Dorothy Sayers reading notes: Strong Poison

strong poisonThe triumphant return of reading notes! This month, I plan to re-read and talk about four mysteries by Dorothy Sayers. Specifically, those which feature both Harriet Vane & Lord Peter Wimsey, since Harriet + Peter = otp forever. As always, these posts may (will!) contain massive spoilers so beware if you wish to avoid them.

Strong Poison is the fifth book in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, and the first to feature Peter’s love interest and eventual wife, Harriet Vane. As the book opens, Harriet is accused of the murder of an ex-lover, Philip Boyes, and it’s up to Peter to prove her innocence and save her life.

I have strong feelings about Harriet Vane which are: HARRIET IS THE BEST AND I LOVE HER FOREVER. She is actually one of my all-time favorite heroines/main characters and have said on the record that I aspire to be part Harriet, part Tiffany Aching, with maybe a dash of Miss Marple and Sophie Hatter thrown in.

So, it’s somewhat odd to remember that when I first read Strong Poison, I actually felt fairly resentful of Harriet. Here she was, not appreciating Lord Peter! Refusing to marry him, which I both understood and found very frustrating! Partly, I was 19 at the time, and partly I had not read Gaudy Night, which is a perfect book full of perfection which I would not change or alter in any way.

And the more I’ve read and re-read Strong Poison, the more I’ve come to appreciate Harriet’s choices in that book. There’s a certain narrative set up that implies she will swoon gratefully at Peter’s feet, accepting his embrace and adoring him forever. But then she doesn’t. She refuses his offer of marriage and the book ends with them separated, with Harriet surrounded by her female friends & supporters.

Harriet refuses narrative inevitability. She refuses loss of integrity (in fact, this fits very well with her refusal to marry Philip Boyes when it becomes clear that his offer of marriage is in the nature of a prize for passing a test). She refuses to lose herself in Peter which, because he is still himself a character in flux, she is quite right in thinking she would. And in doing so, she allows the growth of real love, passion, and respect between the two of them.

*******

So, having written a several hundred word paean to Harriet Vane (<3 ❤ <3), the actual book is also one of my favorites to re-read. It’s on the slim side, as Sayers’s earlier LPW books all are. And the mystery itself is complex and ingenious.

The judge’s speech at the beginning of the book is a marvelous example of how to write a character without agreeing with them, and who the narrative will totally disprove, and who you want and expect the readership to disagree with and dislike. I always finish that section by, quite frankly, wanting to bop him on the nose.

I also love the way Sayers plays with expectations in the person of the “elderly spinster” One assumes she will disapprove of the worldly and immoral Miss Vane, but then she marvelously turns out to be the stubborn and conscientious Miss Climpson! Who saves Harriet by refusing to accept a guilty verdict when she doesn’t believe it! Hurrah Miss Climpson!

In both of these cases–and in fact throughout the book–Sayers’s facility of description is on display. She paints a vivid image of people and scenes in a few sentences and a scattering of dialogue. And here she has not only Peter & Harriet (who converse largely in quotations and allusions) but Miss Climpson, Bill Rumm, the artistic sets Harriet & Philip Boyes were involved in. There’s a sense both of deep understanding and a quick sketch.

But at the same time, Sayers does have her blind spots and I can’t ignore the fact that the way the Jewish characters in this book are talked about was really gross–the more so perhaps because of real-life situations at the moment. For someone who is normally so generously understanding of her character, it’s all the more glaring. Regardless of whether Sayers herself was anti-Semitic, the words on the page are. And while I love this book forever, it also forever has that asterisk.

On the plus side, the treatment of the female characters is thoughtful and nuanced. Sayers was very concerned, both within and outside of her fiction, with questions of women & and their place in the world. We see that here, in Harriet’s refusal to be treated as an object, either by Philip Boyes or by Peter Wimsey, as well as in Miss Climpson and her Bureau–which basically exists to take down men attempting to prey on vulnerable women. And as well, in a different light, in the fact that Peter himself does see women as people, accepting them on their own terms (as in the case of Eiluned and the tea kettle). This was for me, one of his nicest and most human points in this book.

*******

In Strong Poison, as opposed to Have His Carcase, which I’ll talk about next week, the mystery is at the service of the romance. And I want to end by talking about this. I love Harriet and Peter separately, but I love them maybe even more in their relationship with each other.

In large part this is because, as Sayers herself said, it isn’t until Peter falls in love with Harriet (immediately, desperately, hopelessly, and yet not entirely egotistically) that he turns into a real person. In the earlier books, he is the pattern of a gentleman detective, flying in from America to save his brother at trial, just to pick one example. But Harriet (I like to imagine) was always too much herself to allow him to remain a monocled cliche.  And so he becomes “a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook.” (quotation from the essay above)

And so, necessarily within Strong Poison, there is a sense of alteration, of the world unmade and remade. Of yourself unmade and remade. When an old friend asks Peter not to change, he feels, “for the first time the dull and angry helplessness which is the first warning stroke of the triumph of mutability…Whether his present enterprise failed or succeeded, things would never be the same again.” (Strong Poison, Chapter 8) On the one hand, he is being transformed into something arguably better; on the other hand, he is necessarily leaving past foolishnesses behind (and finding a new set, to be fair).

