Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: DLS (page 1 of 1)

the rise of detective fiction

In The Long Week-End, their entertaining, sardonic, and often insightful social history of England between the two world wars, Robert Graves and Alan Hodge assert that in the years immediately following the Great War, “Detective-novel writing was not yet an industry; Sherlock Holmes stood alone.” (That comment, like this post, refers only to the British situation; the American situation was quite different.) 

This is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Historians like Graves and Hodge tend to ignore the Sexton Blake stories, presumably on the grounds that they were mass-produced, by multiple authors who worked from simplistic templates, and were aimed primarily at younger audiences. But they were extraordinarily popular and it seems that almost everyone read at least some of them. (When Dorothy L. Sayers was ill at school — the Godolphin School in Salisbury — she wrote to her parents to ask them to send her some Sexton Blakes.) And then, on what one presumes G&H would have thought a higher level of literary ambition, there were the Father Brown stories — but Chesterton, having written a pile of them between 1910 and 1914, did not write another until 1923.

Meanwhile, the Sherlock Holmes wagon continued to roll, though with a pause (as many things paused) in the war years, during which Conan Doyle published only one Holmes story, “His Last Bow,” which was an exercise in patriotism and, moreover, a spy story rather than a tale of detection. But Conan Doyle would, with great reluctance and annoyance, resume Dr. Watson’s accounts of Holmes’s adventures in 1921.

Two other data points should be introduced here. First, the publication in 1913 of what would become one of the most influential novels of detection ever written, E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case. And second, the 1910 trial and conviction of Dr. Crippen, which renewed interest in what we now call True Crime.

If you look at these matters from the perspective of the year 1914, here’s what I think you see:

  • the Sexton Blake stories rolling ever onward, but according to a fixed formula; 
  • the Holmes stories continuing but more slowly, and at a far lower standard than Conan Doyle had established in the 1880s and 1890s; 
  • an interesting experiment in a type of detective radically different than Holmes (Father Brown), which appeared to be complete; 
  • another interesting experiment, this one a playful questioning of the plot conventions of the tale of detection (Trent’s Last Case); 
  • a renewal of interest in True Crime. 

So the future of tales of detection did not appear to be bright, and there was no reason to think that it would become a central genre of fiction.

Then the War came, and such topics were placed, not on the back burner but off the stove altogether. It was difficult, or embarrassing, or just plain shameful to think about a domestic murder or a crime of passion or a killing for money when the greatest slaughter in the history of humanity was ongoing. One could easily imagine that period marking the end of the detective story as a popular genre of fiction. 

When the War ended, though, it became possible and indeed desirable to think about such matters again. It was presumably a kind of relief to be able, once more, to consider malice and death on a human scale — death as a tragedy and a misery but not an unimaginably vast horror. So Conan Doyle resumed his Holmes stories with “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” in 1921, and Chesterton his tales of Father Brown with (I think) “The Resurrection of Father Brown” in 1923. But even more to the point:

  • Agatha Christie published her first mystery novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1920;
  • Freeman Wills Crofts published his first, and by far most influential, mystery novel, The Cask, also in 1920;
  • Dorothy L. Sayers wrote her first detective novel, Whose Body?, in 1921, though it was not published until 1923;
  • The Thompson-Bywaters trial was held in 1922, and after the execution of the convicted murderers in January of 1923, their story became a matter of extravagant public fascination for a very long time.

And so we were off to the races. The Golden Age of detective fiction — influenced at least as much by True Crime as by previous stories and novels — had begun. And I cannot help thinking that it was shaped, then and later, by the great shadow of Death hanging over Europe in the aftermath of the Great War. 

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back to the brows

After reading various writings about the brows — including, first of all, this unsent letter by Virginia Woolf and this 1949 essay by Russell Lyne, I find myself impatient and wanting to cut to the chase. I’ll come back to these matters later when I’ve had more time to think them over, but in the meantime, some Theses:

