Murder Must Advertise, Part One: a backgrounder on Dorothy L Sayers….

April 21, 2013 at 8:10 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

…in which the Usual Suspects undertake a discussion of the ninth volume in the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers by first briefly recounting the author’s life and times.. Sayers was one of a group of  distinguished authors of crime fiction during that genre’s first Golden Age, usually described as taking place during the years between the two world wars.   Advertise

Murder Must Advertise was Mike’s choice for our April book. She got us started with some background material on the author. Born in 1893,  Dorothy Sayers was the late-in-life only child of the Reverend Henry Sayers and Helen Mary (Leigh) Sayers. Although born in Oxford, she grew up in the village of Bluntisham, in the fen country of eastern England.  Sayers  enjoyed a happy childhood, where her apparent gifts were recognized and encouraged by her parents. In 1912 she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford. She completed her studies there in 1915. At that time, Oxford did not grant its full degree to women. That policy changed in 1920. Sayers returned to the university in order to be among the first women to receive this momentous and well-deserved honor.

Meanwhile, in the wider world, Sayers was desperately cobbling together various means of employment and still dependent to an extent on her parents’ largesse. Finally, in 1922, she landed a  job writing copy at  H.F. Benson, an advertising agency in London. She worked there until 1931. It was during this period that she conceived and began writing the Lord Peter Wimsey novels.

Dorothy Sayers’s personal life at this juncture can best be described as turbulent. Eric Whelpton, her first love, enjoyed her company but never really reciprocated her affections. She then became involved with John Cournos, a self-important writer and ideologue who served as the model for Philip Boyes in Strong Poison. When  that affair ended, she took up with Bill White, a cheerfully unpretentious person with whom she could just have regular fun. A bit too much fun, as it turns out: in June of 1923, Dorothy realized she was pregnant. Bill White reacted badly to the news. She might have considered marrying him, but it turned out that he was already married, and already a father.

Sayers took a leave of absence from H.F. Benson and went into seclusion, in order to see the pregnancy through, in strictest secrecy. Once the child was born, he was given to Ivy Shrimpton. a favorite cousin, to raise and care for. Shrimpton and her mother ran a home for foster children; this presented the perfect camouflage for the presence of Sayers’s son, whom she named John Anthony.

In 1926, Dorothy Sayers married Oswald Arthur Fleming,  a World War One veteran and journalist invariably  known among his acquaintance as “Mac.” Mac was divorced, with two children by his former wife. Dorothy and Mac’s marriage  was not without its challenges. Mac had been injured in the war and was ultimately unable to work. Dorothy had to support them both. In addition, Mac drank heavily and came to resent his wife’s growing success and fame as the author of the Lord Peter novels.

Meanwhile, with her new husband, Dorothy came clean about her past. When told about John Anthony, Mac was not only undismayed but actually expressed a desire to bring the boy into their family circle. In the event, John Anthony never did come to live with them, even though they “informally ‘adopted'” him. (I’m not sure exactly what that means.)John Anthony also took ‘Fleming’ as his last name.

The marriage endured until Mac died in 1950. At the time, they were living in Sunnyside Cottage in Witham, Essex. Sayers stayed on in the cottage after Mac’s death. She suffered a massive and ultimately fatal heart attack seven years later. She was 64 years old.

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One of the Suspects expressed surprise that a woman as modern and enlightened as Dorothy L. Sayers should be so shamed and secretive about an out of wedlock pregnancy. In Women of Mystery, Martha Hailey DuBose offers a partial explanation:

Today we can only begin to imagine the agonies of conscience [Sayers] must have suffered. England after the war was a profoundly changed place: moral standards and behavioral rules had shifted dramatically in a relatively short time. In London, just as in New York and Chicago, the 1920s roared with sex, drugs, and jazz. But some things remained verboten, and for women of Dorothy’s class and religion, unwed pregnancy was still at the top of the forbidden list.

DuBose goes on to expound on the likely repercussions Sayers would have suffered had she gone public with her situation: “It would have meant lifelong shame for herself, her child, and her entire family. Her parents, in their seventies, would be humiliated. Dorothy would likely lose her job and all hope of financial independence.”

It should  be remembered that beneath Sayers’s breezy, confident, and liberated exterior there beat the heart of a deeply religious woman. She was in some ways quite conservative. Above all, she was desperate to protect her parents from any anguish or mortification caused by her own actions.

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In the recent Winter issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, editor George Easter states: “Some books should never go out of print.” He was referring to the Lord Peter Wimsey series. Happily this perplexing state of affairs has been at least partly ameliorated by HarperCollins. Under the imprint of Bourbon Street Books, the publisher is in the process of reissuing the books in trade paperback editions with beautifully designed covers.

StrongPoisonCover1  carcase

 Gaudy

At this time, the plan includes only the novels featuring Harriet Vane. We can but hope that in the fullness of time,  HarperCollins will see fit to bring forth the remaining series entries.

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In a BBC piece on Dorothy Sayers, Jane Curran writes:

The image of Dorothy L. Sayers, the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, the great fictional detective of the 1920s and 30s, is of a moonfaced, heavily built, bespectacled elderly woman in mannish clothes.

Curran adds: “Yet she first caused a stir as a tall thin girl, nicknamed Swanny on account of her long and slender neck. ”

Dorothy Sayers  dlsayers

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Stay tuned for Part Two, in which H.F. Benson is transformed into Pym’s Publicity through the art of the supremely gifted novelist, Dorothy L. Sayers.

3 Comments

  1. bettysbrownies said,

    Thanks for posting that photo of the young Dorothy Sayers. Harriet Vane to the life!

  2. woolfoot said,

    I was very happy to find this here (having stopped in via a Link on the Letters from a Hill Farm blog). I am a great admirer of Sayers’ writing – although (oddly) I haven’t really found the mystery story that moves me. My admiration is chiefly for her book _The Mind of the Maker_ which is (in its quiet, reflective way) a thrilling bit of philosophy. (And believe me when I tell you I am not one who normally reads for anything but fun).

    Sayers’ personal story, along with the ideas she articulates in M of M, was very much on my mind as I was writing my own book. My story, Up, Back, and Away, includes a mystery related to an illegitimate birth. It’s a time-travel story and one of the things I wanted to explore was the enormous swing in societal values from the early part of the last century to today (my hero, a modern-day American boy, finds himself in England in 1928). I really don’t think people today have any sense at all of the absolute crushing scandal that illegitimacy caused in those days, at least for middle class people. Sayers’ herculean efforts to hide her relationship to her child provide one vivid example of how drastic the change has been. In my own family, we found out only after my mother’s older sister died a few years ago that she’d had a child out-of-wedlock in the 1950s. It had never been spoken of, even among family. My mother had no idea about it it at all, though she was in her 60s when my aunt passed, and her parents (my grandparents) had never gotten over it, and really, had never forgiven my aunt. So, thanks for posting this. I am glad to know I am not the only person intrigued by D.S. (She writes like an angel too, which is another thing I admire so much…)

    • Lois Deimel Whealey said,

      I first read “Gaudy Night” (murder in a woman’s college, Harriet Vane accepts Lord Peter’s love) at a conference I organized in 1977, year of the International Women’s Year follow-up meetings to Mexico City, 1975. It was recommended by a female English prof at Ohio University.
      Subsequently I read all (I think) of her mysteries. She was a conservative Church of England person who did a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy in the 1940s (I think.) Lois D.

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