Lord Peter Wimsey, Rome
22 May 1935
Rome is hot, and I would otherwise be sweltering unhappily on this terrace, but that my signet ring is conspicuously absent from my finger, and I believe it is on yours instead, for you have said yes to me and I cannot think of anything else. A thousand sweltering days, relentless sunshine for this pale Englishman – I will bask in it, I will bask in the memory of you and one sun-dappled afternoon on the Cherwell, and a slightly less illuminated but all the more enjoyable evening on that same river. Harriet, light of my life – am I being too sentimental? Excessively romantic? Does this rambling bore you terribly? Pray forgive any excessive poetics; I am too much i’ the sun, and I revel in it, and in you.
Is it possible that the great orb shines o’er the Piazza di Spagna as a favourable sign to our love? Have the elements given their approval? (Do not tell me it has rained in London and spoil the effect). I do not presume to have any sway in the universe, but I cannot help but read all signs as echoes of your wonderful, world-turning “yes”. Red carnations in the Pincian Gardens – you have said yes – an afternoon breeze lifts the curtains of my room outward, they sigh blissfully – you have said yes – the most glorious strains of Palestrina float in from Trinità dei Monti – you have said yes and we are to be married and I am transcending.
I am also piffling. Sorry.
Bunter would be the first to tell you that this declamatory indulgence of mine increases proportionally during either of two possible moods: incandescent joy (as now) or, in his words, as ”a necessary method of distraction in the undertaking of detective work.“ Nothing to detect here, Harriet, the clues are simple: 1. my ring is missing, I have a distinct memory of bestowing it upon you in lieu of something more your taste and style – appropriate ring pending, I promise, 2. I have been humming incessantly an air from Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict, which the observant Bunter was kind enough to point out to me at breakfast this morning, and, 3. I bought you roses after leaving the Embassy this afternoon, only to remember upon return to the hotel that you may be with me in spirit but are in London in body. This sort of absent-minded spending greatly amused Bunter, though he attempted to disguise it. He arranged them in a vase and suggested I bring them as a peace offering to a rather stiff diplomat I lunched with yesterday – but they are yours, Harriet, and the diplomat might need an olive branch instead.
All this to say – I do not need Bunter to pontificate on my current state of piffling, nor do I need to detect anything about my person – I love you, Harriet, which you knew already for some time, but I suspect now that you love me too, and that is a happiness I did not expect. One can attempt to prepare for any number of troubles or sorrows, but not for happiness. It has washed over me quite unexpectedly and shows no sign of abating.
The extent of my true distraction – aside from buying flowers for one’s far-off beloved – is this: I am trying to apply my mind to this Foreign Office problem and find that I do not give a damn. It has importance, yes, but my role here is limited, and the Office will continue to postpone the lunches and confrontations and art gallery tours ad infinitum, and I would much rather be doing the same time-wasting but in London, with you. I confess that I am not as focused on the duty of the moment as I ought to be. I gather (from the limited information I am offered) that the problem is lesser than that which took me from you before – and so my piffle may be less needed than expected. I hope for this, because the sooner I am done piffling here, the sooner I can come back to you and bestow better words on your worthier ears.
For now, I hope you will endure some nonsense scribblings from my pen, and that you (time permitting) will send me a few of your own. You have never written nonsense, though, and I love you for it. Give me the truth, plain and simple; tell me how you like Mother, and how Wilfrid and the water-mills are getting on, and let me know if roses shipped at high expense from Rome would be an acceptable gift, or is that the sort of thing you frown upon? I have no desire to make you frown; having been witness to your vast repertoire of expressions, I must say your smile is infinitely preferable. I look forward to the pleasure of prompting its appearance, as often as I possibly can, for the rest of my earthly life. I'm piffling again.
I think I see you out of the corner of my eye on every street corner – hoping for the day to come soon when that flight of fancy is no longer imagination but reality.
25 May 1935
Ms. Harriet Vane
Mecklenburgh Square, London
It rained all yesterday. Engagement’s off.
I kid! I regretted those words the minute I wrote them, because I don’t want to strike any fear into your heart; you have me, really and truly, and no sign from the heavens is going to change my mind now.
