This is the second in a series of posts reflecting on Dorothy L. Sayers and her detective novel, The Nine Tailors. It is introduced by Dr. Christine Colón, Professor of English, Wheaton College.
A few years ago, the Wheaton College English Department created a Wade Center Authors course that would provide students the opportunity to conduct original research using the Wade Center’s extensive collection of primary materials. In this course, students are required to use these materials as the foundation for a substantial project that offers their audience new insights on the author’s work.
This type of research can be challenging for students since it doesn’t follow the typical pattern for research projects that they have used in many of their other classes. Rather than investigating what scholars have said about a topic and then building their own essay as a response to that conversation, students must instead pour over letters, manuscripts, unpublished talks, annotations in books, videos, etc. to see what catches their fancy and provide them with a starting point to discover something new. Anyone who has done this type of research knows the time that it takes to find something that forms the basis for a worthwhile project.
In my version of the course, which focuses on Dorothy L. Sayers, students have a particularly rich collection of materials to work with at the Wade Center, which can be both a blessing and a curse. I can pretty much guarantee that students will eventually discover something interesting, but I can’t guarantee that they will be able to find it quickly. With that in mind, I try to help my students become accustomed to this potentially cumbersome process with a short project that we do early in the semester.
I begin the course with Sayers’s detective novel The Nine Tailors (1934), so we use that as the foundation for our initial research. The Nine Tailors, which is considered by many to be Sayers’s best detective novel, contains a number of interesting avenues for research. The mystery, which revolves around the body of an unknown man discovered in a country churchyard, opens up intriguing questions regarding technique, as Sayers both utilizes and subverts conventions of detective fiction. The mystery also has fascinating theological resonances as Sayers uses a number of coincidences surrounding the death and investigation to encourage her readers as well as her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, to think about providence and divine justice. And, perhaps most famously, the mystery is embedded in the traditions of bell ringing, which Sayers studied very carefully in order to craft her novel. The title of the novel refers to the tradition of tolling a church bell nine times to indicate the death of a man in a parish, and with it Sayers indicates just how important the bells will be in the mystery that follows.
After reading and discussing many of these issues in class, students then have the opportunity to explore the Wade Center’s collection and see what interesting information they can find that might provide them with new insights. This year, students were challenged to present that information in blog posts for the Wade Center so that they could share their findings with an audience outside of the class. In the posts that follow, three of my students present the results of their research.
Christine Colón is Associate Professor of English at Wheaton College. She is currently completing a book entitled Writing for the Masses: Dorothy L. Sayers and the Victorian Literary Tradition to be published by Routledge. She will also be presenting three lectures on Sayers for the 2017-2018 Hansen Lectureship entitled Community or Chaos?: Searching for Clues in the Works of Dorothy L. Sayers. All three lectures will be recorded and available for viewing on the Wade website, and eventually published along with faculty responses by InterVarsity Press Academic. The first lecture in this series, “Dorothy L. Sayers’s Vision for Communities of Action” will be given on November 2, 2017.
Following is the first in a series of three posts written by students in Dr. Colón’s Dorothy L. Sayers literature course.
Wimsey’s Character Integrity in The Nine Tailors BBC series
by Carolyn Greco
When the BBC decided to make a series based on Sayers’s detective stories, they were faced with the task of portraying Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers’s detective, on screen. Lord Peter is a pretty steady character throughout the first part of the series, but later, beginning with The Nine Tailors, he undergoes a gradual humanizing process that expands and deepens his character. As a writer, Sayers was always extraordinarily dedicated to preserving the integrity of her characters. In The Mind of the Maker, she speaks of the importance of allowing the characters to develop naturally and freely, without any jarring shifts; and her own writing reflects this principle. As a result, Sayers’s characters are very strong and memorable: respected by her and beloved by the fans. The BBC sought to make its version of Lord Peter consistent with what the fans knew and loved, taking liberties with the plot and exposition instead of with the characters themselves. However, not all movie producers were as thoughtful; some tried to capitalize on the fame of the characters without respecting their integrity, which caused Sayers a lot of trouble when they tried to adapt her work to the screen.
