Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Post originally published July 31, 2015

Title: The Custom of the Country
Author: Edith Wharton
Published in 1913

Summary from Goodreads: Considered by many to be her masterpiece, Edith Wharton’s second full-length work is a scathing yet personal examination of the exploits and follies of the modern upper class. As she unfolds the story of Undine Spragg, from New York to Europe, Wharton affords us a detailed glimpse of what might be called the interior décor of this America and its nouveau riche fringes. Through a heroine who is as vain, spoiled, and selfish as she is irresistibly fascinating, and through a most intricate and satisfying plot that follows Undine’s marriages and affairs, she conveys a vision of social behavior that is both supremely informed and supremely disenchanted. – Anita Brookner

This book is the second in Wharton’s cycle of books focusing on women and marriage in gilded age New York. The first, House of Mirth, was published in 1905. House of Mirth was her first full-length novel. The Custom of the Country was the second of the three, published in 1913. The Age of Innocence completes the cycle, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1920. Each of them explore female autonomy and marriage in the late nineteenth century, focusing primarily on upper-class New York society and the extensive rules and limitations of that society.

The anti-heroine of The Custom of the Country is Undine Spragg, a midwestern girl with seething ambitions who has dragged her newly rich family to New York. Born in the fictional Apex City, Undine has an outsized sense of importance coupled with absolutely no principles whatsoever. She is, and remains, total tabula rasa through the entire book, an empty vessel to be filled with whatever social niceties are required to fit into the group to which she aspires. She cares for essentially no one and provides no value at all save her extraordinary youthful beauty. Sirenlike, she convinces four different men: her father, Abner Spragg, her New York husband, Ralph Marvell, her French husband, Raymond de Chelles, and, coming full circle, her Apex City husband Elmer Moffatt that she is precisely who they want her – and believe her – to be.

In mythology, Undine is an elemental water spirit, a nereide, a nymph, who is born without a human soul and must marry a human male in order to achieve immortality. This is a fine analogy to Undine Spragg, a woman who is so utterly self-centered that she is incapable of even the barest human feeling for another person. Like a nymph, she is physically gorgeous, eternally youthful, lithe, slender and innocent of appearance. She has the ability to be completely artificial and yet appear utterly without artifice. The men whom she marries believe her to be exactly who she appears to be, until much too late.

Edith Wharton is frequently unkind to her female characters. Undine is different. She is never really forced to pay the price for her decisions, but, in part, I think that this is because she is incapable of feeling like she did anything wrong. She is a human wrecking ball, a vampire squid wrapped around the face of those who love her, sucking them dry and discarding the empty husk that she leaves behind.

In many ways, she reminds me of some of the other great anti-heroines in literature: Emma Bovary, Scarlett O’Hara, Daisy Buchanan, Becky Sharp. And there is nothing like reading about an anti-heroine and realizing that many of the qualities that make her an anti-heroine are the same qualities that might make a man a hero. Or, at a minimum, successful. Undine, as a woman, has no ability to make her own money or be independent, and she lacks any sort of a control or restraint to prevent her from behaving really, really badly. She is pure consumption, unbridled by convention, with no ability other than manipulation to achieve her aims.

She makes her parents miserable, with her constant social climbing and relentless demands. Near the beginning of the book, she has target-locked on a specific social class exemplified by old New York families, and demands that, in order to insinuate herself into that class, her father purchase her an opera box, so she can see and be seen the class with which she wants to associate herself. When her father demurs, because of the cost, but suggests he might be able to afford a seat, she responds:

“I’d a good deal rather have a box for the season,” she rejoined, and he saw the opening he had given her.

She had two ways of getting things out of him against his principles; the tender wheedling way, and the harsh-lipped and cold — and he did not know which he dreaded most. As a child they had admired her assertiveness, had made Apex ring with their boasts of it; but it had long since cowed Mrs. Spragg, and it was beginning to frighten her husband.

Every decision she makes turns out, in her mind, to be the wrong one because she is simply incapable of contentment. There is a great, grasping need at the bottom of her that can never be filled. She marries into New York society, and that turns to ashes because, as it turns out, old families don’t necessarily possess the kind of material resources that she needs in order to be amused. And because she is Undine Spragg, beautiful and demanding, she never, not even for one minute, feels that she should have to make the best of any situation. Rather, the situation must make the best of her, or she is out. When husband number one conveniently kicks off, opening the way for her to remarry a Catholic French Count as a widow, not as a divorcee, she is briefly contented with the great chateau and the title.

