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Why Sylvia?

Dear Friends and Readers,

I've explained before, but here it is again:  Sylvia Drake is a minor character, so hardly mentioned that by the end of Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers has forgotten the details she offered at the book's opening. She's the woman who doesn't make it into the movie (Gaudy Night, Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walters).  Sayers wrote three paragraphs about Sylvia Drake at her opening; by book's end, Sayers has so forgotten Miss Drake that she calls her Miss Lydgate (Lydgate was a medieval poet who wrote courtly romance), and gets her story confused or wrong.

As the book opens we are told of a Miss Drake, a medieval scholar of courtly romance.  Miss Sylvia "spent so many years getting her B.Litt in Literature some people despaired. She never did. She was rewriting it."  What is delightful is her belief in the realities of courtly love, partly because such an argument really raged (that is, was there such a thing, and if so, how did people follow such a code?) in medieval studies at one time, and partly because her belief in it shows her to live in a world of her own making.  Now towards the end of the book (when the mystery has been solved and Harriet and Lord Peter are to be married) we meet Miss Lydgate and the History of Prosody she's continually amending.  We are told that Harriet finally manages to wrest the manuscript from Miss Lydgate to take to the publisher's and Harriet feels she can still hear Miss Lydgate faintly shouting from the college window about yet another little footnote that she just needs to add.  

My dissertation was 800 pages and I took 5 years over it.  I get intensely involved over literary questions and the literary world is more real to me and probably more important than most things in the physical one. I took decades over my poetry of Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara; my website is the result of many years and I'm prepared to take many over The Austen Movies, indeed I want to.  It's better than killing myself. So I recognize myself through in Sayers's jokes as an intense anxious lone woman living through books and art, preferring an imagined world.

B Morisot, Swans

There is no image of Miss Sylvia Drake -- so I offer for now an image of a painting by the French impressionist, Berthe Morisot (1841-95).  Sylvia is also an allusion to the name as used in Elizabethan poetry, the ultimate vision of a lovely lady. Who is Sylvia, what is she?  begins Shakespeare in a song in Two Gentlemen of Verona.  Drake signifies swan.  Morisot's art is so feminine so the icon gives us a woman's take.

My avatar for this blog is Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane because as the part is played in the film series I bond with her and am much attracted to Petherbridge's enactment of Lord Peter Wimsey.

I first adopted this pseudonym when I joined the Lord Peter and then Harriet Vane lists on the Net donkey's years ago:  I have long since either gotten off or fallen silent, but kept the book and name in memory.  The book (as many know) is about an all-women's college which is beset by anonymous foul letters written by one of the housemaids, Annie by name, a woman hates women who achieve in any way outside conventional roles of mother, wife, daughter, sister. Annie is revealed by the end to have been a lower middle class widow of a man whose life was destroyed by an upper class woman scholar who could not sympathize with his desire or need to get a promotion so bad that he was willing to forge evidence to get a paper published. The woman scholar exposed him and he lost everything, became alcoholic, died.  Now Annie wants her revenge, and her resentment falls on the women near her (not the larger structure of society, the economic system), on those she can reach. She partly achieves it in the disruption and disquiet she causes this woman's college. Annie's is a terrible tragic story, but not uncommon except for the outright murder -- and her anger is one we see in working and lower middle class people against middling middle class people which the wealthy and powerful can use to their advantage.

It was Harriet Vane to the rescue, and after he, Lord Peter Wimsey to the rescue of Harriet.  I probably liked the TV mini-series just as much as I liked the Harriet Vane books, for I thought Harriet Walters and Edward Petherbridge perfect for the parts: the series went through Strong Poison, Have His Carcass, and Gaudy Night.

For the books I probably preferred two of the original Wimsey series better:  Nine Tailors (a background about Wimsey and Bunter, how they met in WW1) and Five Red Herrings (takes place in Scotland). (An earlier mini-series starred Ian Carmichael). Alas, Nine Tailors also fingers a working class woman (this time a beaten maid) as the resentful culprit raging aganist those with power. Sayers is no egalitarian or socialist feminist. She wrote a paper against the movement saying anyone who takes such a category is de-humanizing him or herself. We should not group ourselves but be for all humanity, cosmopolitan. An admirable idealistic stance if one could improve the situation of individuals this way, but one can't.  In fact I feel the movies actually liberalize and improve on the books -- they lose the wit and love of literature, the allusiveness and some of the moving debates between Wimsey and Harriet; on the other hand, they are (exclusive of the plot endings) more generous in spirit and humane, and Harriet Walters is unbeatable as an admirable good person and woman.  Harriet Vane is a part modeled on the same archetype as Ginger Rogers, Petherbridge on the model of Fred Astaire, though for my part I like him better humanized by the actor.

Petherbridge as Wimsay and Richard Morant as Bunter


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