Lord Peter Wimsey

Lord Peter Wimsey

Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, a fictional character, is a " [http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/bon_vivant bon vivant] " sleuth in a series of detective novels and short stories by Dorothy L. Sayers, in which he solves mysteries—usually murder mysteries.

Born in 1890 and aging in real-time, Wimsey is described as having at best average height with straw-coloured hair, a beaked nose, and a vaguely foolish face. (Reputedly his looks were patterned after academic Roy Ridley.) He also possessed considerable intelligence and athletic ability, evidenced by playing cricket for Oxford University while earning a First and by creating a spectacularly successful publicity campaign for Whifflet cigarettes while working for Pym's Publicity, Ltd. and still, at 40, being able to turn three cartwheels in the office corridor, stopping just short of the boss's open office door (Murder Must Advertise).

In "How I Came to Invent the Character of Lord Peter Wimsey", [quoted by Barbara Reynolds in "Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul" with the parenthetical "not entirely accurate, but why should it be?", page 230.] Sayers wrote:

The novels are set in Britain contemporary to when they were written, from the early 1920s to the late 1930s; the story "Talboys" (and Jill Paton Walsh's recent continuations "Thrones, Dominations" and "A Presumption of Death") continue this into the early 1940s.


Lord Peter Wimsey's first known ancestor is the 12th Century knight Gerald de Wimsey, who went with King Richard The Lion Heart on the Third Crusade and took part in the Siege of Acre. ["Strong Poison", Ch. XXI] . This makes the Wimseys an unusually ancient family since "Very few English noble families go that far in the first creation; rebellions and monarchial head choppings had seen to that" (as reviewer Janet Hitchman noted in the introduction to "Striding Folly"). The family motto, displayed under its coat of arms, is "As My Wimsey Takes Me".

He is the second child of Mortimer Wimsey, 15th Duke of Denver, and Honoria Lucasta Delagardie, who lives on throughout the novels as the Dowager Duchess.

Lord Peter was educated at Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford, where he received a first-class degree in history. He served in the British Army from 1914–1918 (World War I) including a stint in the trenches, attaining the rank of Major in the Rifle Brigade. In the army he met Sergeant Mervyn Bunter, who had previously been in service. After sharing what the Dowager Duchess referred to as "a jam", the two arranged that if they were both to survive the war, Bunter would become Wimsey's valet. Throughout the books Bunter always takes care to address Wimsey as "Your Lordship"—nevertheless, he is obviously a friend as well as (or more than) a servant, and Wimsey again and again expresses amazement at Bunter's high efficiency and competence at virtually every sphere of life.

Wimsey suffered a breakdown due to shell shock and was eventually sent home. After the war he was ill for many months, recovering at the family's ancestral home in Duke's Denver (fictional like the dukedom it gives its name to) which lies some fifteen miles beyond the "original" Denver on the A10 near Downham Market). Bunter arrived and, with the approval of the Dowager Duchess, took up his post. Bunter moved Wimsey to a London flat at 110A Piccadilly, W1 as Wimsey recovered.

Lord Peter begins his hobby of investigation by recovering the Attenbury Emeralds. He also becomes good friends with Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Charles Parker. Bunter, being a man of many talents himself—not least photography—often proves instrumental in Peter's investigations. However, Wimsey is not entirely well. At the end of the investigation in "Whose Body?" (1923) he hallucinates that he is back in the trenches. He soon recovers his senses and goes on a long holiday.

The next year he returns to Duke's Denver to assist his older brother Gerald, accused of murdering their sister's fiancé. As Gerald is the current Duke of Denver, the resulting trial takes place in the House of Lords. Their sister, Lady Mary, also falls under suspicion. Gerald's snobbish wife, Helen, and devil-may-care heir, Viscount St. George, also make appearances in the novels.

It is not exactly known when Wimsey recruited Miss Climpson to run an undercover employment agency for women, in order to be able to garner information from the world of spinsters and widows which neither master nor man would be able to access, but it is prior to "Unnatural Death" (1927), in which Miss Climpson assists Wimsey's investigation of the suspicious death of an elderly cancer patient.

In "Strong Poison" Lord Peter meets Harriet Deborah Vane and falls in love with her. Harriet is a cerebral, Oxford-educated mystery writer on trial for the murder of her former lover. Needless to say, Wimsey saves her from the gallows, but based on the principle that gratitude is not a good foundation for marriage, she politely but firmly declines his frequent proposals. Lord Peter does encourage his friend and foil, Chief Inspector Charles Parker, to propose to his sister Lady Mary Wimsey. They marry and have a son, named Charles Peter ("Peterkin"), and a daughter, Mary Lucasta.