In some ways, she’s met her match in Raymond de Chelles. She tries to manipulate him, and he merely ignores her. When she throws a tantrum over their reduced circumstances, and attempts to guilt him into selling some of his heirloom tapestries in order to keep her in her accustomed splendor, he responds:

“Ah, that’s your answer — that’s all you feel when you lay hands on things that are sacred to us!” He stopped a moment, and then let his voice break out with the volume she had felt it to be gathering. “And you’re all alike,” he exclaimed, “every one of you. You come among us from a country we don’t know, and can’t imagine, a country you care for so little that before you’ve been a day in ours you’ve forgotten the very house you were born in — if it wasn’t torn down before you knew it! You come among us speaking our language and not knowing what we mean; wanting the things we want, and not knowing why we want them; aping our weaknesses, exaggerating our follies, ignoring or ridiculing all we care about — you come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven’t had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they are dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of what we have — and we’re fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pick up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honourable for us.”

After this, she finally, ultimately, frees herself from him and marries her equal, Elmer Moffat, a man who is just as newly rich, just as crass, just as brash as Undine herself. With unlimited resources and a husband who will make no demands upon her, she believes that she has finally achieved that which she is due.

But even at the end of the book, I’m left with a strong belief that this one will not stick. That the black widow spider that is Undine Spragg de Chelles Moffat will not be content for long. The book ends:

But under all that dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador’s wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first guest she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.

Honestly, is there anyone, finishing this book, who doesn’t think that somewhere there is a president who doesn’t have a prayer in hell of standing in her way when she decides to marry the ambassador to France? Because seriously, Undine Spragg could reduce Donald Trump to a pile of quivering ectoplasm in thirty seconds flat.

Edith Wharton is, as always, brilliant. But, unlike so many of her other books, this book is a hard diamond of a thing. I cannot sympathize with Undine Spragg, because there is no humanity in her at all. She is the ultimate expression of the Randian ideal: pure selfishness, gorgeous and demanding, standing with hand outstretched, wearing a beautiful dress.

Georgette Heyer

Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer

Post first published on August 22, 2013

Title: Powder and Patch
Author: Georgette Heyer
First published in 1923

Summary from Goodreads: For her, he would do anything…

Plainspoken country gentleman Philip Jettan won’t bother with a powdered wig, high heels, and fashionable lace cuffs, until he discovers that his lovely neighbor is enamored with a sophisticated man-about-town…

But what is it that she really wants?

Cleome Charteris sends her suitor Philip away to get some town polish, and he comes back with powder, patches, and all the manners of a seasoned rake. Does Cleome now have exactly the kind of man she’s always wanted, or was her insistence on Philip’s remarkable transformation a terrible mistake?

Originally published by Mills and Boon in 1923 under the title “The Transformation of Philip Jettan,” and then republished by William Heinemann (minus the original last chapter) in 1930. This is one of Heyer’s Georgian novels. It is essentially her second novel – published in 1923 after the Black Moth, and then published between The Masqueraders (1928) and Devil’s Cub (1932). I could find no explanation for the reason that the book was republished under a new name only seven years after the original publication.

I have not read The Black Moth, and feel that I must, as it was written when Heyer was only 18 years old, and was published when she was 19 (she was born August 16, 1902) – this year represents the eleventy-first anniversary after her birth.

I did not love Powder and Patch. It has a Pygmalion-ish theme, where the young, rough, country bumpkin (Philip) is transformed into a worldy, fashionable gentleman in order to win the heart of his one true love, the insipid, if pretty, Cleome. In a turn-about-is-fair-play sort of a way, Cleome sends away a decent, honest, straightforward young man who loves her and gets back a well-dressed, popular, flirtatious, dandy . . . who still loves her. She realizes pretty quickly that she got the short end of that stick, and she wants the old Philip back. The one who isn’t prettier than she is. The book, honestly, would have been more interesting if Philip had fallen in love with someone who didn’t inexplicably want to turn him into this:

There were a few moments of entertaining farce – the section where Cleome manages to engage herself to two young men – neither of whom are Philip, and neither of whom does she love – is mildly funny. Philip is required to return to his old self and extricate her from her own silliness in managing to muck things up. Thank goodness for a good man to solve Cleome’s problems. Otherwise she would’ve undoubtedly ended up a bigamist.

