Sunday, November 2, 2014
Dorothy L Sayers and the Oxford Man
Up until last week I had always considered D L Sayers a bit of a joke. I had been led to believe and I did believe that Miss Sayers's characters had about as much going for them as Bertie Wooster and Agatha Christie's. By accident I came across a dramatised version entitled Strong Poison and having nothing better to do I watched it. From the moment her central character with the unfortunate name of Lord Peter Wimsey, late Eton and Oxford, appeared in the shape of Edward Petherbridge I knew that I had been mistaken for D L Sayers knew her man.
Dorothy Leigh Sayers wrote detective novels in the 1920s/1930s because she needed to make money. She was born in 1893 in the Head Master's House, Christchurch Cathedral Oxford, her father was a minister. She went to Oxford when women didn't and although she graduated was not given a degree. When in 1920 Oxford males relented she received an MA, First Class Honours. Being a thoroughly modern young women she went into advertising and was exceptionally good at it, It pays to advertise and Only Toucan Do were two of her best and are still memorable today.
All writers write about what they know and Miss Sayers knew her Oxford. She knew exactly what it is that makes the Oxford man so attractive to women as she lived with them all her life. Being an advertising copywriter she realised that the general public and women in particular enjoyed detective fiction and the aristocracy. They still do but she could also have added the Oxford man on her list. Sayers probably did not realise why her detective with his silly name was so appealing. Oxford men were her source of reference.
How do I know this? Easy I had the good fortune to actually marry an Oxford man. I have never really thought about this as it just happened but Miss Sayers opened my eyes to the fact. It is only in the last three novels when Sayers rounded out Wimseys character with the introduction of a love interest Harriet Vane that was based on herself that I recognised the courtship rituals of this example of the male species.
Lord Peter Wimsey is so attractive because the character rings true. Well, he did to women of my age but possibly would need a bit of an update today. The protocol regarding living arrangements before marriage are now so different to life before the 1990s as to be almost unfathomable to those around today. How could a man of 45 keep his hands off the woman he wanted to marry until she had said yes and they had tied the knot? But in those days they did.
My courtship was almost identical to that of Harriet Vane and this is on the whole how it goes. An Oxford educated gentleman knows that he is superior. That is taken for granted. They just are. Possibly because they had received an education that is second to none. Not only are they educated but Oxford itself is a magical place to spend the most important and influential years of one's life. It not only imparts a great education but a delight in living, confidence and how to get the best out of life. They get used to living well and feeling special because they are. To those who they consider in the club they remain little boys all their lives with silly names and jokes which are spiced with irony which they delight in displaying among themselves. They love dressing up and going to gaudys. They do not notice ordinary people. They are not rude they just don't notice. My husband told me later I was a pair of skates on legs. I was 29 before he noticed me.
From the moment this Oxford man fell at my feet at Queens ice rink I knew that he was the man I wanted to marry or at least a man like this. He was not good looking, older than me but he had a voice and an accent that is like nectar. The Oxford accent is in a class of it's own. It is just plain sexy when it purrs in your ear. He was a good ice dancer and even being asked for a dance was a delight. He also, like Sir Peter played the piano rather well, each day in fact but I did not discover this for years. He also went to the opera on a weekly basis. He took wonderful overseas holidays, Davos, St. Moritz and Zermatt in winter and Italy, Greece in summer. He had a nice but unshowy car and owned a house in Shepherds Bush by the BBC and a housekeeper to look after him. My Oxford man did not do the dishes or make his bed. He was also incredibly mean. I had absolutely no money but he hardly ever offered a cup of tea and never paid my entrance although he danced with me all afternoon.
I did not hold out any hope. I was attractive, very attractive, at one time Ken Russell the film director had said I was the sexiest thing in West End musicals. I was bright and intelligent too and if I had been a boy my father, who went to the best schools himself would have seen to it I went to Oxford. However to an Oxford man I was a middle class convent girl and therefore completely uneducated but I did have a good English received accent and knew about Darwin which I think helped a bit.
One day when I was 29 I happened to mention while dancing a waltz that I knew Benjamin Britten rather well. I think I am possibly the only 19 year old girl Britten ever took home alone in the Alvis. I was even then exceptional as Britten only went for the best. This came as a bombshell and I was nearly dropped on my bottom on the ice. How did this creature know Benjamin Britten? I was rushed off to tea and dinner while this GP actually found out what he had been dancing with. I got asked out to the opera that night and really from that moment he saw me as a person not a thing. At last I was treated if not quite like an equal then at least with respect I deserved. Dr Miles Heffernan fell in love. I was quite used to men falling in love with me. I had lots of fans who sent me flowers and chocolates but as I had given up hope on this man he had to work rather hard to catch up as there was another Oxford man Miles G of the FO that I found equally attractive only like Lord Peter Wimsey he used to dash off to foreign lands on occasions on FO business.
