Second Glance: Dorothy Sayers and the Last Golden Age
This regular feature is devoted to revisiting works that remain powerful, though maybe in need of another look
In 1929, the popular British detective novelist Ronald Knox came up with a “decalogue” of rules codifying the genre in which he worked – a genre that was at the height of its so-called Golden Age. These rules were essentially a pact between reader and writer that allowed the genre to flourish into a knowing game. Many remain sacrosanct: the detective can’t know more than the reader; the reader can’t have access to the criminal’s thoughts; no supernatural agencies can be to blame; the detective must never be guilty of the crime himself (others, like number five – ‘No Chinaman must figure in the story’ – have mysteriously fallen by the wayside). Further, unwritten rules defined the field and the players – a self-contained, upper-class milieu such as a country house, a cruise ship or the Orient Express, peopled with spoiled heiresses, shady foreigners, bumbling policemen, unreliable servants, and unflappable butlers. The pleasure of the game lay in the familiarity of the scenario and the shared knowledge of its limits. However, much like the tongue-in-cheek listing of horror-movie clichés in 1996’s Scream, Knox’s public proclamation of the rules marked the end of the genre’s law-abiding heyday and the start of mutation and (arguable) decline along two main paths, toward either straight-faced violence (the 1940s American ‘hard-boiled’ school), or the reductio ad absurdam of self-parody (embodied in the 1948 invention of the board game Cluedo, played out in a classic country-house murder mystery.)
Out of the scores of writers who conformed and played the game in the years between the wars, Agatha Christie is perhaps the only one who remains a household name, but Dorothy L. Sayers, three years her junior, deserves more credit and a wider readership for stretching the limits of the genre in ways that didn’t interest her peers. She was always supremely conscious of her genre, embracing parody and in-jokes for aficionados of the game, yet she was also deeply aware that characters are not plastic pieces on a cardboard set, and that crimes are not committed for the fun of being solved. For instance, Have His Carcase (1932) milks every possible complication for the sheer joy of the puzzle, until the case seems intractably knotted; when the detective tries to sum up the case, “he put the whole elaborate structure of his theories together, line by line, and like Euclid, wrote at the bottom of it: WHICH IS IMPOSSIBLE.” This novel openly offers the game to the reader, printing the entire text of a crucial code letter found on the body of the corpse and following it with a detailed explanation of how to crack the cipher. Twenty-five pages later the detective gets down to it, and an entire chapter ensues that reads like live commentary on a Sudoku puzzle. The reader is drawn into a solving a crime as though it were an abstraction, but after the high of cracking the code comes the crushing recognition of what the letter really is: a lure to entice a foolish, romantic young man out to a lonely beach to get his throat cut, for no more glamorous crime than that of getting in the way of another man’s inheritance. The complexity of the plot of Have His Carcase serves ultimately to highlight the stark contrast between the elegant game and the sordid reality it masks:
Isn’t that a damned awful, bitter, bloody farce? The old fool who wanted a lover and the young fool who wanted an empire. One throat cut and three people hanged, and 130,000 pounds going begging for the next man who likes to sell his body and soul for it.
Cracking the code and solving the riddle don’t bring fulfillment on their own, even for the most talented detective. Sayers’s most audacious deviation from the rules of the mystery game was her recognition of this fact, and her creation of a genuine love interest for war-damaged aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, in the form of an intelligent, independent writer of detective novels. Harriet Vane – Oxford scholar, spurned lover, accused murderess and wealthy author, is not her creator Dorothy L. Sayers – Oxford scholar, spurned lover, illegitimate mother and wealthy author, but Sayers teases the reader continually with their similarity, as in this instance from 1935’s Gaudy Night:
“What is your second name? The one that begins with a D?”
“Deborah, I’m sorry to say.”
In creating Harriet Vane, who appears in four of the twelve Lord Peter Wimsey novels, Sayers was able to comment from within about the genre and its shortcomings, detailing Harriet’s relationships with her publisher, agent, fans, the press, and the snobbish literary scene. The personal concerns of the self-sufficient writer are expanded in Gaudy Night into a richly detailed examination of women’s education, career opportunities, and marriage prospects in a society not quite recovered from one war and sliding helplessly into the next.