There are many things to like about Heyer’s novels. This one, really, possesses almost none of them. It is short, and underdeveloped. Some of her heroines can be quite interesting and empowered. Cleome was about as interesting as a hamster (she seemed to possess about as much sense, as well). The dialogue is usually quite witty and fun. This one really didn’t display that characteristic. Plus, I much prefer the Regency period because, frankly, men in tights make me want to retch.

So, overall, unless you are a huge fan of Heyer’s and intent upon reading all of her work, skip this one.

Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Post previously published on August 29, 2015

Title: North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
First published 1855

Summary from Goodreads: ‘How am I to dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today?’

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fused individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.

I read this all the way back in January, and I loved it so much and I had so much to say that I never managed to say any of it. So, settle in. Because this is my favorite Victorian novel of all time. I adore Middlemarch, which comes close, but nothing by Dickens or Collins or Hardy or Trollope can approach the love that I feel for North and South. I can’t believe that I’d never read it.

If I must make full confession, I have to admit that this:

May have something to do with my love for John Thornton. Yes, I’m shallow.

But Richard Armitage isn’t the only reason that I fell in love with North and South. The reasons are numerous:

First, I love the fact that it is set in the industrial north of England, which is a change from much Victorian literature that is set in London. Added to that, the fact that some of the characters are “working class” was a tremendous treat. Nicholas Higgins was a complex character who was treated respectfully by Gaskell, which delighted me. Uneducated though he was, and a bit of a political firebrand, he was willing to humble himself in an effort to get his job back when he took on the obligation of supporting the children of a fellow mill worker who had died.

Second, Mrs. Thornton was a bad ass Victorian lady. After John Thornton’s father speculated badly and lost his money, committing suicide in despair, she was left to raise two children basically by her wits alone. Her son, hardworking and ambitious, is ultimately able to buy the mill and become the owner. He says about his mother:

“My mother managed so that I put by three out of these fifteen shillings regularly. This made the beginning; this taught me self-denial. Now that I am able to afford my mother such comforts as her age, rather than her own wish, requires, I thank her silently on each occasion for the early training she gave me.”

When I take a moment to reflect on how difficult it would have been for a woman like Mrs. Thornton to not merely survive, but to thrive and remain unbowed and unbroken, I am even more impressed by Mrs. Gaskell. Mrs. Thornton has a backbone of steel – talk about strong female characters. In addition, though, she is complex and flawed, which makes her even more compelling.

Finally, the romance between John Thornton and Margaret Hale brings out the best in both of them – eventually. Margaret begins the book haughty, upset at being moved to Milton, missing the sophisticated society of southern England. She is out of her element in the industrial north, and looks down on the working class mill workers. Over time, however, she begins to see the value in their lack of sophistication, plain speech and work ethic.

This same transition occurs with her opinion of Mr. Thornton who proves himself to be more than worthy of Margaret. It is a reversal of the Lizzie Bennett/Mr. Darcy conflict. As Darcy must come to recognize that Lizzie is his equal in spite of her lack of fortune and crazy family, so must Margaret come to the conclusion that Mr. Thornton is her equal, even if he is in trade. He proves again and again that a gentleman is not born, but is made – including when he initially proposes to her, and she rejects summarily rejects him, rather than responding with anger, he takes a different approach:

“Miss Hale might love another — was indifferent and contemptuous to him — but he would yet do her faithful acts of service of which she should never know. He might despise her, but the woman whom he had once loved should be kept from shame; and shame it would be to pledge herself to a lie in a public court, or otherwise to stand and acknowledge her reason for desiring darkness rather than light.”

It takes many months for her to realize that she has fallen in love with him, as he has fallen in love with her.

“At that third call she turned her face, still covered with her small white hands, towards him, and laid it on his shoulder, hiding it even there; and it was too delicious to feel her soft cheek against his, for him to wish to see either deep blushes or loving eyes. He clasped her close. But they both kept silence.

At length she murmured in a broken voice: ‘Oh, Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough!’ ‘Not good enough! Don’t mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.’”

