Monday, 13 July 2020

Rereading Lord Peter by Sheena Wilkinson

I have written on here before on the pleasures of rereading, but surely if any topic is good for revisiting, it’s this one.


For many people lockdown has been a great opportunity to read all those worthy tomes they never quite got round to, but for others – myself included – the combination of anxiety, closed bookshops and the need for reassurance or escape has encouraged rereading of old favourites, especially comfort reads. I have been very specific in my reading needs during this crisis. Classic children’s books are often my go-to comfort reads but for some reason they aren’t calling me right now, maybe because I reread the Abbey, the Chalet School, the  Marlows, Noel Streatfeild  and a lot of pony books back in autumn 2019, when I thought things were bad in the world. I’d have kept at least the Chalet School for now if I’d known…

I want something fairly serious and not too escapist but I don’t want to have my withers wrung too much. I certainly don’t want anything about pandemics. A series is always welcome, especially one where you love the characters, so my top coronacompanions have been Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, in the golden age detective series by Dorothy L. Sayers.  And as I read through their adventures I’m struck by how, no matter how well you know a text, every reading brings something new. 

I’ve read these books many times since I first encountered them in my twenties, but not recently, as evidenced by the boarding card from Mallorca in 2004 which fell out of Gaudy Night. I am not the same person I was sixteen years ago. I have been published and changed career. I have seen the deaths of a parent, some friends, a beloved horse and two cats (named Peter and Harriet, in tribute.) The world I’m reading from has changed too. 


Reading the books in 2020 I am struck as never before by just how dated they are; this has generally charmed me when it’s a matter of quaint details and authentic settings – the workings of a 1930s women’s college (Gaudy Night); the atmosphere of a post-war gentleman’s club (The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club); the intricacies of bell-ringing (The Nine Tailors). This time, however, I’m much more alert to the casual snobbery, and even anti-Semitic and racist attitudes of the text. I’m writing a novel set in the 1930s at the moment, and rereading these books is a reminder of how important it is to write with historical accuracy but also with sensitivity. If I have been able to overlook these attitudes in past readings, what does that say about my white, middle-class privilege? 


It’s also the first time I have read the books since I was published myself so I am much more aware of the nuts and bolts of the storytelling and Sayers’ craft. It’s reminded me that I don’t think I could ever have the ingenuity to write detective fiction, but I do have a mystery in my work in progress, which I hope will baffle the reader as satisfyingly as Sayers baffles hers. 

When I first read about Peter and Harriet’s love story I thought how unromantically old they were to fall in love and marry (45 and 30ish); now, having fallen in love myself in middle age, some years older even than Peter, I am delighted to have that rare thing, the middle-aged love story, and I approach it very differently from how I did in 2004 or indeed 1994, when I was callow, confident and essentially unhurt by the world – the opposite of Harriet Vane. 

It's hard to explain the charm of rereading -- especially detective fiction where you know perfectly well whodunnit and why -- to those who don't indulge, but I know that every time I read an old friend like the Wimsey books I bring something new to the text, and the text gives something new back to me. 




Lynne Benton said...

Excellent post, Sheena - and a reminder that I really should re-read the Lord Peter Wimsey books, which I have enjoyed over the years (fortunately long enough ago that I can't actually remember whodunnit!) And the middle-aged love story is a bonus...

Penny Dolan said...

This is certainly a strange time for reading, Sheena, and I find it is really affecting my reading concentration and what I'm happy to cope with in a story.

Lord Peter Wimsey offers another, more elegant world, with gentle romance and crime-solving thrown in. Sounds perfect to me!

Mystica said...

I dug out all my Susan Howatch, Susanna Kearsley and Georgette Heyers for a re read. Also some P D James as a mix!