The weather was fitting, though, because I had the pleasure of meeting Helen yesterday, and she does rather come down on one like a storm cloud, doesn’t she? All foreboding and angry and threatening to pour at any moment. I realize it’s quite rude to talk about your future in-laws this way, only I turned to speak to your mother just after Helen left, and she made the storm cloud comparison first. Am I forgiven?
Speaking of your mother – I adore her. She is so wonderfully perceptive and generous – she seemed to know right away when we met that I just needed to ramble on a bit, and she let me, and then invited me to dinner. Needs of the soul and body fulfilled. We both cried a little, too, so now we’re properly introduced. Of your family, I think it’s probably her opinion I will care about most - after you, of course, but she’s so impressive and kind I don’t want to disappoint her in any way. I feel I am already a disappointment to Helen, but by her tone she implied that you are, too.
Peter – I did tell you once long ago that someone would marry you just for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle – and I really didn’t expect it would be me. Talk on. Or write on, rather. I’m afraid I am terribly in love with you and nothing you do will change that. It scares me, strangely – this same happiness you wrote about. I am experiencing something I thought I knew but now realize I have never actually felt before, and there is a lurking fear in the back of my mind that the happiness is unreal, or will vanish. Your words are a great reassurance however you try to hide behind them.
I do feel a bit like poor Wilfrid, post-revisions, suddenly full of overwhelming emotions and unsure what to do about it. Wilfrid is doing very well, by the way. I’ve fleshed out his moral complexes and given him some amusing introspective bits. The beast of it is yet to come; he’ll have to deal with a new piece of evidence that will contradict all his previous assumptions. Art will imitate life.
But back to your letter’s main point – I think you would like to disguise the heartfelt things you say and pretend that they are mere nonsense, but my heart is now at stake, and I can’t let you. I tell you now that I intend to take very seriously all of your declarations, by post or otherwise. Write at your own risk and tell me you love me and I will believe you.
I have to say that it’s quite odd receiving your voice at such length in the mail; I’d much rather speak to you in person, obviously. It’s odder still trying to write down my own feelings and convey them accurately to you – I tell myself that writing is no different from speaking to you, but there is a formality to the process. I of all people should know. There is the benefit of forethought and reflection, of revising what one wants to say, of crossing out whole sheets of paper then starting again, and the final product may look quite different from the first draft.
I did wonder to myself, sitting down to write this, if I would say the same things to you if you were here. Would I confess that I am in love so openly? If we were together I could feign shyness or lead the conversation to any small, distant topic, and avoid the subject of how you make me feel. And you would doubtless see right through any of my attempts at evasion and ask me in your pleasantly direct way what the matter was.
Really, Peter, it comes down to what you said – we can’t prepare for happiness, only let it wash over us. I feel like a small child again, learning to swim, splashing about both delighted and afraid of drowning. But I know that you are in the water with me - hold my hand?
Now, while you may be forced to imagine my face leering at you from street corners, I have the benefit of real photographs of you, given to me by your mother; two portraits which I can pine over in your absence. I will alternate them day-to-day so as not to grow bored of looking at you. As if.
I have studied them both dutifully and while the one of you at the piano has a sort of charming melancholy, I think I prefer the other. Your mother says you call it "Little Mischief" - apt. Do you know you had the same expression on your face the night you interrogated the SCR? Just before walking into dinner? Now I know a little better what was running through your mind. How old was Lord St. George when that was taken? And did he get into a great deal of trouble for what looks like what was a terrible accident with the inkwell? No wonder Helen is disappointed in you; it seems your powerful influence on your nephew’s character began at a young age. Lest my tone is unclear - I think you are a very good influence and precisely the one he needs.
Aside from the photographs, which are now on my desk, I do still have your ring. I haven’t lost it! And no specter has smashed it to bits, but the typewriter wanted to, so I’m not wearing it on my finger any longer. It is safe on a fine chain around my neck, much lighter and less conspicuous than the dog collar. By the way, did you really get your name put on?
Also, why did the diplomat need a peace offering? Did you offend by taking your tea the wrong way, or erring slightly in the intricacies of a foreign language? I realize you may not be allowed to say much about your work in Rome, but I would be so happy to know what occupies your days, aside from sunbathing (and, I imagine, taking advantage of the close access to the Vatican Museums).