The courtship was long and pleasant. The moment that he made up his mind to marry me life changed. I got the full treatment and I was introduced to Oxford and the punt on the Cherwell with wine chilled in the water. This is a sure sign that an Oxford man means business. Glyndebourne picnics, visits to his college Oriel with an introduction to testudo, the box at Covent Garden Opera and Ballet. I introduced Miles to the ballet, no more standing and No Puccini! That I had seen The Ring at 16, I stood through it, was impressive. He also discovered I sang Schubert well and liked Mahler and I could skate badly. I discovered too that Miles could play the piano and we embarked on a love affair with Lieder that has never ended. No Brahms.
I found like Wimsey, Oxford men enjoy driving around the countryside looking at churches and Roman villas. I never realised there were so many. He would play the organ in one whenever he got the opportunity.
He made no attempt to bed me. I think he may have wanted to but men in those days never married women they bedded as Harriet Vane discovered. It is hard to believe these days but they didn't. Prince Charles is a good example. Men never married their mistresses. It wasn't done. It seemed to work. We had 30 years of a happy marriage much to our surprise.
The moment I became officially engaged I entered the Oxford club. I met his college friends and I was allowed into the banter. They are like little boys sometimes and not all that keen on women in general. The fuss when my husband's college Oriel had to admit women was extremely unpleasant. Oriel was the last to do so and I can quite see why.
Oxford men are very romantic. It appears that they are brought up on Jane Austen and use Mr Darcy as a guide. When you are the object of desire it is most seductive. They break the social rules and are allowed to do it. It is their way with manners, they can be charming and daringly frank at the same time. They have a way with words. Understatement is a favourite form of banter. They are fun to be with and one feels safe in their company. They are not afraid of taking command. This is a bit of a show and surprisingly they do need to be rescued on some occasions. You do need to stand up to them if you are not to become a doormat. In fact standing up to them is a necessary attribute if you are to become an Oxford man's Lady! Most Oxford men are afraid of Mother!
Oxford men are not only well versed in their own field but delight in knowing other fields too, the more obtuse the better. Lord Peter enjoys and is knowledgeable about music but also campanology, Sir Peter could ring the bells. No doubt he had other strengths too, like languages, wine and fashion. My husband was the same, adored ice dancing. Loved architecture too and would drool over the subtle differences in the decoration of semi detacheds. I got a quick lesson in Greek architecture by way of Marie Antoinette's pillars in the V&A. Her husband had obviously had to teach her too. My husband was fortunate. His MA for which Miss Sayers had to work and wait was given free gratis for completing an Oxford medical degree. To them that are chosen.
In hindsight I understand now I was fortunate to get an Oxford man as a husband. In fact I suppose I ought to be quite proud of myself on my achievement as Oxford men are picky and can really marry anyone they choose. Oxford men know what is good and I obviously must have been worth it. They themselves are not perfect and can be infuriating and pompous on occasions and that again adds to the charm. Like Harriet Vane I was reluctant to marry this creature who knew everything and was always right. He countered with If I get exceptionally obnoxious just say, 'Darling you are not in your surgery now'. How could any woman resist?
Sayers written description of Lord Peter Wimsey is bang on but both TV offerings are not quite right. The problem is that both gentlemen are actors and neither of them went to Oxford. Both although trying their best just do not have IT. They lack the charm, and most importantly the voice that is absolutely essential. Ian Carmichael hails from Hammersmith and Petherbridge from Bradford. Not their fault. Perhaps a young Colin Firth in his Mr Darcy mode would be better casting or a young Hugh Grant. Grant went to Oxford and Firth has an academic family. It is hard to be or even act an Oxford man if you ain't one. In contrast the Harriet Vane of Harriet Walter is spot on. I don't think this Harriet would have said Yes to either of these Wimseys! They didn't deserve her but she would have said Yes to mine!
I now have respect for Dorothy L Sayers. She was a pioneer. One of her novels, The Nine Tailors is considered to be one of the four best detective novels of all time, one other on the list is The Hound of the Baskervilles and it deserves to be. I wish I had found her sooner but better late than never. She gave me the opportunity to relive my courtship and my lover which I might never have done without her. For the rest of you if a Lord Peter Wimsey comes along grab him.