And she’s right, really – society will think she is marrying down, but it is Thornton who has proven himself to be the more noble person. In the end, they both stand up to their families and declare their love for one another

‘How shall I ever tell Aunt Shaw?’ she whispered, after some time of delicious silence. ‘Let me speak to her.’ ‘Oh, no! I owe to her, — but what will she say?’

‘I can guess. Her first exclamation will be, “That man!”‘

‘Hush!’ said Margaret, ‘or I shall try and show you your mother’s indignant tones as she says, “That woman!”‘

Overall, I highly recommend this book to fans of Austen or Eliot. It is a novel of manners, but tackles significant themes as well: the struggle between modernity and tradition, the plight of the working class, appearance of virtue versus appearance of vice, and other things. I predict that it will turn out to be one of those books that I reread frequently.

Freya Stark

A Winter in Arabia by Freya Stark

Previously published December 22, 2015

Title: A Winter in Arabia
Author: Freya Stark
First published in 1940

Summary from Goodreads: One of the most unconventional and courageous explorers of her time, Freya Stark chronicled her extraordinary Travels in the Near East, establishing herself as a twentieth century heroine. A Winter in Arabia recounts her 1937-8 expedition in what is now Yemen, a journey which helped secure her reputation not only as a great travel writer, but also as a first-rate geographer, historian, and archaeologist. There, in the land whose “nakedness is clothed in shreds of departed splendor,” she and two companions spent a winter in search of an ancient South Arabian city.

Offering rare glimpses of life behind the veil-the subtleties of business and social conduct, the elaborate beauty rituals of the women, and the bitter animosities between rival tribes, Freya Stark conveys the “perpetual charm of Arabia … that the traveler finds his own level there simply as a human being.”

Ah, the end of the year challenge clean up! I read this one ages ago, but never got around to posting & now with the Back to the Classics challenge coming to end, I have forgotten most of what I wanted to say!

I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I was looking forward to an adventure story written by a plucky Victorian lady explorer swathed in voluminous skirts. I wanted Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, but for real.

Unfortunately, it just didn’t capture my fancy as much as I had hoped. Divided into two sections: the Diary and the Journey, it was a bit dry.

The Diary section chronicles Freya Stark’s time spent in a small village called Hureidha, in South Yemen. Stark spent much of the time ill, and did get some interesting opportunities to interact with the village women, which was interesting. I was just hoping for something more.

The village itself looked something like this:

The second section covers her journey from the village to another location where she meets up with some other travellers.

I wouldn’t call this the easiest book to read, but it was very interesting. Stark is British, but approached her travels with an open soul. She was permitted to participate in much of the local native culture, and provides interesting descriptions of some of the rituals. She was also very descriptive, which provided me with really detailed mental pictures of the way the light shifted in the local wadi (which would have looked something like this):

I’m not sorry I read it, but I doubt that I’ll read Stark again, although I have tremendous respect for her adventurous spirit!

Willa Cather

Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

Review previously published in January, 2014.

Title: Alexander’s Bridge
Author: Willa Cather
First published in 1912

Plot summary from Goodreads: Alexander’s Bridge, Willa Cather’s first novel, is a taut psychological drama about the fragility of human connections. Published in 1912, just a year before O Pioneers! made Cather’s name, it features high society on an international stage rather than the immigrant prairie characters she later became known for. The successful and glamorous life of Bartley Alexander, a world-renowned engineer and bridge builder, begins to unravel when he encounters a former lover in London. As he shuttles among his wife in Boston, his old flame in London, and a massive bridge he is building in Canada, Alexander finds himself increasingly tormented. But the threatened collapse of his marriage presages a more fatal catastrophe, one he will risk his life to try to prevent.

Barely more than a novella, Alexander’s Bridge is Cather’s first novel. It is always interesting to see the seeds of genius in an author’s early work, and this book is primarily interesting for that reason. The story itself is a bit of wish-fulfillment: set internationally, in London, Canada and New York, the main character Bartley Alexander is a man of accomplishment.

The preface to my edition was written by Willa Cather herself, in 1922, and beings:

It is difficult to comply with the publisher’s request that I write a preface for this new edition of an early book. Alexander’s Bridge was my first novel, and does not deal with the kind of subject matter in which I now find myself most at home. The people and the places of the story interested me intensely at the time when it was written, because they were new to me and were in themselves attractive. Alexander’s Bridge was written in 1911, and O Pioneers! the following year. The difference in quality in the two books is an illustration of the fact that it is not always easy for the inexperienced writer to distinguish between his own material and that which he would like to make his own.

