Does anyone want to chat about Dorothy L Sayers' books with me?

(173 Posts)

From a feministy perspective, I mean. I've just recently got into them so haven't read that many, but things keep striking me. Not just Sayers herself having a feminist perspective (though she obviously does), but also details about the time period I wouldn't have known about.

The thing that made me smile most recently was in Gaudy Night, she has a conversation between Harriet Vane and one of the dons at her fictional Oxford college, who observe that the women undergraduates have a bad habit of sunbathing in their underwear and really, this is unfair ('not on the [male] undergraduates - they're used to it') on the male dons who might wander through the quad and see them.

It just struck me that it's such a different image from the rather buttoned-up idea of attitudes towards women's bodies I'd expect from that time.

What does anyone else think?

And what do you think of Jill Paton Walsh finishing of Sayers' last unfinished draft and writing continuations? Is it a travesty, or is this the kind of collaboration that feminism ought to be supporting? There being that argument that the 'lone genius author' is a concept that's always associated more with men than with women.

MrsOakenshield Sun 02-Jun-13 20:27:49

I think I like the ones with Miss Climpson in them best, so Unnatural Death and Strong Poison - Miss Climpson, a 'superfluous woman' (as all the unmarried women, post-First World War and there not being enough men to go around, were referred to) employed by PW as a kind of private enquiry agent, who can enquire where he cannot. A great character, resigned to her fate but extremely self-aware and intelligent and funny.

I read the HV ones first (after seeing them on TV in, I think, the late 80s) but all her PW books are fantastic, and in fact Have His Carcase is my least favourite. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is a good one, partly an examination of shell-shock/PTSD - though oddly PW's own shell-shock only comes up once or twice in all the books. Murder Must Advertise (set in an advertsing agency - DLS was a copywriter) is interesting, from a feminist point, as there are women employed in the agency, though only one copywriter (the others are secretaries) who, I daresay, was paid less than the men for the same job.

These are my absolute favourite rereads, I must have read them all at least 10 times. Never fancied PW at all, blond with a monocle? Hmmm.

I've just though of the character of Mary, PW's sister, who is in a particular position as an aristocratic woman and as such is constrained in certain ways but breaks out impressively. Oh, and the Dowager Duchess (PW's mother), she's great! Not such a comedy creation as in Downton, but full of brilliant one-liners.

Speaking of which, he is my favourite one-liner:
'Mrs Featherstone, a woman whose violently compressed figure suggested that she was engaged in a perpetual struggle to compute her weight in terms of the first syllables of her name rather than the last.'

THere's a whole theory about that - read it in a Joan Smith book but I bet it isn't hers grin - that for women writing a novel is a HUGE thing - so they write crime fiction because it has rules and they can kind of slip under the critical radar.
I think that's bollocks myself.

northern Hmm. Yes, me too, as a snap judgement. grin

A bit of it, maybe, but surely not for Sayers, for whom it sounds as if fairly clearly 'literary' writing would have been more acceptable.

MrsO - I am looking forward to Mrs Climpson!

UptoapointLordCopper Sun 02-Jun-13 20:39:37

Murder must advertise is a must for those who like words. grin

MooncupGoddess Sun 02-Jun-13 20:49:00

Oh look, my dream thread!

Gaudy Night is one of my favourite books, and probably the best treatment of the choices available to women I have ever read. I love the way DLS dramatises the different female characters and the way their lives turn out: happy Phoebe the archaeologist with her nice archaeologist husband and children, versus the really miserable woman who was a top scholar but now spends her life running her husband's farm and is absolutely subsumed in wifework.

Then cheerful useful spinsters (like Miss Lydgate, Miss de Vine etc) versus bitter frustrated ones like the don who has a crush on Peter. And of course the villain in Gaudy Night has very traditional views on women's lives.

It's all a fascinating backdrop as Harriet struggles with the decision of whether to remain single and focus on her writing or marry Peter and potentially lose her individuality and career (though of course he is v. keen to reassure her that won't happen).

Do read Strong Poison, LRD - it's a good novel in itself and also interesting in its frank depiction of sexual hypocrisy - a significant part of the plot is that Harriet has lived with (ie shagged) her ghastly boyfriend before marriage.

