I expect a good romance when I’m reading in the romance genre, but I’ve learned not to expect the same from other genres. I’ve also learned rather painfully that there is no guarantee of a happy ending in other genres. Not that I’m still bitter about how things turned out in His Dark Materials or anything. However, sometimes in my non-romance reading I come across a love story so well done that it stays with me.
Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey are just such a couple. Created by Dorothy L. Sayers and detailed in several of her books, these two are one of my very favorite couples ever. Lord Peter Wimsey, the very educated and highly intelligent sleuth, meets his match in the more serious but also intelligent and well-educated Harriet Vane over a murder. In their earlier encounters (which involve Peter proving Harriet innocent of murder, among other things), Peter falls for Harriet but is rejected. Harriet does not want a marriage based on gratitude and she also sometimes views Peter as too superficial. So, it is not until Gaudy Night that things finally gel between them. Not coincidentally, Gaudy Night is one of my very favorite books.
As well as being unusual because the mysterious doings in the book do not center on murder, Gaudy Night is a brilliantly crafted book. The mystery feels ominous and clues keep the reader guessing while the author uses very witty dialogue and subtle hints to show Harriet and Peter moving ever closer to one another. Though written in 1936, this romance somehow feels very modern.
For starters, Harriet is no blushing virgin. In her early 30s, Harriet has returned to Oxford for her college reunion. Mention is also made in the text of her past life with a live-in lover, something which would have been scandalous in those days (not to mention sending some modern romance publishers to their couches with fits of the vapors were their heroines to try such a thing). From the earlier books and from the text of this one, the author makes it plain to the reader that Harriet’s past is no secret to Peter. However, Peter does not go about throwing past mistakes in Harriet’s face. He learns to accept her as she is, respects her and wants her happiness.
In addition to romance, these two have camaraderie. In the initial sections of the book, Harriet tries to make clear to Peter that she is not interested in a relationship. Though Peter does not give up on Harriet, neither does he belittle her opinions. His constancy sometimes irks Harriet, but even at his most overbearing, Peter is still more reasonable than many men I meet in fiction. Though concerned about Harriet’s safety, Peter is not heavyhanded in his treatment of Harriet. She is not cloistered in Peter’s quarters at the first hint of danger or forbidden to move freely without him being there. In fact, for part of the book Peter is not even present and Harriet finds herself seeking his advice by phone or letter.
Still, once Peter arrives on the scene and the two work together long enough, it becomes obvious that Harriet and Peter will wind up together after all. They work out their differences and move beyond Harriet’s concerns over her own suitability by actually talking about it to one another. That’s one of the best parts of their relationship really. These two somehow manage to say so very much using so few words. Not only are many things simply understood between them, but the author manages the amazing feat of bringing the reader into that understanding.
Though sometimes understated, the dialogue between Peter and Harriet is wonderful. Their sparring is quite intelligent and sometimes humorous, and these two have mastered the art of appearing to speak on one topic while truly addressing another, more personal, one all together. Whenever these two are together, I feel as though I am privileged to watch a wonderful relationship between equals developing. After all, who can resist a man who in his declaration of love says such things as, “I have found you beyond all hope or expectation, at a time when I though no woman could ever mean anything to me…” and then goes on to tell his beloved that he wants for her to know that, “If you have found your own value, that is immeasurably the greatest thing…”?