Sunday, February 20, 2011

[TSS] Musings: Clouds of Witness

On I continue in my quest to read books that have long been on my shelves but never seem to come down.  This time around, I picked up Dorothy Sayers' Clouds of Witness, book two in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. 

It didn't take me long to remember why these books have lapsed for so long on my shelf.  I understand that it may be unpopular of me to say and I also understand that I have yet to be introduced to THE Harriet Vane and I also understand that supposedly, the first few books in this series are not all that great.

That said, I have very little desire to progress further in this series, which is unfortunate as I own I think the first five books in it.  I just don't like Lord Peter, quite frankly.

But let me start with the plot.  Lord Peter returns to England after a nice trip abroad to find news reports of his sister's fiancee murdered and his elder brother, the Duke of Denver, in jail as the accused.  He is obviously more than a little perturbed by this situation and sets off to help prove his brother innocent.  What follows is a whole lot of red herrings and then a literal play-by-play of the entire court proceedings that goes on for about 30 pages.

If I learned anything from this book, it is that I prefer mysteries to be solved before court begins so that I do not have to read through court proceedings.  I suppose they are meant to be very sensationalist and breath-taking, but I didn't really find that to be the case in this book.  It started slow and then there was an entire character sketch of the dead man and a letter in French (which luckily, the author deemed worthy enough to translate into English for her readers).

If I learned a second thing from this book, it's that I really dislike when authors just litter their English-language books with French (and make those French words quite critical to the understanding of a major plot point) and give no translation of the words for their less-worldly readers.

I found this book fairly tedious.  Lord Peter, I think, is meant to be this bright beacon of reason and wit in his family.  But while I didn't like his sister Mary or his brother the Duke much at all, I also really disliked how disparaging and dismissive Peter was of them.  It was very, "Oh, I'm so unlucky as to have been born with a brain in this family while everyone else just messes everything up."

There is also a point at which he mentions wanting to take feudal rights with a beautiful young wife who lives on the moors near the house his brother has rented.

Really, when it comes right down to it, I finished this book firm in the belief that Lord Peter Wimsey has a pretty big ego and is very snobbish.  And then I got to wondering about whether perhaps Dorothy Sayers was snobby and classist, too.

One of the main problems I have with dialect in books is that it often isn't used only to describe differences in location, but is often used to show when someone is from a lower class.  This is one of the reasons The Help was scrutinized early in 2010.  Sayers does the same thing.  Granted, the English upper-crust historically all have the same accent, regardless of where they're from, while the members of the middle-class take on the twang of their locale.  But I can't help thinking that there is an inherent snobbishness in Sayers that comes through in her characters.  Most of the middle-class people are portrayed as having very heavy accents, not being very friendly or welcoming and generally only helping Peter when there was a monetary award in it for them.  And it doesn't stop there.  Peter's sister Mary (who is certainly not the brightest bulb in the antique family heirloom chandelier) heard a lower-class woman call the Duke by his first name and got "an odd shock to hear her brother's name spoken like that, by that speaker and in that company."  Combine that with Peter's stirrings of "sixteen generations of feudal privilege," and I just was not a fan of the Wimsey family.

I know that these books were written in the 1920s.  And to a certain extent, I enjoy them as windows and snapshots into a world that is disappearing.  But Lord Peter was in the Great War.  He fought and probably got PTSD.  He became great friends with a man named Bunter.  And what happened after the war?  He made Bunter his personal assistant.  According to that bastion of knowledge, Wikipedia, Sayers did this to play satirically on the British class system.  But if that is the case, I don't think Lord Peter knew it.

But the more I looked at Wikipedia, the more I distressingly decided that I did like Sayers and wanted to learn more about this man she created that has such a loyal following worldwide and is apparently quite complex.  Even though I didn't enjoy this book and really didn't like Peter much, I do want to get to know the author who said the following, when explaining why Lord Peter was so rich: cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes. It relieves the mind and does no harm to anybody.
That's the sort of woman I can get along with.  So perhaps I'll give Lord Peter another try.  But not for quite some time, I imagine.


  1. I have to admit - even though it seems everyone likes Sayers a lot, her stories just don't sound at all interesting to me...

