You find all kinds of curiosities inside old books, and my favourite finds tend to be postcards and newspaper cuttings. I collect old editions of crime novels, and in a first edition of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, which Dad gave me about a decade ago, I found the following clipping.
The clipping has been helpfully labelled. It came from the personal column of The Times on 17 December 1976, nineteen years after Sayers’ death. I’m not sure how long Dr Barbara Reynolds went on putting such notices in The Times. Maybe she still does (Barbara Reynolds is distinguished scholar of Italian who has published extensively on Sayers, her god-mother, and who recently turned 100).
There is something oddly touching about thinking of Sayers –a formidable, pompous, and overbearing figure in my head at least – inspiring such love and humanity. But the really interesting thing is that a general reader spotted the notice and saw fit to catalogue and preserve it between the leaves of a beloved first addition.
Although Sayers’ creations, Lord Peter Wimsey and his sparring partner/wife Harriet Vane, were hugely popular figures in their day, I don’t picture Sayers inspiring the kind of cult of adoration that Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh cultivated.
There are a couple of reasons for my ignorance here: mostly, it’s down to accepting at face value the judgments of (inevitably conservative, usually gay male) scholars of the golden age – particularly of Christie. They obviously had invested interests in critiquing Sayers as middlebrow, pretentious, semi-intellectual, a snob, a foolish woman who had a child out of wedlock, and a disrespectful bumbler, incapable of wittling her narratives to fit the neat demands of detective fiction, and equally unable to write satisfactory ‘proper’ novels. Where Christie’s alter ego is a friendly eccentric crime writer called Ariadne Oliver, they felt, Sayers’ sharp and intimidatingly intellectual feminist self-portrait, Harriet Vane, suggests a nastier mind. Et cetera, et cetera.
These misogynistic, inaccurate, and rather blinkered readings of Sayers leave much to be desired. I renounce them utterly. As, among other things, a genre historian, I find Sayers fascinating as an example of different ways the ‘golden age’ formula could be stretched, but also of animating social concerns and aspirations at the time.
We miss a lot when we dismiss (or commiserate) Sayers as someone who tried and failed to rehabilitate the populist crime novel. For one thing, she wrote reams and reams of essays – of which, the introduction to Great Tales of Detection, Mystery, and Horror (1928) is the best-known* – defending the work of Christie, SS Van Dine, and others, with its ‘Aristotelean’ formal perfection. For another, she continued to act as president of the Detection Club for two decades after her last Wimsey book, until her death in 1957. As the most robust and assertive founder, she embodied the spirit of joyful celebration of a form many dismissed as trashy.
Still, Sayers regarded her detective fiction to be as inappropriate for literary analysis as her theology. In the 1930s, she advised an eager undergraduate that he would be unlikely to make a study of books like hers for at least a century, and never in Oxbridge, where theses ‘are made of sterner stuff.’ The Oxford she inhabited, of course, was determinedly short-sighted and paranoid – so, understandably, studying popular entertainments would not be on foreseeable cards. I don’t think this translates as generic cynicism; just an acknowledgement that her books did different things. I don’t think she saw them as useless (or even as ‘mere’ entertainment).
What we miss when we take Sayers too earnestly, as a detective fiction critic and crafter, is the books’ recourse to high fantasy. Writing the first Wimsey continuation novel, Thrones, Dominations (1998), Jill Paton Walsh complained that Sayers actually didn’t understand aristocrats at all and ‘got a lot of the details wrong – frustratingly for me.’ I think that the remark and the approach it signifies miss a level of deliberate unreality and also the point of Wimsey altogether. He was popular in his time for the same reason he is unpopular now. Because he represented a kind of universal wish fulfilment, and so did his world. A highly mannered and self-consciously absurd vision of the high life. In this it’s more honest than the nostalgic, disingenuously benevolent, but technically correct-slash-showing-off-its-technical-correctness world of Downton Abbey.** The sleek Harriet Vane, most unlike Sayers who took pride in saying, ‘Contrary to popular opinion, I am not a man,’ is another illustration of high, deliberate, self-conscious comedy fantasy.
These aspects appealed to Sayers’ readers before she wound up the Wimsey series in 1937. (As various published tit-bits and partial manuscripts indicate, Sayers didn’t give up her genre; times changed. There was a war, you know). These same aspects appeal to us as scholars/historians/enthusiasts/researchers. They tell us not about the little details of life, but about the aspirations and games people played with class and society.
* Partially reprinted in Robin W. Winks, Detective Fiction: A Selection of Critical Essays (Yale, 1980) and many later anthologies as “An Omnibus of Crime”
** Plastic water bottles aside