  1. A work of art can largely confirm the expectations of those who encounter it, largely thwart those expectations, or touch any point between those extremes. This is true of all the arts, but for present purposes I will speak only of fiction.
  2. These expectations can be of many kinds, but the most commonly invoked expectation involves difficulty: How hard-to-track, hard-to-comprehend do we expect and want a book to be?
  3. The reader who demands that all of his or her expectations be met is often called a lowbrow reader; the writer whose work habitually meets such readers’ expectations is often called a lowbrow writer.
  4. The reader who craves surprise, excess, extremity, who is impatient with work that confirms typical expectations, is often called a highbrow reader; the writer whose work consistently violates norms and transgresses standards is often called a highbrow writer. 
  5. N.B.: Higher-browed readers often want to have their aesthetic expectations challenged, but not their moral ones. Almost no one wants that. (But they get it sometimes, from some writers. George Eliot and Vladimir Nabokov are good examples — I’ll write about them, in this regard, one day.) 
  6. “Highbrow,” “middlebrow,” and “lowbrow” are all characteristically pejorative terms, meant to insult, though in some cases (e.g. the piece by Woolf above) a writer will claim and even treasure the insult. See for comparison the history of such words as “Quaker” and “Methodist.” If Virginia Woolf does not think that your novel sufficiently resists your readers’ expectations, she will call you and your readers middlebrows; Graves and Hodges in the same circumstance will call you and your readers lowbrows. (They don’t mention C. P. Snow in their book, but if they had they’d probably have called him a lowbrow writer, but something like The Search is clearly meant for the educated reader.) 
  7. The three brow-terms are most commonly used by people who are or believe themselves to be highbrows, though they may dislike that language and (implicitly or explicitly) put ironic scare-quotes around it.  
  8. Even the most challenging writer will not always want to read works that constantly challenge or repudiate his or her expectations. Auden used to say that great masterpieces demand so much of their readers that you simply can’t take one on every day, not without either trivializing the experience or exhausting yourself. 
  9. It is characteristic of highbrows’ use of these distinctions — see the Woolf letter quoted above and T. S. Eliot’s encomium to the music-hall entertainer Marie Lloyd, which employs the related socio-economic terms “aristocrat,” “middle-class,” and “worker” — that they articulate some alliance of themselves and the lowbrows against the middlebrow.
  10. Lowbrow readers do not know, and if they knew would not care, about this supposed alliance.
  11. Middlebrow readers and writers alike are often aware of the disdain of them felt by highbrows, and may respond either by defensiveness or mockery. (Think of Liberace’s famous response to his critics’ scorn for his music: “I cried all the way to the bank.” Funny to think of that line having a known origin, but it does.) 
  12. For a long time now there has been no genuine lowbrow reading. Those who insist on all their expectations being fulfilled can get that hit much more efficiently through movies, TV, Instagram, TikTok, etc.
  13. The brow-discourse is conceptually distinct from, but overlaps considerably with, genre-discourse. For instance, detective novels that adhere strictly to the conventions of the genre — the Ellery Queen stories, for instance — will often be called lowbrow, while those that frequently deviate from the conventions — the later novels of P. D. James, for instance, or Sayers’s Gaudy Night — may get called “highbrow” or, more likely, “literary fiction.”
  14. The tripartite brow-discourse is much less useful than a more nuanced and more detailed account of readerly expectations, one which is sensitive to the ways different genres can generate different sets of expectations, and respond to those expectations in diverse ways. 

UPDATE 2024–05–27: It suddenly occurs to me that I have been confusing two quite different things: the three-brow distinction as a way of talking specifically about reading books and as a way of talking about culture then as a whole. If you’re talking about reading, then of course there are lowbrow readers, lowbrow books, etc. But if you’re talking broadly about culture, then in an age when the popularity of movies, TV, and social media is at least an order of magnitude — I use that term with care; most people use it to mean “a whole lot” — I repeat, at least an order of magnitude greater than the popularity of reading, then anyone who reads books at all is ipso facto a middlebrow. 

UPDATE 2024-06-05: I have received a salutary word of criticism from my friend Francis Spufford: 

It is slightly nerve-wracking saying this, Professor Jacobs, but you are uncharacteristically misreading the Woolf. Yes, she’s a vile old snob in literary as much as in social terms. But I don’t think you can adduce what she says here about the ‘common reader’ as proof of that. To my ear, she’s being ironic throughout. She says, with stagey astonishment, that the common reader fails to measure up to proper critical standards, insisting on reading for such low satisfactions as pleasure, amusement, and a sense of meeting real human beings. She observes, as if baffled, that the survival or otherwise of literature over the long term is determined by the reputation of a work among these amateurs, and not among professors or theoreticians at all. How ghastly! Just for once, I’m sure the irony here means that Woolf is putting herself on the side of what’s common. There is a hole on her snobbery, a subject on which she feels like an insurgent rather than a possessor, and it’s to do with her lack of a university education. Unlike Sayers at Somerville, Virginia Stephen did all her reading at home, devising her own critical standards based on her own reactions. She is a common reader, by her own lights. Indeed she publishes two books of critical essays called The Common Reader and The Common Reader 2. She’s claiming the right to read Cervantes for fun, rather than the right to borrow three romances a week from the Boots Circulating Library, but it’s still a claim to centre pleasure. Virginia on the barricades! Virginia ‘Che’ Woolf! 

I think Francis is almost wholly right here, though I do believe Woolf’s irony is not united with snobbery. Anyway, criticism taken gratefully on board, to be deployed later. 

the integrity of science

I haven’t forgotten about middlebrow matters, but right now my mind is on something else. Something related, though. 

