Thursday, August 27, 2015

Lord Peter and Christendom

[Originally posted on this date in 2003]

Early this summer I ordered a boxful of books from Carmon which contained, among other things, Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors, the first of her books I've ever read. Since then, I've read four more Lord Peter novels plus a collection of Lord Peter short stories. There are still about a half a dozen others that I haven't read yet, and I'm enjoying them so much I would be glad to own her complete works.

As he spoke, the sound of a church clock, muffled by the snow, came borne upon the wind; it chimed the first quarter.

"Thank God!" said Wimsey. "Where there is a church, there is civilization."+

Even though the Lord Peter stories are mysteries, some of them involving murder, what Miss Sayers wrote about was Christian civilization. Born near the end of Queen Victoria's reign, Miss Sayers lived through the revolutionary social changes of the early 20th century, and a recurring theme in her stories is the contrast between the coarseness of modern behavior the more genteel manners of the past.

"How about a punt at 3:o'clock from Magdalen Bridge?"

"There'll be an awful crowd on the river. The Cherwell's not what is was, especially on a Sunday. More like Bank Holiday at Margate, with gramophones and bathing-dresses and everybody barging into everybody else."

"Never mind. Let's go and do our bit of barging along with the happy populace...."

Harriet smiled to herself as she went to change for the river. If Peter was keen on keeping up decayed traditions he would find plenty of opportunity by keeping to a pre-War standard of watermanship, manners and dress. Especially dress. A pair of grubby shorts or a faded regulation suit rolled negligently about the waist was the modern version of Cherwell fashions for men; for women, a sun-bathing constume with (for the tender-footed) a pair of gaily-coloured beach-sandals. Harriet shook her head at the sunshine, which was now hot as well as bright. Even for the sake of startling Peter, she was not prepared to offer a display of grilled back and mosquito-bitten legs. She would go seemly and comfortable.

The Dean, meeting her under the beeches, gazed with exaggerated surprise at her dazzling display of white linen and pipe-clay.

"If this were twenty years ago I should say you were going on the river."

"I am. Hand in hand with a statelier past."

The Dean groaned gently. "I'm afraid you are making yourself conspicuous. That kind of thing is not done. You are clothed, clean and cool. On a Sunday afternoon, too. I am ashamed of you...."

She was punctual at the bridge, but found Peter there before her. His obsolete politeness in this respect was emphasized by the presence of Miss Flaxman and another Shrewsburian, who were sitting on the raft, apparantly waiting for their escort, and looking rather hot and irritable.*

But Peter and Harriet are only pretending.

"You will find the tea-basket," said Wimsey, "behind you in the bows."

They had put in under the dappled shade of an overhanging willow a little down the left bank of the Isis. Here there was less crowd, and what there was could pass at a distance. Here, if anywhere, they might hope for comparative peace. It was, therefore, with more than ordinary irritation that Harriet, with the thermos yet in her hand, observed a heavily-laden punt approaching.

"Miss Shuster-Slatt and her party. Oh...! and she says she knows you."

The poles were firmly driven in at either end of the boat; escape was impossible. Ineluctably the American contingent advanced upon them. They were alongside. Miss Schuster-Slatt was crying out excitedly. It was Harriet's turn to blush for her friends. With incredible coyness Miss Schuster-Slatt apologized for her intrusion, effected introductions, was sure they were terribly in the way, reminded Lord Peter of their former encounter, recognized that he was far too pleasantly occupied to wish to be bothered with her, poured out a flood of alarming enthusiasm about the Propagation of the Fit, again drew strident attention to her own tactlessness, informed Lord Peter that Harriet was a lovely person and just too sympathetic, and favoured each of them with an advance copy of her new questionnaire. Wimsey listened and replied with imperturbable urbanity, while Harriet, wishing that the Isis would flood its banks and drown them all, envied his self-command. When at length Miss Schuster-Slatt removed herself and her party, the treacherous water wafted back her shrill voice from afar:

"Well, girls! Didn't I tell you he was just the perfect English aristocrat?"

At which point the much-tried Wimsey lay down among the tea-cups and became hysterical.*

The "good manners" of several generations ago were not just about wearing the right clothes and using the right words. The way men and women treated each other, the way parents regarded children, the way social superiors took care of their inferiors and inferiors defered to their superiors, was all a part of a culture that lived out Christianity, each esteeming the other better than himself. Christendom was not perfect then, but at least then we had an idea of what it meant to live as a people of God, and our standard was the world's standard.

Lord Peter lived with the disillusionment of post-WWI England. The political intrigues, the knowledge that the old security was gone and that another war could erupt at any time, the realization that the old way was dying and the "new cilization grow[ing] in on it like a jungle*" and that his nephew, the heir of the family estate, might be just as inclined to sell the property for the development of strip malls as to preserve his heritage, leads him to long for the peace, for the escape, of Oxford.

...how I loathe haste and violence and all that ghastly, slippery cleverness. Unsound, unscholarly, insincere - nothing but propaganda and special pleading and 'what do we get out of this?' No time, no peace, no silence; nothing but conferences and newpapers and public speeches till one can't hear one's self think.... If only one could root one's self in here among the grass and stones and do something worth doing, even if it was only restoring a lost breathing for the love of the job and nothing else."

She was astonished to hear him speak with so much passion.

"But, Peter, you're saying exactly what I've been feeling all this time. But can it be done?"

"No; it can't be done. Though there are moments when one comes back and thinks it might."

" 'Ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.' "

"Yes," said he bitterly, "and it goes on: 'But they said: we will not walk therein.' Rest? I had forgotten there was such a word."*

He longs for the university, not the Church, for though Lord Peter was raised in the Church, he admits that he is not devout, and this is why his search for rest ends in bitterness.

I haven't read enough of Miss Sayers' books to know if she offers a solution, but in the short story "Talboys," Lord Peter has settled down, married, and is the happy father of three children. The quiet domesticity of that story gives a clue to the answer.

I believe a large part of rebuilding a Christian civilization lies with families who live out Ephesians 4 at home, at work, wherever the Lord calls them.

O Almighty Father, thou King eternal, immortal, invisible, thou only wise God our Saviour; Hasten, we beseech thee, the coming upon earth of the kindgom of thy Son, our LORD and Saviour Jesus Christ, and draw the whole world of mankind into willing obedience to his blessed reign. Overcome all his enemies, and bring low every power that is exalted against him. Cast out all the evil things that cause wars and fightings among us, and let thy Spirit rule the hearts of men in righteousness and love. Repair the desolations of former days; rejoice the wilderness with beauty; and make glad the city with thy law. Establish every work that is founded on truth and equity, and fulfill all the good hopes and desires of thy people. Manifest thy will, Almighty Father, in the brotherhood of man, and bring in universal peace; through the victory of thy Son, Jesus Christ our LORD. Amen.#



+ The Nine Tailors
* Gaudy Night
# The Reformed Episcopal Prayer Book (1963)

1 comment :

  1. I have not read any of the Sayers books and people keep telling me I MUST read them (as I love a good Whodunnit!) but the perspective you make on how people treated each other and lived out Christianity in their daily lives really speak to me. And in some sense, they condemn me- I need to think more about that!! Thank for this!!x

    ReplyDelete

I love comments!