13 February 2016

Only for readers of D L Sayers ...

 ... if there are some out there!

Thrones and Dominations is a Peter Wimsey  novel, abandoned, fragmentary, between 1936 and 1938 and "completed" in 1998 by Jill Paton Walsh.

The context of this book fascinates me. It portrays the equal, and equally passionate, love of PW and H; a love destined to be fruitful although that fruitfulness, Sayers emphasises, will not just be for dynastic reasons! Against this is set the relationship between Laurence and Rosamund, who are married but whose conduct deceives a seasoned observer into thinking it is that of lover and mistress. Their relationship has distinctly sadomasochistic undertones: Rosamund disciplines Laurence to secure her own wilful interests by the giving or witholding of her person. Sayers, and the lapdog, make clear the inherently infertile character of this flawed association. Not surprisingly, the title of the book is ...

What mainly intrigues me is that the narrative is not situated in a novelistic never-never land; Sayers very deliberately places it explicitly within the early months of the reign of Edward VIII. And we now know that the relationship between him and Mrs Simpson was indeed a matter of Thrones and of Dominations. And, of course, for whatever combination of reasons, it was infertile.

As Sayers wrote the surviving six draft chapters, had she read foreign newspapers so that she knew about Simpson? Assuming that indeed she had, could she have known ... did anybody know then, except for the occasional footman who might happen to burst in while the King-Emperor was coram dea provolutus ... how unusual that liaison was? Are the similarities between Sayers' characters and the reality behind the Abdication Crisis sheer coincidence? Or could there be a cultural link: was this type of sexual situation one of the preoccupations of writers and novelists in the 1930s? Is there a symbiosis somewhere here linking Art and Life? I am not very well-read in English fiction written between the wars. You literate chappesses and chaps out there will be able to answer this.

And I have some plain and factual source-critical questions which I share simply on the very remote off-chance that somebody might have some answers. We know that Walsh wove into a unity two differing and often very different drafts left by Sayers. Have any variant versions escaped into the public domain? Do we know if Walsh may have censored from her synthetic narrative typically Thirtiesish tropes in the Sayers drafts because they would be considered politically incorrect nowadays? The 'Diagram' Sayers left of the plot: is that anywhere to be seen? The section we know Walsh omitted ... in which Paul Delagardie describes to Harriet Peter Wimsey's sexual initiation ... has that sneaked out? Why was Walsh ... in our 'liberated' age ... so squeamish about it?

Finally: despite a slight chronological misalignment, might Sayers have based the portraitist Gaston Chapparelle on Philip de Laszlo? (I have a personal interest here: a de Laszlo, a portrait of a disillusioned headmasterly flirt, hung just outside the room I taught in at Lancing, where he had sent his boys. I must have looked at it well above 10,000 times!) In 1933, all London flocked to an exhibition to see and gossip over de Lazlo's portrait of the red-haired Anny Ahlers, who had recently died in very mysterious circumstances.

4 comments:

Rose Marie said...

I have never read a Sayers novel, but The Mind of the Maker is not to be missed.

Banshee said...

The older woman bossing around the younger man was indeed a trope, and you may remember it being big in Kipling ("Only Seventeen" has the younger girl's version) and in Christie, and indeed in courtly love manuals and the story of the Rosenkavalier. It was regarded as natural for younger men to fall for voyages, but shameful for them to grab and keep young men in their toils.

You may remember that in Gaudy Night, Harriet has a younger man get a crush on her, and a similar thing happened to a woman in Have His Carcase, so it was a natural theme for a book continuing the Wimseys' story.

Banshee said...

I suppose I will have to hold my nose and reread Thrones, Dominations in order to better answer your question. I have bleached all but the first chapter out of my mind.

Although Jill Paton Walsh is a competent mystery writer in her own right and obviously she tried hard, she just doesn't have the gift of pastiche. She's also constantly arguing her own modern line of thought instead of Sayers', and in a very self-righteous and obvious way. I suppose she was trying to defend Sayers against the now-constant accusation of snobbism, but... ugh. I hated her work so much!

The pastiche gift is a strange thing. It is being able to write in character, where the character is another writer as well as the writer's characters and settings. Good writers can lack it, and otherwise bad writers can have it in double heaps.

Banshee said...

You probably know that Walsh's theory is that Sayers had worked out this nice correspondence between the new king and the new marriage of Peter and Harriet, and was bopping along with her nice mystery, and then the abdication came along (and probably more gossip came out about Mrs. Simpson and the ex-king). She wasn't the kind of writer who would want to do, or even be seen as having done, a satire about the ex-king's love life, and yet I doubt she could have brought herself to think up a new plot, once she was already so far along. So she probably gave it up.

It's pretty common for science fiction writers to have a tiny bit of the gift of prophecy (usually in an un-useful way), and sometimes mystery writers "predict" things too. Having it in a way which made the new book all but un-writeable and un-publishable... that really wouldn't be useful at all!