Saturday, February 25, 2006

Never Content to Leave Well Enough Alone

Never Content to Leave Well Enough Alone

I'm reading (again) Dorothy Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon. Sayers always allows Lord Peter to quote a tremendous amount of poetry and literature. And probably more than I know since I don't catch all the references. It's easy enough to realize what she's doing when she throws in a phrase in Latin or antiquated French (untranslatable on Babelfish).

My favorite reference was in Unnatural Death.

"But I never know when I am not spied upon," she said. "It is sheer spite, you know. Considering how my husband has behaved to me, I think it is monstrous - don't you?"
Her guest agreed that Mr. Forrest must be a monster, jesuitically, however, reserving the opinion that the monster might be a fabulous one.
A throwaway reference to Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland:
"It didn't hurt him" the Unicorn said carelessly, and he was going on, when his eye happened to fall upon Alice: he turned round instantly, and stood for some time looking at her with an air of the deepest disgust

"What--is--this?" he said at last.

"This is a child!" Haigha replied eagerly, coming in front of Alice to introduce her,.. "We only found it to-day. It's as large as life, and twice as natural!"

"I always thought they were fabulous monsters!" said the Unicorn. "Is it alive?"...

Alice could not help her lips curling up into a smile as she began: "Do you know, I always, thought Unicorns were fabulous monsters, too! I never saw one alive before!"

"Well, now that we have seen each other: said The Unicorn,"if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you. Is that a bargain?
So a fabulous monster, is just a run of the mill human. Oh frabjous day!!

In Busman's Honeymoon, the title is a double play on words. Lord and Lady Peter have come to their new country home expecting to spend a pleasant honeymoon, but find the house shut up, with the owner clearly away. Later he is found murdered in the cellar. In one scene, Lord Peter and the constable entertain themselves while gathering evidence by working quotes into their conversation for the other to identify. Harriet, newly Lady Peter, joins in:

"That's what I was thinking," said Harriet. "A busman's honeymoon. Butchered to make a--"
"Lord Byron," cried Mr. Kirk, a little too promptly. "Butchered to make a busman's - no that doesn't seem right somehow."
"Try Roman," said Peter.

So what is a Busman's honeymoon? The real phrase is "busman's holiday" which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as, "NOUN: Informal A vacation during which one engages in activity that is similar to one's usual work." Word-Detective gives the common explaination of the phrase origen.

It is said that the drivers of horse-drawn omnibuses in London in the 19th century were so solicitous of their horses' well-being that the drivers would often spend their days off surreptitiously riding as passengers on their own trolleys to make sure that the substitute driver was treating their horses well. This practice was so widespread, it is said, that "busman's holiday" came to mean, as you say, "doing on your day off the same thing you do all week at work," with the added connotation that you are doing it out of the goodness of your heart.
He then goes on to say that most likely that story is an urban legend. The real word was "buzman's holiday."
Now the question is, "When is a pickpocket's holiday? When is he off-duty, not cruising for a score?" Simply put, never. Pickpockets are always working to some extent, and I think that's the point of "buzman's holiday." I think the phrase probably arose as a sardonic comment on the voracity of criminals, and gradually spread as a metaphor for anyone who seemed unable to "put down his tools." Only when the phrase reached the stratum of polite society where "buzmen" were unknown did the heart-warming story of "busmen" arise from an attempt to explain the origins of the phrase.

There is a second level, in the quote Harriet modifies,and Kirk picks up on.

"He heard it, but he heeded not . his eyes
Were with his heart, and that was far away;
He reck.d not of the life he lost, nor prize,
But where his rude hut by the Danube lay,
There were his young barbarians all at play,
There was their Dacian mother . he, their sire,
Butchered to make a Roman holiday."

Lord Byron: Childe Harold
Lord Byron is depicting Gladiators, who are killed to give the Roman masses something to do. Harriet is concerned that the discovery of a corpse in the basement will make Peter turn his honeymoon into a working vacation, hence, busman's holiday. These two phrases combined become the title, "Busman's Honeymoon."