Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul

I finished Barbara Reynold’s biography of Dorothy Sayers this evening feeling as if I know a lot more about both Sayers’s life and her personality. I already knew a little bit of the biographical outline–Somerville, a child “out of wedlock,” a turn to religious writing, translations of Dante–but because in my life she has always mattered because of her Peter Wimsey novels, I never really focused on anything else about her. I knew (and know better now) that she would not have wanted it that way, and yet that even in her lifetime she had to live with the frustration of other people’s preoccupation with her famous detective. She wrote to a friend that one reason she didn’t write more Wimsey novels was precisely that people kept importuning her to do it: “I have been so much put off by being badgered to do it when I was wrapped up in other things that the mere thought now gives me a kind of nausea. . . . the thought of being pushed and halloooed into the old routine fills me with distaste.” Fair enough–but except for now feeling I really ought to, and would actually quite like to, read Dante in her translation (confession: I haven’t read Dante in any translation so far), I’m still with those badgerers and halloooers.

I think one reason I can’t move forward with her is that I don’t share her religious convictions and so I can’t really enter into the mental world or the enthusiasms of her later career. In some ways Sayers is a more easily likeable person than Vera Brittain, or even than Winifred Holtby–it turns out she was rather a bon vivante, much more playful and frisky than the other two, and more tough and racy as well. But their passionate sincerity and dedication to social and political causes are easier for me to care about than Sayers’s radio plays about the life of Christ. It’s clear from the material Reynolds includes, though, that Sayers embraces a kind of practical or tough-minded Christianity, and also that she does see it as important to integrate religious with political thought and action. In one of her letters, she emphasizes that her faith is not instinctive or (she thought) irrational:

Since I cannot come through God through intuition, or through my emotions, or through my ‘inner light’ (except in the unendearing form of judgment and conviction of sin) there is only the intellect left. And that is a very different matter. . . Where the intellect is dominant it becomes the channel of all the other feelings. The ‘passionate intellect’ is really passionate. It is the only point at which ecstasy can enter. I do not know whether we can be saved by the intellect, but I do know that I can be saved by nothing else.

Reynolds goes on to say that Sayers found this “combination of intellectual light and spiritual ardour” in Dante; I would add that it seems the right way also to describe the love of Harriet and Peter, not just in the resolution of Gaudy Night but in the ecstatic passages of Busman’s Honeymoon–which I was glad Reynolds did not apologize for, as many have:

The love-scenes in Busman’s Honeymoon are exultant. The surprising, and original, thing about them, for a novel, is that they are love-scenes between a husband and a wife. Despite the deterioration of her own marriage, Dorothy L. Sayers the writer has allowed herself to visualize Hymen as a god of joy. Romantic sentiment, which she had so long distrusted, here comes triumphantly into its own.

I always thought so too.

One last quotation I liked, this time not from Sayers but about Sayers, from a letter from Professor R. D. Waller of the University of Manchester thanking Sayers for her lecture there on Dante. It had “heart,” he said, explaining further

that it was about something humanly interesting and that you were humanly interested in it . . . I don’t see why professors and lecturers shouldn’t try to give lectures like yours and so put a bit of heart into their universities . . . I think you do a good thing giving lectures like that when you can in universities . . . University people have grown shy of committing themselves to anything, especially in the presence of their colleagues, for fear of being proved wrong, or perhaps of being thought naïve for having any beliefs or enthusiasms.

