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on 12 July 2005
"'Now I want you to fake an answer.'
'Fake one?'
'Right. We're in a roomful of people, say, and several of 'em probably know more...than you do, but you're being billed as the resident expert...so somebody asks you, uh, "Mr. Doyle, to what extent, in your opinion, was Wordsworth influenced by the philosophy expressed in the verse plays of, I don't know, Sir Arky Malarkey?" Quick!'
Doyle cocked an eyebrow. 'Well, it's a mistake, I think, to try to simplify Malarkey's work that way; several philosophies emerge as one traces the maturing of his thought...'"
- Darrow interviewing Doyle for a job in THE ANUBIS GATES, by Tim Powers
For some strange reason the above passage comes to mind when reading THE WIMSEY FAMILY, the 1976 work resulting from Giles' collected correspondence between himself, Dorothy L. Sayers (the famed chronicler of the amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey), and a few other parties who 'discovered' much hitherto unpublished history.
It all began in February 1936, when Scott-Giles - a heraldic expert bearing the title Fitzalan Pursuivant of Arms Extraordinary - wrote to Sayers about the Wimsey coat of arms, the blazon being included as part of the Who's Who-style boilerplate prefacing several editions of various Lord Peter novels. (A blazon is the formal description of a coat of arms, not necessarily including a picture; Scott-Giles has translated it into pictorial form in the book before you, along with other 'reproductions' of relevant pictorial bits of Wimsey family history.) Scott-Giles soberly noted that the elements of the blazon seemed to be of great antiquity, and the Saracen supporters of the shield hinted at a Crusading ancestor, so perhaps Sayers ought to clarify that the coat of arms is only by chance so expressive of Lord Peter's bent for investigation.
This led to a lively correspondence between Sayers, Scott-Giles, and a couple of Sayers' close friends, each 'discovering' more and more facts about the family history. Scott-Giles tended to concentrate on the medieval members of the family, and Sayers herself on the Tudor era. (Sayers' friend Helen Simpson, to whom we owe various drawings of Bredon Hall, the family seat, appears to have unearthed the 18th century marriage between the then-Lord St. George, heir to the title, and a hosier's widow, which caused something of a scandal.) They published various essays and even a pamphlet in the 1930s for interested parties, and some of the fruits of their joint efforts went into the final segment of BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON when Sayers adapted the original play, cowritten with one of her fellow 'researchers', into a novel.
Scott-Giles, assembling this material in the 1970s, notes that he has generally avoided discussing any Wimseys whose history hadn't 'turned up' in Sayers' lifetime. He did, however, address an apparent discrepancy raised by a fellow expert, noting that Lord Peter's older brother, being described as 'a peer of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland' in Sayers' canon implies that the title was created after 2 July 1800, but that the dukes (formerly earls) of Denver trace back far enough to properly be described as 'peers of England'. Scott-Giles deftly fielded this by digging up a Duke with an only daughter who married into a distant branch of the family after the heir-presumptive died at Waterloo.
And so on. Betwixt and between them, the original contributors managed to skate past several awkward points, among them the fact that for a considerable period in Tudor times, there weren't *any* dukes in England. In fact, exactly one duke - Denver - survived with his honours intact, having the family gift for withdrawing to the family seat and/or being stricken with diplomatic illness in a crisis.
Each part of the coat of arms turns out to have a story, starting with the original device of 3 silver plates on a black background. (A lord of Normandy, being eaten out of house and home by three hulking sons, presented them with three empty platters that they were henceforth to fill by their own efforts, with a strong hint that joining the Conqueror's army would be a capital idea.) How the device changed to three mice, with a domestic cat as crest, is a Crusading story illustrating the Wimsey strain of cleverness - the family for centuries has come in 2 flavors, mostly stolid like Lord Peter's elder brother Gerald, but occasionally breaking out in high-strung brilliance like Lord Peter himself.
All in all, if you like the bits of family history included in the Wimseys' visit to Duke's Denver at the end of BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON, here's more of the same, in more detail. You could get some of it out of Barbara Reynolds' edited collections of Sayers' letters, but those volumes only contain Sayers' part of the correspondence, not the intervening material from Scott-Giles, Helen Simpson, and Muriel St-Clare Byrne (those last two names grace the dedication of BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON, of course).
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on 12 August 2009
If, like many readers, you're a little bit in love with Wimsey, this book provides some fascinating background information on his ancestors and fills in a few gaps from things mentioned in the novels. Slightly dry and dusty in places, but nevertheless gives a flavour of Wimseys past, in all their eccentricities. Fascinating to know how much thought Sayers had put into the creation of the Wimseys, really inhabiting a whole world with them.
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on 29 April 2016
Arrived quickly, as described.
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