Readers of Gaudy Night (1935) will recall — stop reading if you haven’t read Gaudy Night and don’t want any spoilers — that the plot hinges on an event that occurred some years before the book’s present-day: a (male) historian fudged some evidence and a (female) historian caught him at it and reported the malfeasance, which led to his losing his job. Late in the book, but before the full relevance of this event to the plot has been revealed, there’s a conversation about scholarly integrity, which I will now drop into the middle of: 

“So long,” said Wimsey, “as it doesn’t falsify the facts. But it might be a different kind of thing. To take a concrete instance — somebody wrote a novel called The Search — “

C. P. Snow,” said Miss Burrows. “It’s funny you should mention that. It was the book that the — ”

“I know,” said Peter. “That’s possibly why it was in my mind.” 

A person has been vandalizing Shrewsbury College and a copy of that novel, with certain pages torn out, has been found. The novel, by the way, appeared in 1934, around the time that Sayers began writing Gaudy Night. It would be interesting to know whether it was the direct inspiration for her story, or whether she read it after some elements were already in place. I hope to find out more about that.

And by the way, I am going to be spoiling that novel far more thoroughly than I will spoil Gaudy Night — but it’s not one that many people read, these days. 


“I never read the book,” said the Warden.

“Oh, I did,” said the Dean. “It’s about a man who starts out to be a scientist and gets on very well till, just as he’s going to be appointed to an important executive post, he finds he’s made a careless error in a scientific paper. He didn’t check his assistant’s results, or something. Somebody finds out, and he doesn’t get the job. So he decides he doesn’t really care about science after all.”  

“Obviously not,” said Miss Edwards. “He only cared about the post.”

Neither the Dean, who has read the book, nor Miss Edwards, who hasn’t, is quite accurate. The scholar, whose name is Arthur Miles, probably would have gotten the post even without the paper; but it’s perfectly possible that he rushed the paper, failed to be appropriately self-critical, because he knew that the vote for the Director of a new scientific institute would be coming soon. Miles doesn’t know; he can’t be sure; maybe he would’ve made the mistake anyway. But in any case, as soon as he is told that there’s a problem with his paper, he runs the numbers again, sees the error, and immediately admits that he was wrong. 

Let me pause for two digressions: 

  1. Sayers specifies what pages were torn from the book — but I don’t have access to the edition that Sayers had read, which I assume was the first hardcover edition, so I don’t know what exactly was excised, but I suspect that it was the part where Miles admits his mistake. (The whole business is a flaw in Sayers’s plot, because it’s impossible to imagine the Responsible Party having read Snow’s book and known which pages to tear out; but DLS clearly was determined to get a discussion of The Search into her own novel, so she found a way.)   
  2. As it happens, this is Snow’s most autobiographical novel: what happened to Miles also happened to him. He began his career as a chemist, and wrote a paper (published in Nature) which was then discovered to contain an embarrassing mistake — upon which he abandoned his work as a scientist and became a novelist and bureaucrat.    

Now, back to Gaudy Night

“The point about it,” said Wimsey, “is what an elderly scientist says to him. He tells him: ‘The only ethical principle which has made science possible is that the truth shall be told all the time. If we do not penalize false statements made in error, we open up the way for false statements by intention. And a false statement of fact, made deliberately, is the most serious crime a scientist can commit.’ Words to that effect. I may not be quoting quite correctly.“

Wimsey’s summary is a good one. This is indeed what the “elderly scientist,” a man named Hulme, says to him. And Miles does not disagree. What’s more on his mind, though, is the picture of his future laid out for him by another senior scientist: 

“You’ve got to work absolutely steadily, without another suspicion of a mistake. You’ve got to let yourself be patronised and regretted over. You’ve got to get out of the limelight. Then in three or four years, you’ll be back where you were; though it will be held up against you, one way and another, for longer than that. It will delay your getting into the Royal [Society], of course. That can’t be helped. You’ll have a lean time for a while; but you’re young enough to get over it.” 

Faced with this prospect, Miles realizes that he could only manage all this (“Watching the dullards gloat. Working under Tremlin. Having every day a reminder of the old dreams”) if he had a genuine devotion to science. But: “It occurred to me I had no devotion to science.”

N.B.: the point is not that the event has taken away his devotion to science, but rather, “I am not devoted to science, I thought. And I have not been for years, and I have kept it from myself till now.” The revelation of his error leads to a revelation of what had been true about him all along: “There were so many signs going back so far, if I had let myself see, if it had been convenient to see.” Indeed, it now becomes clear to him that his desire to become the director of a scientific institute — an administrative position, not one that would involve him directly in research — precisely because on some unconscious level he didn’t want to be a scientist any more: “I had thrown myself into human beings — to escape the chill when my scientific devotion ended.” 

It should be clear, then, that “he decides he doesn’t really care about science after all” is not an adequate explanation of what happens. 

But there’s also a twist in the tail of this story, which in Gaudy Night Sayers calls attention to: 

“In the same novel,” said the Dean, “somebody deliberately falsifies a result — later on, I mean — in order to get a job. And the man who made the original mistake finds it out. But he says nothing, because the other man is very badly off and has a wife and family to keep.”

”These wives and families!“ said Peter.

”Does the author approve?“ inquired the Warden.

”Well,“ said the Dean, ”the book ends there, so I suppose he does.” 