“The book I wanted to write”: Dorothy Sayers on Gaudy Night

I’ve been reading (and enjoying) Barbara Reynold’s biography of Dorothy L. Sayers. Much as I enjoy some of the other Peter Wimsey novels, it’s Gaudy Night that I love, so much that I’ve had trouble staying objective and professorial in seminar discussions with students who don’t get how completely fabulous it is (see? hardly dispassionate). I very much appreciated, then, this letter from Sayers to her publisher that shows she too felt the novel was something special:

It is the only book I’ve written embodying any kind of a ‘moral’ and I do feel rather passionately about this business of the integrity of the mind–but I realise that to make a ‘detective story’ the vehicle for that kind of thing is (as Miss de Vine says of the Peter-Harriet marriage) ‘reckless to the point of insanity’. But there it is–it’s the book I wanted to write and I’ve written it–and it is now my privilege to leave you with the baby! Whether you advertise it as a love-story or as educational propaganda, or as a lunatic freak, I leave it to you. It may be highly unpopular; but though I wouldn’t claim that it was in itself a work of great literary importance, it is important to me, and I only hope it won’t be a ghastly flop!

For the other Sayers fans out there, by the way, back in the early days of Open Letters Monthly (August 2007, to be precise), Joanna Scutts wrote a very nice feature essay on Dorothy Sayers that’s well worth reading.

Boston by the Books

I’m back from a wonderful five days in Boston and it seems only fitting to post first (as I did following last year’s jaunt to New York) about the books that came home with me. It was a great bookish trip, thanks to the guidance but also the company of my co-editors at Open Letters Monthly, who were all (but especially Steve Donoghue) attentive and entertaining hosts.

We made two trips to Steve’s beloved Brattle Book Shop. The first day it was drizzly so the carts were not out and our browsing was all inside–which is not a complaint, as you could browse for hours inside and still feel there were tempting treasures you hadn’t found yet. I realized only belatedly, for instance, that most of the shelves are filled two rows deep, which means I explored only one layer. That day I settled on two novels by Ivy Compton-Burnett: A House and Its Head, in the typically elegant NYRB edition, and a Penguin of A Family and a Fortune. I’ve never read any Compton-Burnett before; my interest was piqued because she is the first author chosen by Her Majesty in The Uncommon Reader. At first she’s not a hit, but after Her Majesty becomes a more experienced reader, “the novel she had once found slow now seemed refreshingly brisk, dry still, but astringently so”:

And it occurred to her … that reading was, among other things, a muscle, and one that she had seemingly developed.  She could read the novel with ease and pleasure, laughing at remarks, they were hardly jokes, that she had not even noticed before. And through it all she could hear the voice of Ivy Compton-Burnett, unsentimental, severe and wise.

On our second visit to the Brattle we browsed the dollar carts, which are filled quite miscellaneously so that you never know what might pop out at you and seem too good to resist for the price. I found Barbara Reynold’s biography of Dorothy L. Sayers (not pictured here, as it is following by steve-post). I also picked up John Updike’s collected golf writings for my husband, figuring he likes both Updike and golf so this might well be a winner! And inside again, I found The Godwulf Manuscript, which is the first of Parker’s Spenser series (I also made a pilgrimage to the corner of Boylston and Berkeley, where Spenser’s office is), and Woolf’s The Common Reader, which I owned but lent out many years ago and have never gotten back. I think I was pretty restrained, really: it’s just as well the Brattle is closed Sundays as I was right in the neighborhood and would certainly have found more. My only disappointment was that this seemed the kind of shop likely to have a copy of Testament of a Generation: The Collected Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby–but no luck.

We went en masse to the Harvard Book Store on Thursday night. Time was limited, so all my finds come from the used section downstairs. One I was particularly glad to find was W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, which is the next reading for the Slaves of Golconda book group. I also found Salley Vicker’s The Other Side of You, which some of you recommended after I wrote up Dancing Backwards. And a bit more impulsively I chose Jane Gardam’s The Queen of the Tambourine: I’ve been interested in Old Filth for a while but haven’t come across it anywhere, and this one, which I see won the Whitbread Prize, looked appealingly dark and funny.

I was back in Cambridge on Friday but did all my browsing at the Coop, mostly because I had worn myself out walking all down Newbury Street earlier that day and then all around Harvard Yard (and all over Boston the two days before!). I was trying to pick books that I haven’t been able to find on the shelf up here, and one on my most-wanted list was Laila Lalami’s Secret Son which I was happy to find there. I have followed Lalami’s blog and journalism for some time, and I got Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits in New York last summer and was impressed and moved by it. I’m really interested to see what she does working on a larger canvas.

