Part 3 in the ongoing critical edda. (Can I have a critical edda? Does anybody mind? I think it's a cooler word than "saga" or "epic," and something around those synonyms is what I want.)
Part 1: Concerning Lord Peter Wimsey
Part 2: Whose Body?
Spoilers for the DLS canon behind the cut tag.
Okay, I admit it. Clouds of Witness
is my least favorite Wimsey novel. I skip huge chunks of it rereading: the Grimethorpe subplot bores me, as do the details of Denis Cathcart's decline and fall. And much of Denver's trial is over-written. As with Whose Body?
, it feels less like a novel to me and more like a series of set-pieces, some successful, some not.
But what I do find interesting in it is this question of love vs. marriage vs. sex. Let me lay out the parallels.
- Lady Mary, engaged to Cathcart, believing herself to be in love with Goyles.
- Cathcart, engaged to Lady Mary, obsessed with Simone Vonderaa. (I'm not sure if I'd call Cathcart's feelings "love" or not. Actually, I'm quite sure I wouldn't.)
- Gerald, Duke of Denver, married to his appalling Duchess, having an affair with Mrs. Grimethorpe. (And it does truly, truly bug me that DLS didn't see fit to give the poor woman a Christian name. I'm going to call her Medusa, because it's less trouble to type.)
- Medusa, married to her even more appalling husband, having an affair with Denver.
- Charles Parker, falling goopily in love with Lady Mary and Lady Mary returning the favor. (They deserve each other.)
- And Lord Peter, realizing from his reaction to Simone that he's gotten over his ill-fated love for Barbara.
Of these relationships, only Parker and Mary have any genuine mutual attachment--and it won't actually emerge into the open for another two books. All of the others--Cathcart & Mary, Cathcart & Simone, Mary & Goyles, Denver & Helen, Denver & Medusa, Medusa & her husband--are either marriages of convenience (Cathcart & Mary, Denver & Helen) in which no great affection is felt, relationships in a terrible imbalance (Cathcart's obsession with Simone, Mr. Grimethorpe's pathological jealousy--one wonders if that's how Heathcliff would have turned out if he and Catherine had actually gotten married), or relationships which are entered into for reasons of desperation and desire for escape, and which lead nowhere: Mary's "love" for Goyles is clearly much more about his politics than his personality, and Medusa's feelings for Denver are brilliantly anticlimactic: "... on this occasion, the whole business fell flat. The lady was not interested" (CW
Sir Impey Biggs is introduced in this book, of whom "the Dowager Duchess had once remarked: 'Sir Impey Biggs is the handsomest man in England, and no woman will ever care twopence for him'" (62). We also get the story of Mr. Murbles's very odd old client who preferred fantasy to reality: "People used to say that the dream-lady had not always been a dream, but that he could never bring himself to propose" (148). This is in many ways a loveless book, just as Cathcart's was a loveless life.
And of course the book's persistent intertext is Manon Lescaut
(a story of a mutually-destructive passion) and "those odd French novels ... frightfully hot stuff, but absolutely impersonal" (134). Sexuality runs rampant through the novel, but love is in dreadfully short supply. Peter doesn't get over Barbara by falling in love again (that, like the declaration of Mary and Parker's love for each other, won't happen until Strong Poison
) but by being exposed to the bewitching beauty of Simone Vonderaa. Simone and Medusa, in fact, seem to have comparable effects on the men they come in contact with, but it is also perfectly clear that their beauty traps them in loveless relationships, whether they are aware of it (Medusa) or not (Simone).
Romanticism also takes it on the chin, parodied in Mary and Goyles's failed elopement, revealed as self-destructive pathology in Cathcart's fate, simply inapplicable to Medusa's choices. Mary's facade of romanticism in the wake of Cathcart's death is (a.) unconvincing ("Peter thought, 'She's talking like somebody in a blood-and-thunder novel'" (72)) and (b.) completely exploded. Nothing could be less romantic than ipecacuanha. Also, as we know from what Peter tells Harriet in Strong Poision
, his love for Barbara was of the most exaggeratedly romantic kind possible, and it too does not survive this book.
Women are not punished for infidelity (a refreshing change from most Western literature). Medusa is liberated by the chain of events begun by her affair with Denver; Simone comes out entirely unscathed. Marriage is an imprisoning institution (Medusa and Grimethorpe, Denver and Helen--also what Mary's life would have been like if she had married Cathcart).
If DLS has a thesis here, I'd argue that it's the same idea which the Vane quartet goes into at great length: love and passion must go together, and the combination is the only proper basis for a marriage.
I think there's something allegorical about Peter and Bunter wandering through the fog and getting trapped in quicksand, but I can't quite tease it out. And, of course, there's a whole class-based deconstruction of the presentation of Goyles and the Soviet Club and Mary's fling with communism. But that seems obvious enough that it isn't necessary to go into it. I quite like the Soviet Club, but it is a place where DLS's biases persistently show up.
Like Whose Body?
, Clouds of Witness
is an uneven book--also the last time DLS has to rely on a confession to make her plot come out right. Her mastery of her form is improving, but she's not all the way there yet.
Next up, Unnatural Death
Sayers, Dorothy L. Clouds of Witness
. 1927. New York: Perennial Library-Harper & Row, 1987.