Or does he? And is that an accurate description of the case? Several facts here are relevant:

  • The man who has falsified the data, Sheriff, is one of Miles’s oldest friends.  
  • Miles got Sheriff his current job and has been guiding his research, trying to keep him on the straight and narrow — he’s a feckless fellow, and a habitual liar, but Miles had hoped that he was ready to reform.   
  • Sheriff had promised Miles, and also his own wife, that he was working on a safe project when he was in fact working on a high-risk, high-reward one — one he thought likely to lead to a prestigious position that, now that the paper has been published, he is indeed about to be offered.   
  • Miles has a sense of responsibility for Sheriff because he had hoped to hire him for a position at the aforementioned Institute, but gave up on the idea when he realized that his own position was compromised. He thinks perhaps he should have pushed harder for Sheriff anyway. 
  • Early in his career Miles had had the opportunity to consciously fudge data himself, and seriously considered it — he thought that he might eventually be found out, but only after achieving a brilliant career from which summit he could just say “Whoops, I made a mistake” — but instead abandoned the research project. He thought, though, that in the future he would have compassion for any scientist who succumbed to a similar temptation.  
  • And most important of all, Sheriff is married to Audrey, Miles’s former lover, for whom, though he himself is now happily married, he cherishes a strong and lasting tendresse — despite the fact that Sheriff basically stole her affections while Miles was abroad.  

The Search is not a great novel, but this is perhaps its best element: the faithful portrayal of Miles’s complex and ever-shifting and deeply human responses to Sheriff’s lying. (It reminds me a bit of the greatest scene of this kind I know, the moment in Middlemarch when Lydgate has to decide how to vote for the chaplaincy of a new hospital. I wrote about that thirty years ago [!!] near the end of this essay.)

On the one hand, he knows exactly what Sheriff did and why:  

I had no doubts at all. It was a deliberate mistake. He had committed the major scientific crime (I could still hear Hulme’s voice trickling gently, firmly on).

Sheriff had given some false facts, suppressed some true ones. When I realised it, I was not particularly surprised. I could imagine his quick, ingenious, harassed mind thinking it over. For various reasons, he had chosen this problem; it would not take so much work, it would be more exciting, it might secure his niche straight away. … But I must not know, half because he was a little ashamed, half because I might interfere. So [his research assistant] and Audrey must, for safety’s sake, also be deceived.

All this he would do quite cheerfully. The problem began well. … Then he came to that stage where every result seemed to contradict the last, where there was no clear road ahead, where there seemed no road ahead at all. There he must have hesitated. On the one hand he had lost months, there would be no position for years, he would have to come to me and confess; on the other his mind flitted round the chance of a fraud.

There was a risk, but he might secure all the success still. I scarcely think the ethics of scientific deceit troubled him; but the risk must have done. For if he were found out, he was ruined. He might keep on as a minor lecturer, but there would be nothing ahead. 

Miles does not excuse Sheriff at any point; he knows that the man’s dishonesty is habitual, perhaps pathological. But he also knows that Sheriff and Audrey have reached a certain accommodation in their marriage, that Audrey understands who her husband is but loves him and needs him anyway. Miles writes a letter that would expose and run Sheriff, and then, realizing that it would also ruin Audrey, … 

I shall not send the letter, I was thinking. Let him win his gamble. Let him cheat his way to the respectable success he wants. He will delight in it, and become a figure in the scientific world; and give broadcast talks and views on immortality; all of which he will love. And Audrey will be there, amused but rather proud. Oh, let him have it.

For me, if I do not send the letter, what then? There was only one answer; I was breaking irrevocably from science. This was the end, for me. Ever since I left professionally, I had been keeping a retreat open in my mind; supervising Sheriff had meant to myself that I could go back at any time. If I did not write I should be depriving myself of the loophole. I should have proved, once for all, how little science mattered to me.

There were no ways between. I could have held my hand until he was elected, and then threatened that either he must correct the mistake, or I would; but that was a compromise in action and not in mind. No, he should have his triumph to the full. Audrey should not know, she had seen so many disillusions, I would spare her this.

The human wins out over the scientific. Maybe, Arthur thinks, it always does. But Gaudy Night shows that sometimes the scientific — in the sense of a strict commitment to the sacredness of honest research — can sometimes have its own victories. And Gaudy Night also suggests that the choices might not be as stark as Snow’s story suggests. More on that in another post. 

Sayers the middlebrow writer

Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, in The Lost Week-End (1940), their generally fascinating and informative social history of Great Britain between the world wars, make a great many Olympian pronouncements. They say, for instance, that Auden “perhaps never wrote an original line,” a claim that, to the person who has read even a handful of Auden poems, is instantly revealed as one of the most dim-witted statements in the history of literary criticism. (“Who stands, the crux left of the watershed” — oh goodness, that hoary old chestnut?) And they declare that by the 1930s “low-brow reading was now dominated by the detective novel.”