The only daughter of an Oxford schoolteacher, Sayers was at Oxford when the First World War began. Her near-contemporary at Somerville College, Vera Brittain, would later write a devastating account of her very different war experiences; her Testament of Youth, published in 1933 when Sayers’s popularity was at its height, describes how Brittain turned her back on the university to volunteer as a nurse. Brittain lost her fiancé, two close friends and her brother before the war was over, finally returning to her studies to find herself alienated from a society that wanted to forget and have fun, and viewed her as tainted by all she had seen and felt. Sayers, a little older, and an equally gifted writer and scholar, chose to stay up in the cloistered world of Oxford and finished her studies in the middle of the war. Unlike Vera Brittain and the vast majority of the country, Sayers suffered no close personal bereavement, but she nevertheless invented a detective whose talents and neuroses were direct products of the war, and the uncertain recovery of British society from the 1914-18 disaster was one of the obsessions of her books.
Independent-minded and aware of new freedoms and responsibilities as a female university graduate, Sayers wanted and needed to make her own money. She tried teaching (following an unrequited love to France to work in a school there), but hated it, and on her return to England she joined an advertising copywriting firm. In her spare time, she started work on a detective story intended as a contribution to a mass-market series, but which eventually developed a life of its own. Throughout the whole of this uncertain professional period, lasting until the mid-1920s, Sayers’s personal life was tormented by the conflict between her desires and the vestiges of Victorianism. She fell in love with a bohemian novelist, John Cournos, who persuaded her to live with him outside marriage, then infuriated her by proposing marriage after explaining that he had been merely testing her devotion. She left him and fell into a brief affair with a car salesman by whom she quickly became pregnant; she gave birth in secret to a son whom she financially supported for the rest of her life but never lived with nor acknowledged as her own. In 1923, in the midst of this turmoil, she published her first novel, Whose Body? As she was to put it in the opening lines of Have His Carcase:
The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth.
When she meets Lord Peter Wimsey in Strong Poison (1930), Harriet Vane is in the dock for murdering her lover; she’s innocent of the murder, but not of the social crime of living with her lover without marriage. In a situation mirroring Sayers’s own unhappy affair with Cournos, Harriet has rejected her lover (the author of “advanced” novels who moved in bohemian circles brilliantly parodied in Strong Poison) because, after convincing her of his theoretical opposition to marriage, he turned around and proposed. This Harriet (like Sayers) takes as having made a fool of her, and she turns her back on him. Harriet’s lover promptly dies of arsenic poisoning, and Harriet’s purchases of arsenic as research for her latest novel don’t bode well for her defense. Lord Peter, however, is convinced that she’s innocent: “Damn it, she writes detective stories, and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have.” Harriet is an uncompromising personality, whose moral principles are immovable. Furthermore, and rather to Peter’s surprise, she’s singularly unimpressed by his devotion:
“What I mean to say is, when all this is over, I want to marry you, if you can put up with me and all that.”
Harriet Vane, who had been smiling at him, frowned, and an indefinable expression of distaste came into her eyes.
“Oh, are you another of them? That makes forty-seven.”
“Forty-seven what?” asked Wimsey, much taken aback.
“Proposals. They come in by every post. I suppose there are a lot of imbeciles who want to marry anybody who’s at all notorious.”
Lord Peter, however, is notorious enough on his own. The character who became an interwar icon and Sayers’s most enduring creation is an English aristocrat whose family – complete with crest, motto, and crumbling country estate – is part of the fabric of the land and a symbol of six centuries of privilege, ownership and leadership. Yet Peter is the relic of that hierarchical past, not its proud standard-bearer: statistically the English aristocracy suffered more heavily than any other social group in the First World War, given its unfortunate conviction that its sons and heirs should be quite literally leading the charge against the enemy guns. Peter, an inevitable volunteer, manages to survive; his sergeant Mervyn Bunter becomes his loyal valet, their mutual devotion forged in the emotionally pressured but safely masculine world of the trenches. The skills Wimsey gains as a wartime spy set him up well for his postwar occupation as an amateur sleuth, helped by his characteristic nervous restlessness, pathological curiosity and charm, and given a further boost by most people’s willingness to defer to his title. Lord Peter has the advantage that he can appear as a cipher to other people: to ordinary British citizens he symbolizes a security lost; to social climbers (often Americans) he offers a historical prestige to be gained.
Envisioning Peter as a cross between Bertie Wooster and Fred Astaire, Sayers was well aware of her influences and her rivals: P.G. Wodehouse and especially Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes had been the embodiment of calculation and rationality for decades, and he’s mentioned by name in every one of Sayers’s books, usually by Peter, and usually to illustrate how far Peter’s strayed from his model. The war had changed the status of Holmes’s creator; after the death of his son, Conan Doyle became best known for his enthusiastic endorsement of spiritualism, the high-Victorian fantasy of contacting the dead that had a popular revival in the bereaved 1920s. The creator of the ultimate ruthless rationalist toured Europe and America espousing the supernatural beliefs Dorothy L. Sayers was to attack at length in Strong Poison.
