Lord Peter Wimsey: wearing your knowledge lightly

Did you ever have one of those books of quotations? Ones where you look up a quotation for the moment on whatever topic seems important. We had one. One of my grannies passed hers on to me. But probably my favourite source is Lord Peter Wimsey, gentleman detective.

Wimsey was the creation of Dorothy L. Sayers. You might have seen the series quite some years ago, with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walters – that’s where I came in. Detective falls in love with author who is on trial for murder – that starts the stories with the two of them, but there’s more stories too with just Wimsey.

Wimsey is a gentleman, with a gentleman’s private income (so he can do some detecting if he pleases), but also a gentleman’s education. And part of that education is a whole collection of quotations for the moment: Biblical, Shakespearean, and other literary sayings.

Dorothy L. Sayers herself was a classicist, as well as being a copywriter, a Christian writer, and a translator of Dante. So she had a lot of sources to choose from, and these she poured into Wimsey.

The name, as I understand it, is a deliberate play on whimsy, a suggestion of fanciful behaviour. Wimsey doesn’t need to work – but he does, with all of his intellect put to work.

The quotations tend to come out when he is in high spirits, or pensive – or suffering with the impact of what happens to the criminals he tracks down (the books were written at a time when capital punishment was still legal in the UK).

I too took up quotations, for a time. Back in the days of diary writing, I would put a new quotation at the top of each entry, usually taken from what I was reading at the time. I think the notion was to learn some of them by heart, though that didn’t really happen.

But some of them, I must have done. Some of the quotes that come to mind most come from what Wimsey says – and they make their way into my thinking at times. (Some of that is also through a certain amount of re-reading Sayers at times.)

When I wrote a post a couple of months ago, about ‘coming home’ to writing, it is borrowing Wimsey’s words on what he feels when (finally) he and Harriet Vane agree that they might feel free to love each other.

I don’t always wear my knowledge lightly. I like learning, and I like passing on that knowledge. Which makes me a teacher on one hand (ex-teacher, at least), and a swot on the other. It’s a balance I am still trying to find as I write.

But in Wimsey, I see some possibilities for how that balance may work – and how, at times, finding the right words for the occasion can be a gift. A celebration. A solace. All those things that we seek from words, and sometimes find.

And in a quotation, sometimes the discovery is how the right words really are right – not once, but many times. With all that changes in life, having the right words can be something to cling on to – and something to cheer about.

Join the conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment