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Dorothy Sayers reading notes: Busman’s Honeymoon

busman's honeymoonThe 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.

Busman’s Honeymoon is the last full length Lord Peter Wimsey novel, coming immediately after Gaudy Night and describing the events of Peter & Harriet’s honeymoon. It’s one that I have not read very often. Gaudy Night is so perfect and therefore I’ve tended to resent the mere existence of another book which couldn’t possibly be as good. Now, having re-read it, I recognize that there are some really lovely moments, and yet it never has that transcendence that Gaudy Night does.

But also, Busman’s Honeymoon is hard for me to synthesize. It operates on three levels throughout the book, which on the face of it seem fairly disparate.

On the lightest layer, there’s a lot of piffle in this book. Four of the main characters are excellent pifflers: Peter, Harriet, the Dowager Duchess, and (surprisingly!) Superintendent Kirk. Both Miss Martin and the Dowager write extremely charming letters and diaries at the beginning of the book. (The Dowager’s “kissing one another madly in a punt, poor things,” has to be one of my favorite lines ever.) And through the murder investigation, Peter, Harriet, and Kirk make a kind of game of trading quotations and allusions. It’s even in the flights of imagination that all three detectives embark on as they try to create a possible explanation for Mr. Noakes’s death.

The next layer deals with the fact that this book shows Peter & Harriet adjusting to actually being married. This pervades the story in ways both large and small, and also gives us some of my favorite lines in the book. If at the wedding Harriet is “like a ship coming into harbor with everything shining and flags flying,” the rest of the book is both an echo and a test of that moment. “One is afraid to believe in one’s good fortune,” Peter says, and more than that even, the case presents them with a number of issues that would have to be worked out at some point but which are thrust upon them in the days that ought to be entirely halcyon.

Both Peter and Harriet have moments where they look at the other person and see them newly. Harriet, in seeing Peter’s competence with village dealings realizes “why it was that with all his masking attitudes, all his cosmopolitan self-adaptations, all his spiritual reticences and escapes, he yet carried about with him that permanent atmosphere of security.” Peter looks at Harriet and sees “a skin like pale honey and a mind of a curious, tough quality that stimulated his own. Yet no woman had ever so stirred his blood; she had only to look or speak to him to make the very bones shake in his body.”

But they are also wrestling with the realities of being married to each other. Not only the sweeps and Bunters and dead bodies, but the knitting together of these two people. Being married is a source of great joy. (“All my life I have been wandering in the dark–but now I have found your heart–and am satisfied.” “And what do all the great words come to in the end, but that?–I love you–I am at rest with you–I have come home.”) and that is presented as a reality itself.

At the same time, as Harriet notes, “Being preposterously fond of a person didn’t prevent one from hurting him unintentionally.” There are several crisis points in this book, where if Sayers were a different writer, if Peter and Harriet were different people, the whole thing might end in tragedy. But because they are themselves, they refuse to let their affection corrupt their judgement. At one of these points, Harriet says, “What kind of life could we have if I knew you had become less than yourself by marrying me?” It’s that gift of clear sight and integrity that she has carried with her throughout the books that holds them fast and in the end, wins them through.

In the last layer, there’s a bleakness that underlies the two happier strands and which at times seems quite jarring. Even in the description of the wedding day, there’s the mention of “a statement about Abyssinia,” by which Sayers means this. Busman’s Honeymoon was published in 1937, and thinking about it I did feel the shadow of WWII looming over the story. On the more personal level, Peter’s nightmares and his anguish over Frank Crutchley’s fate take this somewhere other than the earlier, lighter books, or indeed the honeymoon story one might expect. The village characters, with the exception of the delightful Superintendent Kirk, are not terribly appealing in some ways. Frank Crutchley’s unkindess, Miss Twitterton’s hopeless grasping after him, Mrs. Ruddle’s venomous tongue: these are not the stuff of which idylls are made.

And yet, in this last re-read, I begin to see that Peter’s distress (which is clearly tied to his PTSD from the first World War) shows the measure of his growth, and of his growing together with Harriet. At the very end, when Harriet can only wait for him to come–where the waiting is an active choice to let him make his own decision–he finally admits that he has this broken place within him. It’s only then that he can realize that he doesn’t have to be alone. “You’re my corner and I’ve come to hide,” he tells Harriet, in a more desperate version of his earlier declaration. But now it is true, and stripping away of this barrier allows the book to end with tempered joy: the distress over Frank Crutchley isn’t any less, but they are at the last, together.

Book source: personal library

Looking for my other posts about the Lord Peter and Harriet mysteries? 

Strong Poison

Gaudy Night

By Maureen LaFerney

My name is Maureen. I currently work as a library assistant in a public library in the Indianapolis area, and also just so happen to be a voracious reader. I frequently end up under a cat.

9 replies on “Dorothy Sayers reading notes: Busman’s Honeymoon”

Reading this post actually made me tear up. I love, love, love Sayers’ depiction of their marriage, and your clear-sighted and concise summation of it. That Harriet’s personal integrity and honesty is one strand that makes their marriage work – that Peter has found the one person to whom he can show himself weak and find strength from her – the overall idea of being at rest with your spouse, at home being with him/her regardless of place, of that peace and understanding that comes with love … it resonates so deeply with me.

On a lighter note, Superintendent Kirk is probably my favorite policeman in the entire Wimsey canon (barring Charles, of course, who is far more than a policeman). And I adore the Dowager Duchess’s bits at the beginning of the book. I adore the Dowager Duchess in general, and getting things first-hand from her perspective is so delightful.

And now I think I need to go re-read this book …!

Agreed with all of this! It’s such a lovely book in so many ways, despite the sadder bits.

You know what my absolutely favorite throwaway thing from this book is? The ghost in the library.

I love Harriet and Peter as a married couple. I also love Harriet as a novelist, and Peter’s respect for her career, and his recognition that making up stories is work – but a different kind of work. It’s so interesting how different his character is – how nuanced – in these books, in comparison with some of the short stories (and stuff like Five Red Herrings, which is nearly unreadable IMHO).

I want you to do The Nine Tailors! Because I am a bellringer.

I have a comment on Goodreads regarding the stage play of this book, which will amuse you:

this might amuse you too (scroll down to number 3):

You are QUITE RIGHT about the ghost in the library! I loved how matter-of-fact everyone is about it.

It’s so interesting how different his character is – how nuanced – in these books, in comparison with some of the short stories (and stuff like Five Red Herrings, which is nearly unreadable IMHO).

Yes. It’s fascinating to me that Sayers could manage to write him into an entirely different character. And of course I love Harriet–they really are a sensational team. 🙂

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