A question to which the answer is no

This is the first of three interrelated posts about doing history across disciplines, time and space.  These reflections were inspired by two events I have attended in the past couple of months, the second of the Passions of War workshop series, held at the University of Leicester on 19-20 February, and the Globalising and Localising the Great War Graduate Conference on Spaces, Stories and Societies, which took place in Oxford on 17-18 March.  Both were interdisciplinary and both took place either coinciding with or within a week of other academic events I was either attending or wanted to attend. In this first post, I want consider the how interdisciplinarity can inform understandings of historical sexuality.

Recently the blogger Jeanne de Montbaston published a post asking ‘Is Peter Wimsey Bisexual?‘ de Montbaston is the pen name of Lucy Allen, a medievalist examining the relationships between popular culture and medieval literature, particularly in relation to gender.  It is a little unclear, but the post suggests that Allen has only begun reading the eleven novels by Dorothy L. Sayers featuring her aristocratic detective fairly recently.  As someone who has some small pretensions as a Wimsey (if not exactly a Sayers) scholar, in that an entire chapter of my PhD thesis analysed the construction of Wimsey as a post-war heroic figure, I would answer the question in the posts title with an emphatic ‘no’.  This is for two reasons: firstly, the weakness of the evidence deployed by Allen in her post; secondly, the wider problem of the relationship between effeminacy and deviant sexualities in the period under discussion.

Clouds of Witness  To begin with the actual evidence deployed by Allen which is drawn from the second novel in the series, Clouds of Witness, and relies entirely on the relationship between Wimsey and the barrister Sir Impey Biggs, QC.  There can be little doubt that, as a character, Sir Impey is coded as gay for all the reasons that Allen lays out.  What is more problematic is the reading of Sir Impey as Wimsey’s ‘good friend and oftentimes colleague’.  There may be a friendship between the two men to be read in their episodic encounters but, in the two novels and one short story where Sir Impey actually appears (rather than simply being referred to in conversation) their professional relationship is not that of colleagues.  In both Clouds of Witness and Strong Poison Wimsey is in the position of a pseudo-client, with deep emotional attachments to the accused whom Sir Impey is defending as well as that of detective.  But Sir Impey is not a fellow detective, or even a legal detective in the mould of Anthony Gilbert’s Arthur G. Crook or, later, John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole.  Indeed, in both novels, Wimsey’s detective work actively conflicts with Biggs’s legal interests, leading to professional, if not necessarily personal breaches between the two men. If Wimsey does have a good male friend and colleague in the novels, it is not Biggs, but Detective Inspector Charles Parker, with whom he gets incapably, childishly drunk at the end of Clouds of Witness. But Parker is a figure of such rigid petit-bourgeois social and sexual respectability that he ends up marrying Peter’s sister – after a long struggle with whether even asking her to marry him is a socially appropriate thing to do.[1]

What of Allen’s other evidence, Wimsey’s ‘husky’ voice when speaking to Biggs, the comparison of Biggs to Greek statuary, and Wimsey’s parody of Mother Goose in court?  The first two are matters of interpretation.  Certainly Wimsey later, particularly in Gaudy Night, speaks huskily on several occasions to his acknowledged love-interest, Harriet Vane.  But I have always read the emotion of that meeting as relating a) to the frustrating interview with the police that Wimsey has just returned from and b) the fact that his brother is in prison on a charge of murder which is referred to in the next line.  Similarly, the Greek beauty of the Charioteer of Delphi may be a hint at Oscar Wilde’s ‘Greek love’, but given the consistent playful use that Sayers makes of classical imagery and quotation throughout the novels, and which is clearly the overt intention of association the Charioteer with the (female) Oracle, I can’t help feeling Allen may be reading too much into this.  As I am sure she is in the case of the ‘Biggy and Wiggy’ rhyme.  There is nothing in the text to suggest, as Allen does, that Sir Impey is ‘blushing’ (or, indeed, ‘surprised’) in this scene, and ‘Wiggy’ is very clearly a reference not Wimsey himself, as Allen implies, but to Sir Wigmore Wrinching, the Attorney-General who is prosecuting the case against the Duke of Denver in opposition to Sir Impey.