Well … if the detective novel is “low-brow reading,” then how to describe magazines devoted to movie stars or Mills & Boon romances? “Such things,” we can imagine Graves and Hodge saying in the plummiest of tones, “scarcely deserve the name of ‘reading.’” But people who read such books really are reading, and contra G&H, detective novels, in their literary ambitions and expectations, are an ideal example of middlebrow literature.

I tend to think of middlebrow writing as the kind of thing that highbrows would never write but still enjoy. Auden, for instance, whether an original poet or not, loved detective stories, as did T. S. Eliot (among many others).

Dorothy L. Sayers — my current biographical subject — strikes me as a paradigmatic middlebrow writer, possessing the intellectual equipment of the highbrow but believing implicitly in the capabilities of what Virginia Woolf condescendingly called “the common reader.” Woolf was highly aware of the deficiencies of the common reader:

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole — a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr. Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

Not well educated, not generously gifted, instinctively (not consciously) moved to create a whole but capable of constructing only the “rickety and ramshackle,” the common reader can only form “insignificant” ideas and opinions. Lovely.

Sayers would agree with some of this. But she did not think the ideas and opinions of the common reader insignificant; indeed, she thought them typically superior to the opinions of highbrows. More important: while Woolf takes the shortcomings of “the common reader” as givens, almost as natural phenomena like mushrooms or cloudy days, Sayers, by contrast, sees any such deficiencies as remediable — and sees such remediation as part of her responsibility as an intellectual.

Let me just make a few pronouncements of my own:

  1. Woolf is a truly great writer; Sayers is not.
  2. Woolf is a highbrow; Sayers is not, and indeed frequently makes highbrows the butt of her satire.
  3. Sayers in her fiction regularly shows an interest in a wide range of social classes, with their accompanying habits, inclinations, and modes of speech; Woolf is interested in none of these things: all of her characters are of the same social class.
  4. Sayers is far better-educated than Woolf, more learned, and has a wider intellectual capacity: Woolf could not have managed cryptograms in a novel, or forced herself to learn the biochemistry of poisons, or translated Dante and and Song of Roland … but of course Sayers couldn’t have written Mrs. Dalloway either.

(Digression: I might add, in relation to that last point, that while Sayers was only eleven years younger than Woolf, a major transformation in the possibilities of education for women in England accelerated between Woolf’s adolescence and Sayers’s. Virginia Stephen was largely educated at home, though she did get to attend classes at King’s College London for a time; Sayers took a first-class degree at Somerville College, Oxford: when she completed her studies in 1915, women could not yet receive Oxford degrees, but she was awarded hers retroactively in 1920. The whole business of women’s education was immensely complicated in this era, with different universities changing their policies at different rates. For instance, Flora Hamilton, later to be Flora Lewis and the mother of C. S. Lewis, took a first-class degree in logic and a second in mathematics at Queen’s University Belfast in 1885. But by the time Sayers took that belated degree openness to both sexes was nearly universal, though of course informal bigotry would continue.)

I would further suggest that Sayers’s translations of Dante, and her sequence of radio plays The Man Born to be King, are classic middlebrow endeavors: attempts to render old, difficult texts and ideas comprehensible to a general audience. (A project in remediation.) I will also argue in my biography, though probably not in detail here on my blog, that her detective novels do some of the same work, as she tried in them to do what Wilkie Collins had done in the previous century: marry the story of detection with the social novel.

But wait: I haven’t defined my brows, have I? What do I mean — what should one mean — by highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow? As it happens, that was a central question of mid-twentieth-century intellectual life — and it gave us some categories that we still use today. So I’ll be exploring that in future posts.


J. R. Ackerley, author of that remarkable book My Dog Tulip, worked for the BBC for many years and in that capacity oversaw the production of The Scoop (1931), a detective story written by six authors, each of whom read his or her contribution on-air. Dorothy L. Sayers coordinated the project; she was probably the only person who could have gotten the shy and retiring Agatha Christie to participate. But she and Ackerley continually butted heads, as he wished to provide editorial oversight that Sayers flatly rejected.

Some years later Ackerley wrote in a BBC memo

So far as I recall Agatha Christie, she was surprisingly good-looking and extremely tiresome. She was always late sending in her stuff, very difficult to pin down to any engagements and invariably late for them. I record these memories with pain, for she is my favourite detective story writer.

Her success as a broadcaster has made less impression upon me. I believe she was quite adequate but nothing more; a little on the feeble side, if I recollect aright, but then anyone in that series would have seemed feeble against the terrific vitality, bullying and bounce of that dreadful woman Dorothy L. Sayers. 

Whether Sayers was indeed “bullying,” or simply a woman who refused to be dictated to by men who were accustomed to dictating to women, is a matter of dispute. Later, when she was writing the plays that would become The Man Born to be King, she responded to an interfering producer thus: “Oh no you don’t, my poppet!” That producer was removed from the project — and replaced by one of the greatest theatrical producers of the twentieth century, Val Gielgud (brother of the actor John). However “difficult” she might have been, she couldn’t be dispensed with; in the end, it was almost always her critics who had to give way. 