Come back soon, until then, keep me above water and write to me whatever you want.
P.S. You may buy me flowers when you return, no need to express from Rome. Offer them to Bunter.
30 May 1935
You know it will take more than a little rain to get rid of me.
Jerry was about four years old when Bunter took the photograph. Gerald had come down to London for a visit, using his son and heir as pretense. My brother at that point didn’t mind my influence on the future Duke, and I think he rather thought Jerry’s youthful joy and ‘innocence’ would bring me out of my slump. Little did he know the slump was long over and I was happily detecting away when not idling about town. Jerry would have gotten in trouble had I not convinced his father that the ‘accident’ with the inkwell was entirely my own fault – the nerves, you know, can’t be helped, the carpet will be fine, et cetera. On that day a strong alliance was formed between Pickled Gherkins and myself, and I’ve been corrupting him ever since.
I wish I could tell you more, but if this letter falls into the wrong hands, not only will they read all my intimate feelings conveyed to you, but I will face a slight awkwardness over a confidentiality agreement with the Foreign Office. I promise to confide in you what I can when I am back home. I can tell you, though, that I personally caused no offence to the diplomat. He was apparently quite put out by an earlier meeting with an American official, and I bore the brunt of his subsequent bad mood throughout our lunch. I’ve since spoken with both parties – actually, I escorted them to the opera and played the charming fool all evening – and all is well again, no flowers needed.
Regarding the flowers, Bunter thanks you for the surprising generosity of your gesture. I am made insecure by your refusal and wonder if you have suddenly switched affections? Is it the man over the master who is preferred? Bunter has contrived to provide several buttonholes for me, from your bouquet – I feel rather silly wearing my own gift to my beloved on my lapel, but he still finds it entertaining. Do you see the kind of impertinence you have inspired?
Because you forbid me from buying you flowers, domina, instead I have been trying to buy you a house. It is for the both of us, so there is no way you can deny its necessity. I also think that it would be harder to pass off to Bunter. I have been negotiating with the Belchesters – family friends – over the sale of 2 Audley Square; they have decided to retire to the country, leaving their grand old home delightfully available. I have always admired it, from without and within, and it is spacious and comfortable. We each already have our own places, of course, but it would be silly for me to keep 110A Piccadilly, seat of my bachelor years, and I don’t suppose you want to stay at Mecklenburgh? Having so rarely darkened its doorstep I cannot pass judgment on its comfort nor its allure as an abode. But I can say that the Audley Square place has a library the scale of which rivals even my own – and the shelves are just waiting to be filled with our books. Shelves from floor to ceiling, Harriet! And the Belchesters have offered to leave us a beautiful Medieval-era book stand, I think probably originally looted from a monastery somewhere, and ours now if we want it. The library also has French windows overlooking the street - you can see down to Hyde Park, it's just a short walk away - but I realize I begin to sound like an estate agent and not the man who asks for your love.
Dear Harriet – I really have always envied this place from afar – and the fact that it is now ours for the taking is too fortuitous to be overlooked. I want to buy 2 Audley Square and fill it with our belongings and make it our home, and sweep you over the threshold and up the stairs to our library, to our room, to our bed – everything newly ours and wholly belonging to the both of us. Our home.
There is a beautiful room on the third floor that would be perfect for a study – for you, for writing, if you want it. I can see you sitting at the desk by the window, head tilted in that divine thing you do when writing furiously to keep the thought from running away. A perfect, slight furrow in your brow – you are a vision, always. I promise the study will really be just yours, too, I won’t come in and bother you all the time, unless you ask of me. Then I will most willingly distract and interrupt and prevent you from meeting all your deadlines.
I was called away - tour of the Giardino degli Aranci (the Orange Garden, sounds better in Italian) with some people from Spain and Portugal. The whole court of Europe is here, and I don't know if I'm the jester or the advisor. Some days it seems like both.