  2. I am so glad to read your comments because I too was anxious to start this series, largely because of gushing by Nymeth. I started the first book in the series but just couldn't get past page ten or so! It not only seemed dated, but even sort of annoying. Lord Wimsey's ego and condescension irritated me so much even in the opening pages that I just couldn't go on! Oh well, at least we tried! :--)

  3. I so dislike when they use other languages. I can get it if they are in England and wanna use French. But when the book takes place in Italy, and everyone is Italian, and then there are Italian words here and there mixed in..nah

  4. I can't decide if I would like this series or not. I have the first book on my list to 'maybe' read at some point. I had it out from the library once, but then had no desire to read it at the time...

  5. This is one author that I have been wanting to try. Loved that you shared your thoughts on this one.

    Have a great week.

  6. Okay, I have not read many of the early Peter Wimsey books BUT I ardently urge you to read Strong Poison, the first of the Harriet Vane books. Harriet Vane is a marvelous character and she gets progressively more marvelous and makes Peter Wimsey interesting and less annoying. She puts him at a disadvantage, which I think makes her a good foil for him and his superciliousness.

  7. Amanda - HA. I agree. Well, that is to say, I enjoy mysteries set in this period generally, but I don't think these are all that much better.

    Jill - Yes, he is SO condescending! And has an ego of enormous proportions. I'm glad you didn't like him, either.

    Blodeuedd - Yes. Not cool at all.

    Kailana - That happens to me a lot, too. Well, less for storybooks and more for textbooks. I can't even tell you how many things I have done over the past three days that do NOT involve opening a textbook for finals ;-)

    Diane - I look forward to seeing your thoughts if you do try her, and seeing if they match with mine.

    Jenny - Yes, that's what Ana said, too, but it is so hard for me to know there are so many books that come in the series *before* that one, and cavalierly ignoring them all just to get to Strong Poison..

  8. Aarti, you are so not alone on your feelings for Sayers. I have tried and tried to read her books, but there is just something about them that I just can't seem to gel with. I am not sure if it's because I was reading them out of order, or my modern sensibilities just got in the way, but her books are not something that I am very excited to try again, even though so many people say they love her. I feel a bit comforted that I am not alone!

  9. Zibilee - Oh, how fabulous (and unsurprising!) that we both feel the same way about her. I don't think the problem is reading her out of order, as so many people seem to read Strong Poison and then fall in love with the characters in that book and that's DEFINITELY not the first in the series... sigh. I don't know! I just think Lord Peter is kind a jerk.

  10. I've only read the first book in the series and while I did enjoy it to some degree, I can't say it whet my appetite to read more. Maybe someday, like you, I'll read more as I've heard Harriet Vane is such a great character. For now though, it's not high on my priority list of books to read.

  11. What Jenny said! I blame this entirely on reading them in the right (or wrong :P) order ;) I understand the urge to follow chronology, but I think you'd get on with Harriet Vane soooo much better. And Jill, I'm talking to you too :P

  12. I was so certain that I would love Sayers! And then I tried her and did not. I thought part of my problem was that I jumped in mid-series and read Gaudy Night, so certain links perhaps went over my head, but I did find her writing rather tedious and that one was full of Latin, not just French (which I can deal with). I have thought that I might try her again, but starting with the very first book in the series. But if that doesn't work for me, I am washing my hands of these books!

  13. Wendy - Considering how much you've got going on right now, I think only AMAZING books should be on your priority list :-)

    Nymeth - Yes, I know that, but if I already have the first five books in the series, it seems silly to read them out of order. But I may just take your advice. Maybe if I read Gaudy Night first, then I'll realize Peter *can* be saved and I'll feel much better about his rude behavior earlier in the series...

    Steph - I couldn't help but laugh at your comment as I think everyone is telling me I should be reading the series *your* way, not chronologically! And really, Latin?! Who goes around chatting in a dead language? How annoying :-P

  14. I hate it when they include information in French too. That really winds me up. I seem to have read so many like that in the past year and it just ruins the book as I have to spend so long trying to work out what has been said!

