Is Peter Wimsey Bisexual? Some brief thoughts on innuendo

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For some time now, I’ve been reading Jem Bloomfield’s excellent, speculative posts about Dorothy Sayers’ novels. And I’ve enjoyed them – they coincided with me discovering her work – but until now, I’ve not felt able to add anything much. But, recently, I took a break from writing my current article on Chaucer to think about modern innuendo, and found myself led to the passages in one of Sayers’ less well-rated novels, Clouds of Witness, and so, to the burning and perhaps unexpected question: is Peter Wimsey bisexual?

Wimsey is famous in certain (admittedly, small) circles for his erudite romanticism and for being, we tend to agree, really rather nicely feminist despite being a fictional character born in the late nineteenth century. I’ve heard more women than I’d like to admit – and me included – exude a little sigh over the idea of an academic-gowned proposal taking place in starlit Oxford streets and crowned with “Placetne, Magistra?” as the phrasing of the time-honoured question. And so, perhaps I need some justification for what might seem an alarming suggestion.

My first exhibit for the jury is not Wimsey himself, but his good friend and oftentimes colleague, the dashing lawyer Sir Impey Biggs, of whom the Dowager Duchess of Denver once remarked:

‘”Sir Impey Biggs is the handsomest man in England, and no woman will ever care twopence for him.” He was, in fact, thirty-eight, and a bachelor, and was celebrated for his rhetoric and his suave but pitiless dissection of hostile witnesses. The breeding of canaries was his unexpected hobby, and besides their song he could appreciate no music but revue airs.’

The Dowager Duchess is, as readers of Sayers will know, not always the most reliable or systematic observer, but she does have a much-cited talent for understanding people, and for hitting on the crucial detail. And here, she’s speaking in fluent code. Biggs is a ‘confirmed bachelor’. The music he appreciates is ‘revue airs’ – that is, the currency of the Music Halls, which often featured cross-dressing acts and innuendo-laden songs.

Sayers goes on to describe her hero, Peter Wimsey, meeting this famous figure:

“He answered Wimsey’s greeting in his beautiful, resonant, and exquisitely controlled voice. … Wimsey expressed himself delighted to see him in a voice, by contrast, more husky and hesitant even than usual.”

On one reading, the scene is a knowing cliché: two people, conscious of the precise tones of each others’ voices; the one ‘controlled’ as if against betrayal of unseemly emotion, the other deepening into ‘husky’ tones. But, before we fan ourselves hastily, there’s another reading. On the surface, Sayers clearly means, also, to indicate that, in the presence of the great lawyer, Wimsey appears more diffident even than normal, less artificial in his control, more uncertain. This is a quality consistently associated with Wimsey, and it’s a quality Sayers takes great trouble to present as part of his appeal, as a counterweight to his frequent flashes of arrogance and self-assurance. And so, we can’t be certain this scene is to be read in the light of innuendo, especially if we’re anticipating the introduction of Wimsey’s unlikely love-interest, Harriet Vane. And yet … we’re soon treated to another telling scene, as Wimsey sits in the firelight setting the world to rights with his friend:

“Lord Peter watched his statuesque profile against the fire; it reminded him of the severe beauty of the charioteer of Delphi and was about as communicative.”

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The Charioteer of Delphi (detail)

On the surface, Wimsey’s thoughts suggest his irritation with Biggs’ discreet refusal to speculate too much on a current murder case, but the suggestiveness of the image Peter evokes is telling.

The Charioteer of Delphi is an Ancient Greek statue, portraying a young man. It was discovered in 1896, the year after the trial of Oscar Wilde, in which Wilde expounded at length on the nature of what he called ‘Greek love’, and in which the phrase (coined by Wilde’s lover Bosie) ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ was first popularised as a byword for homosexuality. In short, Wimsey recognises Biggs as a ‘Greek’ figure, an uncommunicative figure (or a figure who ‘dares not speak’) – and he phrases his recognition to himself in terms of aesthetic appreciation of another man’s Classically captivating appearance.

From this, it’s a short step to the ditty the rather rattled Wimsey comes out with when, hauled up to the witness stand before a surprised and blushing Biggs, he sings out:

“Biggy and Wiggy
Were two pretty men,
They went into court 
When the clock –“

The rest is silence: the ditty is cut off, the judge demands obedience, and Sayers rapidly retreats to a less subversively suggestive hero and, eventually, to a conclusion of impeccable Oxford courtship and ensuing matrimony.