Have His CarcaseSo no, I don’t think that even by innuendo can Wimsey’s relationships with Sir Impey or, indeed, any of the other male characters who are presented recurrently as his friends, be read as hinting at bisexual desire.  Which is not to say that Wimsey’s mas culinary and sexuality in the novels is unproblematic. Far from it. Throughout the novels he is characterised by others as sexually and morally dubious. Henry Weldon, in Have His Carcase, for instance, implies that Wimsey is ‘exploiting his mother for my private ends and probably sucking up to her for her money’, or, in other words, behaving in precisely the same way as the gigolo Paul Alexis (and later M. Antoine) behave towards her. [2]

Gaudy NightThe issue of Wimsey’s sexuality is, unsurprisingly, made most explicit in Gaudy Night, a novel whose overarching theme is the question of sex and relationships between the sexes.  It is Reggie Pomfret, an undergraduate infatuated with Harriet Vane, who demands:

‘Who … is this effeminate bounder?’

‘I have been accused of many things,’ said Wimsey, interested; ‘but the charge of effeminacy is new to me.’ [3]

Later, the criminal in the case, when confronted, accuses him of being a

rotten little white-face rat! It’s men like you that make women like this. You don’t know how to do anything but talk.  What do you know about life, with your title and your title and your money and your clothes and motor-cars. You’ve never done a hand’s turn of honest work. You can buy all the women you want. Wives and mothers may rot and die for all you care, while you chatter about duty and honor.’ [4]

On the one hand, both these accusations can be read as charges of (hetero)sexual impotence implied in the accusations of effeminacy and the inability to do anything but talk. But the anxieties which prompt the accusations are, on closer reading, of heterosexual jealousy and fear.  Reggie is outraged that Wimsey appears to be publicly wooing Harriet (and insulting him in the process).  The charge that he can buy all the women he wants is one of sexual profligacy and financial dominance, not of lack of interest in sex.

The sexual deviancy that is implied about Wimsey therefore is not homo or bisexuality but rather sexual exploitation – the man who views sex as transactionary in ways that are solely to his advantage.  These anxieties place Wimsey in a Victorian tradition of gigolos, seducers and flâneurs as much as in the Wilde-ean tradition of coded homosexuality.

Why does this distinction matter? Because the implicit accusations against Wimsey as a sexual character is a form of sexually threatening masculininty that, today, has relatively little social purchase.  Yet it is one that was dominant in late 19th and early 20th century popular and middlebrow fiction.  It is only by placing Sayers’s novels within this historic literary context that we can start unpicking multiple and complex levels on which her critique of sex and sexuality works.  Simply reading her novels through the prism of our contemporary understandings of homosexuality as the dominant form of non-normative (or at least non-hegemonic) male sexuality limits our understanding.

Which brings me to that question of interdisciplinarity.  Because sexuality is both historically contingent and historically unspoken, something beautifully demonstrated by Justin Bengray in his post on the Notches Blog, ‘The Case of the Sultry Mountie‘.  What Wimsey demonstrates is the way in which fiction can fill the silences around subjects like sexuality that exist in archives but he also provides insight into social and cultural norms that have slipped out of the contemporary reader’s view.  The first can be accessed and identified through the sort of close reading that the study of literature and methodologies of literary critics fosters.  The second draws on the perspective that derives from the contextualising processes of social and, above all, cultural history.

A call for close collaboration between these disciplines and methodologies will probably not come as any sort of shock to most of this blog’s readership, and most will I suspect be personally and professionally sympathetic to it.  When presenting at the GLGW conference in Oxford last week, I spoke of how I have used fiction to access women’s perspectives on war disability in the past, and was, in turn, asked the extent to which I intend to use such sources in my current project. (The answer is less than before simply because the archive I am working with promises to keep me more than busy enough over the next five years, but I would love other scholars to take up the analysis of wives of disabled ex-servicemen in fiction to develop my arguments and challenge my conclusions.)

Yet it is worth, once again, reiterating the importance of such interdisciplinarity. There are still enough historians who sniff at literature as unrepresentative source material and literary scholars who shrug off the complexities of historical context as unimportant to make this a case that still needs to be made.  Most unnerving of all is the backlash against cultural history which continues to rear its head.  At this week’s Social History Society Conference Rohan Mcwilliam apparently called for cultural history to be dropped from the title of the journal Social and Cultural History. I wasn’t actually present when this was said (which I will discuss further in my post on doing history across space), so am unclear how serious this suggestion was, but such comments reinforce the need for those of us who work across disciplinary boundaries to continue to make the case for why it is so vital to our understanding of ourselves, our culture and our history.