One more thing, before I dash off again: I know you’re too sensible to be bothered by Helen, but just in case – she really has no idea what she says, and you shouldn’t pay attention to any of her declarations, they are insecure and untrue. I had once thought, foolishly, that age and marriage to Gerald might begin to soften her, but no such luck. I try to be charitable to her for my brother's sake, and to stay on her good side – if it exists. You know my mother will be on your side in my absence, so you are not alone in any prospective battles with my family, though I know you can more than capably defend yourself should the need arise. You also have a most willing ally in Jerry, I'm sure.
Wire and let me know about the house – if you prefer something else, say the word and it's yours.
All my love,
P.S. The collar is yet a blank. I did entertain the idea of my name, entirely as a joke – but back in Oxford just after you were attacked, I wasn’t sure if nor when I would have the chance to ask you the usual question again, and I no longer wanted to presume you owed me the answer I wanted. So I withheld from that kind of possessive indulgence.
1 June 1935
DEAR PETER BUY HOUSE LOVE H
3 June 1935
Mecklenburgh Square, London
You beautiful, silly, wonderful man. The house sounds perfect, and I trust your judgment entirely. You sounded almost nervous or afraid in your letter – as if I wouldn’t adore wholeheartedly something you chose for us. I do trust you. In everything.
Your mother took me by the house a few days ago to tour. I think I would have been content without seeing it right away - the thought of a whole house for just the two of us is overwhelming - but your high praises of the library did capture my imagination. When I received your last letter, I was working at home, and suddenly the disorderly stacks of books piled on the floor around my single, measly bookshelf seemed to loom ever higher, and they looked down upon me for having the audacity not to store them properly. They have stopped toppling over since I told them of the prospect of floor-to-ceiling shelves awaiting in a few, short (I hope) months.
But to speak of time – here is what has been occupying my mind. I miss you terribly. I know it’s been little more than a week, but it feels like eternity. And now I am resorting to the kinds of terrible clichés I only thought possible in romance fiction. I have always refused to read such works on a matter of principle, obviously, but one can’t spend three years in a women’s college attended by students of varying literary tastes without encountering the works of Hull and Heyer. And I have, at times, merely out of boredom, of course, flipped through their pages.
I’m running away from my topic: I miss you, and I’ve begun to feel guilty about the fact that we had such little time to spend together because I took so long in making up my mind. You knew what you wanted from the start. You’ve been so patient with me, especially when I least deserved it. And I do feel that this couldn’t have happened any other way, I couldn’t have chosen any sooner – this is what I reason to myself. But then the small voice in the back of my mind bothers me; it says that if I had said yes earlier, we would have been together longer, and waiting now wouldn’t be so hard. Though I suppose the waiting may be easier for you because you’re used to it?
If a past Harriet had made that sort of remark, you would have winced, and I would have regretted it later, after the smug satisfaction of getting under your skin had passed. But I say it now honestly and with no intent to harm – do you mind that we are apart? Is the waiting easier on you? I know circumstances are beyond our control, and I know that you miss me as I miss you, but I still feel ashamed that I made you wait so long, and I don’t want to think of you hurting - or my causing you any hurt.
It took me an eternity to wake up and to really see myself truly, to realize that you were and are everything I dreamed of – but never let myself actually want. I banished desire for so long, and now my heart, my soul, my body, my self – are all full of want. I want you, I want to be with you, and every minute without you grows emptier within me.
I have been going back and thinking over all the little moments I chose to ignore – the things that, if I were paying better attention, ought to have made me fall in love with you much sooner. I see them all now with new eyes. One of these moments: The first time you took me to the symphony, I was in a horrible mood because of a review, and I didn’t want to talk about it, obviously, but you didn’t push me to tell. I went along so reluctantly, and I listened to you ramble about which work of Williams’ was most sophisticated rhythmically, and the influence of Purcell on Elgar, and who knows what else – I certainly lost track – but it was the best possible distraction. You didn’t try to pry me open but gave me something else to think about. I told myself when I got home that it was the Williams piece that had improved by mood, but if I was being honest then, as I'm trying to be now - it was you. Your conversation, your gentleness, your willingness to put up with me when I was stewing in resentment - I didn't deserve your love then, but you gave it so freely. And I found myself expecting your next telephone call with some kind of eagerness, though I would never admit it.
