Contrapuntal Harmony in Busman’s Honeymoon

Contrapuntal Harmony in Busman’s Honeymoon

So, now that we’ve established that Busman’s Honeymoon is a love story with detective interruptions, let’s talk more about that love story. . . .

Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane first meet in Strong Poison when Harriet is on trial for murder. She is suspected of poisoning her lover — ironic because she was at the time writing a detective novel about a poisoning– but Peter clears her name. Peter proposes to her at their first face to face meeting, but of course she turns him down. However that doesn’t make him give up. He continues to propose to her again and again. And she continues to resist in Have His Carcase. It isn’t until the third of the Harriet Vane novels, Gaudy Night, that she finally accepts.

In some ways Peter and Harriet come from two very different worlds– he’s the son of a duke and she’s the daughter of a country doctor. But they both have studied at Oxford and they share in the life of the mind– or could share if they were but willing to let each other past their defenses. And yet– partly because of their different social classes but more because of other concerns– Harriet fears that they could never truly make a life together. She sees her Oxford peers who got married and had families and their intellectual life seems to have atrophied. Harriet is afraid that if she marries she will lose an essential part of herself.

Recently I read John Ahern’s essay Contrapuntal Order which concludes with a fascinating reflection on an episode I had previously overlooked in Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night that sheds some light on Harriet’s inner conflict:

“Dorothy Sayers chose a performance of Bach’s double violin concerto as the backdrop for the resolution to her three novels describing Lord Peter ­Wimsey’s unrequited love for Harriet Vane. At the end of Gaudy Night, Harriet says yes to his proposal. What decides her in Wimsey’s favor is the gentleman detective’s analysis of Bach’s counterpoint. This incident convinces Harriet that Wimsey’s view of marriage does not involve her subjugation.

Peter and Harriet are both strong-willed. They are bound to disagree. As a friend tells Harriet, “A marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences seems to me reckless to the point of insanity.” It is this consideration that has prevented Harriet from accepting the proposal, until the moment she observes Peter listening to Bach. “Peter, she felt sure, could hear the whole intricate pattern, every part separately and simultaneously, each independent and equal, separate but inseparable, moving over and under and through, ravishing heart and mind together.”

From the outset, Harriet has believed that any woman with a brain must choose between marriage and the cultivation of her intellect. She sees the withered intellects of her old classmates at an Oxford ­reunion and notes that all have chosen husband over intellect, “heart” over “brain.” Counterpoint provides an answer to her worries. “Bach isn’t a matter of an autocratic virtuoso and a meek accompanist,” says Peter. Harriet comes to believe that a marriage between two intellectually independent people can be fulfilling—that heart and mind are not at odds, that they can coexist.

Most music today is divided between, as Sayers put it, “autocratic virtuoso” and “meek accompanist.” Because modern harmony is all we know, when we listen to the contrapuntal music of Josquin or Bach, it is almost impossible for us not to hear it as a hierarchy. We assume that whatever leads dominates what follows. Very few of us have Peter Wimsey’s contrapuntal intelligence. This makes it harder for us to imagine a sociality neither too homogeneous nor too individualistic, but balanced by the rules of counterpoint. It is this vision of harmony—in music, in marriage, in friendship, in society—that we so desperately need to recover.”

But while Ahern is correct that Gaudy Night concludes the three book story arc of Lord Peter’s wooing of Harriet Vane… it is not the final word that Sayers had to say about Peter and Harriet’s relationship. For Sayers went on to write a final novel (based on an earlier play that she co-wrote) that explores Peter and Harriet’s relationship after they are married. 

In Busman’s Honeymoon Harriet and Peter continue to work through the implications of that Bach scene in Gaudy Night where Harriet recognizes that with Peter there is a possibility that two intellectually independent people can have a harmonious marriage, with neither one being forced into the role of dominant virtuoso or meek accompanist. The question still remains open, as they begin their married life: Is it possible for them to achieve that harmony of hearts and minds independent and equal, separate and inseparable? As they begin to navigate married life, Harriet finds that sort of harmony isn’t automatic. It’s a skill that must be learned– and it’s not easy to learn, not at all. And this painful/delightful process of learning is why Busman’s Honeymoon is one of my favorite literary depictions of matrimony.

Fortunately, Harriet has three co-conspirators cheering on her marriage with Peter, and coaching her (and Peter, too, but we see through Harriet’s eyes in this novel) to help her marriage succeed: Lady Honoria, Peter’s mother, Bunter, Peter’s manservant, and and Peter’s uncle, Paul Delgardie. 

