A group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in March will be devoted to John Dickson Carr.
Dorothy L. Sayers and the gold lamé wedding gown
Since this is our final Tuesday with Dorothy L. Sayers for a while, I trust my readers will forgive my wandering a bit on this topic. While working on blog posts for this month, I’ve tried a couple of times, unsuccessfully, to try to figure out why I don’t really enjoy the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers. I’m getting closer.
A few years back, I rather thought it was because she’s an arrogant writer, and that’s a quality I don’t find interesting. Arrogant, for me, is creating a 30-page letter as a crucial element of Clouds of Witness in stilted and rather prissy French — and then being surprised when her publishers want to provide a translation. Similarly, I think it’s pretty arrogant to have a crucial verbal exchange in Gaudy Night take place in Latin, although there’s nothing in it that affects the detective work.
And yet everything I’ve heard about this lady suggests that she was not the arrogant type at all. I’m not exceptionally versed in her biography; I’ve read Such A Strange Lady but little else. What Martin Edwards had to say about her in his excellent recent work on the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder, (buy one here!) agrees with my impression that she was kind of a galumphing British country lady, swathed in gigantic ill-fitting tweeds and subject to emotional outbursts and sudden enormous bursts of energy. I can’t maintain that “arrogant” is a word you apply to someone who insists upon the complex nonsensical ritual including Eric the Skull that was necessary to become a member of the Detection Club. That sounds more to me like that peculiar turn of phrase, “jolly hockey sticks”, indicating “boisterous enthusiasm”.
I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that DLS used the Peter and Harriet storyline as a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy, where her romantic life finally came out the way she wanted it. (Including her own statement quoted by Barbara Reynolds, via Wikipedia, that she created Lord Peter as a wealthy man to give herself the pleasure of spending his fortune for him.) But was Sayers herself ready to move within the social circles attendant upon marriage to a peer of the realm? I rather doubt it, actually. She was the daughter of a country doctor who worked hard to get a superb education at an excellent school, and in real life she married an unsuccessful Scottish journalist. She might have made a superb wife for a don, or a country doctor; however, I’ve always felt that the woman who insisted that her stand-in, Harriet Vane, would get married in gold lamé, a fabric beloved of drag queens and trailer trash, lacked an essential instinct, or understanding, that would allow her to succeed in the higher realms of society.
I also think that DLS realized it, too. The idea that she would be so thoroughly and repellently patronized for her dress sense by the equivalent of Peter’s sister-in-law is where the idea of Helen came from for her books; in order to make Helen a figure of fun and opprobrium in the novels, she had to have realized that that’s what would have happened to a real-life Harriet Vane who “married above herself”.
But was my instinct correct? I had occasion to go back to the original text of Busman’s Honeymoon recently, and I came across the exact quote about gold lamé; only, to my surprise, there were two references. The Dean in a letter to Miss Edwards says “she looked like a Renaissance portrait stepped out of its frame. I put it down first of all to the effect of gold lamé,”, and this is the piece I’ve always remembered. But Helen, Duchess of Denver, later says in a letter to Lady Grummidge that Harriet “had enough sense of propriety not to get herself up in white satin and orange-blossom; but I could not help thinking that a plain costume would have been more suitable than cloth of gold. I can see that I shall have to speak to her presently about her clothes, but I am afraid she will be difficult.”
Now, “cloth of gold” may have been a phrase I’d read a couple of times, but it had never quite stuck before. I had had in my mind that Harriet was wearing a kind of fabric that was newly being manufactured at the time … as Wikipedia defines it, a shiny fabric “woven or knit with thin ribbons of metallic yarns”. The classic gold lamé evening gown is one worn by Marilyn Monroe, and I’ve shown you a picture of it to the left. Thin, glittering, and very expensive fabric that moulds to the body. And I think it’s this level of expensive-looking luxury that I always had in mind, although admittedly I would have assumed that Harriet would have covered her shoulders and neckline. I figured DLS had chosen an expensive and glamorous fabric with about the same lack of knowledge as caused her to make bloomers about Peter’s choices in wine and motorcars.
Cloth of gold, however, is a whole other fabric, in my mind. According to Wikipedia once more, it’s woven with a gold-wrapped or spun weft; the core yarn, though, is usually silk. This material “is mentioned … as a fabric befitting a princess” and it has an association with mediaeval gowns. I’ve shown you one to the left that’s the best reference I could find. As a fabric, I think cloth of gold has more of a formal feel, and it has distinct overtones of the upper classes; under Henry VIII, its use was “reserved to royalty and higher levels of nobility”.
So in other words — far from being the gauche and over-dramatic statement that would have caused Harriet to rightly be patronized by Helen, Harriet — and thus DLS — was on the right track entirely. A woman who had been acquitted of murdering her lover is not suitable for white satin and orange-blossom, since to put it bluntly she’s demonstrably not a virgin. And yet it’s clear later on in Busman’s Honeymoon that Harriet, now Lady Peter, realizes that if she doesn’t take on the trappings of the aristocracy quickly and effectively, Helen will be able to use it against both herself and Lord Peter. I’ve spent 30 or 40 years thinking that the material of Harriet’s wedding dress was a terrible misstep and very revealing of DLS’s lack of understanding of the fine details of social usage at the highest levels. And it turns out that instead Helen and I got it all wrong; DLS knew what was going on and I didn’t.
So, I owe Dorothy L. Sayers a little bit of a re-examination as well as something of an apology. As penance, even though we’re now done with DLS, I’m going to go back and re-read the four novels where Harriet and Peter slowly fall in love. Another 30 years might go by before I publish a full recantation, admitting that Peter and Harriet are lovers for the ages — but I’m getting there slowly!