After writing several acclaimed novels, British author Jill Paton Walsh was tapped by the Dorothy L. Sayers estate to bring back Sayers’ iconic detecting duo, Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Walsh’s fourth Wimsey/Vane mystery, The Late Scholar, has just been published.
When did you discover the Wimsey novels, and what did you admire most about them?
I was about 14, I think, and voraciously reading everything I could lay my hands on. I loved the elegance and wit of both the detection and the characters, and fell hopelessly in love with Lord Peter. I still am.
Continuations of beloved series are seldom as beloved as the originals, yet your Harriet and Peter stories seem to be almost universally enjoyed. What do you think is key to your success?
I think I have a good ear for voices . . . the result of many years working as a novelist. Any novelist needs to be able to write different voices for different characters, and the narrative voice in a novel is one of the characters. The style of Sayers as a narrator is also a voice I remember hearing around me in educated adults when I was a child.
This is your fourth Sayers connection novel, and your second with no firm basis in Sayers’ notes or writing. Was it intimidating to “go off the map,” so to speak?
Challenging, certainly. In some ways much easier because I could design the plot and episodes freely. But the task is not to write a novel of my own, using Sayers characters, the task is to write as Sayers would have done, or perhaps might have done.
In The Late Scholar, Harriet and Peter are drawn back to Oxford, the place where they got engaged (memorably, in Latin). You attended Oxford not too many years after this book is set. Did you enjoy revisiting it through your writing?
Oh, its been lovely for me to have an excuse to write about Oxford, and to bring Lord Peter very close to my own (nearly) adult experience. Oxford is extraordinarily beautiful, being built of local limestone which is a gorgeous golden colour that reflects even dull light like sunlight. Being a University city it is always full of dazzled and happy young people, of whom I was once one, and nobody ever forgets the happiness of their youth.
The context of the times—moods, trends, current events and even the philosophy of the day—is important in the Wimsey mysteries. Sayers was writing them as contemporaries, though, and you’re doing so from a historical perspective. How do you bring in a contemporary texture?
If you mean how do I bring in a sense of what is contemporary now, I am trying not to do that! No doubt some things I have not noticed will one day seem laughably 21st century, because when the present changes, so does the view of the past. But perhaps you were asking how did I make things seem as they would have seemed to people reading and writing in the early 1950s? That is the sort of task a historical novelist has to get right, and I have written a number of historical novels. It involves research, and a kind of synthesis of what you have learned about the period you are writing about, and what you know about human nature now, and then. However, as you have noticed, the 1950s are not history to me, but memory. History is the period before the speaker was born!
When we originally meet them, Peter and Harriet have both been changed (and scarred) by World War I. You’ve had to bring them through World War II. How did this change the characters?
Since they are “real” people in the world of Sayers novels, they must change as they grow older. To freeze them where Sayers left them would turn them into paper cutouts. Its very interesting to work out how they would change, and how they would remain the people they once were. That’s interesting in the real people we know, too. From Peter’s attitude to his rank, and Harriet’s attitude to his rank, I felt pretty sure they would in a way welcome the hardships of the war, and they way it leveled people in Britain. Everyone had a ration book, and bombs were indiscriminate. I think it would have been Bunter, the manservant, who minded it most, and that’s how I have written them.
One of the most appealing things about this series is the intelligence of the characters and the honesty with which they interact with each other. Did you find attempting to replicate that intimidating? Exciting? Both?
Exciting. And also inspiring. I have tried to live like that myself. And I have been lucky—my second husband, who died, alas, this year, could quote by heart like Lord Peter, and he knew his John Donne.
Peter and Harriet are one of the few detecting teams where the two detectives are equal. Do you think it presents more of a challenge to the reader when there’s not a “sidekick” acting as the reader proxy?
It is indeed a challenge to the reader—and a compliment. Sayers assumed her readers did not need a less-than-brilliant person to identify with. She was writing unashamedly for an elite. They share the mystification of the two detectives, and are entitled to feel satisfaction when the clouds of confusion part and the puzzle is solved. I like it as a narrative strategy, very much.
If you had a chance to meet Dorothy Sayers, what would you say to her?
I would ask her why she abandoned Lord Peter, and Harriet with him. Although I can guess—having brought her two protagonists a long way round into, at last, happy marriage to each other, Sayers had run out of her own experience. She herself, alas for her, had very little experience of a happy marriage.
Why do you think Sayers stopped writing the Wimsey novels?
See above. But also she fell in love again—this time with Dante, and began on her monumental translation of The Divine Comedy, which like the last Lord Peter novel, was unfinished at he death, and was completed for her by her friend, Dr. Barbara Reynolds.
You have said that Lord Peter is “in terms of sheer enjoyment, the best company who has ever lived in my inner world.” Do you still feel that way? Why?
He is complex and modest; he doesn’t take himself seriously, but he does take love and duty, good and evil seriously. And he is endlessly witty. I shall be devastated if he deserts me.
What’s next for you?
I’m thinking about that.