This has turned into a more melancholy letter than I expected, so I will try to end it well. My consolation in waiting now is that I know we have a lifetime to spend together awaiting us - and if the happiness I've felt so far is any indication, it will be the happiest of lifetimes.
Are my sentiments verging on cliché acceptable? Please provide rating - nice to know if detective fiction fails, I will have a backup genre.
All my love, with none of me left to protest,
Wow I didn't mean to take another 4 months to write this! But I promise there'll be more.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
10 June 1935
DEAR H HOUSE BOUGHT LOVE P
12 June 1935
Do you know that I adore you? You are warned – in the letter that follows I will attempt to rival you in sentimental cliché, and it will all be true and earnest.
I had foolishly once thought that the process of aging meant achieving a certain conclusive level of knowledge – arriving at a summit, feeling confident in oneself and one’s abilities, finding life both predictable and manageable. To an extent I suppose this could be true of other subjects, but not of love. I think I had believed that in five years of knowing you I had come to know love’s scope – the depths of disappointment contrasted with the excitement of hearing your voice on the telephone, or the quiet joy felt at receiving your letters – no matter their contents.
I recall a particular missive, sent to Rome, containing a rejection to one of my earlier proposals. But it was not the rejection that was surprising (hardly, then, dearest) but your voice, on paper, so honest and open and direct. Despite being written in the midst of the unpleasantness at Shrewsbury, despite my unquestionably bothersome persistence, you opened your heart to me and offered your friendship; you invited me into your confidence. It was one of many events in the sequence of delightful surprises that has been knowing and loving you, Harriet. I was then and am continually, to use the cricketer’s term, bowled over. You astound and transfix me.
Therefore I no longer entertain any illusions of my existing knowledge of the Scope of Love – there is a book title for you – nor of the depths of my beloved. With every letter you delight me – romantic clichés, worried musings, all. And as much as I wish we were together... domina, if I cannot hold you yet, I have your words and the echo of your voice in my mind, I feel that you are close to me. I feel your fingertips leaving mine at the gate of Shrewsbury, I see you walking away, passing under the arch, and turning to look at me again, and smiling, before the darkness of night covers you. Memory is a complicated beast, and I wonder if I romanticize in retrospect, but Reason and Imagination are here in accord: you are my beloved, and I cannot recall you wrongly.
And so you live in my mind; you are never far from my thoughts. I wish I could turn to you with my daily troubles and ask your advice – they are more hourly than daily when the Foreign Office is involved. Your perceptivity would save nations, I am sure. When I return I will bore you with a complicated knot of egos and translation errors and you will undo the whole thing and present me with a neat spool of thread. But enough of that. A love letter is no place for business.
To address your closing question, though by now I suspect you know the answer: your sentiments are, of course, highly acceptable. I am eagerly looking forward to the publication of An Eternity to Wait, debut romance from esteemed detective novelist Harriet Vane. I trust I will receive an advance copy? Or perhaps feature in the dedication, having been the inspiration for your ramblings? Mostly I inspire journalists and the occasional gossip hound, so this provides a nice change.
And please - express no shame at having read the likes of The Black Moth, for you emulate Ms. Heyer’s style most satisfactorily. I know because I have read it.
Are you surprised? Years ago, on a train ride through Switzerland, I discovered an abandoned copy under the seat cushion in my compartment, likely left behind by a former passenger who shares our literary scruples. Out of pure curiosity I began to skim the first chapter, only to be interrupted by Bunter three hours later to find I’d read the whole thing. Let it not be said the romance novel lacks virtue – it can considerably shorten any train ride.
And to address your other question, about the waiting being easier – dearest one, you did not offend me. Is it easier for me to wait, having, as you said, waited longer? I do not know. You had your own (I imagine unbearable) period of waiting through the trial – I do not want to remind you of that unhappy time, but I have always admired your fortitude during those horrible weeks. I cannot ascribe to myself such honorable patience; I am often notoriously ungracious about having to wait, and you may ask either Bunter or my mother for testimony to that fact, though you have also witnessed it firsthand. Lately I have been ungracious often - lounging about my hotel room in a melancholy mood, alternately reading the papers and folding them into boats, perusing catalogues of incunabula and contemplating impulsive purchases. Buying the house helped.
