Thursday, June 4, 2009

Thank goodness Lord Peter didn't kill off Mr. Campion

In today's ChaliceBlog, ChaliceChick connects to a piece of copyright law and the example it refers to.

This reminded me of comparisons that have been made between Margery Allingham's Mr. Campion and Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey gets his own Wikipedia entry and Sayers was a more successful writer, but Allingham's character is just more interesting -- at least to my eyes.

Both men were of about average height, slender but decently muscled -- well, Wimsey was probably more godlike, I admit -- blue/green/grey eyed, blonde/sandy/straw-colored hair, spectacles, and a generally witless look. Both were good dressers, although Sayers went into greater detail on clothes in general. Both men were younger sons in titled families: we never know Campion's real name but we meet all of Wimsey's family and they figure in many books. Both men are trusted (in unspoken ways) by the governments of their day. Both men are rich and clearly do not worry themselves about money. Both men live in Piccadilly: Wimsey at 110A Piccadilly, Campion at 17A Bottle Street.

They have their differences, though. Lord Peter drives a Daimler, Mr. Campion a Lagonda. Lord Peter was damaged by his participation in France in World War One, Passchendaele, perhaps? Mr Campion's service was interesting, high-level but unspecified.

Both have a lower-class sidekick: for Lord Peter it's the ever efficient Bunter, who saved his life during the war, is an excellent photographer and good cook, and is at least nominally a butler (he announces guests too). You would never, ever expect Magersfontein Lugg, Mr. Campion's man-of-all-work, to buttle, however ("all-work" doesn't go that far) and I don't think he cooks, but he probably does a good fry-up. Lugg has his ear to the ground in criminal territory and may be an alumnus of Wormwood Scrubs. He sneers a lot, and Mr. Campion sometimes refers to him (to his face) as "Mother Lugg's little boy"; they are mock antagonists.

Their ancestry is different too. Wimsey's ancestry goes back to the Norman Conquest and the ancestral property, at Duke's Denver, occasionally figures in a plotline. Campion, on the other hand, is either named Rudolph or his older brother is, which signifies something non-English, even if it's not clear what. He may be royalty. Wimsey is C of E (as aren't we all?); Mr. Campion attended St Ignatius College, Cambridge, which, although non-existent, is clearly Catholic (and Campion is the name of an English saint and martyr) BUT Cambridge is right in the middle of the Fens, with Cromwell's home of Ely not far away, so the clues go in several directions.

Their choice of free-time companionship is subtly different. Wimsey has a good relationship with Detective Parker, who becomes his brother-in-law Charles. He has male friends, some of whom are even Jews, which undoubtedly signified the cosmopolitan in London during the 1920s. Sayers's own stamping grounds, in a London ad agency and Oxford, provide Wimsey's friends. Well-born women, sometimes of puzzling morals, are in the background and it's acknowledged that he has kept mistresses. (Not in so many words! He has bought clothing for women.) Mr. Campion's choicest friends, who do sometimes assist him, in small ways, include people with names like Guffy Randall, whom we later learn is a lord. Oates and Luke are friendly acquaintances in Scotland Yard but neither man marries his sister Val, a famous fashion designer. Mr. Campion's heart was broken by Biddy Padgett.

Which brings us to their women.

Harriet Vane is as famous as Wimsey herself, even before she becomes Lady Peter (and the nicety of the naming is noted) ... She is a possible ... murderess! who attended Oxford, and is a writer, and ... has lived in sin. Check Sayers's entry in Wikipedia and you will see why Harriet might have killed her lover. Wimsey's mother approves of Harriet; it's a deft touch that given her public past Harriet chooses to be married in cloth of gold, referring us back to Wimsey's Norman ancestry.

I just adore Lady Amanda Pontisbright, about as pleasing a female character as I have ever encountered. Mr. Campion becomes acquainted with her when he is about 30 and she, 16 or 17. She is red-headed, dressed up in a garment she made from old curtains, and wants desperately to rent him a room in the mill house where she lives in penury with brother, sister, and American cousin. Amanda is fascinated by electricity and hydraulics and possibly Mr. Campion -- at one point she asks him bluntly, "Do you ever think about Biddy Padgett?" (indicating that although she's a kid in the sticks, she has connections) -- and he admits it. After the bad guys are disposed of and the excitement dies down, Amanda falls asleep, having asked Mr. Campion to wait for her to grow up. With affection and amusement, he watches her sleep, and there ends Sweet Danger. Incidentally, Amanda does grow up and becomes an aviation engineer and if you want to find out what Mr. Campion did about it, you'll just have to go read some Margery Allingham.

I bring you this analysis because ChaliceChick's blog links to a copyright case about ownership of two very similar characters, and Allingham always claimed she hadn't read Sayers. In her defense, the Wimsey/Campion type is not a literary device. Those guys really exist -- not as detectives but as types. Sometime I shall blog on Sir Peregrine Henniker-Heaton as proof that those people really can be witless in the extreme.

Several months ago, housebound for several days and out of fresh mysteries, I fell back on a dust-covered stash found after a desperate search. Back-to-back, I read Sweet Danger and The Nine Tailors, and I found the latter so imponderable -- and Harriet's not even there to dull it down further -- I wondered what prompts the Wimsey addicts into their addictions. My conclusion on Nine Tailors: Sayers had an affair with someone who was into ringing changes and, feigning interest, she took good notes. What other reason could there be for page after page of change-ringing lore? (Wikipedia is hardly a match for the pages she takes up with this stuff.) Sayers was the daughter of a C of E clergyman and the picture she paints, in the C of E clergyman character, is Dickensian, the fuss-budget to end all fuss-budgets, and perhaps revenge on her father.

There's no question: Sayers is the better writer. Everything about the Lord Peter books is more richly done. She's great at presenting that time and those places and people like that. But it's often suggested that Sayers fell in love with Lord Peter -- though she always denied it -- and she lingers over him and his life in ways that make me itchy. (There is a brief bedroom scene where Peter and Harriet make love in Latin. Well, I probably would too, if I could.) Who can read about Harriet without feeling Sayers's longing to be Harriet? Ick.

But the Allingham book was much more fun to read. Just plain fun. if Sayers had tried a copyright suit against Allingham, it's clear to me that the end products are so different, subtly but adding up to two characters instead of one, that a judge wouldn't have found for Sayers.

1 comment:

Chalicechick said...

In other news, Mary Russell met Lord Peter Wimsey at a party in Laurie L. King's novel "A letter of Mary."

As per questions 4g and 4h here, Sayers' estate was not amused. They let it go that once, but King was strongly encouraged never to do it again.