The first movie production of Sayers’s work was The Silent Passenger, produced by Hugh Perceval in 1935. Sayers was contracted to write a short story from which the company would create a script, which Sayers would then edit. She wrote the story, sent it in, and waited. After repeatedly pestering the producers, she finally got a look at the script – and what a script it was! “They have . . . turned Wimsey into a kind of Gaiety-Bar lounger,” she complained, instead of the “straight high-comedy part on the ‘great gentleman’ lines that I have tried to lay down for him.” She wrote back to the producers, demanding that they change Peter’s character back so that it matched that of the books, or else remove his name and hers from the production. “I have included a character sketch” she said, “of Wimsey’s character as he is known and genuinely beloved by thousands of people” (Letter from Dorothy L. Sayers to Peter Haddon, March 23, 1935. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: 1899-1936: The Making of a Detective Novelist, p. 346). Haddon, the young actor who played Peter Wimsey in the film, was sympathetic to Sayers and sought to help her protect her characters. Sayers, in turn, was grateful for his support and determined struggle against the producers to preserve Peter’s character.
It is always something of a shock to see the characters that we know and love from books portrayed on screen. However, it is obviously impossible for a movie to meet the expectations of every member of the audience. When I first saw the 1974 BBC series of The Nine Tailors, the thing that stood out the most to me was the change in exposition: the initial burglary is committed on screen and several important clues are given away at the very beginning. Additionally, Peter seemed much more confident and intellectually invincible than I remembered his portrayal from the book. The Nine Tailors, as Sayers wrote it, represented the beginning of a shift in her writing. She wanted to ennoble the genre of detective fiction by writing books that combined well-crafted mysteries with more serious themes and character development. Thus, Peter himself begins to develop more as a character in The Nine Tailors and in the books that come after it; he loses his untouchable veneer and shows himself to be extraordinarily human. The humanization is a prerequisite for his marriage with Harriet Vane, whom he saves from execution in Strong Poison. Sayers, with her devotion to character integrity, saw that Peter and Harriet, as they were at the end of Strong Poison, would not marry each other; and so she went through the slow, painful process of developing them and letting their relationship grow naturally. In this way, Harriet was the main cause of Peter’s transformation.
In the BBC series, however, Ian Carmichael plays Peter very much as he appeared in Sayers’s early books. Does the BBC, by portraying him like this, disrespect Sayers’s desire to maintain her characters’ integrity? Not necessarily. First of all, viewers instantly recognized in Carmichael the Wimsey they knew and loved from the books. “There’s little doubt that Ian Carmichael was born to play society super-sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey,” says one critic (yvettecandraw.blogspot.com). Sayers’s main problem with the original script of The Silent Passenger was that it altered the characters so that they were virtually unrecognizable. However, the Peter in the BBC show is consistent with the Peter from the earlier books; though he does play this part a bit more seriously than in his previous episodes, becoming, in the words of Amazon reviewer F. Behrens, “far less Bertie Woosterish.” In addition, the added flashbacks make Peter a more relatable and human character, creating a similar effect to that of the book without substantially changing his character.
Although the BBC gives us new insights into his history, this is virtually the same Peter portrayed all along: the smart, dashing, detached detective. This, in a way, shows respect for the integrity of his character. They kept his character constant through all five of their movies. Their series dealt with Peter’s detective arc, not his romantic arc; therefore, the character development that Sayers gave him to make him a suitable partner for Harriet would have been out of place in the Harriet-less TV series. Although their portrayal of Peter is different from that in the book, it is constant with the character they have created for him and which was shown in the earlier books. Instead of showing Peter change and become more human, they invite the audience to witness scenes from his past, making him more relatable and creating a greater sympathy for him. Thus, paradoxically, these subtle changes to the structure of the story demonstrate a greater respect for Peter’s character integrity than just mindlessly copying the scenes and dialogue from the book. In this way, the BBC has created a recognizable, consistent character, who is different from the Peter Wimsey of the Nine Tailors book simply because he lacks the catalyst for development – Harriet Vane. Instead, the deepening of his character comes from the added flashbacks, which maintain his character integrity while allowing the audience more access into his past life.
Carolyn Greco is a senior at Wheaton College majoring in English Literature. She likes Sayers’s clear insight and her sense of humor.