The preface goes on from there, in the same insightful vein. Two things jump out at me in this passage. First, Cather herself is able to acknowledge that this book is qualitatively less as compared to her next book. I’ve not read O Pioneers!, although I plan to and soon, but having read My Antonia, One of Ours and Death Comes for the Archbishop, all later, and very different, works, I am in total agreement with her assessment. She did grow as a writer, and a great deal. I’m also fascinated by the fact that she referred to the writer in the masculine, when she herself is a woman, and is more or less talking about herself.

With respect to this book, it is worth reading because it was written by Willa Cather and Willa Cather is always worth reading. Having said that, she is at her best when she is writing about the prairie and men and women who are eking out a hardscrabble life on it. She is able to imbue their struggle with a nobility and beauty that is unique to Cather.

This book is ordinary, by comparison. It tells a story that, in essence, has been told hundreds of times before by dozens of skilled writers – a story of a wealthy man who builds great things in great cities, and who finds himself undergoing a rather trite and somewhat embarrassing midlife crisis that is inconsistent with his greatness. The middle aged man with feet of clay is a story that has been told before, and Cather brings little new or fresh to it. Bartley Alexander’s struggles with his penis and where he wants to put it, and his commonplace experience of being torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool, are as yawningly boring as the 1976 pop song that tells the same story, or the guy that you know on Facebook who just dumped his wife of twenty years for the girl he knew in high school because his wife just doesn’t understand him.

Conclusion: It’s Cather, so, yeah, it’s good. But her other stuff is so much better.

And, as an aside, these Vintage Classics editions are completely gorgeous!

Lucy Maud Montgomery

Jane of Lantern Hill by Lucy Maud Montgomery

This review was previously published in January, 2017.

Title: Jane of Lantern Hill
Author: Lucy Maud Montgomery
First published in 1937

Plot summary from Goodreads: From the author of Anne of Green Gables, the enchanting story of a young girl’s dream to reunite with her long-divided family

For as long as she could remember, Jane Stuart and her mother lived with her grandmother in a dreary mansion in Toronto. Jane always believed her father was dead—until she accidentally learned he was alive and well and living on Prince Edward Island. When Jane spends the summer at his cottage on Lantern Hill, doing all the wonderful things Grandmother deems unladylike, she dares to dream that there could be such a house back in Toronto—a house where she, Mother, and Father could live together without Grandmother directing their lives—a house that could be called home.

I actually read this one during the October read-a-thon and never got around to writing up a post. I’ve read a lot of L.M. Montgomery: the entire Anne Shirley series (more than once) and the Emily Starr series (time for a reread, I think). I picked up Jane of Lantern Hill, at least in part, because of the cover. I like pretty things. It is just as pretty in person as it is on a computer screen, by the way. And, as a total aside, I am so impressed with the Virago Classics because they are clean and well-edited. No one grabbed an old public domain version and OCR’d it and then slapped a cover on it and hit publish.

Back to Jane.

I loved this book. Jane reminds me a lot of Little Elizabeth, from Anne of Windy Poplars, but all grown up. She is living in Toronto, with her rather weak-spirited, beaten down mother, and her deeply angry grandmother, who still hasn’t gotten over the fact that her daughter went off and abandoned her to, (ungrateful child), get married and have a daughter of her own. L.M. Montgomery’s method of dealing with the problem of separating father and mother is fairly convenient, and is quite similar to how she separated Miss Lavender and Paul’s father in the Anne series. They get into a fight, and instead of acting like reasonable adults, mother takes baby and flees home, where grandmother spends more than a decade interfering in reconciliation. This is all set up to explain Jane’s sterile and unloved life in Toronto. Grandmother is wealthy, so she wants for nothing material or physical, but spiritually and emotionally, she is completely bereft. And Montgomery makes a convincing case that true happiness is dependent much more on wealth of spirit and love than it is on having nice stuff.

The book really comes into its own when Jane goes off to spend a summer with her father in Lantern Hill. Her adventures are charming. Her father is a writer, and cannot provide Jane with the material comforts of home, but with him, she receives much greater gifts: freedom, self-sufficiency, love and true friendship. She does not have the imagination of the bewitching Anne Shirley, or the literary talent and ambition of Emily Starr, but she has a homelike sweetness that is endearing.

