(Full title: The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women)
Why did I read this? Between 1923 and 1937, Dorothy Sayers wrote the crazy-popular series of detective novels that made her famous. This past summer, I reread all eleven of them. I adore them. Yes, the erudition of Lord Peter Wimsey can be a bit much. Yes, decoding the clues sometimes requires a cryptographer’s skill. And yes, some of the books are stained with anti-Semitic and racist stereotypes. But they are still clever, charming, witty, and unpredictable. Their central characters have both the flaws and warmth of dear old friends. They are also very much of their time—a glimpse into the rapidity of social change in interwar Britain.
Taken together, the eleven Wimsey novels also constitute an extended romance. Detective novelist Harriet Vane is introduced in the fifth novel; she and Lord Peter circle one another in the rest of the series, finally navigating their way to marriage in the final novel. The obstacle to marriage is not the age or class or wealth gap between them. Nor is it misunderstanding, or previous commitments, or any of the usual wrenches thrown into boy-meets-girl stories. Instead, Harriet cannot marry Peter until they have figured out how to accommodate both of their careers in the marriage, valuing Harriet’s work as much as Peter’s. In the penultimate and perhaps most-loved of the series, Gaudy Night, Harriet’s struggle between head and heart is at the center of the story, as she returns to her Oxford alma mater for a reunion, re-engaging with a community of women devoted to scholarship, while forging a partnership with Peter that has room for her to be her entire self.
Harriet Vane is an Oxford-educated detective novelist, so it is easy to assume that she was Sayer’s fictional avatar. But did Sayers see it that way? I knew little about Dorothy Sayers beyond the barest bones of biography and that, at some point in her writing career, she set aside Lord Peter Wimsey in favor of writing books and essays on Christianity. I picked up Mo Moulton’s book, published just in 2019, to fill in the gaps.
What is it about? The Mutual Admiration Society is both group biography and social history. At its core is a group of women, including Sayers, who met at Oxford just before World War I. At that time, women did not yet have the right to vote. They were excluded from many careers. If they became a teacher, they were often forbidden from marrying. Birth control was frowned upon. Women had been allowed to study at Oxford for about forty years, but they were not yet eligible for degrees.
As students, Sayers and her cohort took their studies seriously, determined to qualify for an Oxford degree even if none could be granted. Together, they established an informal club they cheekily dubbed “The Mutual Admiration Society.” Over tea and cocoa, they would convene to critique and support one another’s work—their scholarly essays, their translations, their poetry, their plays. Moulton’s book focuses in particular on four members of the MAS who remained friends and collaborators throughout their lives, each of whom attained professional success and public prominence: Dorothy Sayers, who became a theologian and playwright as well as a detective novelist; Muriel St. Clare Byrne, a medieval historian and playwright; Charis Frankenburg, a birth control advocate, midwife, and parenting expert; and Dorothea Rowe, a teacher of Shakespeare who also founded an influential local theater club.
These women shared more than friendship and public-facing careers. They shared a certain worldview as well—in particular, a belief in the democratization of culture, in “breaking down the walls that kept the ancient traditions of learning and scholarship separate from ordinary people.” “Through their diverse careers,” writes Moulton, “they worked to make the best ideas, the most creative work, and a joyful encounter with learning accessible to a wide range of people. That, they believed, was one of the greatest achievements to which a democratic society could aspire.”
Thus, Byrne wrote Tudor history for ordinary readers. Rowe pushed her provincial theater company into experimental territory. Frankenburg wrote books that translated her ideas on parenting into practical advice. And Sayers exemplified that belief throughout her career. With her detective novels, she aimed for both sophistication and accessibility, “so that the intellectual and the common man can find common ground for enjoyment in the mystery novel.” Amongst her many works on Christianity and ethics, she wrote influential radio plays that aired on the BBC.
One more thing these four women had in common: the perspective of being “simultaneously insiders and outsiders.” They were part of an intellectual elite, but in pursuing their professional ambitions, their gender made them outsiders, and their personal lives and identities placed them even further outside the social norms of their class. Frankenburg was half Jewish and married a Jewish man who fully supported her all-consuming career of public service. Sayers married late, and before that had lovers, one of whom left her a single mother. Rowe never married. Byrne was lesbian, with both a long-term partner and a long-term lover.
In Moulton’s view, this outsider perspective shaped their careers and fueled their interest in using popular channels (novels, plays, radio programs, and so on) to communicate serious ideas. “I suspect,” says Moulton, “they would have been somewhat boring men. DLS and Muriel would surely have been full-time academics… D. Rowe might have been a headmaster of a small boys’ school; Charis, a pater familias and competent administrator… No doubt, they would have done good, even excellent, work. But instead, their marginality within the gender politics of their era served a role like sand in an oyster. They struggled and were pushed out of the main lines of promotion and success, and instead of reproducing the world of their fathers or their mothers, they made something new.”
The lives of these women were indeed “something new,” if only by virtue of their distinctiveness. I do not think that Moulton proved out the subtitle of the book, that they remade the world for women generally, but their careers, which spanned most of the twentieth century, both witnessed and reflected enormous social, legal, and political changes for women’s lives. Thus, while tracing their individual paths and the ebbs and flows of their friendships, Moulton also traces the societal transformations that alternately constrained and catalyzed their work.
Would I recommend it? Yes, to anyone who is interested in Dorothy Sayers, or who enjoys the intersection of social history with biography, or who has a particular interest in interwar Britain. Moulton’s prose is smooth and readable, and, if I’m not convinced that the MAS “remade the world for women,” Moulton more than succeeds in presenting these women as fascinating figures living through turbulent times, putting their lives in context: through the losses of WWI, the flapper era, the Depression, the Blitz, and post-War privations, as well as through massive changes for women.
Read on if you are interested in the life of Dorothy Sayers. The rest of this post summarizes her story as presented by Moulton.Read More