Dorothy Sayers II
Bill Long 7/10/08
Ipecacuanha and Clouds of Witness (1926)
As I said in the previous essay, my reason for "discovering" Dorothy Sayers' detective stories is because a friend said that a word I missed in the National Spelling Bee, ipecacuanha, appeared in Cloud of Witness. While taking a break from my consulting duties in the Midwest I have been reading the book and today I was rewarded with the word. The word appeared in a way that is so humorous, from the perspective of spelling, that I simply had to tell you about it. First, however, a word about the story.
It opens with Lord Peter Wimsey relaxing in Corsica, watching the people of the land of the vendetta, as Sayers characterizes it, up close. Soon, however, he and his valet return to Paris, where he reads a notice in the London papers that his brother, a Lord Denver, has been charged with the murder of a certain Denis Cathcart, engaged to be married to Wimsey's sister Mary. Thus, he will be brought back to England to investigate something that is not only right "up his alley," but which also hits at the heart of his family. For all the family stuff, however, Lord Peter doesn't seem to be overly awash in personal emotions. The crime and its investigation are typical of the British genre of detective stories--an upper-class cast of characters, in an apparently isolated rurual estate, with some shadowy figures entering in here and there, giving the reader about a dozen possible suspects before the brilliant and somewhat quirky Lord Wimsey finds some clues and identifies the culprit. I won't tell you about this, lest you don't run out immediately and buy the book.
The Appearance of Ipecacuahna
Long about the middle of the book (chapter 6) Wimsey is met in his Piccadilly flat in London by investigator Mr. Parker. Parker had just returned from Paris, where he had inspected the room of the murdered man, Cathcart, and wanted to related to Wimsey the events of that trip. Wimsey then told him of some events in Riddlesdale (the scene of the crime) in the meantime. Three people, a Dr. Thorpe, Wimsey's sister Mary and Wimsey's mother were engaged in a heated discussion. The subject turned to Mary's medications after the murder of her fiance. Here I quote:
"So away they all trailed to the bathroom, and there, sittin' up quietly on the bathroom shelf among both the bath salts and the Elliman's embrocation and the Kruschen feelings and the toothbrushes and things, was the family bottle of ipecacuanha--three quarters empty! Mother said--well, I told you what she said...," p. 97.
Actually, one of the reasons for reading this kind of story is that you learn lots of other words than simply ipepcacuanha. For example, here is a website describing "Elliman's Universal Embrocation." Though James Elliman Sr. died in 1924 (just two years before Clouds of Witness was written), the company continued to make the embrocation until 1961, when it was taken over by Horlicks. Derived from two Greek words meaning "to wet thoroughly," an embrocation is a "liquid used for bathing or moistening any diseased part; now usually restricted to those applied by rubbing; a linament." According to the online picture of the unguent, it
"relieves pain arising from Rheumatism, Fibrositis, Lumbago, Sciatica, Sprains and Strains, Bruises, Stiffness, Cramp and Chillblains."
Great. But then, what does "Kruschen feelings" mean? Well, the OED has an entry "Kruschen salts," for a "proprietary aperient" (i.e., it opens the bowels), and the first attestation of this phrase was in 1925. Also in 1925 was the appearance of the phrase "that Kruschen feeling" to mean a feeling of vigorous health. "The happy spring when...we are full of that Kruschen feeling." But in Dorothy Sayers' usage in 1926, the "Kruschen feelings" appears to be something synonymous with "Kruschen salts." Maybe they stood for the same thing.
Returning with Laughter to Ipecacuanha
Recalling that I missed ipecacuanha in the spelling bee, we turn to the next line--hilarious in the context. Wimsey has just told Parker about the contents of the medicine cabinet, including the 1/4 full bottle of ipecacuanha. Then, Wimsey says:
"By the way, how do you spell ipecacuanha?"
Mr. Parker spelt it.
"Damn you!" said Lord Peter. "I did think I'd stumped you that time. I believe you went and looked it up beforehand. No decent-minded person would know how to spell ipecacuanha out of his own head...," p. 97.
My point exactly. No "decent-minded" person should have to spell ipecacuanha. Maybe that is why I still haven't won the National Spelling Bee. My former secretary at the law school asked me which word(s) I missed when I returned home a few weeks ago. When I solemnly told her that I missed ipecacuanha, she looked at me and said, with great indignation, "That isn't fair!!" No wonder I liked her more than any other secretary at the school...
Well, if decent-minded person can't be expected to spell ipecacuanha, what is left for me? Maybe I could become a detective.... But, tell me honestly, would you now miss this word in a future spelling bee?
I will "finish" my consideration of Sayers' work with one more essay on some words she uses.