Yet unlike Holmes or Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter is no island: he’s always reliant on and often helplessly indebted to others. He is a hero who doubts himself, who ages, who changes, who questions himself:
As the taxi lurched along the rainy Embankment, he felt for the first time the dull and angry helplessness which is the first warning stroke of the triumph of mutability. Like the poisoned Athulf in the Fool’s Tragedy, he could have cried, “oh, I am changing, changing, fearfully changing.” Whether his present enterprise failed or succeeded, things would never be the same again. It was not that his heart would be broke by a disastrous love – he had outlived the luxurious agonies of youthful blood, and in this very freedom from illusion he recognized the loss of something. From now on, every hour of light-heartedness would be, not a prerogative but an achievement – one more axe or case-bottle or fowling-piece, rescued, Crusoe-fashion, from a sinking ship.
For all his talents and genius, Wimsey is a flawed, uncertain arbiter of morality in a changing world. The crime doesn’t turn up on his doorstep; more often he finds himself following a hunch, investigating where no crime seems to remain: the supposedly natural death of a wealthy and ancient victim, an apparent suicide, an open-and-shut murder case. Unlike Holmes, he does not have the luxury of lofty certainty, but has to question how far his own interference alters the outcome of the case: in Unnatural Death his pursuit makes the criminal reckless and drives her to further murders; years later, in Strong Poison, he is still grappling with this case, and the moral quandary it represents.
Peter’s distinctive style of speech – roundabout, babbling, distracted by endless quotation and allusion – is a product of his nervousness and evidence of a fear of coming directly to the point. It might also be Sayers’s sly way of both proving her own erudition and of poking fun at the similar habits of the high modernist poets like Pound and Eliot, who would conspire to drive such a wedge between the literature she and they were simultaneously creating. If she’s defensive about the status of detective fiction, her revenge is – via Harriet – to parody the pretensions of the latest ‘literary’ novel, being discussed at a London party. This is the kind of gleeful digression that makes these novels so appealing (and so long):
[The novel] was about a swimming instructor at a watering-place, who had contracted such an unfortunate anti-nudity complex thorough watching so many bathing-beaties that it completely inhibited all his natural emotions. So he got a job on a whaler and fell in love at first sight with an Eskimo, because she was such a beautiful bundle of garments. So he married her and brought her back to live in a suburb, where she fell in love with a vegetarian nudist. So then the husband went slightly mad and contracted a complex about giant turtles, and spent all his spare time staring into the turtle-tank at the Aquarium, and watching the strange, slow monsters swimming significantly round in their encasing shells. But of course a lot of things came into it – it was one of those books that reflect the author’s reactions to Things in General. Altogether, significant was, he thought, the word to describe it.
Harriet began to feel that there might be something to be said even for the plot of Death ’twixt Wind and Water. It was, at least, significant of nothing in particular.
Gaudy Night, however, in which this scene takes place, is significant of plenty, and is the fullest example of what Sayers set out to do within the limits of the mystery genre. What emerges at the climax of the Peter-Harriet affair is a vast novel, approaching the dimensions of a 19th-century “loose, baggy monster,” with the education of its heroine at the center. It’s Harriet’s story, the story of how she finally comes to understand and believe (and thus, make us believe) in Peter’s honesty and sincerity, and her confrontation of the infuriating, artificial, yet unavoidable challenge faced by educated women of her generation – love or work?
The mystery, at first, is the absence of a mystery – or at least, of a body in the library. Returning to her fictional “Shrewsbury College” in Oxford for a “gaudy” – a reunion of alumnae marking the opening of a new library – Harriet encounters a boarding-school disturbance taken to lurid extremes. The circulation of “Poison-Pen” letters and other defacements and defilements of the college and its work all hint at a furious resentment of these women’s way of life, and a sexual obsession which the placidly post-Freudian protagonists mark down to the “repressions” of their all-female environment. Harriet, too, once she is called back by the nervous tutors to investigate the ongoing disturbance, is convinced of the motive, if not of the culprit; led astray, it turns out, by her own prejudices about the celibate scholarly life. The investigation in Gaudy Night is the vehicle for Harriet’s own journey to finally accepting one of Lord Peter’s innumerable proposals, made in Latin while they’re walking through Oxford in their matching scholars’ gowns. As Peter says, finally realizing where he has been going wrong, ‘I set out in a lordly manner to offer you heaven and earth. I find that all I have to give you if Oxford – which was yours already.’