This could all be taken as a fun parlour game – and reading books against the grain is one of my favourite things to do. But, perhaps there’s more to it than that. When I first suggested, to devoted fans of Sayers, that Impey Biggs might be a covertly homosexual character, they were willing to run with the ball. And when other readers have raised the point that Eiluned Prince, Sayers’ quite obviously lesbian character, is ‘a type to keep her hands in her pockets’, I’ve seen very little dissent. But for us to imagine Peter Wimsey as bisexual requires more of a shift of readerly attitudes, because of our own contemporary assumptions about fiction and sexuality.

It’s a truism that we are, even today, liable to imagine bisexual men are fictional – ‘in the closet’ – and that men who are truly attracted to women cannot also be attracted to men. And we tend, too, to assume that the subtle reach of innuendo in 1930s England could not possibly have denoted a sufficiently widespread tolerance of homosexuality such that Dorothy Sayers might possibly have penned a bisexual central character. But, as I hope I’ve shown by keeping one eye on the subtext, anything is possible.

Update: I can’t believe I never checked this when I first wrote the (more controversial than I was expecting) original, but apparently, ‘canary’ is theatre rhyming slang for homosexual (‘fairy’). Not sure how much I trust this, nor how it would work in terms of chronology, but I leave the suggestion here. 

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Jesus Wept: On Umberto Eco and John Donne

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East Window, King’s College Cambridge

At 5.30 on Monday, I was sitting in King’s College Chapel, looking up at the stained glass, which – from where I was – was mostly shades of blue, with the afternoon light behind it. We were waiting for the beginning of a service, a service for Lent, on the theme of tears. As we waited, candles were lit, and by the time the choir began to sing, the fading light outside made the stained glass darken almost to black.

I was noticing these details, because I’d got there early. I was running over the passages from a sermon by John Donne, which I was going to read. Donne’s sermon is based on the text from John’s Gospel, in which Jesus responds to the death of Lazarus by weeping. All week, I’d been enjoying getting emails from the chaplain of King’s with the faintly blasphemous-sounding subject line Jesus Wept. But Donne takes a predictably serious approach, and he makes a characteristically perceptive point that, while the Bible describes God in terms of human body parts (hands and feet, eyes and ears) as well as human emotions:

“I do not remember that ever God is said to have wept. It is for man. And when God shall come to that last act in the glorifying of man, when he promises ‘to wipe all tears from his eyes’, what shall God have to do with that eye that never wept?”

I enjoyed this point, and this rhetoric, but while I was enjoying it, I was also figuring out how to negotiate one of those lines you can’t read without raising an irritated feminist eyebrow. Discussing the idea of Jesus weeping, Donne comments on contemporary attitudes towards tears:

“We call it a childish thing to weep, and a womanish; and perchance we mean worse in that than in the childish; for therein we mean falsehood to be mingled with weakness.”

Donne glides over the idea of duplicitous feminine tears so quickly you don’t have time to explore the implications of the claim, nor what it says about the visibility of emotion and the sincerity of feeling. Donne would not be the only writer to see tears as something that should be contained, repressed, controlled, kept within the limits of the body. But Dr Thomas Dixon – who’s a historian at Queen Mary – gave the fascinating and wide-ranging address during this service, and he pointed out that Donne was writing at a time of rapidly-shifting ideas about the acceptability of emotion, a time of post-Reformation perceptions of medieval emotional display as a form of excess or insincerity. Dixon also notes that Donne is one of a very few sermon writers to discuss Christ’s tears, and I admit that this surprised me.

I was thinking back to the conversation about another kind of emotion Christ may – or may not – have displayed, which is notoriously central to the plot of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Eco died this week, and I was reading obituaries and reviews of his books.

The Name of the Rose is a classic detective story, transplanted to the early fourteenth century, and told from the perspective of a wet-behind-the-ears young monk, Adso, and his preternaturally observant, cynical, and jaded mentor, the evocatively-named William of Baskerville. Both men are visitors to a monastery in which mysterious and gruesome events are occurring, in best murder mystery tradition. But if William of Baskerville is a composite of Sherlock Holmes and of the stagey trickery that created one of his most famous cases, he’s also a skilled theologian, and early on in the novel he and Adso become dragged into what seems to be an absurdly dry argument over whether or not Christ ever laughed.

