Obnoxiously Objectifying Thursdays: Lord Peter Wimsey

“His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.” HOT.

Mar 7, 2013 at 1:30pm | Leave a comment

Think back to when you were twelve years old. Did you plaster posters of your celebrity crush all over your bedroom, make a collage shrine, or beg your parents to turn the car radio back to the station blaring that soulful voice? Of course you did. It’s a time-honoured tradition amongst the tween hopeless romantic set.

Unfortunately, the man I was infatuated with didn’t appear on Trapper Keepers or posters… because he wasn’t real. Of course there are plenty of girls who focus their attention on perfectly admirable literary crush objects: Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rochester, Gilbert Blythe. But not me. I picked an oddball.

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I was 12, that bloodthirsty age where I graduated from Nancy Drew to classic British murder mysteries. Mystery, a PBS show airing mostly BBC productions, played a series based on three books by Dorothy L. Sayers, starring veteran actor Edward Petherbridge. The shows were so good, I went straight to the library and requested as many books as I could. I started with the ones I saw on TV, then went back and devoured the rest.

For some inexplicable reason, this young girl in the middle of rural Pennsylvania went completely potty over a book character with the ridiculous name of “Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey.” To further illustrate its weirdness, compare the description of Lord Peter to the doe-eyed hunks of 90210:

“His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.”

Hot.

In Wimsey’s defence, he had plenty else going for him. Second son of the Duke of Denver. Brilliant mind, snazzy monocle, slightly subversive. Good friends with his subtly delightful manservant, Bunter. WW1 survivor and participant in military intelligence. Had a cool Daimler, great taste in port, and possessed a fantastic collection of antique books. Just the description of his library thrilled me:

Lord Peter's library was one of the most delightful bachelor rooms in London. Its scheme was black and primrose; its walls were lined with rare editions, and its chairs and Chesterfield sofa suggested the embraces of the houris. In one corner stood a black baby grand, a wood fire leaped on a wide old-fashioned hearth, and the Sèvres vases on the chimneypiece were filled with ruddy and gold chrysanthemums.

Jeez! Who WOULDN’T want to hang out there?

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Best of all, Wimsey was a die-hard feminist: he employed little old ladies as spies for his detective service – one even helped save the life of the woman he finally fell for, Harriet Vane. He staunchly supported Harriet’s writing career, and graciously recognized her need for true equality. Very progressive thinking for a gentleman of his time.

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Now, imagine harbouring this admiration throughout the next 15 years or so, all through high school and college, with no one knowing what on earth you’d be talking about if you brought him up. I mean, what the hell kind of name is Lord Peter Wimsey? Even Sayers’s contemporaries parodied him in various ways.

Dorothy L. Sayers, nevertheless, became my gold standard for writing quality. Although I wasn’t 100% conscious of this at the time, Wimsey in turn became the impossible gold standard for potential love interests. I could barely find anyone my age who had even heard of him, so I fruitlessly searched for boys who had some of his traits. Unfortunately, this led to at least four disastrous cases, which still mortifies me to this day.

It turns out Sayers herself felt similarly about her creation, and constantly sought a reality-based facsimile, as outlined in this rather geeky letter she wrote to a friend:

“My dear, my heart is BROKEN! I have seen the perfect Peter Wimsey. Height, voice, charm, smile, manner, outline of features, everything -- and he is -- THE CHAPLAIN OF BALLIOL!! What is the use of anything? ...I am absolutely shattered by this Balliol business. Such waste -- why couldn't he have been an actor?”

Despite all that, though, Wimsey has remained a steadfast friend all these years. I never tire of reading his stories and seeing the character morph from a sillyass Bertie Wooster-type to a well-rounded adult with deep feelings. He’s traveled with me on countless train trips and visits to the beach, and seen me through various illnesses when I didn’t feel like reading much else. Now, that’s a pal!

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Lord Peter helped me improve my writing skills and expand my interests. I even started imitating Sayers’s flowery language in my own writing – sadly out of fashion, but still fun. I took Latin in college partly to figure out the dirty scenes in Busman’s Honeymoon (barely passed the class). I did an extensive academic research paper on Dorothy L. Sayers, spending hours in the campus library learning about her own remarkable life. (Trust me, she was a character herself.)

Thankfully, when I got older, social media put me in touch with other rare young ladies enchanted with Lord Peter. He’s all over Tumblr these days! I also eventually found a nice fellow who might not have fit most of Wimsey’s qualities (to his relief), but can certainly be considered an intellectual equal.

And finally, a few years ago, I wrote a little note to dear Mr. Petherbridge himself. He kindly wrote a sweet response saying that he was very honoured that he’d helped introduce Lord Peter to me at such a young age. I’ll never forget that!

Are there any other Lord Peter fans out there? I’d love to hear from you!