Wimsey continues to pursue Miss Vane, but does not get much satisfaction. He investigates a murder while on holiday in Scotland ("Five Red Herrings"). On his return he finds Miss Vane is not at home; he learns her location when reporter Salcombe Hardy asks Wimsey to comment on the murder victim Vane discovered on her walking tour of England's coast ("Have His Carcase"). Hardy does not have to point out that Vane might have committed the murder herself—one who was once tried for murder does not have the best reputation. The next morning Wimsey is at her hotel, not only to investigate the death and once more offer proposals of marriage, but also act as her patron and protector with press and police. Despite a prickly relationship, they do work together to identify the murderer.

Back in London, Wimsey goes undercover as "Death Bredon" at an advertising firm, working as a copywriter ("Murder Must Advertise"). Bredon is framed for murder, leading Charles Parker to "arrest" Bredon for murder in front of the press. To distinguish Death Bredon from Lord Peter Wimsey, Parker smuggles Wimsey out of the station and urges him to get into the papers. Accordingly Wimsey accompanies "a Royal personage" to a public event, leading the press to carry pictures of both "Bredon" and Wimsey.

By 1935 Lord Peter is in Europe, acting as an unofficial attaché for the British Foreign Office. Harriet Vane contacts him about a problem she has been asked to investigate in her college at Oxford ("Gaudy Night"). At the end of their investigation, Vane finally accepts Peter's proposal of marriage. The couple marry, on October 8 1935, at St. Cross Church, Holywell, Oxford (depicted in the opening collection of letters and diary entries in "Busman's Honeymoon").

The Wimseys go off on honeymoon to Talboys, a house in east Hertfordshire near where the young Harriet's father was a country doctor, which she has loved from childhood and which Peter has bought for her as a wedding present. There, they find the body of the previous owner, and spend their honeymoon solving the case, thus having the eponymous "Busman's Honeymoon".

The Wimseys have three children: Bredon Delagardie Peter Wimsey (born in October 1936 in the story "The Haunted Policeman"); Roger Wimsey (born 1938), and Paul Wimsey (born 1940). Note that in "A Presumption of Death" the second son is called Paul, because in the wartime publications of "The Wimsey Papers" Dorothy L. Sayers called him that. All three boys are presented in the 1942 story "Talboys," and it may be presumed that Paul is named after Lord Peter's Uncle Paul Delagardie. "Roger" is an ancestral Wimsey name.

Other recurring characters include multiple appearances from solicitor Murbles, newshound Salcombe Hardy, and city whizz The Honourable Freddy Arbuthnot, who finds himself entangled in the case in the first of the Wimsey books, 1923's "Whose Body?".

Among Lord Peter's hobbies, apart from criminology, is collecting incunabula (very early printed books). He is an expert on matters of food (especially wine) and male fashion, as well as on classical music. He is quite good at playing Bach's works for keyboard instruments on a piano he babies even more than his books, wines, and cars. One of Lord Peter's cars is a 12-cylinder ("double-six") 1927 Daimler four-seater, which he calls "Mrs. Merdle" after a character in "Little Dorrit" (by Charles Dickens).

Sayers wrote no more Wimsey murder mysteries after the outbreak of the Second World War. In one of the Wimsey Papers (a series of fictionalised commentaries in the form of mock letters between members of the Wimsey family), there is a reference to Harriet's difficulty in continuing to write murder mysteries at a time when European dictators were openly committing mass murders with impunity; this seems to have reflected Sayers' own wartime feeling.

The Wimsey Papers included a reference to Wimsey and Bunter setting out on a secret mission of espionage in Europe, pointing to the possibility of a spy thriller featuring them; but, most unfortunately, such was never written. The only occasion when Sayers returned to Wimsey was the 1942 short story "Talboys", where Peter and Harriet enjoy a rural domestic bliss with their three children and there happens no crime worse than the theft of peaches from the neighbor's tree (of which Wimsey successfully vindicates his wrongly-accused first-born). The war at that time devastating Europe got only a single oblique reference. Sayers told friends orally that Harriet and Peter were to eventually have five children in all.

Though Sayers lived until 1957, she never took up again the Wimsey books. In effect, rather than killing off her detective, as Conan Doyle unsuccessfully tried with his, Sayers pensioned Wimsey off to a happy, satisfying old age. Thus, Peter Wimsey remained forever fixed on the background of inter-war England, and the books are nowadays often read for their evocation of that period as much as for the intrinsic detective mysteries (as Sherlock Holmes is often read for the distinctive late Victorian atmosphere of his background).