I don’t believe that Montgomery ever wrote a sequel to Jane of Lantern Hill, which is unfortunate, because it would have been worth reading!

Virginia Woolf

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Title: The Voyage Out
Author: Virginia Woolf
First published in 1915

Plot summary from Goodreads: Woolf’s first novel is a haunting book, full of light and shadow. It takes Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose and their niece, Rachel, on a sea voyage from London to a resort on the South american coast. “It is a strange, tragic, inspired book whose scene is a South America not found on any map and reached by a boat which would not float on any sea, an american whose spiritual boundaries touch Xanadu and Atlantis”

My personal experiences with Virginia Woolf have historically been fraught. I want to love her – she is iconic, so important in the pantheon of women in literature and feminism that she very nearly stands alone. But she is also impenetrable, a cipher for which I, sadly, lack the necessary decoder ring with which to make sense of her. Her writing is achingly, heartstoppingly beautiful, and yet I find that I understand almost none of it.

It was with some delight, then, that I began reading her first, and most autobiographical, novel, The Voyage Out. Written in narrative style that makes sense to my admittedly limited brain (i.e., linear) it contains her trademark gorgeous language. There is so much in it to admire, as well. Rachel, the main character, is an interesting character – a young woman who has been sheltered from everything except music, the product of a strange upbringing in an oppressive society. One of the matronly characters says about Rachel:

This girl, though twenty-four, had never heard that men desired women, and, until I explained it, did not know how children were born. Her ignorance upon other matters as important” (here Mrs. Ambrose’s letter may not be quoted) . . . “was complete. It seems to me not merely foolish but criminal to bring people up like that. Let alone the suffering to them, it explains why women are what they are—the wonder is they’re no worse. I have taken it upon myself to enlighten her, and now, though still a good deal prejudiced and liable to exaggerate, she is more or less a reasonable human being. Keeping them ignorant, of course, defeats its own object, and when they begin to understand they take it all much too seriously.

Woolf approaches feminist ideas obliquely, through several characters. Mrs. Ambrose, above, talking about the sheltering of women. Mr. Dalloway (yes, that Mr. Dalloway), talking about suffragettes:

“Oh, I’m entirely with you there,” said Dalloway. “Nobody can condemn the utter folly and futility of such behaviour more than I do; and as for the whole agitation, well! may I be in my grave before a woman has the right to vote in England! That’s all I say.” The solemnity of her husband’s assertion made Clarissa grave. “It’s unthinkable,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’re a suffragist?”

Or, this quote, from the young man who ends up as Rachel’s love interest:

“I’ve often walked along the streets where people live all in a row, and one house is exactly like another house, and wondered what on earth the women were doing inside,” he said. “Just consider: it’s the beginning of the twentieth century, and until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all. There it was going on in the background, for all those thousands of years, this curious silent unrepresented life.

This curious silent unrepresented life. This isn’t entirely true, of course, because women have been part of fiction since fiction was written, although their stories were primarily told by men. But, still, it is true, right? Women did not lead public lives, in the same sense that men did. Their lives were entirely private, lived out in the quiet, domestic domain. She talks a great deal about loneliness, about the way that people live out their lives in solitary fashion, even when surrounded by others.

The Voyage Out takes a turn late in the book, into something that, given that it was written by Woolf, I might have expected. But, I didn’t. I won’t say more, because I don’t want to spoil. But, for readers who struggle with Woolf, this book is a good place to begin.

Dorothy Sayers

Whose Body by Dorothy Sayers

Whose BodyTitle: Whose Body
Author: Dorothy Sayers
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #1

Summary from Goodreads: The stark naked body was lying in the tub. Not unusual for a proper bath, but highly irregular for murder — especially with a pair of gold pince-nez deliberately perched before the sightless eyes. What’s more, the face appeared to have been shaved after death. The police assumed that the victim was a prominent financier, but Lord Peter Wimsey, who dabbled in mystery detection as a hobby, knew better. In this, his first murder case, Lord Peter untangles the ghastly mystery of the corpse in the bath.

Whose Body is the first of the Lord Peter Wimsey series, written by Dorothy Sayers. Mrs. Sayers wrote ten Lord Peter novels, as well as short stories featuring her gentleman-detective between 1923 and 1937. Lord Peter ages in real-time with her stories, and they are contemporary mysteries set during the year in which they are written.

