It is that time of the week again where the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ meet, to share their thoughts on old favourites or bêtes noires and this month’s theme is children in crime, be they innocent bystanders, comical assistants or the culprit the detective has been looking for. If you have a post which fits this theme add it to the comments section below and I’ll add you to this week’s list.
Here is a link to the previous weeks’ posts for the Children in Crime Theme:
And here are the links for this week:
Bev Hankins at My Reader’s Block: TNB – Children in Crime: Just a Girl Detective
Helen Szamuely at Your Freedom and Ours: Tuesday Night Bloggers: Children as Witnesses and as Victims
Moira at Clothes in Books: Children in Crime: A Cheating Entry
This week I decided to revisit Dorothy L. Sayers’ short story, ‘Talboys,’ (1942) where Lord Peter Wimsey has to prove his son’s innocence of theft. The story begins with Bredon, Wimsey’s eldest son, confessing to his parents (well more to his father, though his mother is in earshot) that he has taken two peaches from Mr Puffett’s garden. In this incident, the various viewpoints of characters are revealed when it comes to disciplining children, with the Wimsey’s unwanted house guest, Miss Quirk, loudly taking against their use of caning. This incident seems to blow over until the following day when Mr Puffett reveals that all of his peaches except one has been removed from his tree and he is interested in whether anyone from Wimsey’s house hold may know something about it. Bredon is firmly put into the spotlight as culprit, a position reinforced by the snitching practices of Miss Quirk. Bredon’s father is therefore called into investigate and to prove his son’s innocent. Though it seems some are not happy to withhold from interfering and father and son soon team up to retaliate…
Lord Peter Wimsey as a Parent
Lord Peter Wimsey is interesting to look at in terms of his parenting, as at the beginning of the book he doesn’t seem to take them too seriously, as when Bredon admits to his thieving, he is not bothered about the rights and wrongs of the matter, (that is Harriet’s domain,) but is more concerned that his son is turning into a ‘prig,’ due to confessing. Moreover, when he does go to cane Bredon, the way it is described, e.g. over the top, suggests that the event is not taken in the serious manner you would expect: ‘Go up into my bedroom and prepare for execution’ and any solemnity there is, is part of the “gentlemen” ethos Peter tries to foster in his sons and that punishment should be taken honourably and with dignity. Though to be honest I think Peter as a father much prefers a playmate role with his children than a disciplinarian one, which is exemplified in story’s finale. Peter as playmate is also indicated when Harriet says to him that ‘if I’d realised the disastrous effect sons would have on your character, I’d never have trusted you with any.’ It is an amusing line because it seems to be back to front, as it is usually expected that the parent has the effect on the child, not the other way round, but I think Wimsey does find an outlet for his impishness through his children. I do wonder though whether if the children were girls, would Wimsey be a different parent? Wimsey’s less grown up side is also revealed when he says to Harriet, ‘absolve me now from all my sins of the future, so that I may enjoy them without remorse,’ as Harriet is placed in the responsible and moral adult position. Part of me does wonder whether Peter finds the adult role of parenting a little chafing, restricting his behaviour in a way it hasn’t been hitherto.
Old vs. New Modes of Disciplining Children
This I feel is the greater theme of the story, as the mystery itself is not the primary focus in my opinion. Within seconds of Peter leaving the room to cane Bredon, Miss Quirk criticises Harriet for allowing this to happen (it is interesting that Miss Quirk does not directly criticise Peter’s actions to his face). Miss Quirk embodies a seemingly more modern way of disciplining children and she is a great believer in children being reasoned with when they are naughty and that they shouldn’t be given boundaries or prohibitions. She also believes that caning has negative psychological effects. Now before we go any further I don’t think children should be physically beaten and I think Quirk has a fair point that caning can be psychologically damaging, though her idea of no boundaries isn’t a particularly sound one. Yet it is the caning approach which comes across as more favourable in the story. Firstly Harriet counters the idea of caning having a negative effect, by suggesting that it depends on how the caning is done and how strong the parent-child bond is. Harriet says that due to Peter and Bredon’s devotion to each other, the caning does not come between them, which is shown when they return from the caning, the ‘chastiser and the chastised… hand in hand.’ Harriet also suggests that ‘Bredon was rather uplifted when he was promoted to the cane; he thinks it dignified and grown-up.’ This idea made me wonder whether caning is incorporated in the “gentlemanly” ethos and world of the house that the Wimsey parents perpetuate. Secondly, Harriet also makes the caning approach appear less unfavourable by emphasising individual difference, disagreeing when Miss Quirk ‘talk[s] about “a” child, as if all children were alike.’ She goes on to say that whilst they cane their elder child because he becomes ‘obstinate’ when reasoned with, they are unlikely to cane their middle child who is more ‘sensitive and easily frightened.’ This way of differentiating can no doubt have holes picked in it, but it at least shows that Harriet is aware of the potential damage caning can do on children.
During the middle of the story modes of disciplining and detective work become intermixed and at one point it seems as though Miss Quirk is intimating that wrong parenting is leading to wrong detecting: ‘Peter Wimsey was refusing to detect in the right place. Miss Quirk would show him.’ Furthermore, Peter’s response to Miss Quirk’s interference in his detective work becomes a parenting matter and his defence of detective work emphasises how it is his right to do the detecting in these circumstances and it does feel like Peter doing the detective work in the family becomes his fatherly right. Peter also gets the last laugh in the story using Miss Quirk’s own parenting ideas against her, just after she has been caught acting hypocritically:
‘I fancy I must have been suffering from in-growing resentment. It’s better to let those impulses have their natural outlet, don’t you agree? Repression is always so dangerous.’
I think Sayers also damages Miss Quirk’s side as it were by making Miss Quirk an unlikeable character personally, such as showing her as snobbish when she thinks it unwise that Bredon mixes with the village boys, fearing ‘contamination.’ It is interesting to speculate what Sayers’ own views on parenting are, especially considering her awkward relationship with her own child. It is easy to assume that whatever Peter and Harriet think, Sayers thinks too.
Sidelight on Harriet
Harriet has a very marginal role in this story, having no large role to play in the “fun” Peter and Bredon have. The most significant moment though in the story where she features is when Sayers gives a window into Harriet’s situation of being a mother and writer. She writes that:
‘Harriet Wimsey, writing for dear life in the sitting-room, kept one eye on her paper and the other on Master Paul Wimsey, who was disembowelling his old stuffed rabbit in the window-seat. Her ears were open for a yell from Roger, whose rough-and-tumble with the puppy on the lawn might at any moment end in disaster. Her consciousness was occupied with her plot, her sub-consciousness with the fact that she was three months behind on her contract.’
It seems evident that Harriet’s career is having to be pigeon holed into a much more chaotic schedule and that there are more demands on her than there are on Peter. The hint of her manuscript being late to the publishers, suggests that family life gets the larger portion of her time. Considering the financial freedom of the couple it is unusual that there is no additional help to look after some or all of the children – help which would give Harriet more time to write. As to why there is no extra help, no reason is given, but the narrative gives readers’ room for speculation.