Jill Paton Walsh vs. Dorothy L. Sayers in Thrones, Dominations
I am reading the (at one time) New York Times bestseller Thrones, Dominations, which was started 70 years ago by a longtime favorite author of mine, Dorothy L. Sayers, and completed in 1998 by Booker Prize-finalist Jill Paton Walsh.
At about 2/3 of the way through the book, I am finding it wholly unsatisfying. I must admit that though my hopes were high, my expectations were low for another author to effectively write in the voice of Sayers. It now appears that Sayers was, perhaps, unimitable.
Contrary to my norm (I usually don’t read reviews at all, and if at all, read them after I’ve completed a book), today, I decided to read a few reviews of the book. Most every review, from professional to those of readers on Amazon, sing the book’s praises. On the cover of the paperback version I checked out from the library, the London Sunday Times glows:
Extraordinary… It is impossible to tell where Dorothy L. Sayers ends and Jill Paton Walsh begins.
The Chicago Tribune asserts:
[Walsh] has done a splendid job — certain to please the legions of Sayers loyalists as well as readers new to the Wimsey canon.
The Wall Street Journal claims:
A superb job of seamless collaboration… subtle and discursive in the classic Sayers manner, Thrones, Dominations is a pure pleasure.
Did these reviewers read the same book I’m reading? Had they ever read Sayers previous works? I must wonder, because I’ve come to a completely disparate opinion. It’s not a bad book, in and of itself, but only superficially does it seem emulate Sayers.
Instead, it appears that though Paton Walsh has a few of the external flourishes right, and is obviously well-acquainted with the storyline of Sayers’ protagonists, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, the writing is nothing like hers. The voice is different. The technique is different. The spirit behind the writing is different.
Sayers wrote flourishingly, with an easy, conversational, almost gushing manner. Perhaps she painstakingly crafted her prose, but it never appears so; her words flow quickly with apparent effortlessness. Sayers makes no effort to convince her readers; she wrote in a wholly unapologetic style, understanding that not everyone would enjoy coming along for the ride, yet never trying to change those dissenting readers’ minds. She trusted much to her fans’ intelligence and interest in the subject, leaving many blanks open for them to fill in, both those related to the plot, and those totally extraneous. She made the assumption that one has a massive vocabulary, is fluent in Latin and French, can spot literary quotes and allusions without introduction, and is up-to-date on every aspect of the cultural and political climate of 1920s and ’30s England. She blithely asserted her beliefs and opinions (especially in Gaudy Night and the works that followed), qualifying little, not caring to proselytize her readers. She didn’t write to impress or convince anyone, adopting a “take it or leave it” stance. There is much joy, humor and sincerity in Sayers’ works, taking relaxed, self-satisfied delight in her obvious scholarly interests and desire for the ideal to be made manifest in real life.
Though I could certainly lay no claim to be able to do better, I have much at issue with Paton Walsh’s work. It’s my guess that Sayers crafted the basic plotline of Thones, Dominations; it is simultaneously natural and convoluted, giving voice to both plebeian and highbrow interests. Yet, the overwhelming body of the work seems to me to be more like Paton Walsh attempting to dress up her own voice and opinion with Sayers’ hallmarks and techniques, “selling mutton as lamb.”
Paton Walsh’s quotes and allusions are marked with flashing lights, finger-pointing and underlining, with the foreign-language ones almost always translated. Sayers never did that; sometimes she wrote whole pages of pivotal text in French, and quoting was so natural to Wimsey (and surely to Oxford-scholar Sayers) that it was simply a given part of his conversation, with no need for explanation. Paton Walsh’s quoting seems tacked on, not as integral to the writing as Sayers’: “Well, Sayers extensively quoted, so I need to, too. And, I should explain them more, since today’s readers aren’t likely to have read Donne, and I should translate, too.”
Paton Walsh’s writing is never as dense, literate nor intelligent as Sayers’. She, perhaps, has a working vocabulary half the extent of Sayers’, rarely using the obscure-but-apt word selection that Sayers did with easy regularity. Instead, inexact, undescriptive prose is the norm in Thrones, Dominations. I don’t know if Paton Walsh just isn’t up to the task, or if she’s dumbing it down for today’s readers.
Paton Walsh seems, also, to be trying to convince her writers to understand and relate to Wimsey and Vane (and perhaps to Sayers, too). She spends a lot of time detailing and alluding to their history, explaining character quirks and personal proclivities and motivations. To me, it has the effect of making excuses for who they are and why they are that way, something Sayers would not have done, or at least not so blatantly. I can hear Jill Paton Walsh pleading, “Well, you would like them if you understood this about them…”
More subtly, Paton Walsh seems to take issue with some of Sayers’ opinions and beliefs, and tries to correct Sayers’ “wrongs.” Again, she surrounds them with explanations and excusings, making Sayers’ conclusions appear to simply be a product of her early-mid 20th century environment in England. Rather, it would surprise me if, these 70 or so years into the future, Sayers would think and believe any differently than she did back then. For instance, I don’t think Vane’s character was ever as feminist as Paton Walsh paints her. And, I think Sayers had a lot more value for aristocracy, the monarchy and high church than Paton Walsh does.
Lastly, I don’t believe that Paton Walsh treats Lord Peter Wimsey with nearly as much admiration as Sayers did. It’s my personal opinion that Sayers developed Wimsey into what, perhaps subconsciously, would have been her personal, ideal mate. Thus, she treated him with a vast respect and even some longing, which is entirely absent from Paton Walsh’s treatment of him. The effect is rather like it would be if one wrote a description of someone else’s spouse whom you greatly admire. You might get the externals spot-on, but the depth of familiarity, relationship and understanding would be absent, or at best, often misunderstood or incompletely represented.
That said, the story is (so far) solid. As a mystery goes, it’s all right, though it doesn’t really turn into an actual mystery until more than a third of the way into the book. And, it’s not so bad that I’m not going to finish it. And, I must say, from the library, I have also checked out the next (and even more derivative) “collaboration” between Sayers and Paton Walsh, A Presumption of Death.
However, it’s just because I don’t want the life of Wimsey to end, and am satisfied, apparently, with him on life-support and not in the flourishing fulness of his “real” life.