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Third-Person Present Tense

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For as long as she can remember, Lady Winifred Wimsey has thought of herself in the third person. She knows this is the sort of affectation to which the more dissipated and emotional members of the Wimsey family are prone -- these adjectives being applied to the family by her mother, Helen, Duchess of Denver, in the manner of an expletive -- so she is careful to hide the unseemly trait from other people. But the trouble, in Winifred’s opinion, is that her life is full of incidents that lend themselves to third-person narration. One could hardly help it, she consoles herself, and continues on with the habit.

She can’t quite decide when it began. She knows it had fully developed by the time she began at Surbiton School in 1927, and she has a hunch it might have originated during the period of her father’s murder trial in the autumn of 1923. Those days are a bit blurry, a four-year-old’s kaleidoscopic memory of hurried footsteps and the housemaids shrieking, Gherkins’ ghoulish predictions that their father would die in gaol, and Nanny threatening to box his ears for saying such things.

Winifred remembers Gherkins carrying newspapers up to the nursery and reading aloud the accounts of their father’s trial at the breakfast table. Nanny clucks with disapproval but listens as avidly as Winifred. At nine years old, Viscount St. George is audacious and generally gets what he wants. Nanny threatens him with corporal punishment on a daily basis, but Winifred cannot remember her following through on the threats. It is the duchess who exacts justice on her children, usually accompanied by a terse dressing-down for Nanny, whom Helen considers to be uncommonly soft with the children. Helen is often heard to comment that she only keeps Nanny because she had been with the family for too many years to let her go now, but if Helen had her way the children would have a much less tolerant woman in the nursery.

Besides the third-person thingummy, Winifred sometimes wonders if she may have inherited her grandmother’s love of run-on sentences and thoughts that go nowhere only to end with a little disconsolate splash in a mess of parenthetical commentary and misspoken quotations. Winifred doesn’t personally mind the dowager duchess’s conversational habits, but she feels, uncomfortably, that Helen has, for once, justice on her side when she disparages her mother-in-law’s roundabout rhetoric. Winifred knows she has this rhetorical style in spades, but the trouble is that she didn’t inherit the charm and piquancy that make conversations with the dowager duchess an adventure rather than a chore. Winifred is deathly afraid that people may find it a chore to speak with her, so she doesn’t say much at all most of the time. Helen views this as a charming habit for a well-bred girl and encourages Winifred to be quiet whenever possible.

In any case, Winifred supposes it must have been those newspaper accounts that made her start thinking in the third person to begin with. Hearing Gherkins intone, “A verdict of murder was returned against the Duke of Denver” sends a shiver up Winifred’s spine and leaves a deep impression on her. “The Duchess of Denver hastened to town yesterday and was present at the inquest,” Gherkins reads, and Winifred shoves toast around her plate and thinks dreamily, “Lady Winifred had marmalade for breakfast this morning.” The habit is formed.

If it begins when her father was charged with murder, then it is reinforced when her uncle falls in love with a novelist. Winifred is now old enough to read the papers on her own and she consumes with avid interest the accounts of Philip Boyes’ gruesome death. She is too young and sheltered at the age of eleven to understand why Miss Vane might first occupy lodgings with a man only to refuse to make an honest woman of herself when Mr. Boyes offers her his hand, but the newspaper coverage does more to educate Winifred than five years of formal education at a girls’ school had done. Salcombe Hardy recounts Harriet Vane’s trial in lurid detail. “The judge noted,” writes Hardy, “that when Miss Vane was told Mr. Boyes had died of arsenic poisoning, Miss Vane appeared very much surprised.” Winifred thinks absently, “When Lady Winifred was told of her marks for the past term, she appeared very much surprised.” The habit is firmly established by now.

She is fourteen when it occurs to her that she might read Harriet Vane’s novels for herself. She appeals to Gherkins, now nineteen and sporting a Christ Church tie, who gives her a copy of Harriet’s latest release for Christmas that year. He also delivers a warning to not let their mother catch her with the novel. Winifred races through the book during her holidays at Denver, drawing out the volume at night and reading by light of an electric torch after she’s supposed to be asleep. She takes her brother’s warning to heart, knowing that if Helen catches her she’ll likely to be banned from reading any novels at all, even Alice. Helen is always comprehensive in her punishments.