Finally, I had a pleasant browse in the big Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center, which is an important landmark because most of the OLM team has worked there (or in another B&N location) at some time. Though it lacks the deep bookish personality of the Brattle or the Harvard Book Store, it’s still a lovely bright store for exploring. I thought since I’d been collecting so much fiction I would go a different way with my selection there; I came away with Terry Castle’s The Professor. In one of those moments that make you wonder if there isn’t a larger force organizing your “random” reading choices, I discovered that the very first essay includes a long discussion of Testament of Youth. On her first reading, Castle had not liked the book much, finding Brittain “abrasive and conceited.” She quotes Virginia Woolf’s diary entry, which she had “tended to agree with”:

I am reading with extreme greed a book by Vera Brittain. Not that I much like her. A stringy metallic mind, with I suppose, the sort of taste I should dislike in life. But her story, told in detail, without reserve, of the war, and how she lost lover and brother, and dabbled her hands in entrails, and was forever seeing the dead, and eating scraps, and stting five on one WC, runs rapidly, vividly, across my eyes.

As she then explains at some length, Castle found her rereading of Testament of Youth quite a different experience, coming to appreciate how “phobic and self-critical” Brittain is,and especially  how she struggles against her fears (which Castle too was doing, post-9/11). She finds in Brittain a rare model of a woman who fought against the way women are “imprinted” with cowardice:

By coddling and patronizing its female members, society enforced in them a kind of physical timidity; then, with infuriating circularity, defined such timidity as effeminate and despicable. Both practically and philosophically, Brittain rebelled against the linkage. . . . Had I resisted her for so long–cast her off as an important Not-Me–precisely because, deep down, I felt so much like her? I found out now, with a sudden embarrassed poignancy, precisely how much I sympathized, both with her anxiety and with the florid hope that the men she knew might infect her, so to speak, with physical courage. Not very butch of me, I know. Not very feminist. But I had to confess it: I admired and coveted–quite desperately at times–the insane, uncomplaining, relentless bravery of men.

That’s not where I expected her to take the discussion, but it’s interesting and certainly provocative, as I expect the rest of the book to be.

Also pictured above is a handy little book about the MFA collection. This comes from a particularly rich but obscure book source in leafy Jamaica Plain. It was a special privilege to scavenge in the collection there! More about my experience at the MFA itself, as well as other touristy impressions of Boston, when I’ve caught up on some of the work that has been waiting for my return.

This Week in My Classes: Head and Heart

Both of my class readings for today focus on conflicts–real, assumed, or perceived–between the demands of the head and the demands of the heart.

Balliol College, Oxford

In Women and Detective Fiction, it was our first session on Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night. The novel opens as Harriet Vane revisits Oxford for her college’s Gaudy celebrations. She is pleased to be leaving behind her, as she thinks, the emotional disruptions of her life in London, including her troubled past as a murder suspect and her current relationship with Lord Peter Wimsey. Oxford, to her, represents at this point an oasis of order and clarity:

To be true to one’s calling, whatever follies on might commit in one’s emotional life, that was the way to spiritual peace. How could one feel fettered, being the freeman of so great a city, or humiliated, where all enjoyed equal citizenship? . . . In the glamour of one Gaudy night, one could realize that one was a citizen of no mean city. It might be an old and an old-fashioned city, with inconvenient buildings and narrow streets where the passers-by squabbled foolishly about the right of way; but her foundations were set upon the holy hills and her spires touched heaven.

