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  • (Re)placing John Donne in the History of Sexuality
  • Rebecca Ann Bach

In 1937, after three novels recounting episodes from "[n]early six years" of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane's courtship, Dorothy Sayers published Busman's Honeymoon, in which she shows us Lord Peter and Harriet married and on the threshold of sexual engagement.1 Both Lord Peter and Harriet love, and love by means of, John Donne's poetry. In a diary entry in Busman's' first chapter, Peter's mother, the marvellous Honoria Lucasta, Dowager Duchess of Denver, writes "Peter has always been queer about Donne."2 Late in the novel, Harriet reveals to Peter that before their marriage, she spent all the money she had made in a career writing mystery novels on her trousseau, and she was, therefore, reduced to writing "[t]hree five-thousand-word" short stories "at forty guineas each for the Thrill Magazine" in order to afford to buy Peter his premarital gift: "a very beautiful" autograph "letter from D. to a parisioner—Lady Somebody—about Divine and human love."3 When he receives this gift from bride to groom, Peter tells his Mother that having tried to buy the letter himself and learning that "it had been sold," he had been "ridiculously angry" because he "wanted [it] for Harriet."4 Sayers writes of Harriet's and Peter's love of Donne, and she also writes their love through Donne's poetry. When Harriet and Peter fall silent, sitting on a wooden seat in a chuchyard, Busman's' narrator wonders "[w]hether, left to themselves, [Harriet and Peter] would have succeeded in emerging from this speechless trance, and might not, in the manner of Donne's ecstatic couple, have remained like sepulchral statues in the same posture and saying nothing until nightfall."5 This reference to Donne's poem "The Extasie" is only one of the many specific Donne references with which Sayers salts the Peter Wimsey-Harriet Vane relationship.

On their wedding night, Harriet and Peter kiss deeply and "at some point during the next five minutes" of foreplay, Harriet hears Peter "murmur, 'Not faint Canaries but ambrosial.'" Peter's Donne quotation, which the distracted Harriet tracks down "only . . . some [End Page 259] ten days later," comes from a Donne elegy, "Loves Progress," a poem explicitly about the act of intercourse between a man and a woman.6 Nevertheless, "[n]ot faint Canaries but ambrosial" is a particularly queer reference for Sayers to insert into the Vane-Wimsey story. The line appears in "Loves Progress" as a description of the lips a man might kiss on his way to what the poem, in a coy and simultaneously brutal moment, calls "the Centrique part," the woman's vagina, the "part" that the poem's speaker believes is the only reason for a man to pursue a woman, the part apart from which a woman is worth nothing.7 "Loves Progress" describes the routes a man might take to that "Centrique part," a place that the poem compares to the "pits and holes" in which men laid "their sacrificing coales" when they worshipped such gods as "Pluto" and "Cupid" (E, 28-36). "Loves Progress" may call the lips "Ambrosiall," but the poem also states, clearly, that though the lips "seem all" they are the origin of "Syrens songs" and the home of "The Remora" (E, 52-58), "The sucking-fish (Echeneis remora), believed by the ancients to have the power of staying the course of any ship to which it attached itself."8 The poem's speaker advises men to pursue the vagina from the feet up rather than by way of the lips. After all, the poem states, women are useful and worthy of pursuit only because they have the one thing men do not have—the vagina—"that by which they," women, "are not they," men (E, 20). According to the speaker, men are deeply mistaken if they chase women because they have "Vertue," for they do not: "Makes virtue woman? Must I cool my blood / Till I both bee, and find one, wise and good? / May barren Angels love so" (E, 21-23). Men who are not "barren Angels...


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