A Delicate Balance
March 14, 2009 2 Comments
I agree, Gaudy Night devastates. And my answer to all of your fine thoughts is only the sentiment “indeed.”
I recently taught Gaudy Night as part of a course on the detective genre, and the class consensus was that the book was also nodding to the hardboiled theme of personal mystery trumping external mystery as a plot point. Harriet’s puzzling is as much an internal event as an external one, and the true mystery she solves at the end is her comfort in her own skin. Of course, in the hardboiled stuff, the detectives are comfortable in their skin, it’s just that their skin isn’t comfortable in their world.
I think what negates Pomfret as a possible happier ending for Harriet isn’t his sweetness or lack of consumed interest in the life of the brain, but his weakness. She defends him, and he can’t stand that as a senior member of the college, she has more rep than he does. He is embarrassed (I guess this is also due to the years she has on him), and becomes quite unattractive. Almost a Mr. Collins done up in Mr. Bingsley’s clothes (if one were to make unnecessary comparisons)?
But, match up an independent woman with a brain of gold and one sweet warrior with the heart and sword of gold, and you have a sticking point for entertainment. I first swooned over the formula in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (time travel, Scotland, True Love, le sigh), and have recently become ridiculously enamored again with the show Bones. Here we have a leading lady that is completely encompassed by the life of the mind. She is the expert in her field, and completely independent. She has no yearnings for marriage or children, and is most happy when researching. She is almost a young version of Miss de Vine from Gaudy Night. Then enter her FBI partner, who is broad shouldered, an ace shot, and has good people skills. He is also a devout Catholic, sympathetic single father, and a recovering gambling addict. Together, they are brains and body, solving crimes one goopy skeleton at a time. And, they are smokingly hot together (okay, they also both have the luck of being smokingly hot apart, but yowsa, can they glower). The show has fallen into the Who’s the Boss/Moonlighting flu of overly amping the sexual tension to the show’s possible collapse. BUT, we know that they would be the best together, and if they did indeed kiss and put the guns down to start a thang, the world might be a better place for both of them. I think I would blush at my television if they kissed. Luckily, they are kept in check by their duties of friendship, work, and respect for an ordered world where some things are simply not thrown to the winds of hormones. The balance is, at times, exquisite. It is Harriet Vane’s dreamscape: where Peter isn’t an aristocratic fop, and strongly compliments her world (with muscles and pie) without horning in on it.
Which brings me back to the ducks, and the reckoning that ends Gaudy Night. I’m thinking of Peter and Harriet when they are looking at the spires, having their come-to-Jesus talk very much in the manner of Elizabeth and Darcy (this novel does smack Austen, or is it just because it is a novel of manners?). Peter says two things that I very much like, and also wonder if they are as organic to the plot as Sayers suggests. The first is:
I do know that the worst sin–perhaps the only sin–passion can commit, is to be joyless. It must lie down with laughter or make its bed in hell–there is no middle way
If you have found your own value, that is immeasurably the greatest thing
I find this to be a great compliment to Harriet, not because he is saying that she needs to build up her self-esteem, or that she has been to her ownself true, but that she has gotten through a gauntlet of adulthood: that she is a kind of gold he could never describe to her, and for her to understand the fine stuff, she would have to see it for herself. And also, his understanding that the mind or the body can be chosen at the loss of the other, but joy must be part of the equation. Every time I look at this quote, I get a bit of vertigo: it rings both trite and profound. At the moment, I can almost see around it.
And then, there is Miss De Vine’s stern warning to Harriet as they discuss the prospect of Peter:
“He will never do that. That’s his weakness. He’ll never make up your mind for you. You’ll have to make your own decisions. You needn’t be afraid of losing your independence; he will always force it back on you. If you ever find any kind of repose with him, it can only be the repose of very delicate balance.”
“That’s what he says himself. If you were me, should you like to marry a man like that?”
“Frankly,” said Miss de Vine, “I should not. I would not do it for any consideration. A marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences seems to me reckless to the point of insanity. You can hurt one another so dreadfully.”
So, the price of perfection, the dream boy that does not threaten one’s sense of selfhood, is possible destruction?
And this is why it is a novel, and Bones is a television show, and Austen made Darcy, and why the whole world of women swoons at the mention of Colin Firth. The clarity of balance can only be a plot construction, an epic battle, or a quietly shrewd Alice Munro ending.
There is an ache here, and I’m not sure if it is for the pleasures of good fiction, or its friction with daily living.
The Peters and Darcys and Sealys (Bones), are they the female version of Pamela Andersen and Tina Fey, or other male icons of ideal ladyness?