Vane, a mystery writer, initially meets Lord Peter Wimsey when she is on trial for poisoning her lover (Strong Poison) — he falls in love with her and proposes marriage but she refuses to begin a relationship with him, traumatised as she is by her dead lover's treatment of her and her recent ordeal. In Have His Carcase she collaborates with Wimsey to solve a murder but still finds Wimsey to be overbearing and superficial. She eventually returns his love (Gaudy Night) and marries him (Busman's Honeymoon).
Harriet Vane is the daughter of a country doctor. She takes a First in English at the fictional Shrewsbury College, Oxford (the location of which is given as the Balliol College Sports Grounds, now partly occupied by a residential annexe, on Holywell Street). Her parents both die while she is quite young and she is left to make her own fortune at the age of twenty-three. She has some success as a writer of detective stories, living and socialising with other artists in Bloomsbury. In time she falls for Philip Boyes, a more literary writer (but with fewer sales) who professes not to believe in marriage, and she agrees to live with him without marrying. After a year of this arrangement, Boyes believes that she truly loves him and proposes marriage. Angered by his hypocrisy and aghast at being offered marriage as "a bad-conduct prize", Harriet breaks off the relationship.
Boyes dies soon afterwards of arsenic poisoning — the method Harriet had researched for her new book. She is arrested and tried for murdering Boyes. Wimsey comes to her rescue by proving who really poisoned Boyes.
After Harriet is acquitted, she remains quite notorious. Sales of her books skyrocket. Wimsey continues to pursue her romantically, but Harriet repeatedly declines marriage on the principle that gratitude is not a good basis for marriage. She decides to take a walking tour to relax, during which she stumbles over a corpse on a beach, adding to her notoriety. The press is naturally interested; Wimsey hastens to the scene, after receiving a tip from a journalist friend, to help shield Harriet from suspicion. The two investigate the death (when they are not romantically sparring) and unmask the murderer.
A few years later, in 1935, Harriet returns to Oxford for a reunion (or Gaudy) and is asked to investigate some strange occurrences at her old college. She protests that she is not a sleuth, and recommends that the college hire professional detectives. However, failing to reach either Miss Climpson, at the female detective agency set up by Wimsey, or Wimsey himself, she agrees to assist the college. Her cover is research into Sheridan Le Fanu, an Anglo-Irish writer of Gothic tales and mystery novels of the 19th century. (In Thrones, Dominations, the Author's Note states that Vane published a monograph on Sheridan Le Fanu in 1946.) After months of data gathering but with no resolution in sight, Harriet turns once again to Wimsey for help. By the end of the book the villain has been unmasked and Harriet has finally accepted Wimsey's proposal.
The press is delighted to have a woman once accused of murder engaged to a duke's son, and happily publicises the fact. Wimsey and Vane have a small wedding in Oxford with no notice to the press, and escape to their new country residence, Talboys, a Tudor farmhouse in North Hertfordshire which Harriet had admired as a child and which Peter had given her as a wedding present. The body of the former owner is discovered in the cellar, leading them to investigate.
The first of their children is born in the story "The Haunted Policeman".
By the time of the short story "Talboys", they have three sons: Bredon Delagardie Peter Wimsey (born in October 1936), Roger Wimsey (born 1938), and Paul Wimsey (born 1940). Chronologically between the two are "The Wimsey Papers", a series of epistolary articles written at the beginning of World War II, which Sayers wrote for The Spectator. Jill Paton Walsh referenced "The Wimsey Papers" in writing A Presumption of Death, set at the beginning of the Second World War, in which Harriet takes a leading role. Sayers told friends orally that Harriet and Peter Wimsey were to have five children in all, though she did not disclose the names and sexes of the two youngest children.
Sayers consciously modelled Vane on herself, although perhaps not as closely as her fans (and even friends) sometimes thought. Some view Vane as a stand-in for the author, although Vane has many more faults than most such characters.
Sayers was among the first generation of women to receive an Oxford education, ending with a first-class honours in 1915 and graduating in 1920 as an MA. She gave Harriet Vane, too, an Oxford education. Vane's relationship with Boyes has many similarities with Sayers' love affair (1921–1922) with the author John Cournos (1881–1966), a Russian-born American Jew.
Biographers note that Sayers' later relationship with Bill White and her marriage to the fellow writer Oswald Atherton "Mac" Fleming provide grist for Vane's struggle to balance love (and perhaps marriage to Wimsey) and her work. After Sayers' affairs with Cournos and White were revealed, the comparisons between Sayers and Vane became more emphatic. (Neither of these affairs was publicly known during Sayers' lifetime.)
McGregor and Lewis suggest that some of Vane's and Wimsey's observations about mystery in story versus real life — though in the context of a mystery story — reflect Sayers' sense of fun and ability to laugh with her characters.
- Reynolds, Barbara. (1997) Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul, Macmillan, ISBN 0-312-15353-8, p. 340.
Books by Dorothy L. Sayers
- Strong Poison (1930)
- Have His Carcase (1932)
- Gaudy Night (1936)
- Busman's Honeymoon (1937) (As Lady Peter Wimsey)
- In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939) (editions published after 1942 usually add Talboys, the last story Sayers wrote with Lord and Lady Peter Wimsey)
Books by Jill Paton Walsh
- Thrones, Dominations (1998) by Dorothy L. Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh
- A Presumption of Death (2002) by Jill Paton Walsh
- The Attenbury Emeralds (2010) by Jill Paton Walsh
Portrayal in film, TV or theatre
Harriet Vane was portrayed by Harriet Walter in the 1987 BBC television adaptations of Strong Poison, Have his Carcase and Gaudy Night. Harriet Vane (Lady Peter Wimsey) was portrayed by Emily Richard in the 1988 stage adaptation of Busman's Honeymoon at The Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.