March 2007

 

The Pleasures of Re-reading

Do you re-read? I do. I have a stash of books that count as my sanctuary when the world just gets a bit much. Re-reading them is like getting a hug from someone you love. I mentioned a few of these in my top 11 x 2. A Countess Below Stairs, Lord of Scoundrels, Pride and Prejudice. But actually, that’s not the kind of re-reading I want to talk about this month.

Recently at a secondhand bookshop, I picked up Clouds of Witness, one of the early Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers. I’ve been gradually collecting these books secondhand and finding them has become a challenge for me as they’re so good, hardly anybody ever swaps them in. It was a really nice edition, too, with a very striking photo on the cover of a 1920s lady in a black velvet dress with her back turned to the viewer.

At one stage in my life,  I was obsessed with these books and used to hound my local library to get them in for me. So I’ve read all the Peter Wimsey mysteries before but a long time ago. They’re elegant and witty and absolutely exquisitely written. I must admit that mostly it was the charismatic central figure of  Lord Peter that kept me so fascinated but the plots are beautifully worked out and full of wonderful 1920s and 1930s detail. And it’s such fun to live the high life with new Daimlers and old burgundies and assorted other luxuries available to a Duke’s son in the years following the First World War. These books are just so glamorous!

My memory of reading the whole series is that I absolutely adored the later stories when Peter has fallen in love, seemingly hopelessly, with Harriet Vane after he proves her innocent of murder and saves her from the gallows. The deep romanticism and emotion of those stories drew me in so strongly. Because of that, while I remember enjoying the earlier books, they had faded from my recollection a little. But the other day, I picked up Clouds of Witness and started to read it. I had no particular expectations. I hardly recalled the story at all. And it was just such a delight. The murder plot was clever, Lord Peter was charming and fascinating and facetious and just so incredibly himself, the supporting cast was full of British eccentrics and sinister fellows with shady pasts and willowy 1920s damsels in shantung silk evening gowns.

It reminded me that my bookcases are full of books that I loved when I read them but I haven’t picked up since. I’m sure there are equally wonderful surprises awaiting among all those volumes that I haven’t looked at in so long. At the very least, I’m going to re-read the Peter Wimseys that I haven’t touched in nearly twenty years. Like Peter’s fine burgundies, they have only improved with age. And like one should with a fine burgundy, I’m going to read them slowly and savor their marvelous richness.