Monday, July 29, 2019

Such A Strange Lady by Janet Hitchman

Source of book: I own this. 
My wife has outstanding taste in books, and never fails to find me great used books for various occasions, including Christmas of 2016, when she found this one. 

Such A Strange Lady is a biography - the very first written - of Dorothy L. Sayers. (The “L” was important to her - it was from her maternal ancestor Percival Leigh - one of the founders of Punch.) Most will know her, if at all, for her Lord Peter Wimsey murder mysteries, although the number of people I know who have heard of her is disappointingly small. Fewer still will know of her amazing feminist essays, collected as Are Women Human? And yes, you absolutely should read them. 

My history with Sayers starts with her short story “The Inspiration of Mr. Budd,” which I read for 7th or 8th grade literature. I was smitten, but didn’t really follow up on her at the time. Later, in law school, a good friend happened to bring Murder Must Advertise along to a law school conference. I borrowed it, and read it before we had to return to our respective coasts. (There is a reason I wasn’t an A+ law student. I cared...enough. But not enough to work that hard and give up reading for fun. Oh well, no real regrets.) 

So anyway, it was interesting to read more about her life. She was the child of a country clergyman - one who actually exemplified the Christian ethic, often giving away more of his modest income than he could afford to help the poor. He also was determined to give young Dorothy - an only child, and a bit peculiar - as good an education as a boy. She wasn’t exactly a model student, although she was obviously highly intelligent. She was also socially awkward, tall and big boned, louder than people thought she should be. She got through school fine, and managed to get into Oxford. She completed her courses there with moderate distinction. But she was given no degree - Oxford didn’t get those to women at the time. (She would eventually get her degree many years later, and Oxford would see the error of its ways after she left.) 

Sayers struggled after graduation to find her place in the world. She taught. And hated it. She wrote, but took a while to find success - which she did by writing genre fiction - the Lord Peter mysteries, which she felt were beneath her, but they paid the bills. She worked for a while in advertising, where she was actually pretty good. Although most of us are too young (and in my case too American) to remember it, there was a fantastically successful campaign for Colman’s Mustard, featuring the fictional adventures of the “Mustard Club.” While the idea wasn’t hers, she ended up writing most of the copy. And, she later used her experiences in Murder Must Advertise.

Later, Sayers would return to her more scholarly roots, with a series of plays (performed mostly on radio) with religious themes, several books on theology and religion, and a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Predictably, this last drew some undeserved derision - how could a mere writer of mystery novels attempt a translation. Sayers reminded the critics that long before she was a writer of fiction, she was a scholar - and the fiction served to pay her bills. 

Sayers had little luck in love, alas. She had a child out of wedlock. The father is unknown to this day - she was extremely private about it. She gave the boy her name, although she outsourced the raising for the most part. She later married a flaky sort, who slept around on her, and drank. They seemed to get along after a fashion, although she didn’t exactly mourn his death openly. (To be honest, I wonder if she was on the Autism spectrum. It would make sense of many things about her. As the author puts it about her childhood, “Like the cat, an animal she dearly loved, she tolerated, rather than embraced, civilization.”)  

There are some highly interesting things in this short book. First is the fact that the author had to make do with a relative minimum of information. Her family refused to cooperate at all, leading to an absolutely fantastic line in the introduction:

“I must absolve from any errors Miss Sayers’ family, close friends, and executors, from whom I had no assistance whatsoever.”

I also must quote a few things regarding the religious plays. During World War Two, Sayers wrote a radio production for the BBC on the life of Christ. It was a multi-part series, to be performed by actors (horrors!) and in modern English. Predictably, this was met with great pearl clutching by the Fundies of 1940s British society, and much pressure was put on the BBC to cancel it. This was particularly silly as Sayers wrote a rather respectful play, in keeping with her devout beliefs - but also her modern artistic sensibilities. As with modern Fundie boycott campaigns, this rather backfired. The BBC stood firm, and the campaign gave free publicity to Sayers. As she put it in her tributes to the actors and producers, with her characteristic wit:

It is moreover irresistibly tempting (though is it kind or Christian?) to mention the Lord’s Day Observance Society and the Protestant Truth Society, who so obligingly did all our publicity for us at, I fear, considerable expense to themselves. Without their efforts, the plays might have slipped by with comparatively little notice, being given at an hour inconvenient for grown-up listening. These doughty opponents secured for us a large increase in our adult audience and thus enabled the political and theological issues in the most important part of the story to be treated with more breadth and pungency than might otherwise have seemed justifiable...The irony of the situation is, however, not of my making--it is part of the universal comedy. Let us record the plain fact: the opposition did us good service; let our gratitude for that go where all gratitude is due. 

Also fascinating to me regarding the plays is her nuanced take on one of the underrated characters in the Gospels: Judas Iscariot. To portray him as a cartoon villain is indefensible in my mind. Sayers wrote about this to her producer when the project was in progress. 

Judas is an insoluble riddle. He can’t have been awful from the start, or Christ would never have called him. I mean, one can’t suppose that He deliberately chose a traitor in order to get Himself betrayed--that savours too much of the agent provocateur, and isn’t the sort of thing one would expect of any decent man, let alone of any decent God--to do. And He can’t have been so stupid as to have been taken in by an obviously bad hat;--quite apart from any doctrinal assumptions. He was far too good a psychologist. Judas must have been a case of corruptio optima pessima; but what corrupted him? Disappointment at finding that the earthly kingdom wasn’t coming along? or defeatism, feeling that the war was lost, and one had better make terms quickly? Or just (as the Gospels seem rather unconvincingly to suggest) money and alarm for his own interests? If we can get a coherent Judas we can probably get a coherent plot.

I have wondered along the same lines since my youth. It is so refreshing to hear Sayers talk of the same questions. In fact, I must say that whenever I read her writing, I find gems like this, where she understands the nuance and asks the hard questions. It was unsurprising to discover that she flirted with agnosticism in her teens and college years, before finding a more mystical and complex version of faith. 

For those who haven’t discovered Sayers, she is an underrated writer and thinker. She is also a member of my Fantasy Dinner Party. (You have one of those, right? Past and present people you would invite to the greatest dinner party of all time?) Sayers has been on my list for decades, and I still think she would be fantastic. 

1 comment:

  1. I've always been rather taken by the Jesus Christ Superstar version of Judas Iscariot - not a zealot, nor a villain, but a fearful, doubtful, pragmatic, human.