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William and Adso in the Library. Still from The Name of the Rose (1986)

Looking over the comical and carnivalesque illuminations in a manuscript in the scriptorium, William is amused by scenes of abbot-monkeys and pope-foxes. Jorge of Burgos, an impeccably pious, irascible and deeply misogynistic scholar, declares that it is blasphemous to imagine that Christ – in full knowledge of human sin and sorrow – could ever have engaged in something as carnal and trivial as laughter. Amongst the thorns in his side is the charismatic dilettante and – whisper it – possibly not entirely heterosexual Berengar, the assistant librarian, who, it turns out, has been attempting to probe the hidden secrets of the monastery library. When William refers learnedly to Aristotle’s famous, lost treatise on Comedy, Jorge responds with rage, insisting that such a book could never have been written.

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The Pope as a fox. London, BL MS 10 E. IV, f. 49v (detail)

Their argument is, as you’ll see, based on real theological points of view. I’ll quote from the film script, since I enjoy imaging Sean Connery’s accent as William, and you can watch the scene here.

Jorge: Laughter is a devilish wind which deforms the lineaments of the face, and makes men look like monkeys.

William: Monkeys do not laugh. Laughter is particular to man.

You can see that the outline of the debate is the same one that Donne presses into service in his discussion of Christ’s tears. While William (and Eco) describe laughter as particular to man, as opposed to animals, Donne describes tears as particular to man, as opposed to God. Together, they form a theory of emotion that determines the ordained place of humankind in the scheme of things. But gender doesn’t seem to come into it – at least, until I came across this old review of The Name of the Rose, written in 1983. It’s spiky praise, given grudgingly:

“Filled with the good-natured polyglot banter of the superfluosly learned, “The Name of the Rose” might be seen only as a effete “Canterbury Tales” except for tell-tale markings on the walls of its medieval monastic library, markings declaring that this records of those walls’ destruction is itself a labyrinth in the library’s image.”

It’s that word ‘effete’ that caught my attention. It’s a rarely-used term today: our vocabulary of habitual and ingrained misogyny is fashionably up to date. I have my suspicions about what the author might have considered ‘effete’ – from Eco’s choosing a genre usually dominated by women, to the portrayals of monastic homosexuality, to his poncey in-joke academic pastiches of language – but, as I was thinking about emotion, its containment and its display, it made me reassess a crucial scene in the novel, and the understated way it plays with gendered expectations.

As William and Adso become dragged further and further into the disturbing events of the monastery, they find themselves investigating a series of gruesome murders that seem somehow to relate to the highly secret portions of the monastery’s impressive and labyrinthine library. Racing through that library with suspicions mounting in their minds, William and Adso discover the  seemingly Stoical, dispassionate and authoritative Jorge, the monk who has spoken out so harshly against the idea of a laughing Christ, desperately cramming the poisoned pages of a book into his mouth in an act of destruction that will also kill him. It transpires that the fabled Aristotelian treatise on Comedy does indeed exist – hidden within the depths of the library – and that Jorge, having failed to suppress rumours of its existence, had daubed the pages in poison to trick any reader who licked his fingers as he leafed through the forbidden accounts of laughter.

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William and Adso confront Jorge. Still from The Name of the Rose

This frenzied activity is, to a medieval eye, not simply bizarre and desperate. It’s also gendered. In medieval religious literature, there’s a huge and long-standing tradition of imagining readers who devour their books. But – crucially – they are women. Religious writers approvingly described how holy women, from St Cecilia to the Virgin Mary herself, devoured the words of the Bible as if chewing, eating, and enjoying the sweet taste of the book; instructional works directed to women described how a female reader should feel and imagine each word in her mouth as she shaped its syllables with her lips. The root of this image is a quintessentially feminine experience, that of pregnancy: as Mary read the words of the Bible, she became aware of the angel Gabriel, come to tell her that she was to bear the Word of God.