But “vitality, bullying and bounce” is a great phrase, and many people found DLS similarly intimidating, and too energetic for comfort. But not everyone disliked the bounciness. On her death, C. S. Lewis wrote, “I liked her, originally, because she liked me; later, for the extraordinary zest and edge of her conversation — as I like a high wind.” And in a memoir Val Gielgud wrote, “Miss Sayers is professional of the professionals. She can tolerate anything but the shoddy or the slapdash. Of all the authors I have known she has the clearest, and the most justifiable, view of the proper respective spheres of author and producer, and of their respective limitations. She is authoritative, brisk, and positive.” 

Vitality, bounce, zest, edge, authoritative, brisk — a high wind indeed. No wonder responses to her were so mixed. She’s gonna be so much fun to write about.  

a letter from Karl Barth

On 7 September 1939, a week after the Wehrmacht invaded Poland and thus began the Second World War, the great theologian Karl Barth wrote, in German, from his home in Switzerland to a woman in England. “You too must be shocked by the events of our day,” he wrote. “But I am happy that this time England did not want to let another ‘Munich’ happen, and I hope also for the poor German people that now the end of its worst time (which I have witnessed intimately) has at least begun.” Tragically, war had returned to Europe — but the hapless policy of of appeasement was over, and now the end of Hitler, and of Nazism, could, however dimly, be foreseen. 

But to acknowledge the war was not the purpose of Barth’s letter. Rather, he wanted to ask this woman for permission to translate two of her theological writings, and also to seek answers to a few questions about the texts. Barth did not make a habit of translating non-German texts — in fact, the only translation he had published was of a sermon by John Calvin — but in these contemporary writings he had found something that he thought his audience would particularly benefit from reading. Moreover, this woman’s fiction had helped him to learn English better; perhaps even more to the point, he had read her novels “with particular interest and admiration.” 

The author to whom Barth wrote was Dorothy L. Sayers. Twenty years later he remarked that, in 1939, she had been “familiar to me as the author of a whole series of detective novels — at once thrilling, cultured, and thoughtful. The fascinating thing about these books for me was the visible connection in them between a humanism of the best Oxford tradition and a pronounced mastery in the technique which is essential to literary engagement in this genre.” But at that time he had no idea that she was a Christian, and when a Scottish friend suggested that he read some of her theological essays, he was surprised to learn of their existence — and even more surprised to find them stating most clearly and forcefully certain points about the beauty, power, and sheer drama of Christian doctrine that were dear to his own heart. (However, he did discern, and even in that introductory letter told her that he discerned, a strain of “semi-Pelagianism” in her theology, a comment that she found amusing and inaccurate.) 

The works he sought to translate had originally appeared in 1938 in the Times of London: “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged” and “The Triumph of Easter,” later published together in a short book. Barth, having had his questions answered by Sayers, duly produced his translation, but in the chaos that inevitably accompanies wartime set it aside and did not return to it until 1959, two years after Sayers’s death. At that time he wrote, 

The special gift of the author, which is evident in her earlier work, certainly remained with her in this later phase of her writing as well — something to which the present little book bears witness. In the following pages, she has spiritedly and successfully come out against dogma’s reputation for “tediousness”; in her manner of taking it up and discussing it, its effect is certainly anything but tedious! … For having vigorously made the message of the gospel her own in breathless astonishment over its central content, and for having recounted it in a way that is open to the world, yet undaunted, quick-witted, and without any hint of apology — but above all, in a way that is joyful and that causes joy in turn — for all of this, regardless of how one might relate to the ins and outs of her thinking at particular points, one must be grateful to her. 

“In a way that is joyful and that causes joy in turn” — what a lovely tribute. The source of that joy may be found described in that essay on Easter. Here’s an excerpt:

“Then Judas, which had betrayed Him, when he saw that He was condemned,… cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.” And thereby Judas committed the final, the fatal, the most pitiful error of all; for he despaired of God and himself and never waited to see the Resurrection. Had he done so, there would have been an encounter, and an opportunity, to leave invention bankrupt; but unhappily for himself, he did not. In this world, at any rate, he never saw the triumph of Christ fulfilled upon him, and through him, and despite of him. He saw the dreadful payment made, and never knew what victory had been purchased with the price.

All of us, perhaps, are too ready, when our behaviour turns out to have appalling consequences, to rush out and hang ourselves. Sometimes we do worse, and show an inclination to go and hang other people. Judas, at least, seems to have blamed nobody but himself, and St. Peter, who had a minor betrayal of his own to weep for, made his act of contrition and waited to see what came next. What came next for St. Peter and the other disciples was the sudden assurance of what God was, and with it the answer to all the riddles.

