Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: The Dowager Duchess

The TNB is the brain-child of Curtis at The Passing Tramp. It's a weekly gathering of like-minded folk to discuss a mystery author from the Golden Age of Detection. We began our meetings with the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie and have since worked our way to Dorothy L. Sayers and her gentleman sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. February meetings of the TNB Club are being hosted by Helen over at Conservative History Journal (and featured by her in our Facebook Group: Golden Age Detection), so feel free to join the party at her place. Noah Stewart has provided the fine logo for February (photo at right).

I want to open with a piece on one of my favorite secondary characters in Sayers work: Peter's mother, Honoria Lucasta, the Dowager Duchess of Denver. We get our first glimpse of the Dowager Duchess in Whose Body? At first glance, she seems to be one of those fluffy, elderly women who can't keep their minds on anything for long--filling her conversation with apparent non sequiturs, making leaps from topic to topic. But she soon reveals herself as witty and intelligent and a very understanding, down-to-earth mother who (though she shouldn't admit it) prefers her intelligent, tow-headed, detective son to the stolid current Duke, her first-born Gerald.

The Duchess brings Peter into his first recorded case--asking him to see what is bothering poor Mr. Thipps, the architect who has been set to work on the church at Duke's Denver. The nervous little man has found a dead body in his bathtub and Inspector Sugg has decided that Thipps is his man. Her most memorable moments in this book are her interactions with Mr. Milligan, the American tycoon, and her recital of the events of the inquest on the body in the bath. 

Peter, in his sleuthing efforts, has come across Milligan and as part of his questioning of the millionaire he manages to invite Milligan to a mythical bazaar on behalf of his mother. When the Duchess meets Milligan for the first time at a luncheon (with as yet no notice from her son of the bazaar), it is quite a treat to watch her play verbal tennis with the man in an effort to discover what he's talking about. He opens the conversation by thanking her for her kind invitation:

"I am very pleased to meet you, Duchess," had been that financier's opening remark, "to thank you for your exceedingly kind invitation. I assure you it's a compliment I deeply appreciate."

The Duchess beamed at him, while conducting a rapid rally of all her intellectual forces.

Finally, after batting the conversational ball about for a good while, she manages to pick up enough clues to talk sensibly about the supposed bazaar and the various important personages (Milligan included) who are to attend.

The Duchess turned pale at the thought that any one of the illustrious persons might some time turn up in somebody's drawing-room, but by this time she had dug herself in comfortably, and was even beginning to find her range.

Previous to the luncheon she had attended the inquest in order to support the aged, near-deaf mother of Mr. Thipps, the poor architect suspected of the murder. While at table she regales the company with an impersonation of Mrs. Thipps being interrogated by the Coroner:

" 'Did you hear anything unusual in the night?' says the little man, leaning forward and screaming at her, and so crimson in the face and his ears sticking out so--just like a cherubim in that poem of Tennyson's--or is a cherub blue?--perhaps it's a seraphim I mean--anyway, you know what I mean all eyes, with little wings on its head.

And dear old Mrs. Thipps saying, 'Of course I have any time these eighty years," and such a sensation in court till they found out she thought he'd said, 'Do you sleep without a light?' and everybody laughing and then the Coroner said quite loudly, 'Damn the woman,' and she heard that, I can't think why..."

The Duchess is just so very charming in these episodes. I always enjoy when she appears with just the right touch of humor and insight.

Our next adventures with the Duchess comes in Clouds of Witness. Lady Mary Wimsey, whose fiance has been killed and her brother Gerald accused of murdering him, is having a bout of neurosis, as the doctor wants to call it with her temperature jumping all over the place and bouts of sickness. No one can really figure out what's up until the Duchess returns to Denver and catches her daughter "stimulatin' the thermometer to terrific leaps on the hot water bottle" and dosing herself with dollops of ipecacuanah. She gives the doctor and the household a piece of her mind while she's at it:

In my day we called that kind of thing hysterics and naughtiness. We didn't let girls pull the wool over our eyes like that....You might have let that silly child make herself really ill. You are all perfectly ridiculous, and no more fit to take care of yourselves than a lot of babies--

Peter praises her powers of observation and tells Parker later that it's obvious which side of the family has the detective instinct. 

While the Dowager makes a few other appearances in Strong Poison and a mention in Gaudy Night, it is her letters and diary entries in Busman's Honeymoon that make her so endearing to me.  I chuckle over these every single time. The voices of the various characters--from Peter's insufferable sister-in-law to the irrepressible Countess of Severn and Thames--are so distinct and vibrant. And her reception of Harriet was so very like her.

Sent Franklin for sherry and biscuits, and made her--H., I mean--stay to dinner. Talked Peter till I could almost hear him saying, "Mother, dear,  you are having an orgy (or is it orgie?)...

She and Harriet talk until things get round to Bunter and Harriet is worried that he might be upset and give notice. The Duchess says it depends on her and Bunter won't go unless pushed out. And then Harriet "looked quite distressed, and we both wept a little, till it suddenly struck us as funny that we should both be crying over Bunter, who would have been shocked out of his wits if he'd known it." I love the Dowager and the way she has of putting things so much. She really adds that something extra to the scenes where she appears.


Clothes In Books said...

I was delighted to read this - I've just been thinking about the Dowager and what a great character she is. She is the best thing about Whose Body, and as you say, that first section of Busman's H is a joy to read. I love Peter giving Harriet the coat, and the Dowager discussing Jane Eyre:
"who I always think behaved so ungraciously to that poor man – so gloomy to have your bride, however bigamous, insisting on grey alpaca or merino or whatever it was, and damping to a lover’s feelings"

Xavier said...

The voices of the various characters--from Peter's insufferable sister-in-law to the irrepressible Countess of Severn and Thames--are so distinct and vibrant.

Sayers had a gift for giving her characters distinctive, individual voices. This is a gift that is much less common than one would think and all the more precious for that.

Kate said...

Brilliant post and the Dowager is one of my favourite characters from the series. Her letters in The Wimsey Papers are hysterical.

Terry said...

I'm loving this whole set of posts about Wimsey and the books, just discovered it this evening. I've loved DLS since about 1968 when I was first given one of her Wimsey books. Might have been The Nine Tailors. Anyway - thanks for this post in particular, I've always adored the Dowager. She's warm and hilarious and quite practical!