Crooked Piece of Man. Or, Odd Saint: Sir Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne was born in 1605 in London’s Cheapside. He went to Oxford, became an apprentice-physician, but stayed invested in religion and what it meant to be a religious practitioner of the healing arts. He ponders—often thoughtfully and sanely—his own temptation to follow typically “Catholic” conventions, like kneeling or removing his cap in church, praying for the dead, etc. He believes in witches and has quite lovely things to say about friendship and teaching. I feel I should mention too that his Religio Medici is the book Harriet Vane pulls out of Peter’s pocket and peruses while he sleeps after their day of punting.

I give you a few utterly unfair highlights from the Religio Medici that deal with (among other things) marriage and Saturn’s return.

On Sex:

The whole world was made for man, but the twelfth part of man for woman. Man is the whole world and the breath of God, women the rib and crooked piece of man. I could be content that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this trivial and vulgar way of coition. It is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life, nor is there anything that will more deject his cooled imagination when he shall consider what an odd and unworthy piece of folly he hath committed.

On Marriage:

I was never yet once, and commend their resolution who never marry twice; not that I disallow of second marriage, as neither in all cases of polygamy which, considering some times and the unequal number of both sexes may be also necessary.

On Turning Thirty:

Some divines count Adam thirty years old at his creation because they suppose him created in the perfect age and stature of man.

Earlier: If there be any truth in astrology, I may outlive a jubilee; as yet I have not seen one revolution of Saturn, nor hath my pulse beat thirty years…

And Finally:

Then shall appear the fertility of Adam and the magic of that sperm that hath dilated into so many millions.

Again, this is admittedly the cruel Bartlett’s version of Browne. I’ll have kinder things to say about him later.



A Delicate Balance

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

And then,

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?



The Massive Continuity of Ducks

Dearest CF,

I enthusiastically second your nomination of Harriet Vane for Odd Saint, maybe the oddest of them all. This morning I’ve been thinking about Rereadings—that delicious readerly indulgence that Anne Fadiman explores in her book of the same name—and about the particular pleasures of rereading Gaudy Night.

Why does it  reward revisitings so richly?  For one thing, Harriet Vane is an older, wiser, more contemporary and (dare I say it?) more interesting Elizabeth Bennet. Like you say, she’s prone to mistakes, lapses in control, the “strange organic disruptions that thwart!”

But she’s not the only one given to those organic disruptions–Sayers is too. The novel is full of ’em and they’re the greatest pleasures of the book. I’m thinking of those tiny reflective moments, those gems like the ones you mention that have nothing to do with plot. They feel like the equivalent of digressions in an Old English poem—sections that could be swapped around and added in depending on the audience.

Since there’s no bard making those decisions for us, we make them ourselves. The book hasn’t changed but we, the audience, have. This is one of many misunderstandings we have when we’re young, I guess: I thought I was underlining the book when I was actually underlining me.

Glancing through my grimy dog-eared copy of GN, I still find many of the same passages compelling.  Sometimes I remember the flash of blue lightning that made me underline the first time. Other times the older self greedily usurps the passage for its own uses.

I first read the book in a defiant and exhilarated mood. It came to me recommended by the only real “flame” I’ve ever had, the one whose back distracted me during exams and whose neck forced me to kiss it.  This was one of his favorite books. I know, therefore, that in underlining the following passage at the time, I was pointedly comparing someone unfavorably to him:

There was a refreshing lack of complication about Reggie Pomfret. He knew nothing about literary jealousies; he had no views about the comparative importance of personal and professional loyalties; he laughed heartily at obvious jokes; he did not expose your nerve-centers or his own; he did not use words with double-meanings; he did not challenge you to attack him and then suddenly roll himself into an armadillo-like ball, presenting a smooth, defensive surface of ironical quotations; he had no overtones of any kind; he was a good-natured, not very clever, young man, eager to give pleasure to someone who had shown him a kindness. Harriet found him quite extraordinarily restful.

Tragically, I no longer know who my Pomfret was. These days someone quite different comes to mind when I read this, and I find myself heretically wondering whether Harriet might not have been happier with Reggie than with Peter.

