Agatha Christie's Cat Among the Pigeons is set in girl’s English boarding school. Poirot is invited by the cofounder and headmistress Miss Bulstrode to bestow an award and advise her in choosing a successor.
It turned out that I was not giving the screen my whole attention, indeed I was puttering about, when from the kitchen I heard Miss Bulstrode’s voice: “Our guest of honor and a person of international renown.”
That voice. It struck my ear with all the import of a memory of something that was once important to me. I went in to see who it was, but there was no instant recognition from the image of Miss Bulstrode. She continued speaking, and my mind was searching, searching to place this voice that . . . .
OMG. It was Harriet Vane from the Edward Petherbridge Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery series of the late eighties. I had not thought about her, or them, in twenty years, but I had loved that series and the novels. Can you be jealous of a tv representation of a fictional character? I was.
Harriet Vane had everything. She was an independent woman who was a published writer, of mystery stories. She is arrested for poisoning her lover when Lord Peter Wimsey comes into her life. Their banter was catnip for the literary set, which I was hoping to join. And Vane, as played by Harriet Walter, was not beautiful. She was smart and interesting and independent (did I already mention that?). I found her a wonderful role model as I was starting out on my own quest to be a writer with an independent lifestyle. I barely noticed the actress, Harriet Walter, except for the confusion about them both being Harriets; I was just interested in the character.
I was so surprised by this Poirot appearance of Harriet Vane on my tv, that when I realized that Harriet Walter was still appearing a mere 60 blocks south of my apartment in the Broadway play Mary Stuart, off I went to pay homage.
The play is a reworking of Friedrich Schiller’s fictionalized meeting between Queen Elizabeth 1 and her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s a thrilling production, but it’s not for everyone. The first act particularly is extremely talky, but never has England’s history and its religious wars come so alive and been so easy to follow. Both leads were compelling, but I was there for Harriet Walter, Queen Elizabeth. She brought that woman to life as effortlessly as she had created Harriet Vane.
Harriet Vane/Harriet Walter was such a lovely memory to revisit. I have ordered the Strong Poison/ Have His Carcass/Gaudy Night DVDs through the pbs website to enjoy as a midsummer treat. Petherbridge's Wimsey is beautifully limned, a great piece of casting filled out by an authentic sensibility for this Lord who's an ass, but not really. I can’t wait to work my way through them, and see again the most literary of all marriage proposals in Gaudy Night:
As I said, Harriet Vane had it all.