  15. Hi Aarti. Thanks for visiting my blog recently :-)
    Interesting review and wonderful quotes by DLS. I'm sorry that you don't get on with Lord Peter. I've only read the first book so far and loved it so I shall be moving on to the one you reviewed next. I'm curious to see how the court-room proceedings come across in the book.
    The other languages don't bother me too much as long as I can get a gist of what's happening. There's always Google and I think it's good (and more enjoyable) to be educated through fiction.
    I have to say that I love the painting in your header!

  16. I've only read one Dorothy L Sayers book - Busman's Honeymoon - the one where Harriet and Wimsey actually get married - and I wasn't overimpressed. We read it for bookclub and everyone else really liked it, so I feel that maybe I am missing something - Gaudy Night and Stong Poison are supposed to be very good, I will make an effort to read those in the near future.

    But I'm not a big fan of Agatha Christie, either, (dare I admit that??) I seem to have a big problem with country house, Cluedo-style murder mysteries. Aarti, I think you put your finger on it with the whole issue of the English class system.

  17. Vivienne - I hate it, too!! I secretly think it's a way for authors to tell readers how smart they are.

    Cristina - I think Lord Peter may be one of those characters that really polarizes readers. It's not that I HATE him, but I just don't like him much at all. As for the languages- you're a much better person than me if you take the time to actually *learn* the foreign phrase and let it educate you! I generally forget as soon as I've deciphered it...

    Tracy - I know that feeling of not liking a book everyone else seems to love! And I don't think there's anything wrong with you for disliking Christie. In most cases, I really like the country house murders *because* they are interesting ways of learning more about the class structure. But in this case, it was just much more... visible. And there seemed to be Subtext, which I didn't really like.

  18. Anonymous2/23/2011

    I haven't read any of Sayers' yet and am still planning on giving Lord Peter a chance. I really liked your quote from Sayers at the end, about giving Lord Peter the things she couldn't afford.

  19. I love the quote from the author ... what a way to live vicariously through your characters. And one of my fears is that a book I've been ignoring for so long is actually really really good and I've been letting it sit for so long.

    Too bad this didn't do it for you. Better luck with your next "neglected" book pick.

  20. I was a huge fan of the Wimsey series when I was in college (20+ years ago). Although I still have all the books, I haven't read them since. I wonder how I would feel about them now -- being older and wiser .

    Back then,I also read a biography "Such a Strange Lady" (which I still own) that extensively studies Sayers and her works -- very scholarly. If I recall right, it did state that Sayers was in love with Wimsey and the idea of him. That book might be of interest for some.

  21. Carol - I like the quote, too! She seems like a very fun and upbeat person!

    Jenners - I agree, completely :-) I don't know if I'd say I'm reading a lot of *neglected* books- just ones that I haven't gotten around to quite yet.

    Valerie - I can easily imagine Sayers in love with Lord Peter. I think many authors create their ideals in the characters they choose to portray. Much easier sometimes than dealing with real people, but perhaps not quite so rewarding...

  22. Enjoyed your review. The only Sayers I've read is Gaudy Night which I very much enjoyed but I didn't see any particular charm to Lord Peter. Perhaps I need to read more.

  23. I've never gotten into her books either - but keeping that quote of hers in mind, maybe it'll be easier. I do try to remember time/place but it's a lot easier to tell other people to do that than myself. Whoops.

  24. I'm a big Sayers fan - but I must say that I agree with you on this one - it certainly isn't one of her best - and there is a LOT of French in it. Frankly it is quite irritating. The Harriet Vane ones are better, although even they can be a bit patchy - Strong Poison is brilliant (perhaps partly because it was based on a real life murder case, so it is very strongly plotted). I love Nine Tailors (no Harriet), and Busman's Honeymoon (obviously Harriet). And Five red herrings is very good too.

  25. Vintage Reading- I'm glad I'm not the only one left cold by Peter :-)

    Carrie- Haha, I know that difficulty! Though sometimes people act in ways that just *anger* me :-P

    Book-hound- Oh, I"m thrilled to hear you say that, really! If this is not one of her best, then I'll be sure to just try one of the better ones. Strong Poison does seem to get VERY good reviews!


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