This “exalted mood” does not altogether survive the ensuing encounters with old classmates or former teachers, but even as clues emerge that beneath its beautiful surface Oxford conceals its share of ugly truths and dark secrets, Harriet continues to be compelled by the ideal of a place in which the highest value is placed on “integrity of the mind.” Writing about Gaudy Night, Sayers recalls having been asked by her own Oxford college to give a toast at the Gaudy dinner:

I had to ask myself exactly what it was for which one had to thank a university education, and came to the conclusion that it was, before everything, that habit of intellectual integrity which is at once the foundation and the result of scholarship.

Much of the novel explores the implications of this commitment, and whether the intellectual life can, or should, be isolated from the life of the heart. For Sayers, the technical challenge was to integrate her interest in this problem, and in the characters she had invented who were living out its implications, with her chosen fictional form:

The new and exciting thing was to bring the love-problem into line with the detective-problem, so that the same key should unlock both at once. I had Harriet, feeling herself for the first time one equal ground with Peter, seeing the attraction of the intellectual life a means of freeing herself from the emotional obsession he had produced in her, and yet seeing (as she supposed) that the celibate intellectual life rendered one liable to insanity in its ugliest form. I had Peter, seeing the truth from the start and perfectly conscious that he had only to leave her under her misapprehension [about the causes of that insanity] to establish his emotional ascendancy over her. . . . Peter’s honesty of mind had to tell him that if Harriet accepted him under any sort of misapprehension, or through any insincerity on his part, they would be plunged into a situation even more false and intolerable than that from which they started. She must come to him as a free agent, if she came at all . . .

Sayers explains in the same essay that her creation of Harriet as a strong, deep, and independent woman necessitated her reinvention of Peter: she had to rewrite him from a caricature to a human being so that a relationship between the two was conceivable. More than that, though, and I think this is at the heart of why so many women writers and critics cherish this novel, she would not compromise Harriet’s autonomy in the interests of romance, so she devotes this entire novel to the struggle of both Peter and Harriet to find the necessary balance or equipoise in their relationship that they can achieve both love and respect, can satisfy both head and heart.

In British Literature Since 1800 we are spending this afternoon’s class on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh. I am fortunate to have as a colleague one of the leading experts on EBB, Marjorie Stone, who recently co-edited the definitive annotated edition of EBB’s poetry for Pickering and Chatto. Marjorie has kindly agreed to do a guest lecture. I’m always very excited when someone else lectures in my class. I thoroughly enjoy lecturing myself, but I love feeling like a student again–that experience, after all, was what sent me down this path in the first place! It’s wonderful to hear someone speak with passion and wisdom about a subject really dear to their heart. We are reading just the excerpts in the Norton Anthology: the bits from Book I on Aurora’s education, from Book II in which she faces off against her conventional cousin Romney, and then from Book V in which she (meaning both Aurora and EBB) redefines the epic form for the modern age, and for the woman poet:

Never flinch,
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon the burning lava of a song,
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That, when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
‘Behold,–behold the paps we all have sucked!
This bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets ours beating: this is living art,
Which thus presents, and thus records true life.

It’s an exciting moment, but one that Aurora has earned (or so she thinks) by choosing her head over her heart, rejecting Romney’s proposal that she give up her poetic ambitions to become his helpmate in social reform: “If your sex is weak for art,” he says,

(And I, who said so, did but honour you
By using truth in courtship), it is strong
For life and duty.

Romney’s assumptions about women reflect Victorian commonplaces about the division of the world into separate spheres of natural aptitude and interest. His assumptions about poetry are also representative, in this case of the Utilitarian prejudice against such frivolous pastimes (“men, and still less women, happily, / Scarce need be poets”). Aurora’s rebuttal is one of many great passages in the verse-novel that reject such polarizing binaries, not just between men and women or poetry and useful work, but between the real and the actual, the spiritual and the material, the individual and the social:

I hold you will not compass your poor ends
Of barley-feeding and material ease,
Without a poet’s individualism
To work your universal. It takes a soul
To move a body: it takes a high-souled man,
To move the masses, even to a cleaner stye:
It takes the ideal, to blow a hair’s-breadth off
The dust of the actual.

