Philobiblon: Dorothy L Sayers

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Dorothy L Sayers

I've been distracted (from various things I'd been planning to do) over the last couple of days by the arrival of several fiction purchases. I don't read much fiction these days - I find it just doesn't grab me the way facts do - but I have been building my Dorothy L Sayers collection, adding this time Busman's Honeymoon.

Sayers writes beautifully, intelligently, yet in no way pretentiously, sketching out her characters in a few deft strokes. You do have to feel that she was wasted on detective fiction, even though her efforts go far beyond the usual run of the genre. (I still have to read her Dante, as I suspect I promised to do about three months ago - one of these days.)

My favourite is Gaudy Night, a wonderful exploration of the difficulties the women of the Twenties faced in trying to carve out a place for themselves in the male world of academia, and the professions more generally, particularly in fighting their own conditioning.

But Busman's Honeymoon comes a close second in the favourites' list; its start, with a selection of "diary" items from different people about the same event, the wedding of Sir Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, is laugh-out-loud funny.

As with all of the books it is a wonderful portrait of the time, as was confirmed by a matchup of fiction and non-fiction today.

I spent most of the day at the London Archive Users Forum/Women's Library conference, which had a real mix of papers, including one on the "child development experts", a profession that developed in the first half of this century. At least I think that was what the paper was about; I only got to hear half of it due to the massive traffic jams caused by the Lord Mayor's Show - an annual irritating attempt to create total chaos across the City.

Anyway, whinge over: in Busman's Honeymoon, the Duchess, Peter's mother, an apparently scatterbrained woman who uses a fluttery manner as cover for a penetrating brain, reports on this trend. She writes: "Wonder whether Mussolini's mother spanked him too much or too little - you can never know, these psychological days. Can distinctly remember spanking Peter, but it doesn't seem to have warped him much, so psychologists very likely all wrong."

How right she was: the talk today started on the later Victoria, early Edwardian approach, in which mothers were supposed to ensure that their children, particularly the boys of course, were fearless to the point of stupidity, so they could serve the empire. Any sign of fear in the children, nightmares etc, all the things we'd now regard as a normal part of development, were seen as a failure of mothers.

The paper then discussed the approach in the late 1940s and 1950s to "schoolphobia", invented in 1924 and much discussed post-War. It was a middle-class disease; working-class kids were just truants - not much has changed there then.

It was not, however, perceived to be a disease of children; no of course the mothers were to blame - they were around too much and too close their children. To deal with the problem, so the experts said, it wasn't even necessary to see the children, you just had to treat the mothers.
(Busman's Honeymoon quote, p. 33, 1941, Ninth Impression, Victor Gollancz Ltd, London.)


Blogger Brandon said...

I think I would put Busman's Honeymoon above Gaudy Night, but they're both at the top of my list of favorite Wimsey books, too.

11/13/2004 11:08:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love both of those books; choosing between them would be too hard. They are that rare thing: detective novels that you can go back and read over and over again, because they're about so much more than the plot.

Why, when there are *much* better early 20th-century English female crime novelists around (see also Gladys Mitchell - great female protagonist! - although I really can't get into Margery Allingham), does everyone still go on about Agatha Christie? I don't get it.

11/14/2004 12:39:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Nice to know there are other Dorothy L Sayers fans about - I don't hear her mentioned much.
I read a few Margery Allinghams after a recommendation from "Grumpy old bookman", who's on my blogroll, and would class them as worth reading, if not exceptional. Of the ones I've read, the books that let her down were those where the villians were some mysterious international crime ring, while the "domestic" murderer ones were much more balanced. "Police at the Funeral" is probably the best that I've read.
I don't know Gladys Mitchell; I'll have to give her a try.
As for Christie, I think her very mediocrity and lack of variety probably stands her in good stead. You can't get a more predictable utterly unchallenging read. I read all of hers in a year when I was doing a 60-hour a week full-on job, part-running a piggery and doing a near full-time uni load; my escape on a Friday night if I could manage it would be to get home from work about 10, heat up microwave meal, light wood stove and read two before bedtime.

11/14/2004 07:54:00 pm  
Blogger Brandon said...

There's a nice little essay on Sayers's detective fiction here.

On Christie, I think the "light read" aspect is a lot of it; most people are looking for that when they read mystery fiction. I think also that a lot of Christie's reputation is built on her two memorable characters (Poirot and Marple) and simple stories building on one somewhat memorable plot twist - along the lines of The Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd - that are very movie-like; and I think even when reading there are a lot of people who follow along with the book in the same way they follow along with a movie.

11/15/2004 10:08:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Thanks for the essay. I will admit to a sneaking liking for Miss Marple, but I'm not into Poirot. His arrogance, even though it is mocked by the author, is just a bit too irritating.

11/15/2004 12:34:00 pm  
Blogger Brandon said...

I'm much the same way when it comes to Marple and Poirot. Nasty Belgian!

11/16/2004 04:07:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brandon, that essay is great. Thanks for the tip.

On Christie, I do enjoy *watching* it, very often. With good Poirot adaptations, you usually get lots of fab art deco and frocks to look at, anyway... And the BBC (Joan Hickson) Miss Marples are always re-watchable.


11/16/2004 10:39:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I adore Dorothy L. Sayers and reread her obsessively, but for some reason I've never been able to get on with Busman's Honeymoon. Uniquely among Sayers's novels, it was adapted from a play, which may have cramped her style.

I urge you to persevere with Margery Allingham. In her later novels she grew increasingly experimental in the way she mixed different genres -- e.g. Tiger in the Smoke (thriller and religious parable), The Beckoning Lady (detective novel and social comedy) -- often with remarkable results. One of her most extraordinary novels is The Mind Readers, a mixture of detection and science fiction, with an agreeably period air of postwar scientific utopianism. I really can't praise these novels highly enough; they get better and better every time I reread them.

Most of Gladys Mitchell's novels are, frankly, pretty terrible, but there are some glorious exceptions. At her best she, too, could take some astonishing risks with the genre: in The Rising of the Moon the murders are seen through the eyes of a child, while in St Peter's Finger the reader is invited to consider the possibility that a child could be the murderer. Her best novels were written between the late 1930s and the late 1950s; Faintley Speaking (1954) is about the last of the good ones, and after that it's downhill all the way.

11/17/2004 09:58:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Thanks for the Alllingham and Mitchell tips - I'll give them a go and report back.

11/18/2004 01:36:00 am  
Anonymous Jo Manning said...

There is an active Dorothy L. Sayers online discussion list. Don't know the URL offhand, but something like "Dorothy L" in it, I think. Will have to ask one of my mystery writer/reader friends.
Jo Manning

8/23/2005 03:33:00 pm  
Anonymous Karen said...

I am so glad to find other Dorothy L. fans. She was a friend of C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and an informal member of their group knows as the Inklings. I read her translation of Dante, which isn't particularly well-regarded these days, but which I liked a lot, particularly the Purgatorio which nobody ever reads because it's long and doesn't include creative punishments for Dante's enemies.

My favorite Wimsey book is probably Busman's Honeymoon, followed by Strong Poison. Gaudy Night is probably the best written, but I so disliked the perp in that one, and felt so sorry for her, that I couldn't enjoy the book. Still, all the Wimseys are excellent books and fun to read over and over.

Finally, let me recommend an essay she wrote called "The Other Six." It was a lecture she gave to something called the British Society for Promoting Morals, or some such, during WWII. The point of her book was that sex isn't by any stretch the whole, or even a big part, of morality. It's worth it for the description of sloth alone.

10/20/2005 04:00:00 am  

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