The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

At age thirty-two, Harriet has had to fight her way to success. An honors student in literature with a scholarly bent, she had decided to leave the academy to become a popular writer. Her works sell well, but she has narrowly missed hanging for the supposed murder of her lover, her reputation has been damaged—while Annie Wilson’s note was not intended for her, other letters of the same ilk do trouble her—and she is uncertain of her future. Should she return to the quiet world of Oxford? Should she surrender her career and independence and accept Lord Peter’s hand and an ample income?

In Harriet, Dorothy Sayers creates a semiautobiographical figure whose ambition, history, and doubts mirror her creator’s. Sayers had no Lord Peter pursuing her, but in other respects the similarities, including appearance, are striking.

Sayers had introduced Harriet in 1930 so that she could marry off Lord Peter and be rid of him. Just as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tired of Sherlock Holmes, Sayers wanted to free herself of her popular detective. Before she could allow Harriet and Lord Peter to marry, however, she had to humanize her airy and often pompous aristocrat. In this novel, she accomplishes that goal. As always, Lord Peter is brilliant. An honors student in history as Harriet is in literature, he discovers in a week what has eluded Harriet (and the entire Shrewsbury faculty) for months. As always, too, he is attractive to women. Everyone at Shrewsbury is curious about Lord...

(The entire section is 610 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Harriet Vane

Harriet Vane, a thirty-two-year-old mystery writer who, four years earlier, was accused falsely of poisoning her lover and was tried for murder. Intelligent, introspective, and fiercely independent, Harriet is asked to investigate a series of disturbing poison pen letters and acts of vandalism at her alma mater, the University of Oxford. When she seeks the assistance of her friend and longtime suitor, Lord Peter Wimsey, she is forced to reexamine her life and her relationship with Wimsey. As Harriet reenters the cloistered university atmosphere after ten years in London, she brings a worldly perspective to the school’s sheltered, intellectual, and often inbred way of life.

Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey

Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, an aristocratic amateur detective and Harriet’s persistent suitor. His investigative talents resulted in Vane’s acquittal on the charge of murder. Described in the book as “fair and Mayfair,” Wimsey is a brilliant and perceptive sleuth who masks his true nature with a show of frivolous elegance and surface charm. During the course of his courtship with Harriet, Wimsey has come to see himself through her eyes and has made determined attempts to achieve a higher level of emotional honesty in his life. A deeply sensitive man, he loves Harriet for her intelligence and her spirit, and their work together on the Oxford mystery brings them to a new realm of understanding...

(The entire section is 598 words.)