I also like the way Gaudy Night is very woman focused... Peter and his nephew are really the only male characters. Sayers of course was a massive feminist (though she didn't like the term) and a couple of her pieces on feminism have been published in a short book called Are Women Human? Gaudy Night is really an exploration of her life's thinking about such matters. Yes she falls in love with Peter a bit too much, but her own love life was shitty, as I recall, and throughout the series he develops from a chinless aristo into her ideal man, as her husband became more and more useless. Somehow I can't hold it against her too much.

Ooh ... that is fascinating, mooncup. And I'll definitely read some of the others.

I liked the women in GN too - and the way her introductory note points out she's 'given' Oxford a college of 150 women which is more than the statute allows. I don't know exactly what that refers to but I'm guessing it meant that women's colleges had to be a certain size? It amuses me she puts it this way.

FairPhyllis Sun 02-Jun-13 20:56:11

I (oddly) read Busman's Honeymoon first - because I didn't realise they were a series and it was the only DLS my parents had hanging around the house. Then I read Gaudy Night in my first year at university which was lent to me by a (very obsessed) friend, and a bunch of the earlier ones later. It would be interesting to go back and read them with a more strongly formed feminist consciousness. I don't think I've read them recently enough to be able to comment. I think I'm now kinda glad I didn't read them as a teen - I know a couple of people who totally fell for Peter in their teens, and he does make me a bit queasy in the Harriet books for some reason I can't put my finger on. I think I like the Nine Tailors best.

The thing about continuing books after the author's death - interesting. I don't know whether it's true that it happens more with women's work than with men's. There have been lots of continuations of some men's work.

What I would say that most 'continuation' fiction seems to have in common is that the novels are usually in what publishers would call 'genre fiction' (e.g. Ian Fleming novels, detective stuff like DLS, historical novels, fantasy novels like Peter Pan, Treasure Island etc - Terry Pratchett has also said he is happy for his daughter to continue Discworld when he can no longer write) where a primary attraction of the original novels is the world-building aspect. The continuations are usually about a desire to return to that world.

So perhaps you get continuations of Austen and Charlotte Bronte because they are (wrongly?) perceived and marketed as genre romantic fiction? Anyway, the Jane Austen 'industry' is very weird, seems to be relatively recent and creeps me out no end.

You do of course get stuff like Wide Sargasso Sea but I'd say that it's doing something very different from simply 'returning to the world' - it's taking part in a completely different discourse than a straight up continuation of Jane Eyre would be.

MooncupGoddess Sun 02-Jun-13 21:00:13

I've never got on with Busman's Honeymoon (except for the prologue about the wedding which is lovely). All the stuff about Peter and Harriet's marriage bed is a bit much for me though I would do him in a trice

I hate the JPW sequels, though I like many of her other books (Parcel of Patterns, Knowledge of Angels etc). They're really flat and dull compared to Sayers, the mystery plots don't work and Harriet comes across as terribly wifey.

I don't find Peter terribly attractive, no.

I suppose what I was thinking about continuations was, it's interesting that (by and large) people make a huge fuss about continuations of men's books, but the continuations of Austen are actually seen (by some idiots) as quite respectable. And Wild Sargasso Sea is a classic.

It doesn't surprise me Pratchett would have the same attitude as he seems very lacking in ego - he comes across as a really nice man.

Whereas no-one (so far as I know) sat down to polish off Kubla Khan. I mean, I bet several someones did, but it's not made it into our reading consciousness, because naturally Coleridge is a genius whose lofty male vision cannot be equalled.

I'm going to have to read the other JPW sequels just to see what I think, now. I love her Imogen Quy detective books (though they irritate me as a feminist with the way they harp on about how women can't have it all, especially not a thought in their heads and a man).

SconeRhymesWithGone Sun 02-Jun-13 21:06:39

I think the problem that I have with continuation/fan fiction is that I am especially sensitive to "voice," and a really good writer's voice is almost impossible to duplicate. The other thing is that I suppose I have my own inner fan fiction in my head, what I imagine Darcy and Elizabeth to be up to in their dotage, so I don't want it spoiled by others.

Mmm. I can put up with not-spot-on 'voice', but a lot of fanfic is dire. Even fanfic that's competently written in and of itself. It really pissed me off.

Especially bad are people who Americanize/Britishize characters from the other country because they don't realize not all idioms translate. But, that's off-topic.