“Why can’t you marry and settle down and live quietly, doin’ something useful?” said the Duke, unappeased.

“Because that was a wash-out as you perfectly well know,” said Peter; “besides,” he added cheerfully, “I’m bein’ no end useful. You may come to want me yourself, you never know. When anybody comes blackmailin’ you, Gerald, or your first deserted wife turns up unexpectedly from the West Indies, you’ll realize the pull of havin’ a private detective in the family. ‘Delicate private business arranged with tact and discretion. Investigations undertaken. Divorce evidence a specialty. Every guarantee!”

In 1998, Jill Paton Walsh took up Mrs. Sayers’ mantle and completed her unfinished last Lord Peter novel, called Thrones and Dominations. She has since published three more Lord Peter books, including The Attenbury Emeralds, which actually reaches back to 1921 and tells the story of Peter Wimsey’s first foray into detecting. The Attenbury Emeralds case is mentioned in Whose Body, but the story is not fully (or even partially) told.

I bought all of the original novels over the Christmas holidays this year, as they were all on sale. All of the Open Road editions of the Peter Wimsey books have similar covers, all featuring Peter’s monocle as part of the image. I find the covers both clever and appealing.

The mystery in Whose Body is quite grim, actually, although the treatment of it is lighthearted (as is so often the case with “Golden Age” mysteries). It is a classic upper crust mystery, although the murderer is quite frankly a sociopath who conveniently commits suicide at the end – this is another common feature of Golden Age mysteries. The murders often dispose of themselves to avoid the sticky and lower-class legal process that will result from their being caught-out by our amateur sleuth.

There is light satire of the British pre-WWII social conventions and the relationship between Lord Peter (aristocrat) and his valet (Bunter). In Whose Body, Lord Peter has a recurrence of “shell shock” from his experiences during WWI, and is cared for Bunter, who is obviously very close to Lord Peter. As a random aside, their relationship rather reminds me of the relationship between Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee from the Lord of the Rings, which was taken from Tolkien’s observations of the relationship between batman and officer in WWI. One of the great strengths of this book is the touching, affectionate and convincing relationship between Wimsey and Bunter.

Also, Bunter gets some of the best lines:

“Yes, Mr. Graves, it’s a hard life, valeting by day and developing by night—morning tea at any time from 6.30 to 11, and criminal investigation at all hours.”

The next book in the series is Clouds of Witness.

Dorothy Sayers

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers

Previously published March 18, 2014

Title: Clouds of Witness
Author: Dorothy Sayer
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #2
Published in 1926

Summary from Goodreads: When blood stains his family name, Lord Peter fights to save what he holds most dear.

After three months in Corsica, Lord Peter Wimsey has begun to forget that the gray, dangerous moors of England ever existed. But traveling through Paris, he receives a shock that jolts him back to reality. He sees it in the headlines splashed across every English paper—his brother Gerald has been arrested for murder. The trouble began at the family estate in Yorkshire, where Gerald was hunting with the man soon to be his brother-in-law, Captain Denis Cathcart. One night, Gerald confronts Cathcart with allegations about his unsavory past, leading the captain to call off the wedding. Just a few hours later, Cathcart is dead, with Gerald presumed to be the only person who could have fired the fatal shot. The clock is ticking, and only England’s premier sleuth can get to the bottom of this murky mystery.

” my love swears that she is made of truth
I will believe her, though I know she lies”

The second Peter Wimsey novel begins with Peter on an extended holiday in Corsica, enjoying the sights and recovering from the events of “Whose Body.” His trip is cut short when Bunter informs him that his brother, the Duke of Denver, has been arrested for murder.

You may remember the quote I put in my post about Whose Body, (and I swear that I did not know what was coming in this book), where Peter tells Gerald that someday he will be happy to have a sleuth in the family, saying cheerfully, “You may come to want me yourself, you never know.”

Now we know.

Clouds of Witness relies heavily on the coincidence, and a series of illicit nighttime encounters. I always love these English Country House murders where everyone is rambling about all night long, practically tripping over one another. That’s what we have here. Gerald literally trips over the body of Cathcart, our victim, at the same moment that Lady Mary, his now estranged fiancee, is coming out the door. Things look bad for the Duke of Denver.

