empathy with Harriet. In many ways much less interesting, less showy than her husband, she has an earthy practicality, a good trooper sort of ability to cope with life which makes her a good friend to have. There is something about her that I find particularly impressive, which is adumbrated in a favourite passage from Busman's Honeymoon. May I read it to you?
Peter and Harriet are sitting in a little garden, together and alone.
"Harriet," he said suddenly, "What do you think about life? I mean, do you find it good, on the whole? Worth living?"
She turned to him with a quick readiness, as though here was the opportunity to say something she had been wanting to say for a long time.
"Yes! I've always felt absolutely certain it was good - if only one could get it straightened out. I've hated almost everything that ever happened to me, but I knew all the time that it was just things that were wrong, not everything. Even when I felt most awful I never thought to killing myself or wanting to die, only of somehow getting out of the mess and starting again."
"That's rather admirable," Peter says.
That unflinching attitude of Harriet's, her uncowed nature and reserves of toughness and courage make her a wonderful person to write about against the background of 1940.
Of course one of the profoundest difficulties the new project faces is the change in the times. And the most abrupt and fundamental changes in our country took place between 1936, when Thrones, Dominations was set, and the 1940 of the Wimsey Papers. Picking up the threads from the Spectator articles means setting the new story in the period known as "the phony war", a jump in time which brings the period, just, within the scope of my personal memory, although not within the scope of any remembered adult understanding. Hardships and restrictions were raining down on the British Isles, although bombs were not yet doing so. America was neutral. Germany looked invincible. Peter was fifty that year. To have written him as the cheerful, flippant, insouciant man-about-town fooling about with criminal investigation as a hobby would have been ludicrous. To have written him as the joyful and triumphant husband, hell-bent on happiness for two which he was in Busman's Honeymoon would have suggested an extraordinarily self-centred, irresponsible person.
A stupid person.
PETER? Stupid? The point I am making is that if Peter is to remain himself, a recognisable person, continuous with the person we have come to know and love, then he must change. Married love will change him, fatherhood will change him, war will change him. There will be more Lord Peter, but no more of the same Lord Peter.
I would like to finish this talk by trying to describe to you, very briefly, what difference it makes to me to be working with somebody else's characters instead of my own. It does feel different. It deprives the author of unquestioned authority. Anybody who knows Peter and Harriet may feel I have got them wrong. You are about as likely to share my view of them completely as you are to agree with me completely about some real person we both know. Or as unlikely. I feel as if I were writing biography, rather than fiction. Biography with nothing to go on except speculation. There is no such literary form as that.
Of course people can argue with a first author about the nature of the characters in her work - I was objecting, albeit politely, to that dive into the fountain just a few paragraphs back. But Dorothy has the absolute power to make him dive if she wants to; if she says he dived, or is it dove? Then he did. We will have to take it from her, and make of it what we will.
But if I write a passage in which somebody from the Wimsey canon behaves out-of-character in your opinion, you will feel entitled to contradict me. To say I have got it wrong; to say Dorothy would never had written this or that. I might feel like warning you that the few people who said that about parts of Thrones, Dominations almost without exception targeted something which Dorothy had written, but the truth is I cannot hide behind her skirts like that. Fiction is believable if you believe it. Lord Peter is lovable if you love him. Convincing if you are convinced. I have done the best I can, and now you judge the result.
But absolute authority, even that of authors, is not very good for people, even authors. In working with somebody else's characters it has to be replaced by the nearest one can come to loving and intelligent attention to figures in a landscape, to character and circumstance. And I do believe that authority is a chimera, and that in loving and intelligent attention we come nearest to the truth about other people, both fictional and real.