A literary tour with Peter Wimsey

I sent Mr W Kai Lung’s Golden Hours for his birthday, and he asked me how I discovered Ernest Bramah. It’s another one of those examples of books leading to books. In this case, the starting point was Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers. This is the book in which Peter first meets Harriet, not in the best circumstances given that she’s on trial for her life, accused of having murdered her lover. Peter attends the trial and decides she’s innocent, that he’ll help with her defence and that he’ll marry her when the trial is all over. Of course, true love doesn’t run anywhere near that smoothly. Harriet, badly emotionally battered by her previous relationship, ashamed and truculent, has no value for herself; Peter has much ground to make up for his early, ill-timed proposal, when, by saving Harriet’s life, he’s put her under an obligation to him that she feels can never be repaid. Their spiky, difficult relationship that is yet a meeting of minds, plays out through several of the novels until Gaudy Night.

But back to Strong Poison. In Peter’s first interview with Harriet, she quotes ‘but however entrancing it is to wander unchecked through a garden of bright images, are we not enticing your mind from a subject of almost equal importance?’, to which Peter responds, ‘And if you can quote Kai Lung we should certainly get on together.’

I was always charmed by the way Peter and Harriet delighted in language and swapped literary references, and the name Kai Lung was odd enough to capture my attention. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read all of Sayers’ Wimsey books (I don’t like her Montague Egg stories), her books fall right into the comfort read category for me. Over the years, as references have gradually dropped into place, it feels as though I’ve decoded their private conversation. We did Donne at school, so there’s Peter’s major love covered, but one year mention of a Forsythe fell into place, then Religio Medici (in Gaudy Night, Harriet discovers a copy in Peter’s pocket when he’s fallen asleep while they are punting on the Cherwell, and takes it to read until he wakes up).

I haven’t searched anything out deliberately, so it was only last year that I came across an old Penguin copy of Kai Lung’s Golden Hours. I had no idea what to expect, but the eponymous Kai Lung is a storyteller who, imprisoned on some trumped up charge, manages first to prolong his life and finally to save it through his clever telling of stories. They are sly and charming, with much of the humour in the language itself, and having read them adds another layer to the characters of both Peter and Harriet. I haven’t re-read Strong Poison since Kai Lung, but I wonder what else is there to be discovered?

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I've run out of books. Again.

4 thoughts on “A literary tour with Peter Wimsey”

  1. Hmmm… I’ve never bothered to let the Wimsey mysteries add chapters to the TBR time, but I can see I ought. I don’t know why I haven’t because I have always loved the way one book leads to many others.

  2. Emily – They rarely mention anything by name, so mostly it’s only when a reference seems familiar that I can identify it. I love that book to book journey too!

  3. Well, it all worked out for me! What’s Religio Medici like? From the sound of its title, different from Kai Lung…

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