So, Strong Poison does not end in lovers’ meeting–not yet, at any rate. But Sayers, by writing a story which shows the main characters within it as real people, by resisting the easy ending that she might have written, has begun to turn her detective stories–wonderful but trope-filled–into something else, both harder and more beautiful.

Book source: personal library100_4112

Book information: 1930, adult mystery

Finally, I am unable to resist adding a picture of my cat because I named him Wimsey and he is a glorious creature.

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17 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reading notes

17 responses to “Dorothy Sayers reading notes: Strong Poison

  1. Mary Beth

    I just finished rereading Strong Poison last night, so this post is perfectly timed for me! It’s been years since I read it, so while I always had a strong impression of the central crime itself, and the interaction between Peter and Harriet, I’d forgotten most of the other scenes and characters — especially the marvelous Miss Climpson and Miss Murchison, who are brave and smart and quite able detectives in their own right.

    Though I still don’t quite understand how Peter figured out the arsenic was in the egg — I’m sure A Shropshire Lad had something to do with it, but I come up woefully uneducated in comparison with Peter and Harriet (and, probably, Sayers’ intended readers).

    • Maureen Eichner

      YES, Miss Murchison! And I have always & will always adore Miss Climpson.

      To be honest, I have always accepted that as an example of Peter’s detective genius BUT ALSO you are quite right re: education. There are so many allusions and quotations which I suspect we are supposed to be able to just know. I’ve read A LOT of British classics and I definitely can’t place them all. (I’ll probably talk about this more when I talk about Gaudy Night because there are references strewn left and right.)

    • A Shropshire Lad has a poem in it, Terence This Is Stupid Stuff, when Terence the poet, responding to criticism of his uncheerful poetry, suggests his poetry helps folks deal with tough times, similar to how King Mithridates took a little poison every day to resist poisoning attempts by enemies.
      “Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
      I’d face it as a wise man would,
      And train for ill and not for good.”
      This reminded Wimsey that one can take a little arsenic on a regular basis without dying, and the egg was the only thing the lawyer could count on only himself and Boyle eating. So he must have arsenic’d the egg.

  2. Ahhh, I just finished rereading Strong Poison myself! And loving it even more this time around than I have before.

    I read Have His Carcasse before Strong Poison, which REALLY made me dislike Harriet. How could she treat my beloved Lord Peter so badly? Then I read Strong Poison and Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon, and all at once I realized I adored her at least as much as I did him. On this read of SP, I was really taken aback by how insensitive Peter was. Here she was, in the worst situation imaginable, and he’s pushing his own hopes and feelings on her, and thinking only of his own happiness with her if she were free. But he does realize some of that by the end, in staying away afterward, even if, as we see in later books, he doesn’t fulfill Sylvia’s prophecy by waiting until Harriet comes to him.

    As you mention here, it’s really struck me, in reading through the entire series in order for the first time, is how different all the post-SP books are, starting with Five Red Herrings, from the pre-SP books. This does mark a subtle yet fascinating change in Peter, and in the tone of the books overall. As you quoted, Peter is changed forever, for good or for ill, by what happens in this book.

    • Maureen Eichner

      I’ve started thinking about this a bit as I re-read Have His Carcase and I agree about Peter’s insensitivity. But at the same time, in Strong Poison, he’s also giving Harriet something to fight, a way to reconnect her to the outside world. I’m not sure if I’m making much sense, and I don’t want to let him off the hook.

      Yes, exactly! It’s really interesting to me how Sayers manages to do that (and then write about Harriet doing the same thing in Gaudy Night).

  3. I don’t even think the change is subtle. I sorta kinda think the pre-Harriet LPW stories are okay, but they don’t engage me, either. For me, the series only takes on life and color when Harriet appears.

    Looking forward to your comments on Gaudy Night! Perfect, yes!

    • Maureen Eichner

      Yes, I rarely re-read the pre-Harriet books.
      I am worried that my comments on Gaudy Night will run very very long, but we’ll see.

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  5. Oh! Has it been long enough since I read SP that I can read it again? It must be about time! Harriet and Tiffany Aching—ha! yes!

    I always feel so uneducated when I don’t get all the references; and I so wish I could, because allusions are so powerful. There are probably tons I don’t even know are references . . .

    • Rosie H

      But then spotting a reference while you’re reading something else is so satisfying!

      • Maureen Eichner

        It’s true! I actually went through Gaudy Night and googled a bunch of things to try to find the references at one point.

    • I own a 2nd edition Lord Peter Wimsey Companion, but it’s not well organized if you, as you say, don’t know something’s a reference in the first place–it’s set up like a dictionary/encyclopedia. Much more helpful were the days when the LordPeter email list was an active, happening place and did read-throughs chapter by chapter, and all these informed people would point out all the references. Better yet, they’d explain what the reference meant to the story, as my very concrete brain often would miss that, too…

      • Maureen Eichner

        Oh, so interesting! I never was tuned into the Sayers fandom online, but it’s neat to know there was that resource.

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