Recently, a discussion by the Usual Suspects of Dorothy L Sayers’s classic crime novel ranged far and wide. The plot is famously convoluted; the characters are numerous and colorful, and the depiction of a small, remote English village is vivid and evocative. And then, of course, there are those bells…
The English art of change ringing is the beating heart of The Nine Tailors. Indeed, Tailor Paul is actually the name of one of the bells rung in the parish church at Fenchurch St. Paul, the village at the center of the mystery. There is a saying, “Nine tailors make a man,” which has been construed in several ways:
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (2009), “nine tailors make a man” refers to the fact that a gentleman must select his clothing from a range of sources. However, numerous historical sources illuminate another meaning related to change ringing: the practice of ringing a death knell, or passing bell. In small villages in England the sickly or ill would be common knowledge to the people who lived within hearing of the church bell. The bell–typically the tenor, or lowest bell–would be rung to mark the death, and people could deduce who had died according to the number of times the bell sounded. Old wood carving
Local variances could be found around Britain, but the universal tolling-bell, or “teller,” to denote a deceased male was rung nine times. In many places six “tells” indicated a woman, and three indicated a child, so “nine tellers mark a man.”
You can see how the bell both “tolled” and “told” the death of someone in the village, and how over the years “teller” became “tailor” and “mark” became “make.”
Another article worth a look is “The Science of Mysteries: For Whom the Bells Toll,” part of a series that has appeared in Scientific American. The article opens with this observation: “A Twitter exchange recently revealed that certain members of the small subset of science writers who were humanities majors, also have a shared taste for classic mysteries.” Please be on the watch for the spoiler warning in this article. Wikipedia also has a detailed entry on change ringing.
Some of us also sought the aid of Wikipedia in order to get the plot of The Nine Tailors firmly fixed in our minds. Well, we had to laugh when comparing notes: we had trouble getting even that relatively lucid summary to resolve itself into something comprehensible! That of course is the point at which you decide either to give up or to enjoy other aspects of the novel. Most of us chose the latter course.
Frank, himself an aspiring author of crime fiction, is always especially interested in how plotting is handled in the books we read. He was deeply impressed with this novel, which, while complex in its structure, always plays fair with the reader. Not previously being a reader of Sayers’s works, he asked us whether all her plots were this “twisty” (good term for it). After a hasty consultation, we replied in the negative, though even the confirmed Wimsey fans among us hadn’t recently read any of the other novels in the series (although Mike, our excellent leader and an ardent fan of Sayers, led us in a discussion of Murder Must Advertise not long ago).
The Wimsey series is strangely bifurcated. Courtesy of Wikipedia, here’s a list of the eleven novels in the series, along with their publication dates. (There are also several short story collections):
- Whose Body? (1923)
- Clouds of Witness (1926)
- Unnatural Death (1927)
- The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
- Strong Poison (1931)
- Five Red Herrings (1931)
- Have His Carcase (1932)
- Murder Must Advertise (1933)
- The Nine Tailors (1934)
- Gaudy Night (1935)
- Busman’s Honeymoon (1937)
Harriet Vane first appears in Strong Poison; subsequently she appears in Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. Among other things, these books chart the course of her love affair with Lord Peter Wimsey, a course that is anything but smooth. But as the Bard is wont to remind us, that’s typical of true love, and this particular love is, despite various obstacles, strong and true and does win out in the end. In reference to Frank’s question, cited above, I wonder if the Harriet Vane novels are less intensely plotted so that Sayers can concentrate more on the evolution of the relationship.
BBC Television filmed and broadcast five of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels from 1972 to 1975. They are Clouds of Witness, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Five Red Herrings, Murder Must Advertise, and The Nine Tailors. Edward Petherbridge portrayed Wimsey in three out of four of the Harried Vane titles in 1987. (The BBC were apparently not able to secure the rights for Busman’s Honeymoon.) I’ve watched all of the episodes multiple times. I like what Wikipedia says about them:
Both sets of adaptations were critically successful, with both Carmichael and Petherbridge’s respective performances being widely praised, however both portrayals are quite different from one another: Carmichael’s Peter is eccentric, jolly and foppish with occasional glimpses of the inner wistful, romantic soul, whereas Petherbridge’s portrayal was more calm, solemn and had a stiff upper lip, subtly downplaying many of the character’s eccentricities.
From time to time, one encounters speculation that Sayers invented Harriet Vane as a surrogate for herself, so that she could become, in her imagination at least, Lord Peter’s lover. Harriet and Dorothy L. Sayers share some commonalities: both are Oxford graduates – among the earliest women to become so – and both write crime fiction. Unlike her creation, however, Sayers was never brought up on a murder charge!
There were, in fact, other good reasons for Sayers to insert Harriet Vane into the Lord Peter novels:
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.
From “Second Glance: Dorothy Sayers and the Last Golden Age” by Joanna Scutts, in Open Letters Monthly
I’ve frequently quoted the thoughts that Sayers ascribes to Harriet in Gaudy Night as she once again enters the precincts of Shrewsbury, her Oxford University alma mater:
They can’t take this away, at any rate. Whatever I may have done since, this remains. Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University;… a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.
I like to think of the deep satisfaction Dorothy L Sayers must have been feeling as she typed those words.
One more thing about my revisiting of The Nine Tailors. I was struck this time by the extreme insularity of Fenchurch St Paul. It almost seemed like a village out of time, a sort of Brigadoon. (I’m currently listening to The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny, and it occurs to me that she depicts the Quebecois village of Three Pines in much the same way.)
Wimsey’s devotion to the town, its people and the unfolding of the crime opens unexpected windows onto an English culture flailing to right itself after the lingering disruptions caused by the First World War. A friend warned me I might find the novel “a little dated” when she gave me her copy this summer. It was anything but. This is literary mystery perfect for the dialogue-devotees of Downton Abbey and Gosford Park. Sayers’ smart descriptions of peculiar English customs like change-ringing, and of the arcane engineering marvels that for centuries kept her East Anglia from drowning in annual spring floods, sparkle every bit as much as the affectionate portraits she paints of her characters, even those with minor roles.
From “What I’m Reading: The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L Sayers,” by Jon Nagy in Notre Dame Magazine.
Mike provided us with excellent background on Dorothy L Sayers, a brilliant woman whose life had more than its share of pain and difficulty – but, one senses, had its moments of real happiness and satisfaction as well.
If you ever have the opportunity to listen to Ian Carmichael’s reading of The Nine Tailors, you will encounter as bravura an audio performance as I’ve ever experienced. Carmichael gets the accents of the “locals” just right. He seems to be enacting numerous roles all on his own. And the drama at the novel’s climax…well, it’s just terrific.
Our group was generally positive about this novel, although quite a few of us were challenged to follow the threads of the plot. And more than one person commented that there was more than enough material on the bells. Of course Reverend Theodore Venables would undoubtedly disagree – he simply could not get enough on the subject! In the 1993 biography Dorothy L Sayers: Her Life and Soul, Barbara Reynolds observes the following concerning Sayers’s father, the Reverend Henry Sayers, MA:
Six years after his death, his unworldly and self-effacing personality was to be tenderly evoked in The Nine Tailors in the lovable character of the Reverend Theodore Venables, rector of Fenchurch St. Paul.