Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies

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4.2 Sayers’ Female Suspect

Dorothy L. Sayers concentrates on the female suspect and her close relationship with the victim which indicates her as the culprit. As Morris declares, “Sayers’ criminal women and women suspects are one way or another sexually unconventional, either because of their illicit sex or homosexuality or because of overwhelmingly obsessive or repressed love” (Morris 1). Society sees Harriet Vane, the female protagonist and the victim at the same time, as the major culprit because of her love affair with the murdered person, Philip Boyes. Both of them live very fetterless and free-hand lives that fail to correspond with the social and ethical rules. After the sudden death of Philip, Harriet becomes the first suspected subject since “she consented to live with him outside marriage yet ended the relationship when he finally decided she was acquiescent enough to wed” (Rowland 29) and everyone supposes Harriet must have been angry and wanted revenge for all her suffering while living with him in an ambiguous relationship and because of his refusal to formal marriage and instead having affairs with other women. Only Lord Peter Wimsey with his assistant Miss Climpson is convinced of Harriet’s innocence and begins his murderer-hunt to save his love from being charged with something she has never done.

As mentioned above, the major clue points at Harriet Vane because “the suspicions which residually cling to them3 stem from their indecorous sexual liaisons” (Morris 1) that creates the opportunity for murder. When the protagonist gets to the court as the culprit, “she is a classic female suspect” (Morris 1). There appears significant evidence while questioning Philip’s neighbors who heard the couple quarreling about the marriage and “the next day Harriet Vane packed up all her things and left the house for good” (CC 6). The reason that she decides to refuse Phillip’s offer and leave him suggests that Harriet was persuaded to live with him in an unconventional relationship and suddenly he changes his mind and wants to marry her which makes her furious. The further piece of evidence comes up when the poison is discussed in the court. Harriet purchased several times a various kinds of arsenic – for rats, for weed, etc. She explains that “she was engaged at that time in writing a novel about poisoning, and that she bought the drugs in order to prove by experiment how easy it was for an ordinary person to get hold of deadly poisons” (CC 9). The evidence is quite clear but Lord Peter Wimsey is persuaded that this woman is unquestionably innocent and according to Morris “Sayers rejected public decorum or sexual morality as legitimate evidence of female criminality” (Morris 2).

The female protagonist also represents a very independent woman “owing nothing to anybody and accepting help from no one” (CC 4). She seems to resent men because of her preceding experience and when Philip asks her to meet him before he takes a trip out West, she reluctantly agrees but in a very cold manner. Some people, among others Philip’s father, suppose that Harriet must be very heartless because of her behavior towards Philip: “He4 had known of the liaison with Harriet Vane, and had noticed that she did not come to inquire after Philip Boyes, nor attend the funeral, and this had struck him as heartless behaviour” (CC 24). This kind of people believes in Harriet’s guilt and their minds are driven by the motive previously mentioned. In contrast to them, there stands Lord Peter Wimsey with several of his devoted helpers. As soon as Peter meets Harriet, he knows she is innocent and wants to do anything to get her out of the situation. He also has a special affection towards Harriet and when “she smiled suddenly at him, his heart turned to water” (CC 46) while examining her in the prison. In the same place Peter asks Harriet if she would marry him after he proves she is innocent, but again the female protagonist shows her detachment and caution. “I’m sorry – but one gets rather a bruised sort of feelings in my position. There have been so many beastliness” (CC 48), which is Harriet’s diplomatic response among other reasons. Her independent behavior carries on in the end when Harriet partly accepts Peter’s offer and lives with him without being married since she is afraid of not being able to leave. However, one of her friends declares that she, as an individual and isolated female, will surely marry Lord Peter Wimsey one day.

The investigation accompanies Peter’s love relation and his female victim that must be saved, in other words, he becomes a detective hero with his own feelings, which drives him forward to discover the real murderer. Emphasizing that “a female killer is similarly untypical for Sayers, with the likelihood of female sexuality contributing to criminal deviance comprehensively exploded” (Rowland 166) in the novel, there exists a basic element of female whiteness which stresses the role of a woman in society. Lord Peter Wimsey’s complete conviction of her absolute innocence persuades the Crown, indeed, with all the evidence and motives:

“Members of the jury, do you find the prisoner ‘Guilty’ or ‘Not Guilty’?”

“Not guilty, my lord.”

“Very good. The prisoner is discharged without a stain upon her character. Next case.”

So ended, sensational to the last, one of the most sensational murder trials of the century (CC 280).

Harriet Vane is acquitted and can start a new life with Lord Peter Wimsey as his companion and partner at the same time. The suspicion of murdering Philip Boyes is washed away from her and her feminine virtue becomes part of her character. She desires to remain single since one of the reasons is that she feels grateful to Peter for acquitting her and rejects the gratitude to become the core of their marriage.

The actual significance of Harriet’s character displays the connection between her and Lord Peter Wimsey. Her function is that of a plot device used to develop and portray the relationship between the two protagonists. Being both a suspect and a victim in Lord Peter’s case, she influences his achievements and behavior, and furthermore she especially forms his personality. While the case presents a challenge for Wimsey, Harriet forms an elusive object as a suspect whom he falls in love. The emotions and feelings between them are all very intense because of being kept in careful control and the relation allows Harriet to drop her suspect humiliation and set up a new emotional agreement between the two of them.

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