[1] The Hon. Freddy Arbuthnot makes a third in end-of-novel drunkenness, another male friend of Wimsey’s who recurs in the novels far more often than Biggs.  Like Parker, his sexuality is rigidly respectable.  Any suspicion thrown over it by his decision to marry Rachel Levy, the daughter of the Jewish victim of Whose Body? is counteracted both by the self-interested logic of the financially-minded Freddy in marrying the daughter of a City magnate and by the devotion of the bride’s parent’s own inter-religious marriage.

[2] Dorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase, New English Library Edition, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974, 156.  First published London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1932.

[3] Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night, Perennial Library Edition, New York: Harper & Row, 1986, 385. First published London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1936.

[4] Sayers, Gaudy Night, 445.

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7 thoughts on “A question to which the answer is no

  1. Hello!

    I’ve just seen this post – I’m the person who wrote about Wimsey’s (possible) bisexuality. In my blog, I didn’t explain the context in detail, but in fact, what had happened was this: I’d been discussing whether it is ever acceptable to ‘queer’ a famously heterosexual character. Many people felt this would be not just bad literary criticism, but also somehow morally ‘wrong’. There was a sense that, to read a character as homosexual was not just a personal interpretation – good or bad – but also something inappropriate.

    It made me think about the history of ‘queer’ rewritings and reinterpretations of texts, and the way they have been so very central to many people’s experiences of growing up gay, especially before the time when genuinely, overtly gay characters were a mainstream presence.

    So, I set out to ‘queer’ Peter Wimsey! I do think myself, that bisexuality isn’t impossible. I don’t think it is reading against the text. We are told, of course, that during the court session “even Sir Impey’s classical face showed flushed between the wings of his wig”. Biggs is blushing, of course, because it’s a long hot session … but is there something else, too? To simply claim that the text never indicates that Biggs blushes is to close down an avenue of close reading without giving it a fair chance. Likewise, the fact that Wimsey responds ‘huskily’ to Harriet Vane, as to Impey Biggs, seems to me a confirmation, rather than a disqualification, of bisexuality: the point of bisexuality being, of course, that a person might be sexually attracted to both genders.

    I set out to play a bit of a literary game with Wimsey and Sayers, and I’m not particularly ideologically committed to my readings, but I do think that the broader point – that male characters who are bisexual are read as if they were ‘gay’, and that we tend to ignore non-heterosexual innuendos to the point of misquoting the text – does stand.

    • Thank you so much for the contextualising comment. I think I agree with you about the reading of bisexuality as gay rather than straight, although I am going to have to think about that a bit more!

      I’m afraid that I do get a bit defensive about critical ‘reading against’, not on the basis of morality (what a fascinating stance) but as a historian who has spent years defending the use of fiction as a valid source for understanding the past. Which doesn’t, of course, preclude interpretations which demonstrate how our reading of historic fictions reflects our own society. In fact, I am extremely grateful to you for your original post. It wasn’t until I started working on my response that I really started to think about the disappearance of the gigolo from our understandings of male sexual deviancy. I’m going to have to do some more research on this subject, I think!

      • Thanks for defending! I take your point, and I do acknowledge it isn’t my historical territory at all, so I was just thinking out loud, and not in a very serious way. But I ought to be better at remembering that this can come across as disrespectful to other people who’re doing serious work, and I’m sorry I didn’t think that one through.

      • No need to apologise. It didn’t come across as particularly disrespectful, but there are plenty of people using Sayers’s work uncritically simply because they are fans (a recent Times columnist for a start!) so I can get a bit forthright about my credentials for reading critically, I’m afraid. Apologies if I came across more defensively than intended.

        It has been great fun to go back to some of my earlier stuff and get a new perspective on it. And it has sparked a connection with a colleague in another school here at Leeds which might not have happened otherwise, so definitely the best sort of academic exchange as far as I’m concerned. Thank you for initiating it.

  2. Pingback: Rocks, Hard Places, and the (Lesbian) Interpretation of Literary Texts | Jeanne de Montbaston

  3. Pingback: Doing history across time | armsandthemedicalman

  4. Pingback: Doing history across space | armsandthemedicalman

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