The great challenge in their courting seems to have been Harriet’s ability to accept that Peter really can make room for her intellectual pursuits, that their marriage can be a meeting of minds. His final proposal, in Oxford, in Latin, addressing her as Magistra, points to his willingness to accept her as a full intellectual equal. And indeed when they are met with the challenge of a dead body in the cellar they work together beautifully. (Although Harriet realizes that there is the additional challenge facing her of figuring out how to allow Bunter to maintain something of his partner-in-detection status while also taking her own rightful place at Peter’s side.) But the real challenge in their married life is whether Peter can allow Harriet inside the protective bastions he has erected to protect his fragile mental and emotional health.

Both Harriet and Peter come to this marriage later in life, both having had romantic entanglements of some kind or other— Harriet having lived with the lover who she is accused of murdering, Peter having had some kind of liaisons that seemed to have been of short duration and primarily physical rather than romantic. Both are firmly entrenched in the habit of suffering alone and must learn, among other things, to suffer together.

More, Peter has what we’d call PTSD but they refer to as nerves or shell-shock. And, according to his mother, when he came back from the war (WWI) he was so traumatized by the experience of sending people to their deaths that he could not give even the simplest order. The crisis for Peter and Harriet in Busman’s Honeymoon is that every time Peter is responsible for catching a murderer and must live through the moment of execution, the old trauma returns as once again he feels responsible for a death— even when he is certain the murderer is guilty.

So the first great test of their marriage is whether Peter will be able to share with Harriet not only his joy, but also his trauma. Will she be given a place in his suffering and allowed to suffer with him? 

As they live through the three weeks between the sentence and the execution Harriet recognizes that although he is courteous and cheerful, it is a facade. He is withdrawing from her behind interior fortifications. And even his moments of passion are somewhat impersonal “almost any woman would have done,” Harriet reflects. Peter is falling into his old, bachelor, patterns of behavior.

Harriet’s moment of triumph comes in part because she realizes that she has to put aside her desire to take the lead and to allow him to be the dux, to allow him to decide to come to her:

“She could think only one thing, and that over and over again. I must not go to him; he must come to me. If he does not want me, I have failed altogether, and that failure will be with us all our lives. But the decision must be his and not mine. I have got to accept it. I have got to be patient. Whatever happens, I must not go to him.”

Her decision to sit up and wait— telling Bunter that she is doing so, but leaving the choice of confiding her to Peter— seems almost like inaction, but it reminds me very much of what the educational philosopher Charlotte Mason calls “masterly inactivity”— “It indicates the power to act, the desire to act, and the insight and self-restraint which forbid action.” (It is interesting to note that Bunter takes almost the same tack with Peter at the same time, waiting up in the kitchen, planning to proffer the excuse that he is making himself a snack.)

Harriet realizes that any attempt to manipulate Peter in any way would be a misstep. But she does not give up and go to bed. Rather she sits up by the fire, calmly waiting for him to come to her. Her desire is for him to share his sufferings with her, to confide in her—and, ultimately, to recognize that she suffers too. And this is exactly what does, finally, happen.

And oh what triumph she realizes when he finally does come to her instead of running away or remaining in his solitude. He comes to her and acknowledges his nerves, admits that he’s been trying to bear it all on his own, and then he realizes that she is suffering too. She graciously acknowledges that she also has the same instinct, to go hide in a corner, the same former experience of having to bear her suffering alone. And he says now that she is his corner and he has come to hide. The ultimate moment of union is when they suffer together, not the same pain, but together, each bearing their own burdens, but holding on to each other as a refuge. The novel’s final moments have Peter breaking down and finally crying, allowing Harriet to see his tears. It’s a delightful moment in which they learn how to harmonize their grief and trauma as much as they had previously harmonized their joy and delight. Sayers uses another musical figure to indicate Harriet’s success— the sound of trumpets. 

“”It’s not cold,” he said, half-angrily, “it’s my rotten nerves. I can’t help it. I suppose I’ve never been really right since the War. I hate behaving like this. I tried to stick it out by myself.”

“But why should you?”

 “It’s this damned waiting about till they’ve finished….”

“I know. I couldn’t sleep either.”

He stood holding out his hands mechanically to the fire till he could control the chattering of his teeth.

“It’s damnable for you too. I’m sorry. I’d forgotten. That sounds idiotic. But I’ve always been alone.”

“Yes, of course. I’m like that, too. I like to crawl away and hide in a corner.”

“Well,” he said, with a transitory gleam of himself, “you’re my corner and I’ve come to hide.”

“Yes, my dearest.” (And the trumpets sounded for her on the other side.)”