Just as Romney must learn to value the heart (or poetry, or the soul, or the spiritual), Aurora must let go of her own absolutism and make manifest the value of poetry as a force for social good, as well as reconciling her head and her heart by accepting the value of love. By the end of Aurora Leigh, they have achieved a rare equality of both passion and commitment, which they celebrate in some wonderfully erotic, ecstatic poetry that (sadly) is not included in the Norton excerpts:

But oh, the night! oh, bitter-sweet! oh sweet!
O dark, O moon and stars, O ecstasy
Of darkness! O great mystery of love,
In which absorbed, loss, anguish, treason’s self
Enlarges rapture, – as a pebble dropt
In some full wine-cup over-brims the wine!
While we too sate together, leaned that night
So close my very garments crept and thrilled
With strange electric life, and both my cheeks
Grew red, then pale, with touches from my hair
In which his breath was. . . .

Sure, it’s perhaps a bit excessive, but isn’t rapture precisely excessive? And even Jane Eyre doesn’t bring her physical response to Rochester to such sensory life.

The Stars Look Down is an actual book!

OK, this is admittedly a very trivial discovery, and one I could have made easily enough long ago, if it had ever occurred to me to inquire. No doubt I’m just revealing yet another embarrassing gap in my reading knowledge in pointing to it as a book I’d never heard of. Still, I felt a little amused thrill yesterday as I was browsing  in J. W. Doull’s and happened across a battered copy of a novel called The Stars Look Down. I instantly recognized the title because it is mentioned several times in the opening section of one of my long-time favourite books, Dorothy Sayers’s Busman’s Honeymoon. Peter’s mother is reading it as the drama of Peter and Harriet’s engagement and marriage unfolds: “Was reading The Stars Look Down (Mem. very depressing, and not what I expected from the title–think I must have had a Christmas carol in mind, but remember now it has something to do with the Holy Sepulchre–must ask Peter and make sure) after ea, when Emily announced ‘Miss Vane,'”  reads the Dowager Duchess’s diary for 21 May. Then she loses track of it (“Must remember to ask Franklin what I have done with The Stars Look Down“). It turns up again in October (“Tried The Stars Look Down again, and found it full of most unpleasant people”) and then finally, on October 8, after the wedding (“H. looked very lovely, like a ship coming into harbour with everything shining and flags flying at wherever modern ships do fly flags…”), she puts it aside once more: “Find The Stars Look Down not quite soothing enough for a bed-book–will fall back on Through the Looking-Glass.” I’m pretty sure The Stars Look Down has no thematic relevance to Busman’s Honeymoon: Wikipedia tells me that the novel chronicles injustices in a mining town. I have no particular interest in reading it. It was just such a surprising start of recognition the minute I saw the title. I guess I may have read Busman’s Honeymoon a few too many times. A while back, a colleague gave a paper in the department on Sayers and the automobile, focusing particularly, of course, on Peter’s Daimler, and I was disconcertingly able to provide exact quotations for the examples she brought up in the Q&A session: “Not waking the baby, are we, Bunter?” “The vibration is at present negligible, my lord.” The mystery plot of the novel is absurd; it was always Peter and Harriet I loved, Harriet especially–though I admit, the Peter Wimsey of Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon is one of a tiny elite group of fictional crushes of mine. (And no, neither Heathcliff nor Mr Rochester is in the group.)

As a completely irrelevant aside, while I was browsing in Doull’s the staff received a phone call from a woman asking for ‘books that would look pretty on her shelves.’ I kid you not. The woman who took the call was remarkably patient (“No, you really would have to come in and take a look to see which books would suit your decor. No, we don’t offer special discounts on books sold “by the foot”; no, we won’t sell our books to you for 25 cents apiece if you buy over a certain quantity; yes, our books are all priced individually based on what they are worth.”) It reminded me of my own days in retail: it’s odd how customers are at once essential and the bane of your existence!