Monday, January 25, 2016

Saint Wendreda and the Nine Tailors

Lord Peter Wimsey again! The Nine Tailors is the only Dorothy Sayers mystery that I remember reading in the past, and I decided to read it again. It's quite long for a detective novel, and contains enormous detail about English bell-ringing. The bells are central to the plot, but I eventually found the technical descriptions about them a bit tedious.

If you aren't familiar with the terminology, "tailors" are peals of the bells: it was a tradition to ring the bells of a village church tower nine times to mark a village man's death. Specifically, amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey spends a lot of time in a village where the Rector is obsessed with ringing changes on the bells of the local church. He himself participates in a 9-hour sequence of bell ringing to bring in a New Year; that is, pealing the bells in various mathematical and not necessarily musical sequences. At least now I know why I have never understood what I was hearing when bells ring in the New Year or something -- always sounded like noise to me.

The Nine Tailors also contains quite a bit of description about the architecture and decoration of the church whose bell tower is involved. This, I found more interesting, because I once visited the church that was the prototype for the fictional building. Its main feature is an "angel roof" with 120 wooden sculpted angels at the ends of the hammer beams that support the roof. Friends who were very dedicated Dorothy Sayers fans took us on a tour of places of importance to her novels. Some photos of that tour (March 13, 1999) --

The angel roof of St.Wendreda's church in March, England, prototype of the church in The Nine Tailors. 
Our friends Sheila and John with the key to the angel roof church.
We had to ask at the local pub "The Stars" to obtain the key. 
Churchyard of St. Wendreda's. The keys to the church and the cemetery are both plot elements in The Nine Tailors. 
St. Wendreda's church tower.
Mae and John looking over the church.
To return to the novel: the Rector and the village inhabitants in The Nine Tailors are all very deferential to Lord Peter Wimsey, as Wimsey's family are the local nobility -- his brother is the Duke of Denver, the local area (fictitious). Although the term isn't used, Wimsey is very condescending in the old sense, which meant the way a noble is actually supposed to treat his inferiors. I am rather fascinated by the way the word has evolved from praise for the behavior of a person who was born into a socially superior stratum to criticism for a person who acts as if he was born superior, and expects to be treated as such! This mutual view is reflected, I think, in the way the Rector and his wife offer meals to Wimsey:
  • "Can you eat shepherd's pie?" she asks. "You're sure? The butcher doesn't call today, but there's always cold ham." (p. 51)
  • "The butcher says he has some nice calf's liver today, only I don't know if you can eat it," she says on a later occasion. "Theodore is very fond of liver-and-bacon, though I always think it's rather rich." (p. 187)
  • After singing hymns on Christmas Eve, Wimsey returns to the Rectory with the Rector, his wife, and others "to eat cold roast beef and trifle." Not his usual French-style menu! By this time, Wimsey is being nobly helpful to the locals, and no apology seems needed when they share their meal with him. (p. 377)
The novel's time frame spans an entire year, which allows a vast amount of detail (maybe too much for me) about life in the village while a murder mystery is being solved. I also found the level of detail about the drainage systems in the fens of England to be a bit excessive, though rising water when the sluices are breached causes some of the most exciting scenes in the novel, as well as requiring another type of bell ringing: sounding an alarm. On our tour of the area, we also looked at some of the dykes and sluices that keep the former wetlands from being flooded.

If you decide to read The Nine Tailors expecting the usual pace of detective fiction, you must be quite patient! But tastes vary -- I've become a bit weary of both the pace of these novels and the extreme class-orientation they show. However, I'm planing to watch the TV series that was made of this book in the 1970s.

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

This is one I haven't read in a long, long time. I wonder if I still have it!

You must have taken Evelyn Wood Speed Reading Dynamics! I know these books (well, the Aggies) aren't incredibly long or deep but you read them so quickly and so thoroughly! With good notes! I bow down to you!