Simanaitis Says

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BIOGRAPHIES, LITERALLY “PICTURES OF LIFE,” are assumed to be truthful narratives. Unless, of course, they’re written by or for scoundrels. Or written with a firmly placed tongue in cheek. 

I personally have had enough of the scoundrels. See, for example, Bill Barr’s recent One Damn Thing After Another.

But I relish the faux and fun variety. Two I’ve recently unearthed in my collection are The Wimsey Family and What a Life!: An Autobiography. Here are tidbits gleaned from these delightful examples of the genre. 

The Real Deal. We often wonder about the backstory of our literary familiars. What did Penelope Ashe do before Naked Came The Stranger? (It was probably steamy, but artfully journalistic.) How were Scrooge and Marley as business partners? (Probably ruthless.) What did Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov do before his Crime and Punishment? (Likely bored anyone within earshot.)

The Wimsey Family: I Hold By My Whimsey, by C.W. Scott-Giles, Fitzalan Pursuivant of Arms Extraordinary, Harper & Row, 1977.

This book is described as “a Fragmentary History compiled from correspondences with Dorothy L. Sayers.” It opens with “So little is known of the family of Wimsey that had it not been for the writings of Miss Dorothy L. Sayers one might think that it never existed.” 

Indeed, had it not been for the chronicles of Dr. John H. Watson (and help of his literary 10-percenter Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), the same could be said for the Holmes family. 

Family Armorial Bearings. Also, it’s fortunate that Miss Sayers “had a long and continuing correspondence with C. W. Scott-Giles, a man extremely knowledgable in heraldry.” 

To wit, and as shown on the book’s cover, “Arms: Sable, three mice courant argent. Crest: A domestic cat couched as to spring, proper. Supporters: Two Saracens armed proper. Motto: I HOLD BY MY WHIMSY; sometimes AS MY WHIMSY TAKES ME.”

Scott-Giles observes cogently, “The tomb of Gerald, 5th Baron Wimsey (d. 1370) shows the effigy of a cat supporting the feet of the deceased, and by the time of the War of the Roses the animal is well established as the family crest, as is shown by the popular saying, When the Catt sits on a Bear’s shoulder/Craft doth make treason bolder.”

“On the effigy of his tomb,” Scott-Giles continues, “the mice appear on the shield and surcoat, and also on the decoration of the sword belt. His head rests on his great helm mounted with the crest of a couchant cat, while there is a recumbent cat at his feet.” 

All in all, my pal πwacket likes this entire armorial commentary.

Other ancestors of Lord Peter Wimsey include Lord Mortimer Wimsey, the Hermit of the Wash; Viscount St. George, son of the tenth Duke of Denver, and his ‘nine-day-wonder’ marriage in 1751; and Roger de Guimsey who followed Duke William in his invasion of England in 1066.”

Clearly the cast of characters for a fascinating family biography.

Veritas in Advertising. Anyone assembling an autobiography is confronted with the challenge of finding appropriate images of a life. What a Life! handles this deftly.

“One day in 1911,” this book’s flyleaf reads, “two Edwardian gentlemen sat down with scissors and paste and created a masterpiece.” My kind of writers.

“As adventures are to the adventurous,” the Preface reads, “so is romance to the romantic. One man’s searching the pages of Whiteley’s General Catalogue will find only facts and prices; another will find what we think we have found—a deeply-moving human drama.” 

What a Life! An Autobiography, by E.V.L. & G.M., illustrated by Whiteleys, first published by Methuen, 1911; later, William Collins Sons, 1987. 

Whiteley’s, by the way, is William Whiteley Limited, which opened in 1911 as one of London’s first department stores. Mr. Whiteley had begun as a draper in 1863. Think of the company’s 1911 catalogue as the Sears “Consumers’ Bible” of Britain. 

Childhood. Our subject was evidently born with a golden spoon in his mouth (though Whiteley’s cutlery offerings are not part of the narrative).

In any event, his childhood was a happy one.

The Tender Passion. Our subject writes, “It is idle to deny that I was a handsome man. Something also of a dandy, my appeal to women must have been terrific.” 

Other life’s adventures include School Days, London in the Old Days, and The Stolen Diamonds. All, of course, with appropriate illustration. As noted, what a life! ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022 

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