Not really, of course. Fiction transcends even our own immensely fascinating biographies. If Harriet’s a more complicated (or at any rate more modern) Ms. Bennet, Peter’s a vastly more interesting Mr. Darcy and there’s narrative justice in their ending up together.

And yet it’s in the ending that a worry niggles. If this is ultimately an effort to marry the detective story and the Shakespearean comedy–formulaic genres dealing in intellect and love–what is the argument that makes this all work?

The concerns about such a marriage are, after all, real. I can’t say it better than you did:  “That grapple with work and domesticity and power (Hrothgar’s dilemma) is what’s on the table here, and dear Harriet can see all the swords as they hang on the wall.”

Harriet’s worries are legitimate!! Recently Family Guy had a bit (not exactly an organic disruption, but definitely a digression) where a Career Woman runs around town arranging important meetings and therefore feeling stressed. She meets a man who says “Don’t worry, all your problems will be fixed by my penis.”

Now, obviously GN isn’t merely a rom-com–in the Shakespearean or the modern sense–or merely a detective story, where social order is restored in the end. And yet the solution, as much as it tries to answer all the questions plaguing the protagonists, seems oddly pat. Are we safe accepting its answers to the problems of marriage? I wonder what you’d think of the short stories where Harriet and Peter have children.

I stumbled across the following passage (heavily underlined in black ink):

Could there ever be any alliance between the intellect and the flesh? It was this business of asking questions and analyzing everything that sterilized and stultified all one’s passions. Experience perhaps had a formula to get over this difficulty: one kept the bitter, tormenting brain on one side of the wall and the languorous sweet body on the other, and never let them meet.

Bemusedly mourning that I no longer underline my copy of Gaudy Night, I’d secretly labeled it a time capsule of my younger, naive, questing self.  Nice to see one’s own trajectory, watch the urgency of once-terrible questions dissolve. Then I read this and was reduced to my core puddle of doubt. This very weekend I banished the languorous sweet body to let the bitter tormenting brain do its work. It has stopped occurring to me that such a collaboration is possible.

Does this problem ever go away?

While Harriet and Peter are enjoying a moment free of power struggles on the banks of the river, Peter says, “How fleeting are all human passions compared with the massive continuity of ducks. ”

So. What is our problem finally? A passion, or a duck?



(Carla Fran’s response, “A Delicate Balance,” is here. For more Gaudy Night or Harriet Vane-related musings, see “The Body and the Mind” and “Odd Saint: Harriet Vane.”)

Odd Saint: Harriet Vane

Dear M.,

I wasn’t sure whether to title this one to the grand Dorothy Sayers, or to her body on the page, Harriet Vane.  Sayers is sure to get her own Odd Saint tribute soon (did you know she wrote Guiness ads?), but it is Mizz Vane that is making me dizzy at the moment.   As you introduced me to her snarling, well draped wit, I offer a list of why I sigh when I read about her:

  1. Harriet is a muddle: she’s at several crossroads, and they are as muddled as any life decision is.  They  have the full weight and reality of shaping a life and I love that they are not glamorous, but they are chewy and frustratingly unhelpful in solving themselves.
  2. Harriet is self-conscious in a real, and unweak, way.  She knows what looks good on her.  She gets pissed when her napkin keeps slipping off of her satin dress.  She has style, but she’s not a shit about it.
  3. She is torn between what she might have been, and what she is.  The book starts with her heading down to a college reunion.  It’s a brutal read.
  4. She cannot explain why she does things that she does.  Her temper flares and she says phrases that work against her meaning, not as opposites, but as strange organic disruptions that thwart!
  5. Her frustration and grappling with what it means to be an adult female.  The landscape in front of her suggests she can either be married with children and lose her mind/work, or celibate, productive, and satisfied in a way she is supposed to constantly rationalize.  Or, she can win the lottery and marry a fellow that digs her exact level of independence (like the character Phoebe who leaves her kids at the in-laws, and studies the world with archaeologist husband while desperately  hoping her children don’t turn out to be morons).  This could read dated, but it doesn’t.  That grapple with work and domesticity and power (Hrothgar’s dilemma) is what’s on the table here, and dear Harriet can see all the swords as they hang on the wall.
  6. She could walk right into The Golden Notebook, except I think she would carry a lighter load than those ladies.  I don’t think Vane ever dabbles with the Communist party.