With year of first publication

*"Whose Body?", (1923)
*"Clouds of Witness", (1926)
*"Unnatural Death", (1927)
*"The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club", (1928)
*"Strong Poison", (1931)
*"Five Red Herrings", (1931)
*"Have His Carcase", (1932)
*"Murder Must Advertise", (1933)
*"The Nine Tailors", (1934)
*"Gaudy Night", (1935)
*"Busman's Honeymoon", (1937)
*"Thrones, Dominations", (1998) (not finished by Sayers—completed by Jill Paton Walsh)
*"A Presumption of Death", (2002) (written by Jill Paton Walsh, based loosely on "The Wimsey Papers")

Short story collections

*"Lord Peter Views the Body", (1928)
*"Hangman's Holiday", (1933) (also contains non-Wimsey stories)
*"In the Teeth of the Evidence", (1939) (also contains non-Wimsey stories)
*"Striding Folly", (1972)
*"Lord Peter", (1972) ["See this article for complete list of stories."]

In addition there are
*"The Wimsey Papers", published between Nov. 1939 and Jan. 1940 in the "The Spectator" Magazine - a series of mock letters by members of the Wimsey family, being in effect fictionalised commentaries on life in England at the inception of the war.

Dramatic adaptations

The novel "Busman's Honeymoon" was originally a stage play by Sayers and her friend Muriel St. Clare Byrne.

Some of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels were made into two very successful television series by the BBC. Lord Peter Wimsey was played by Ian Carmichael in a series that ran from 1972 to 1975 and adapted five novels, and by Edward Petherbridge in 1987, wherein the three major Wimsey/Vane novels were dramatized. Harriet was played by Harriet Walter. The BBC was unable to secure the rights to turn "Busman's Honeymoon" into the fourth part of the series. Both series are now available on videotape and DVD.

Edward Petherbridge also played Wimsey in the UK production of the Busman's Honeymoon play staged at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1988 (it also toured in the North of England), with the role of Harriet being taken by his real life spouse, Emily Richard.

Ian Carmichael also starred as Wimsey in radio adaptations of the novels made by the BBC, all of which have been available on cassette and CD from the BBC Radio Collection. In the original series, which ran on Radio 4 from 1973–1983, no adaptation was made of the seminal "Gaudy Night", perhaps because the leading character in this novel is Harriet and not Peter; this was corrected in 2005 when a version specially recorded for the BBC Radio Collection was released starring Carmichael and Joanna David. The CD also includes a panel discussion on the novel, the major participants in which are P. D. James and Jill Paton Walsh. It should be noted, however, that Gaudy Night was released as an unabridged audiobook read by Ian Carmichael in 1993.

There was a 1935 British movie of "The Silent Passenger" in which Lord Peter solved a mystery on the boat train crossing the English Channel, but the film does not seem to be available on videotape, at least in the United States. Sayers disliked the film; James Brabazon describes it as an "oddity, in which Dorothy's contribution was altered out of all recognition."

The 1940 film "The Haunted Honeymoon" (US title) or "Busman's Honeymoon" (UK title), starring Robert Montgomery and Constance Cummings as Lord and Lady Peter, is available on videotape in generic boxes on the secondary market. Any resemblance of its characters and events to those in "Busman's Honeymoon" is more than coincidental but less than satisfactory to Sayers's fans; the film script simplifies the novel's plot a great deal. (In the TV adaptation of "Murder Must Advertise", a movie poster of Robert Montgomery is prominently visible on the wall in the secretaries' office). Sayers refused even to see this movie.

Books about Lord Peter by other authors

* "The Wimsey Family" (1977) by C. W. Scott-Giles ISBN 0-06-013998-6
* "Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook" (1981) by Elizabeth Ryan ISBN 0-89919-032-4
* "The Lord Peter Wimsey Companion" (2002) by Stephan P. Clarke ISBN 0-89296-850-8 published by The Dorothy L. Sayers Society.
* "Conundrums for the Long Week-End : England, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Lord Peter Wimsey" (2000) by Robert Kuhn McGregor, Ethan Lewis ISBN 0-87338-665-5

As a footnote, Lord Peter Wimsey has also been included by the science fiction writer Philip José Farmer as a member of the Wold Newton family; and Laurie R. King's detective character Mary Russell meets Lord Peter at a party in the novel "A Letter of Mary".

ee also

*Eric Whelpton


*Lord Peter Wimsey's "Who's Who" or "Debrett"-like entry is located in most books. Depending on the printing it is in the front or the rear of each book. The same "Who's Who" article is consulted by Miss Meteyard in "Murder Must Advertise" when she begins to suspect that new copywriter Mr. Bredon is not just the bumbling oaf he pretends to be.
*A short biographical essay, said to be the work of Peter's uncle Paul Austin Delagardie, the brother of the Dowager Duchess, appears in many editions.

External links

* [http://www.leftfield.org/~rawdon/books/mystery/sayers.html Lord Peter Wimsey chronology]
* [http://archives.balliol.ox.ac.uk/images/Portraits/168.jpgLord Peter Wimsey portrait at Balliol, Oxford]

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