A friend awhile back sent me a synopsis of a mystery she was writing. Her heroine was a stunningly beautiful woman. I thought of the various male protagonists in mystery series I had read–Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Hieronymus Bosch, Dave Robicheaux. While women are often attracted to these men, I don’t remember any of them being described as jawdroppingly handsome. Their sexual power comes from something other than, or in addition to, their looks.
I came around to thinking of Dorothy Sayers’s depiction of Harriet Vane in the Lord Peter Wimsey books. There had been several Wimsey books before Vane is introduced (she is a murder defendant), and while Lord Peter falls in love with her, she is not described as stunningly beautiful. Instead she is the kind of woman men might debate about—is she beautiful? A few might find her intensely attractive; most would not. But Lord Peter does.
At first this seems like a disappointment; how could Lord Peter’s obsession not be absolutely stunning, someone every man desires? But that she is not makes her more intriguing. Harriet is her own mystery to be figured out. Why do some find her beautiful and others do not? Even if not a beauty to all, she must be physically arresting for so many to notice, but that Lord Peter is attracted to her must mean that she has attributes beyond the mere physical that makes her breathtaking to him.
Harriet is a more interesting character because she is not mere eye candy. She will not turn every head in the hotel lobby or the crowded barroom, but those who really look at her with knowledge of who she is in all her aspects see that her physical attractions, of which there are many, combine in unforeseen ways with her daring, literateness, intelligence, and wit to have produced a stunningly beautiful woman. But only to the man who can see the whole woman. And after she makes love with the man who has already regarded her as beautiful, the man sees her even as more beautiful than before.
When one realizes that her beauty is not just dependent on a physicality that will pass but depends on all the aspects of her that will continue to change and grow and deepen, the reader sees that her beauty will be a continuing surprise, and that Lord Peter Wimsey will see her as more beautiful every day. This is a reason to love for a lifetime, and we readers have no doubt that he will.
(I learned an important lesson from one of the Dorothy Sayers’s book. As Wimsey is dressing for the evening, his manservant Bunter tells him never to tie a bowtie perfectly. In response to Lord Peter’s puzzled reply, Bunter tells him that people should realize that wearer tied it and that the bowtie was not a clip on. I have found it easy to comply with this wisdom.)