Harriet Vane

Harriet Deborah Vane, later Lady Peter Wimsey, is a fictional character in the works of British writer Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957).

Vane, a mystery writer, initially meets Lord Peter Wimsey when she is tried for poisoning her lover ("Strong Poison") - he falls for her but she rejects him. In "Have His Carcase" she collaborates with Wimsey to solve a murder but still finds Wimsey to be overbearing and superficial. She eventually returns his love ("Gaudy Night") and marries him ("Busman's Honeymoon").

Character biography

Harriet Vane grew up the daughter of a country doctor. She took a First in English at the fictional Shrewsbury College, Oxford (the location of which is given as the Balliol College Sports Grounds, now partly occupied by a residential annex, on Holywell Street). She had some success as a writer of detective stories, living and socializing with other artists in Bloomsbury. In time she fell for Philip Boyes, a more literary writer (but with fewer sales), who professed not to believe in marriage, and agreed to live with him without marrying. After a year of this arrangement, Boyes believed that she truly loved him and proposed marriage. Angered by his hypocrisy and aghast at being offered marriage as "a bad-conduct prize" Vane broke off the relationship.

Boyes died soon after of arsenic poisoning — the method Vane had researched for her new book. Vane was consequently arrested and tried for murdering Boyes. Lord Peter Wimsey came to her rescue by proving who really poisoned Boyes.

After Vane was acquitted, she remained quite notorious. Sales of her books skyrocketed. Wimsey pursued her romantically, but Vane repeatedly declined marriage on the principle that gratitude was not a good basis for a marriage. Vane decided to take a walking-tour to relax during which she stumbled over a corpse on her trip adding to her notoriety. The press was naturally interested; Wimsey hastened to the scene, after receiving a tip from a friend with the papers, to help shield Vane from suspicion. The two investigated the death (when they are not romantically sparring).

A few years later, in 1935, Vane returned to Oxford for a reunion (or gaudy) and was asked to investigate some strange occurrences at her old college. Vane protested that she is not a sleuth herself and recommended that the college hire professional detectives. However, failing to reach either Miss Climpson, at the female detective agency set up by Wimsey, or Wimsey himself, she accepts to assist the college. Her cover was research into Sheridan Le Fanu, an Anglo-Irish writer of Gothic tales and mystery novels of the 19th century. (In Thrones, Dominations, the Author's note states that Vane published a monograph on Sheridan Le Fanu in 1946.) After months of data gathering but no resolution in sight, Vane turned to Wimsey for help. By the end of the book the villain was unmasked and Vane had finally accepted Wimsey's proposal.

The press was delighted to have a formerly accused murderess engaged to a peer's son and happily publicizes the fact. Wimsey and Vane, upset, have a small wedding with little notice and escape to a their new country residence in East Hertfordshire: Talboys, a Tudor farmhouse Harriet had admired as a child and which Peter has given her as a wedding present. A body of former owner is discovered in the basement, leading them to investigate.

"Thrones, Dominations", a novel abandoned by Sayers and finished by Jill Paton Walsh is set in and around London, shortly after they return from their honeymoon.

The first of their children is born in the story "The Haunted Policeman,".

By the time of the short story "Talboys" they have three sons: Bredon Delagardie Peter Wimsey (born in October 1936), Roger Wimsey (born 1938), and Paul Wimsey (born 1940). Chronologically between the two are "The Wimsey Papers", a series of articles written as letters between the characters at the beginning of WWII which Sayers wrote for "The Spectator". Jill Paton Walsh referenced "The Wimsey Papers" in writing "A Presumption of Death", in which Harriet takes a leading role, set at the beginning of the Second World War. Sayers told friends orally that Harriet and Peter Wimsey were to have five children in all, though she did not disclose the names and sexes of the two youngest children. [Reynolds, Barbara. (1997) "Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul", Macmillan, ISBN 0312153538, p. 340.]


Sayers consciously modelled Vane on herself, although perhaps not as closely as her fans (and even friends) sometimes thought. Some view Vane as a stand-in for the author, although Vane has many more faults than most such characters. Both Sayers and Vane were among the first generation of women to receive an Oxford education. Vane's relationship with Boyes has many similarities with Sayers' love affair (1921-1922) with the author John Cournos (1881-1956), a Russian-born American Jew.

Biographers note that Sayers' later relationships with Bill White and her marriage to the fellow writer Oswald Arthur "Mac" Fleming provide grist for Vane's struggle to balance love (and perhaps marriage to Wimsey) and her work. After Sayers' affairs with Cournos and White were revealed, the comparisons between Sayers and Vane became more emphatic. (Neither of these affairs were publicly known during Sayers' lifetime.)

McGregor and Lewis suggest that some of Vane and Wimsey's observations about mystery in story versus real life — while in the context of a mystery story — reflect Sayers' sense of fun and ability to laugh with her characters.



Books by Dorothy L. Sayers

* "Strong Poison" (1930)
* "Have His Carcase" (1932)
* "Gaudy Night" (1936)
* "Busman's Honeymoon" (1937) (As Lady Peter Wimsey)
* "In the Teeth of the Evidence" (1939) (editions published after 1942 usually add "Talboys", the last story Sayers wrote with Lord and Lady Peter Wimsey)

Books by Jill Paton Walsh

*"Thrones, Dominations" (1998) by Dorothy L. Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh
*"A Presumption of Death" (2002) by Jill Paton Walsh

Portrayal in film, TV or theatre

Harriet Vane was portrayed by Harriet Walter in the 1987 BBC television adaptations of "Strong Poison", "Have his Carcase" and "Gaudy Night".


* "Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul" (1993) by Dr. Barbara Reynolds.
* "Conundrums for the Long Week-End : England, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Lord Peter Wimsey" (2000) by Robert Kuhn McGregor, Ethan Lewis ISBN 0-87338-665-5

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