Peter Wimsey fans who know nothing about his creator are in for a surprise. A pleasant one. For James Brabazon makes it obvious that Dorothy L. Sayers herself is more fascinating than the most imaginatively devised fictional character could ever be. She expected to be remembered for her devotion to the intellect, for her poetry, her successful religious dramas, and her fresh, vigorous, much-praised translation of Dante's "Inferno." The world-famous Lord Peter, that aristocratic English detective immortalized on TV's "Masterpiece Theatre" as well as in Sayer's mysteries, on the other hand, came into being simply to pay her bills; he was very good at it.
This couldn't have been an easy book to write, as Sayers herself would agree. "People," she wrote in a letter to her illegitimate son, "are always imagining that if they get hold of the writer himself and, so to speak, shake him long enough and hard enough, something exciting and illuminating will drop out of him. But it doesn't. What's due to come out has come out. All one gets by shaking is the odd paper clip and crumbled carbons from his wastepaper basket."
Along with the paper clip and the carbons, James Brabazon's clues to his subject include some letters, a fragment of autobiography, and a thinly disguised autobiographical novel. Fortunately, he not only knew Dorothy Sayers and some of her friends but is able to fill in the gaps with deductive powers intelligent enough to equal Lord Peter's own. In any case this isn't one of those stand-back-two- paces-and-take-a-cold-look-at-your-subject kind of biographies. In fact, it was one of her lectures on Christianity and the arts that decided the direction of Brabazon's life. He makes no secret of his affection for her, nor does he hide her warts -- her self- centeredness and "savage" reaction to criticism for instance.
Readers who are looking for hints about Lord Peter's origin will certainly find them. Perhaps the most satisfying is a quotation from Sayers herself, explaining one way to invent a character: "to take some passing mood of one's own mind and say to oneself, if this fleeting mood were to become a dominant attitude of mind, what would may behavior be under given circumstances? Putting aside the accidental attributes that an amateur detective must possess to get through his work without too much outside help -- such for example, as money, leisure, physical endurance, and the tricks of this or that trade -- the essential Peter is seen to be the familiar figure of the interpretative artist, the romantic soul at work with a realistic brain."
Brabazon points out, "At the end of 'Gaudy Night' it is intellectual integrity that has solved the mystery and has also brought Peter and [his long-wooed love] Harriet together; thus demonstrating Dorothy's thesis that adherence to the intellect is as necessary for the business of living as for scholarly study or the solving of detective problems. It is, I fear, rather a dubious panacea for love and happiness, as Dorothy herself knew too well."
She was always obsessed with intellect. Take that passage in her autobiographical novel about writing a poem on the dawn. She had never seen the sunrise, but that was no drawback since she had read about it, and "what she read was to her always a little more real than what she experienced."
Unhappily, an obsession with intellect tends to drain reality out of experience. That may well account for the way her attemps at "experience" so often ended in unhappiness and explain, for instance, how an uncompromising moralist came to have an illegitimate son.
Not that Sayers regretted her obsession: "Where the intellect is dominant it becomes the channel of all the other feelings. . . . I do not know whether we can be saved through the intellect, but I do know t hat I can be saved by nothing else."