Fortunately for him, Lord Peter is on the case.

There is a lot going on in this book. While the Duke awaits trial, Peter is questing about the country, the continent, and eventually, the world, looking for clues to explain who killed Denis Cathcart. He meets a miserable farmer named Grimethorpe whose long-suffering wife is indeed long-suffering. He discovers that his sister, Lady Mary, has been secretly engaged to a socialist named Goyle. An engagement that has been brutally broken-up by the Duke, who threatened to cut them both off without a shilling if the marriage went through:

“Monstrous!” said Miss Tarrant, shaking her head so angrily that she looked like shock-headed Peter. “Barbarous! Simply feudal, you know. But, after all, what’s money?”

“Nothing, of course,” said Peter. “But if you’ve been brought up to havin’ it it’s a bit awkward to drop it suddenly. Like baths, you know.”

(I love this quote. It made me laugh).

There is also a lovely courtroom scene, where Sir Impey Biggs stands for the defence:

The Dowager Duchess had once remarked: “Sir Impey Biggs is the handsomest man in England, and no woman will ever care twopence for him.” He was, in fact, thirty-eight, and a bachelor, and was celebrated for his rhetoric and his suave but pitiless dissection of hostile witnesses. The breeding of canaries was his unexpected hobby, and besides their song he could appreciate no music but revue airs.”

On the other side of the table, we have Sir Wigmore Wrinching, the Attorney-General, for the crown. That name is pure awesome.

There is a lot of humor in this book, and a bit of silliness Sir Peter, ultimately, finds the necessary witness to determine what really happened to Denis Cathcart. I am not going to tell you here, so if you want to know, you will have to read for yourself.

In the words of Sir Impey Briggs:

“Since, however, by a series of unheard-of coincidences, the threads of Denis Cathcart’s story became entangled with so many others, I will venture to tell it once again from the beginning, lest, in the confusion of so great a cloud of witnesses, any point should still remain obscure.”

Dorothy Sayers

Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers

Originally published on March 24, 2014

Title: Unnatural Death
Author: Dorothy Sayers
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #3
Published in 1927

Summary from Goodreads: When a terminally ill woman dies much earlier than expected, Lord Peter suspects murder…

Though never quick-witted, Agatha Dawson had an iron constitution and a will to fight that never abated in her old age. Even after three operations failed to rid her of her cancer, she refused to give in. But as her body began to weaken, she accused lawyers, nurses, and doctors of trying to kill her and snatch her fortune. The town physician, an expert in cancer, gives her six months to live. Three days later, she is dead. Though the autopsy reveals nothing surprising, the doctor suspects that Agatha’s niece had some hand in the old woman’s death. When Lord Peter Wimsey, the dashing gentleman detective, looks into the matter, he finds that death stalks all those who might testify. How can he continue his investigation when every question marks another innocent for murder?

This was a very enjoyable installment of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Peter’s relationship with Parker becomes more collegial, and we are introduced to a new character by the name of Mrs. Climpson. I hope Mrs. Climpson sticks around, because she is wonderful.

The book begins with Parker and Wimsey having dinner at a club on a pleasant April evening. They are talking of murder, of course, and a young doctor interrupts their pleasant discussion to tell them a tale of a suspected murder most foul: an elderly woman who was quite ill, but who died so suddenly that the young doctor suspects foul play.

Unnatural Death is a lot of fun. Before Lord Peter can solve the murder, he must prove that a murder has been committed.

“This is the real sleuth—my friend Detective-Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard. He’s the one who really does the work. I make imbecile suggestions and he does the work of elaborately disproving them. Then, by a process of elimination, we find the right explanation, and the world says, ‘My god, what intuition that young man has!’ Well, look here—if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a go at this. If you’ll entrust me with your name and address and the names of the parties concerned, I’d like very much to have a shot at looking into it.”

And he does, and of course, he discovers that the murderer has committed a near perfect crime, and for the basest of motives. The murderer in this book is quite a nasty piece of work, and before long, bodies are piling up like cord wood.

Lord Peter’s Daimler Twin-Six makes its first appearance in this book as well. For those of you not familiar with the Daimler, it looks something like this:

Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Overall, this is probably my favorite of the Lord Peter mysteries so far. I love the legal twist to the motive, the murderer is both clever and exceptionally cold-blooded.