Peter admits that he is unwell, and that admission clears the way for him to see that she is also suffering— that she has her own traumas, that she is reliving her own worst moments, when she was on trial for murder and afraid of being convicted and executed. And there is a beautiful moment in which, putting his own suffering aside, he finally sees her pain and trauma. now they are finally achieving counterpoint, each experiencing their own suffering but doing it together, neither one’s pain dominating, but both reaching out to understand and to soothe and to love even while in the midst of mental and emotional anguish. 

And then once he has acknowledged his need for comfort, Harriet has room to bring her powers of clear reasoning to bear on the matter at hand. She reminds Peter that as painful as the consequences of his meddling in crime detection are— having to face his feeling of responsibility for the life of the condemned murderer— had he not meddled an innocent person would have been condemned instead. And that, once upon a time, the innocent person that Peter had saved was Harriet herself: 

“If you hadn’t meddled six years ago, it would almost certainly have been me.” That stopped him in his caged pacing to and fro.

“If you had had to live through that night, Harriet, knowing what was coming to you, I would have lived it through in the same knowledge. Death would have been nothing, though you were little to me then compared with what you are now…. What the devil am I doing, to remind you of that horror?”

“If it hadn’t been for that, we shouldn’t be here–we should never have seen one another. If Philip hadn’t been murdered, we shouldn’t be here. If I’d never lived with Philip, I shouldn’t be married to you. Everything wrong and wretched–and out of it all I’ve somehow got you. What can one make of that?”

“Nothing. There seems to be no sense in it at all.”

She could see his agony only at second-hand through the mind that it dominated. And through that mind’s distress and her own there broke uncontrollably the assurance that was like the distant note of a trumpet.

Once again the trumpet signals a moment in which the minds and the hearts are harmonizing, moving in counterpoint to each other. Harriet has helped to steer Peter’s imagination away from the condemned and unrepentant murderer awaiting execution back to their shared past, their meeting, his saving her. Finally they can return to that painful moment with a new appreciation of the other and by imagining it together, in some way they are able to redeem the time: out of that great darkness grew all the joys and triumphs of their married love.

And yet, Peter’s imagination can’t help returning to the jail and the condemned prisoners, but this time he brings Harriet with him. Although he feels trapped, alone, in a cell or cage, like Wordsworth’s starling, this time he isn’t alone. Harriet is with him and he calls out to her, begging her to break down the door of his defenses (reminding me more than a little of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet “Batter my heart”:

“They hate executions, you know. It upsets the other prisoners. They bang on the doors and make nuisances of themselves. Everybody’s nervous…. Caged like beasts, separately…. That’s the hell of it …we’re all in separate cells…. I can’t get out, said the starling. … If one could only get out for one moment, or go to sleep, or stop thinking…. Oh, damn that cursed clock!… Harriet, for God’s sake, hold on to me…get me out of this…break down the door….”

“Hush, dearest. I’m here. We’ll see it out together.” Through the eastern side of the casement, the sky grew pale with the forerunners of the dawn.

“Don’t let me go.” The light grew stronger as they waited. Quite suddenly, he said, “Oh, damn!” and began to cry–in an awkward, unpractised way at first, and then more easily. So she held him, crouched at her knees, against her breast, huddling his head in her arms that he might not hear eight o’clock strike.

It’s an odd moment of triumph. What other love story climaxes at the hero breaking down and crying in his lover’s arms? And yet Sayers makes it the most beautiful moment in the world. Awkward as it is, it is Peter at his most human, broken and not afraid to show his brokenness to his beloved wife, finally able to open even that inner fortress to her, to be vulnerable enough to share his tears with her. Dawn breaks and they are together, totally and completely, no longer in separate cells but united in love that truly harmonizes, intellect and passion and emotion, joy and sorrow and trauma, one, gloriously whole, piece written for two voices, two hearts.

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  • Thank you for this – I also love both Gaudy Night (for its discussion both of the intellectual life generally, and for its treatment of a marriage of equals) and Busman’s Honeymoon, and I love seeing them again through your eyes. Almost as good as sitting down with you while our kids play and discussing the books up one side and down the other, and at the same time even better, because your thoughts are so well-laid-out and you’ve included the chunk from Ahern that I will have to follow up on…. THANK YOU!!

    (and as an aside, thank you also for the additions to my new library hold list, from your library post).

    • Oh that sounds like it would be such a fun play date!

      I forgot to credit Leah Libresco Sargeant for the link to the Ahern piece. This blog post started out as a comment in a discussion on that essay that I felt needed to be expanded into an essay.

      I love sharing library book treasures! I hope you enjoy them.

  • These two books were formative for my understanding of partnership in marriage and this formation has served me well. How wonderful that there are people wo see it in a similar way!