Thrones, Dominations

Dear Helen,

So far as I can see the thematic structure of Thrones, Dominations is going to work out something like the enclosed. I have drawn it very prettily because I like fooling about with different coloured inks. PH (the green line) stands for the Peter-Harriet combination. M (red line) and V (purple line) being respectively the murderer and the victim for whom I must try to find names. The scheme looks nice and neat; and is very nearly symmetrical except for the little bulge of PH emotional development, which leads to the solution. I find this scheme so satisfactory that it hardly seems worth while writing the book, does it? PS I have just found a grand motto for the book from PARADISE LOST:

Thrones and imperial Powers, off-spring of heav'n
Etherial virtues, or these titles now
Must we renounce, and changing stile be call'd
Princes of Hell?

Thus wrote Dorothy L Sayers to Helen Simpson, her friend and fellow crime-writer in July 1936. She wrote six chapters, in very rough draft, and then abandoned the project, getting crosser and crosser with her publisher, Victor Gollancz, when he kept on announcing it as a forthcoming title. Eventually he gave up hope of it, and his author went on to other things -- to writing religious plays, and to translating Dante.

What had gone wrong? I find it hard to believe that simply drawing the plot diagram had really made the book seem not worth writing, although I don't go in for plot diagrams myself. Had Dorothy Sayers got tired of Peter Wimsey? But nobody else has, in the forty odd years since then, nobody who ever liked him in the first place. Perhaps there was some awful glitch in the concept of the book which she suddenly saw? This possibility was the one I was afraid of, when the literary trustees of her estate gave me the six chapters and the plot diagram, and asked me if I thought I could finish the book.

To see whether there is a glitch in the concept of the book one first has to get a grip on what the concept of the book was. It was guesswork. What I had to go on was the fragment itself -- six chapters, existing in a manuscript held with Dorothy L Sayers's other papers in the Marian E Wade Centre at Wheaton College, Illinois; a typescript which had surfaced mysteriously in the safe of David Higham Associates, who had been her agents, but which differed from the manuscript, markedly in places; the plot diagram, mentioned above, and some fragmented notes. These materials were redolent of mystery. "Start in January, before the King's death because of clothes"; "Moves and counter moves, as many as may be necessary" -- a great help, that! -- not to speak of the mysterious quotation from Milton which allegedly summed the whole thing up in a nutshell.

As soon as I started to work I ran into a serious difficulty. Dorothy's fragmented notes made it clear who the murderer was, and there were not many suspects in the opening scenes. I was very tempted to invert her scheme, and make the victim top the murderer - a much more interesting idea, to me. But was I writing my book, or one of hers? If it was her book, then I had to follow her pattern. And although that made it rather too clear for modern tastes who had "dunnit", that was itself in tune with her ideas of the genre. As she wrote: Personally I feel that it is only when the identity of the murderer is obvious from the start that the reader can really concentrate on the question (much the most interesting): how did he do it?

Neither a who story, nor a why story, then, but a how story it was to be, and her daunted and tentative collaborator embarked on the task. Dorothy Sayers also wrote that although a detective story might arise from a moment of inspiration it needed to be worked out in an atmosphere of almost scholarly calm. I set out to take this advice; the best available. And I was being so determinedly calm it took me some time to realise what delicious fun I was having. I had expected to find it very difficult to work with someone else's characters, and yet to my amazement it turned out to be much easier than writing about my own. With one's own characters it is only when the work is finished and published that other people can contribute to the discussion. Only then does one find out if the stockbroker is convincing to another stockbroker, or the motives of the villain plausible to the nearest villain of one's acquaintance.

But Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, The Dowager Duchess of Denver, Bunter and Charles Parker, have already come out upon the public stage. Millions of people know them, and they have that rounded sense of reality that arises from the fact that some love them, some find them boring, some even hate them, just as would be the case for real people. One can ask questions about them just as one can about famous chimeras like unicorns, and get answers. Among all the difficulties I expected I did not expect this -- that it would be fun, and easy to work with the characters of the book. That I would immensely like them, and enjoy their company, and miss them badly when the work was finished.

You wonder perhaps if it ever became apparent to me as I worked, what the problem had been which led to the abandonment of this sparkling and fascinating story in the first place? And yes, I did develop a theory about it. There is one very unusual feature of those opening chapters. They were written in January 1936, and they describe an event in January 1936 -- the funeral of King George the Fifth. Writers usually set contemporary novels in something much vaguer - what one might call "recent unspecified time". So the first author set off, from a precisely defined moment, dealing with two themes apart from the crime, and they were: the nature of inherited responsibility, (I think she meant Lord Peter Wimsey's inherited responsibility) and the nature of married love (Peter and Harriet's married love). And then she slowed down; she was working so hard at the staging of Busman's Honeymoon, as her correspondence makes pitifully clear, that it is hard to see how she could have written much during those few months. And by the end of 1936 the King had shuffled off his inherited responsibilities in search of a married happiness of which many of his subjects deeply disapproved. After that Thrones, Dominations could not be published without being read in a fashion very different from what its author had intended. It is no surprise that such a situation fazed her. But by now, of course, 1936 has taken on a glamour of its own, full of a retro-chic nostalgia, and the considerable pleasures of hindsight. All part of the fun.

It was my great good fortune that the most difficult and interesting job of my career has also been the most fun; if people enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it, it will give a lot of pleasure to all Lord Peter's circle, old and new.

©Jill Paton Walsh 1998

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