If Christ could take evil and suffering and do that sort of thing with them, then of course it was all worth while, and the triumph of Easter linked up with that strange, triumphant prayer in the Upper Room, which the events of Good Friday had seemed to make so puzzling. As for their own parts in the drama, nothing could now alter the fact that they had been stupid, cowardly, faithless, and in many ways singularly unhelpful; but they did not allow any morbid and egotistical remorse to inhibit their joyful activities in the future.

Now, indeed, they could go out and “do something” about the problem of sin and suffering. They had seen the strong hands of God twist the crown of thorns into a crown of glory, and in hands as strong as that they knew themselves safe. They had misunderstood practically everything Christ had ever said to them, but no matter: the thing made sense at last, and the meaning was far beyond anything they had dreamed. They had expected a walk-over, and they beheld a victory; they had expected an earthly Messiah, and they beheld the Soul of Eternity.

It had been said to them of old time, “No man shall look upon My face and live”; but for them a means had been found. They had seen the face of the living God turned upon them; and it was the face of a suffering and rejoicing Man. 

The refusal to “allow any morbid and egotistical remorse to inhibit their joyful activities in the future” is a key point for Sayers, and something essential for understanding certain elements of her own life — but that’s a story for me to tell in my biography of her. 

The story of this correspondence is well-told in an article by my former colleague David McNutt. In this post I have used David’s translation of Barth’s reflections on Sayers. 

Another Note About Reading

In response to my posting of some rather directive thoughts on reading by Dorothy Sayers, a friend wrote: “Hey, I thought you were the ‘read at whim’ guy.” To which I respond, first, I am the “read at whim” guy. In that book I wrote, and I still believe,

For heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the “calories burned” readout — some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of


with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C. S. Lewis once called “social and ethical hygiene.”

But what I was writing about there was recreational reading. I don’t tell students in my classes to read at whim; I don’t encourage people studying for an organic chemistry final exam or the LSAT to read at whim. And it seems to me that people don’t always keep the varying occasions of reading clearly distinguished in their minds when they talk about what others should or should not read — nor when they make their own decisions about reading.

When reading for fun, then, I’d recommend, read for fun. When reading in order to learn about something specific, for a definable purpose, then read, in a disciplined and attentive way, what helps you to achieve that purpose. This much seems clear to me. But I think what often happens to people is that they catch themselves in a vaguely intermediate condition, not really needing to read anything in particular but vaguely feeling that their reading somehow ought to be purposeful — even teleological in a way, leading towards some genuinely meaningful end.

What many of these people really want, it seems to me — and I base this on decades of talking with folks who are anxious about their reading — is not to read Henry James but to be the kind of person who, when left at loose ends, positively wants to read Henry James, wants to read Henry James so much that he or she will toss aside Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Fifty Shades of Grey without even noticing what they are in order to get to that precious copy of The Ambassadors that someone has inexplicably left at the bottom of a stack.

I think it’s okay not to be that person. I have read most of Henry James’s novels and I think he is a true master — though still more a master of the short story — but I am definitely not that person.

If you want to make a serious study of the novels of Henry James in order to develop a fuller understanding of his mastery, then do that. It’s a good thing to do. Develop a plan, develop a strategy for learning more about anything that you’d like to know more about. Self-education is a fantastic thing. But it’s not the same thing as reading for fun, for delight, at whim. And giving free rein to Whim from time to time is also a very healthy — I would say a necessary — thing to do.

Dorothy Sayers, “A Note on Creative Reading”

In 1940, when the Second World War was underway and the Battle of Britain had begun, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote a little book for Gollancz called Begin Here: A War-Time Essay. (It was published in America the next year as Begin Here: A Statement of Faith.) It is a curious book, seeking to articulate in a casual and offhand way the conditions under which a society under siege might discover a non-economic means of unity. Like many writers of the time, Sayers was concerned with what war might do to the intellectual and educational life of her country, and therefore concluded the book with a list of recommended books and “A Note on Creative Reading.” I think her account of reading is interesting enough to reproduce in full.

Reading being one of our principal occupations on long, dark evenings, I should like to explain what I mean by saying that it ought to be done creatively. (Here, by the way, I am on my own special ground, and shall take leave to speak with authority.)

Do not, I implore you, continue in that indolent and soul-destroying habit of picking up a book “to distract your mind” (“distract” is the word for it) or “to knock down time” (there is only too little time already, and it will knock us down soon enough). The only respectable reason for reading a book is that you want to know what is in it. Do not choose your literature by the half-witted process of asking the young woman at the library for “a nice book” and enquiring anxiously of her, “Shall I like it?” Subscribe to a decently serious paper, read the reviews and order what you think will interest you. (Study the publishers’ lists too, by all means, bearing in mind that the “blurb” is written to sell the book and is therefore not an expression of free criticism. Do not be too much put off either; many a good book has a sickening blurb.)