Harriet Vane’s novels give new life to the narration in her mind. “Lady Winifred secretly enjoys reading mystery stories,” Winifred notes to herself. She likes the way Harriet’s characters dance and twist between each other as the plot slowly unwinds, the way each alibi tightens and loosens throughout the stories. At the age of fourteen she also whole-heartedly appreciates the requisite romance in the stories, only seeing years later that Harriet’s stock characters might have lacked a certain dimension in her early work. When Winifred is seventeen, Death ‘twixt Wind and Water makes her head spin. She is just shrewd enough to see that this book makes her Uncle Peter’s head spin, too, though in a rather different way. Winifred likes the way Uncle Peter and her new Aunt Harriet look at each other, but it embarrasses her to be privy to their fleeting, secret acknowledgement of affection. “Lady Winifred would prefer to wait a few years before pursuing any emotional attachment of her own,” she murmurs.

She is twenty when she begins writing herself. When the war begins she settles in at Denver with the duke and duchess, where Helen is content to spend her mornings rolling bandages at the local vicarage and attending subdued dinner parties at the homes of her friends in the county. Winifred attends a few dinner parties and then usually begs off, sometimes claiming a headache, sometimes motoring up to London in the afternoons and staying the night. She has the key to Gherkins’ Bloomsbury flat and she feels a compulsion to visit now and then while he’s away in the war. “Lady Winifred breathes life into her brother’s home, keeping the fires burning while he defends Britain,” she thinks, and suddenly laughs at her grandiose words.

But her laughter gives her an idea, and there in Gherkins’ sitting room, she sits down at his desk and finds a pencil and pad of blotting paper. She remembers soaking up Salcombe Hardy’s lurid narrative style. She remembers nights spent under the covers reading Aunt Harriet’s novels down at Denver. She remembers Uncle Peter’s love of Dickens and Carroll and Donne. And tentatively, a little nervously, she begins to write. Hours later, the windows are dark and a distant wailing siren startles her out of her reverie. She lays down the pencil and stares at the sheets of paper in front of her. “Lady Winifred wrote her first novel when she was twenty years old,” she murmurs.

She is twenty-six when she gets up the nerve to show one of her manuscripts to Aunt Harriet. She has her own London flat now, having vacated Gherkins’ when he came home from war the previous year, torn and scarred but blessedly alive. She hugs Gherkins rather more often now than she used to, though she still doesn’t talk much. These days most of her words come tumbling out of her onto paper, racing through her mind before they jump and dance from typewriter keys and in scribbled pencil markings on whatever paper is handy. By all appearances, Winifred has matured into a shy, well-behaved lady of society. Under the façade, her thoughts are racing. “At long last, Lady Winifred is considering publishing her work,” she notes.

Winifred has called at Audley Square, where she finds Uncle Peter and Aunt Harriet presiding over a rather noisy teatime in the library. Winifred’s cousins are a rambunctious lot, and Winifred is always a little surprised that these children are allowed to make rather more noise in the presence of their parents than she would ever have been allowed. She thinks it’s a much better policy than Helen’s, but old habits die hard and she still makes barely any noise at all. Bredon and Roger are at Eton, but Paul and the girls are cavorting around the room when the footman shows Winifred into the room. Uncle Peter looks up in surprise and rises out of his chair. Winifred has become more and more comfortable with Uncle Peter and Aunt Harriet with every year, but she still feels awkward intruding upon their peaceful domesticity. She accepts tea and makes grave small talk until she finally screws up her courage and asks Aunt Harriet if she might show her a piece of writing.

Aunt Harriet is polite at first and then encouraging. She tells Winifred very frankly that she can’t help but give an honest opinion, so she hopes she won’t hurt Winifred’s feelings. Winifred sees Uncle Peter looking rather curiously at Aunt Harriet, and looks away before she sees more than they meant to share. But she tells Aunt Harriet to please be honest, and thinks, “Lady Winifred knows that criticism is the only path to improvement.”

Winifred is twenty-eight when her first novel is published. She eschews most of the literary parties her agent insists she should attend. She goes to a few with Aunt Harriet, just as she always attends a few of her mother’s dinner parties every season, before she quietly and firmly declines to leave her flat for even one more event. “Lady Winifred much prefers her own company,” she says, as she rummages in her desk for a fresh typewriter ribbon. Besides, she has thoughts running through her head that are clamoring to come out through the keys onto a blank sheet of paper.