Gaudy Night is certainly a hymn to the romance of the university that Sayers loved: for the undergraduates, innocence combined with intellectual awakening, and for the fellows, a way of life that transcends the exhausting tail-chasing of work versus family, career versus marriage. For Harriet it also presents another contrast, of obscure but satisfying academic work as against her literary fame and tabloid notoriety. Looking down on the city from a hill, she feels a further possibility in the reawakening of a different kind of writing talent:
In that melodious silence, something came back to her that had lain dumb and dead ever since the old, innocent undergraduate days. The singing voice, stifled long ago by the pressure of the struggle for existence, and throttled into dumbness by that queer, unhappy contact with physical passion, began to stammer a few uncertain notes. Great golden phrases, rising from nothing and leading to nothing, swam up out of her dreaming mind like the huge, sluggish carp in the cool waters of Mercury.
In a novel heavy with Elizabethan allusions and chapter-epigraphs, it’s appropriate that Harriet begins to write a sonnet, praising peace and silence and stillness. She can’t make it move forward, and leaves it unfinished, Several chapters later, having lent the “dossier” of her investigation to Peter, she finds the poem completed, with a twist that shakes her out of her desire to be left alone:
But if she wanted an answer to her questions about Peter, here it was, quite appallingly plain. He did not want to forget, or to be quiet, or to be spared things, or to stay put. All he wanted was some kind of central stability and he was apparently ready to take anything that came along, so long as it stimulated him to keep that precarious balance.
The values that Oxford represents are under threat from all sides. Not only are the women of Shrewsbury College being tormented by the person they call the “Poltergeist,” but her actions are driving them to doubt one another and question the precarious idyll they have worked to create. Even without this internal malignancy, the principles of equality that finally enable Harriet to accept Peter are not secure – the women’s college, like Virginia Woolf’s Newnham in A Room of One’s Own, is very much the poor relation to Peter’s grand, established Balliol. Yet there are deeper anxieties threatening the peace of the university. The young students whom Harriet encounters are great fans of her work, but she is torn between mockery and pity at their enthusiasm. By using her own genre as the starting point Sayers is able to sound a mournful warning about the world into which these graduates are heading:
They appeared to have read a good deal of this kind of literature, though very little of anything else. A School of Detective Fiction would, Harriet thought, have a fair chance of producing a goodly crop of Firsts. The fashion for psychological analysis had, she decided, rather gone out since her day: she was instinctively aware that a yearning for action and the concrete was taking its place. The pre-War solemnity and the post-War exhaustion were both gone; the desire now was for an energetic doing of something definite, though the definitions differed. The detective story, no doubt, was acceptable, because in it something definite was done, the “what” being comfortably decided beforehand by the author. It was borne in upon Harriet that all these young men and women were starting out to hoe a hardish kind of row in a very stony ground. She felt rather sorry for them.
The students are unable to appreciate the indefinite, indefinable quality of Oxford that Harriet spends the rest of the novel trying to establish for herself. It is a kind of faith that these students lack, having grown up to find, as Scott Fitzgerald put it, “all gods dead, all faiths in man shaken.” They are not the war generation itself of Sayers and Vera Brittain, but their younger siblings and their children: a new generation who have never had any kind of security, and they are about to lose what little they have. In a number of the novels Lord Peter conducts mysterious missions for the Foreign Office; in Gaudy Night his absences are more urgent, more prolonged, and take more of an emotional toll on him. He is summoned to Rome and Berlin; he and his fellow diplomats are trying to hold back a flood. The romance of Oxford, the faith in Oxford, are pitted against increasingly strong forces of counter-attack.
Dorothy Sayers gave up writing mystery novels after the start of the Second World War; Busman’s Honeymoon, adapted from her stage play of 1935, was her last long Lord Peter and Harriet Vane story. She turned her attention to the academic work whose appeal she had Harriet experience in Gaudy Night, undertaking a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy that she was working on when she died in 1957. She had become a committed Christian around the outbreak of World War Two and wrote religious commentaries and essays that often turned on the relationship between human and divine creation. It’s possible that this personal conversion would have ended her interest in the mystery genre at any point, but its timing seems appropriate. The period between the wars that allowed the limited, confined, escapist game of the Golden Age mystery novel to flourish – the period Robert Graves called “the long week-end”– was coming to its own violent end, and Lord Peter Wimsey was powerless to prevent it. But to understand the anxieties, hopes, and delusions of the twenties and thirties, we can do worse than to go back to Dorothy L. Sayers’s ingenious and surprising mysteries.
Joanna Scutts is a PhD candidate in English at Columbia University, where she is researching the relationship between war commemoration and literature in the 1920s and 30s. She lives in New York City.