If the book, when obtained, does not interest you, ask yourself why; and have the elementary politeness to give yourself a sensible answer. Does the subject displease you ? — and if so, is it by any chance one of those disquieting things that you “would rather not know about”, though you really ought not to shirk it? Does the author’s opinion conflict with some cherished opinion of your own ? — If so, can you give reasons for your own opinion? (Do try and avoid the criticism that begins: “We do not like to think” this, that or the other; it is often so painfully true that we do not like to think.) Or is it that the author is ignorant, illogical or superficial? (Are you sure? Have you taken the trouble to verify his references? Can you support your own view from your reading or experience?) Or is his style dull, obscure, or ugly? Does he write bad English? If you think so, justify yourself by examples and be sure you know why they are bad. (And don’t trust those horrid little manuals all about how to write correct English; they are nearly always wrong or hopelessly pedantic; consult the people who know real literature when they see it, like H. W. Fowler, Quiller-Couch or A. P. Herbert. Language is a live thing; you can’t confine it in little primers.)

If, on the other hand, the book does interest you, don’t leave it at that. Go on and read other books bearing on the subject, and collect illuminating experience of your own; go out and get the experience. See whether, in view of what the books say, you can’t and ought not to do something about it; make the books part of your life. And if the author’s style appeals to you, do make a point of enjoying it. Get the feel of balance in a beautiful sentence, rejoice in the lovely appropriateness of the exact right word and thank your gods that the author had the wit and industry to choose that word, out of a whole dictionaryful of less adequate words, for the express purpose of pleasing you. Entertain yourself by finding other words yourself and discovering why they sound so feeble by comparison.

Pray get rid of the idea that books are each a separate thing, divided from one another and from life. Read each in the light of all the others, especially in the light of books of another kind. Try and see — this is the most fascinating exercise of all — whether a statement in one book may not be a statement of the same experience which another book expresses in quite different terms. (I tried to make a “synthesis” of this kind about biological man and the theological doctrine of the Fall.) Try the experiment of putting a statement of one kind into the terms of another. Try especially putting statements made in old-fashioned language into modern terms. You will often find that things you have taken all your life for incomprehensible dogmas turn out to be perfectly intelligible observations of truth. Take, for instance, those dark pronouncements in the Athanasian Creed that God is uncreate, incomprehensible and eternal, and re-state them like this: “The standard of Absolute Value is not limited by matter, not limited by space, not limited by time.” It may seem more acceptable that way….

Or if you read somewhere a reference to “Aristotle’s three Dramatic Unities — unity of time, unity of place and unity of action”, do not (as some writers do who should know better) dismiss Aristotle as a tedious old classic of two thousand years ago who tried to tie up dramatic form in red-tape of his own manufacture. What he said was a statement of fact about the plays he had observed to be successful, and he meant exactly what your favourite dramatic critic means when he says: “The interest in this play is too much scattered, and confused with side-issues. There are far too many scenes, and the story drags on over a period of three generations, so that we have to be continually consulting the programme to know what year we have got to.”

Which reminds me: please burn all your book-markers — even the pretty one Aunt Mabel sent you last Christmas (or at least put that one away and only bring it out when she comes to call). You cannot possibly be so bird-witted as to be unable to discover which page you got to by looking at it. If the author mentions some other book in terms which make it seem important, whether he approves or refutes it, don’t take his word for it: get the other book and read it, and judge for yourself. If he refers to something, or uses some word, which you don’t understand, get a dictionary or work of reference and look it up. (Don’t write and ask the author to explain; he is not required to be an Encyclopedia, and you will only give him a poor idea of your industry and intelligence.) Especially, examine the sources of what he writes; to read Mr. Somebody’s critical valuation of Milton’s prose or his examination of the economic effects of the Peace-Treaty is quite valueless if you have never read any Milton and do not know what the Peace-Treaty actually said. Discuss the books you read. If your husband or your wife is bored with your opinions (they very often are), persuade some friend to read the same books and talk them over. By discussion I mean discussion: not just saying, “Oh, I thought it was frightfully interesting, didn’t you?” Nor do I mean exchanging gossip about the author’s personality and private life and saying he must be a delightful (interesting, unpleasant, dangerous, irritating, fascinating, entertaining) person to know. (It is well to remember that the best of a writer’s energies goes into his writing; he may not have much charm or virtue left over for private use. This does not invalidate his opinions; it merely means that he is liable to be disappointing when encountered in person.)

And do please realise that words are not just “talky-talk” — they are real and vital; they can change the face of the world. They are a form of action — “in the beginning was the Word by Whom all things were made”. Even the spate of futile words that pours out from the ephemeral press and the commercial-fiction-mongers has a real and terrible power; it can become a dope as dangerous as drugs or drink; it can rot the mind, sap the reason, send the will to sleep; it can pull down empires and set the neck of the people under the heel of tyranny. “For every idle word that ye speak ye shall render account at the day of judgment.” I do not think that means that we shall have to pay a fine in a few million years’ time for every occasion on which we said “dash it all” or indulged in a bit of harmless frivolity; but I do think it was meant as an urgent warning against abusing or under-rating the power of words, and that the judgment is eternal — that is, it is here and now.