That is what my waiting looks like; I imagine yours has been more materially productive in the form of several chapters on poor Wilfrid. I hope that - while you wait, and write - you will put all feelings of shame and guilt from your mind - for you cannot possibly make me unhappy now. I could never be upset with you for agreeing to marry me. I will bear any number of weeks waiting in Rome because I know that this time will end and I will come back to you - for the first time in my life I have the pleasure of being able to return to someone, to my heart's home, and you have given that to me, Harriet, so never apologize for it.
Yours, beginning to burn under the Italian sun, dreaming of London rain,
P.S. Speaking of Italian sun, how do you feel about Florence? Or Venice? For a honeymoon? How do you feel about a honeymoon generally? We can go wherever you like for as long as you want, so long as it’s not Wilvercombe.
The letter Peter refers to is found in Chapter 11 of Gaudy Night.
15 June 1935
I’m sorry, this letter will be shorter than I’d like, but I’ve been caught up in a series of agent and editor meetings for Death ‘twixt Wind and Water (am beginning to rethink that title) and Sylvia wanted to take me to a new exhibit at the Tate and I went to a very uncomfortable tea hosted by Helen and “some select friends” (assorted storm clouds like her, and other icy, moralizing philanthropic types) so my head has been spinning non-stop since Tuesday. Your letter is a balm.
I just got back to the flat an hour ago and sat down to read in the armchair by the window. I’ve been looking over the Square and watching the stars come out, and wishing on them, childlike, that today could be easily erased and I could return to the distant dream of the end of May.
I confess I’m a bit of a wreck at the moment. I've known that my life is about to change, substantially, and it’s a welcome change, of course. I want to marry you. But now I feel as though I've become suddenly trapped in the neck of an hourglass which has just been turned over – and there I hang, upside down, sand pouring over my face. No matter how hard I try I can't get right-side up again.
It was the tea with Helen that did it.
I'm loath to recount this because I have been trying to ignore her, as you said, but she really has a terrible gift for making a person feel inferior. She asked me to tea at the Savoy, and I went, thinking it was a private meeting, and that I could reassure her I’m not a dreadful heathen out to destroy both the Wimsey name and her reputation in one go. But she’d asked a whole committee of friends to assess me (I can’t remember their names now) – and with all of them pursing their lips and tilting their heads and sipping furiously I was made to feel altogether inadequate, underdressed, and thoroughly gauche. I know I am none of these things (except perhaps occasionally underdressed, as befits a writerly disposition), but Helen and her accomplices made me feel so. I shouldn’t be bothered, I know, so I came home to my little empty flat and made my own tea quite angrily and am now drowning my sorrows in camomile and writing to you. Damn it all, Peter, I wish you were here. I wish you were in London and had accompanied me to this hellish tea and had held my hand under the table when Helen asked me about the "surely dwindling sales" of my last book, and I wish we'd laughed it off after and gone walking in St. James' Park at sunset.
I am trying to hold my own against Helen as well as I can, but the constant condescension is exhausting. I suppose she wanted to catch me off-guard, knowing, of course, that you are in Rome and cannot defend me. It was a well-planned ambush, I credit her that. I fought the fight and am now battered.
Still living and breathing, obviously, but tired. But I won't linger on this any longer, I need to sleep, and moreover you deserve a nicer letter, especially after the one you've just sent me. Tomorrow I'm going to the British Library to look at some windmill maps and diagrams and this invigorating research will - I hope - keep my mind off Helen nicely. Then I'll return to your letter in a kinder mood and write you the reply you deserve.
Before I go - a honeymoon - yes, please. Wherever you'd like, really. I haven't been to either Florence or Venice and both have an antique appeal to them, but will you have tired of Italy by then, whenever it is the Foreign Office decides to release you? Who do I need to bribe to arrange for your swift return? (To any intercepting agent reading this letter, I am a writer with no funds for bribery).
Love, your irritated,
P.S. Peter - I'm sure you know I'm not irritated at you for not being here, I don't blame you in the slightest. You know Helen - you understand.
P.P.S. Your letter was the sweetest thing.