Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers (1926)
While this, the second of Sayers’ Wimsey books, is a longer and more discursive volume than the first, its greater length is not due to padding. In fact what the reader is presented with is a fine and nuanced examination of English society and culture in the decade after the end of the “Great War” and before the onset of worldwide depression. England is changing and yet England has not yet changed. The class system is not what it once was and yet the class system still functions. Education is no longer solely the privilege of the upper and monied classes and yet markers of education are still evident in interactions among people.
The story itself is structured much like an onion with layers that must be peeled away in order to discover what lies at the center. The reader will find, especially upon subsequent readings, that the nature of the center is not what they thought it to be and that each layer deserves to be carefully examined upon removal.
Warning: beyond here lie spoilers.
The opening of the book seems simple and straightforward. Lord Peter Wimsey discovers, while in Parisian hotel returning from a “get away” holiday on Corsica, that his brother, the Duke of Denver, has been charged with murder. Wimsey dashes to his brothers’ side in England only to find that Denver is no more willing to explain to Lord Peter his mysterious behaviour on the night in question than he was to his lawyer. Wimsey, even if he had not previously done work as amateur detective, would no doubt have done everything he could to free his brother. The reader is, however, gently and wittily reminded by Sayers, that his efforts might not have been received in the same fashion were it not for his social ranking, “[t]he Police Superintendent at Ripley received Lord Peter at first frigidly, and later, when he found out who he was, with a mixture of the official attitude to private detectives and the official attitude to a Duke\’s son.”
Sayers provides us with many examples of the ways in which Lord Peter, and his family, exist in a world that fundamentally differs from that of most people living in England at the time. For example, Wimsey had been unaware of his brother’s plight because Lord Peter was on holiday in Corsica. He rushes back to England and then returns to Paris to track down evidence of Denver’s innocence. He is then able to expedite travel to the United States because of his access to important people:
His next appearance was at the American Embassy.The Ambassador, however, was not there, having received a royal mandate to dine. Wimsey damned the dinner, abandoned the polite, horn-rimmed secretaries, and leapt back into his taxi with a demand to be driven to Buckingham Palace. Here a great deal of insistence with scandalised officials produced first a higher official, then a very high official, and, finally, the American Ambassador and a Royal Personage while the meat was yet in their mouths.
Finally, in order to return in a timely manner from America with the evidence to prove his brother’s innocence, Wimsey takes to the air. The unusualness of this is underlined in Denver’s legal representative announcement to the House of Lords. Wimsey, he tells them:
[is] at this moment . . . cleaving the air high above the wide Atlantic. In this wintry weather he is braving a peril which would appall any heart but his own and that of the world-famous aviator whose help he has enlisted so that no moment may be lost in freeing his noble brother from this terrible charge.
Contrast Lord Peter’s ability to travel and get access to people and information with Wimsey showing off London to Mrs. Grimethorpe as if it was a foreign land and with Mr. Watchett not having been back to London in the 35 years he had tended bar in Yorkshire. Working class English men and women at that time seldom traveled for pleasure and certainly could not have afforded to holiday in Corsica, stay in Parisian hotels and dash across the Atlantic.
Sayer’s provides many other contrasts between the lives of the working and upper classes in England. Wimsey travels to Corsica, “admiring from a cautious distance the wild beauty of Corsican peasant-women, and studying the vendetta in its natural haunt. In such conditions murder seemed not only reasonable, but lovable.” He returns to England to almost lose his life in a bog in Yorkshire and to have his life threatened by a Yorkshireman who felt he had a right to kill any man who stepped on his property or looked at his wife. What Wimsey found lovable in “wilds of Corsica” he found anything but when it happened at home and to him. Mrs. Grimethorpe, threatened, beaten and living her life in fear is terrified to leave her husband because she knows that even if she is able to sue for divorce the legal system will not offer her adequate protection. Lady Mary Wimsey, on the other hand, is protected by her family from the consequences of her bad choices in men. The jeweled mascot given to Cathcart by his mistress, Simone, was worth 5000 francs (which would roughly translate into between 45 and 50 pounds sterling in 1925) while Mr. Groyles was willing to elope with Lady Mary on between 6 and 7 £s a week.
Sayers builds her story around the fact that all of us lie for reasons that seem important to us. Lady Mary lies to her brother about Cathcart in order to gain independence from her family. She lies to the police to protect Groyles when she thought he might have committed murder. Denver lies about his affair with another woman to protect that woman from her husband. Mrs. Grimethorpe lies in order to protect her own life. In fact, the only crimes that would have taken place had so many individuals not lied would have been Cathcart’s suicide (if that is to be considered a crime) and the inevitable, and likely deadly, assault that Grimethorpe would have made on his wife had he had more proof that she was being unfaithful to him.
Sayers draws a picture, in this book, of the vast gulf between the classes in England and of the grim circumstances faced by so many women of the time. Mrs. Grimethorpe is not rescued from the brutality of her married life by the intervention of the law but by the accidental death of her husband without which there was little any legal power in England could do save her. Lady Mary was willing to sell herself into a marriage without love in order to gain some independence from her family. Simone was willing to sell herself to the highest bidder in order to have physical luxury and a chance to lay a bit aside for the days when her beauty no longer paid her way.
Sayers, herself, could not legally be awarded a degree when she finished her time studying at Oxford in 1915 and was among the first to be awarded a degree when that rule was changed. In Clouds of Witness she took the opportunity to witness to the world through the medium of a cozy mystery novel the difficult realities of life for women and the working class in the England of 1926.
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