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The Annunciation, attrib. Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1465-75 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

So, when Eco has an elderly male monk – a fanatic, opposed to laughter and display of emotion – cram the pages of a book into his mouth, he’s participating in this tradition of gendering the internalisation and the display of emotion. The eating of the book feminises Jorge, even as he attempts to destroy the evidence of Christ displaying an emotion that later writers would see as suspiciously human, even suspiciously feminine. But Eco also participates in a process of aligning the medieval – as represented by Jorge and his ilk, and challenged by the proto-Humanist and rational William – with the crazed repression of emotion, the distorted and dishonest response to religion, that post-Reformation writers would seize upon for polemical purposes, like Donne’s.

 

Wings, Hearts, and Medieval Lesbian Valentines

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Detail of a miniature of the allegorical personifications of Friendly Expression and Courteous Manner, catching flighty hearts in their net; from Pierre Sala, Petit Livre d’Amour, France (Paris and Lyon), c. 1500, Stowe MS 955, f. 13r.

The other day, I saw this brilliant image come up in my twitter feed. The work of the delightfully titled ‘Master of the Chronique Scandeleuse‘, it shows two women engaged in the mutual attempt to entice a flock of winged hearts into their net with what looks like skipping rope. Naturally, I read it as a Valentine’s Day image. I blame my partner for this: just before, she’d shown me the Disney retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story. The de-centred heroine of the original story grows up as the daughter of the man who stole Maleficent’s wings and her heart, and when she returns the wings, she gains queenship of Maleficent’s kingdom. Like the original, this isn’t a story that is completely devoid of same-sex implications.

Charming as it is, I’ve got to admit that the medieval image isn’t a lesbian Valentine after all. In fact, it comes from the determinedly heterosexual Petit Livre d’Amour (Little Book of Love) written by Pierre Scala and dedicated to his mistress. The British Library has a lovely and informative post on the real context of the image and of the manuscript in which it’s found, which formed their 2013 Valentine offering. In medieval English and French literature, stories of women who fall in love with other women are exceptionally rare – the Roman de Silence excluded – and I’ve been trying to find some for a while.

So I followed up my first thoughts about women trapping winged hearts. After all, the tropes of hunters catching birds, and of women as birds, are both pretty prevalent in medieval culture, and both often relate to debates on love. Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls begins with the lovely regretful line (referring to love, but also to writing love poetry) “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne …” and goes on to describe, in the first ever ‘Valentine’ poem, the meetings in which the birds choose their mates on this day.

The bird-lover also features in one of Marie de France’s lais, the story of Yonec, which is traditionally read as a love story between the mysterious knight Muldumarec and the unhappy wife of the jealous lord of Caerwent, who has imprisoned her in a high tower. In Yonec, the trapped woman sees a dark hawk fly in through her window, and it transforms into a man who declares his love for her. Doubting his faith – and, indeed, whether he is truly human – the woman insists that he must take on her shape, and take the Eucharist in her place, which will prove whether or not he comes in good faith.

The hawk-man consents, takes on the woman’s form, and receives the Eucharist, and the validated couple hurry to bed. But, seeing his wife’s happiness, the jealous husband places spikes around the window, and when the hawk returns a second time, its wings are torn and it flees away bleeding, leaving the desolate woman to follow the trail of drops of blood out of her window and into a silver city, where she finds her lover lying bleeding on his deathbed. It’s a dream-like sequence, full of mysterious images and shape-shifting visions of the supernatural, which works hard to make us forget the cold logic of the real world.

But I wondered about the implications of that central test of truth. The Eucharist, we’re assured, reveals the ‘truth’ form of the lover: human, not bird; Christian, not supernatural demon or fairy. We’re primed by the shape of the narrative (and by heteronormative assumptions) to discount the fact that the lover is, at this moment in the story, in a third alternative form: that of a woman. If the Eucharist reveals the truth, then perhaps the hawk-lover’s true form is female. Following this up, I checked the text, and found that it’s not clear when this female form is given up: or even whether the lover retains it into the woman’s bedchamber. And it would perhaps be no surprise to a medieval audience to imagine a hawk-lover as female rather than male, for hawks are often associated with women in love. In Yonec, then, a disguise of hawk-wings hides a story of women in love, as well as the identity of the ‘knight’ who flies in through the window. I think it’s a good story for Valentine’s day.