MooncupGoddess Sun 02-Jun-13 21:20:49

I think fanfic is best left on the internet, really... but I can see why publishers want to cash in.

True.

Though I do see the appeal, if you're a woman writer, of taking a male-dominated story and writing your own version. I think it's interesting too that Sayers started off writing Whimsey and ended up writing more and more about Harriet.

SconeRhymesWithGone Sun 02-Jun-13 21:24:29

I just had a bit of a jolt. I had forgotten until this moment that it was Sayers who introduced me to mystery fiction, which has remained a life-long love. I was rather snobbish in my literary tastes in my youth (English lit degree and all that) and in my ignorance only read "serious" fiction. My grandmother loved detective novels, though, and one day at her house, when I had run out of something to read, I picked up her copy of Nine Tailors. I was hooked and then read all the other books in order. I have been an ardent mystery reader ever since. What a nice memory. smile

Abra1d Sun 02-Jun-13 21:25:16

What I love about MURDER MUST ADVERTISE is it's one of the first modern novels set at in an office. There are parts of advertising agency life that seem quite familiar to anyone who's worked in that kind of business. I worked in PR agencies and some aspects haven't changed much.

Office lit as genre.

grin Ahh, my English Lit degree was the thing that finally made me feel absolutely ok to read whatever the fuck I wanted! I have a lot of chicklit. But I am only just getting into crime fiction, partly as a result of the 'reading books written by women' thing, which I don't do strictly but try to think about doing.

abra - oh, that's interesting. And it'd have been quite a significant location for women, I guess, since working in an office was (if I understand right) one of the very sought-after jobs and one of the best paid.

FairPhyllis Sun 02-Jun-13 21:42:59

I suppose it's true that you don't get continuation attempts with men's literary fiction - I don't know if you'd include things like Edwin Drood in literary fiction though, because that does have an awful lot of continuation attempts and we don't get worked up about them despite seeing Dickens as a lofty male genius. Or maybe we do get worked up about them. I don't know.

But is it really that common with women's literary fiction? The prime example seems to be Pride and Prejudice above all else (and the unfinished novels), and I think that is down to it being miscategorised as romantic fiction and having spawned into this strange Austen industry - which I think is worth examining in itself as this weird isolated example. You don't get Virginia Woolf continuations say, or 'what happened next' in Middlemarch.

Speaking of Americanisation, there's a magnificent rant on Lindsay Davis' (Falco detective novels) website (actually she has a whole page titled 'Rants'. I like her.) about American readers who contact her and ask if she is going to 'correct' things for the American edition.

I read most of them for the first time at Somerville (library copies, donated by DLS, although I have since acquired my own), and I think Somerville has long since come to terms with her portrayal of the college. She was generally fairly ambivalent about Somerville, though.

I love Peter as, clearly, does DS, but agree that Busman's Honeymoon is an introspective step too far - they are both much more human in Gaudy Night.

joanofarchitrave Sun 02-Jun-13 21:47:09

Murder Must Advertise is one of my favourite novels, and I also love Have His Carcase and Strong Poison. I find Gaudy Night quite difficult and Busman's Honeymoon jumps the shark for me the moment Harriet leans out of the car and says '"Lady Peter Wimsey", feeling not at all sure that it was her name.' FGS. I also think DLS becomes far too keen on Bunter and his silent, perfect servitude in that book, in fact at that point Bunter seems like the fantasy object once Harriet has finally shagged PW. I can relate, but it's a bit queasy. The spinster character in that book is actively nasty and laughable, compared to the variety of unmarried women in Gaudy Night.

But I like the cocaine plot in MMA, even though on a third or fourth reading it makes absolutely no sense at all - it does it with pizazz, anyway. I adore the colleague who stalks PW to Simpsons in his lunch hour, and the other one who fixes the advert at 30 seconds to deadline after hours. You can almost smell the office atmosphere, it's so realistic, and there aren't many good novels about offices despite the fact that it's a widely shared experience, especially IMO novels about offices that focus on doing the office sweepstake, organising the biscuit rota and collecting money for wedding presents, as opposed to jockeying for power - i.e. IMO more of the usual female experience of office life.

fair - oh, I'm really only thinking out loud, TBH. Though, to do so, I think Dickens is different because several of his novels were serialized, which gives them a different status as not being quite 'entities' the way some Great Male Literature is.

Btw, not relevant, but someone (I forget who) said they couldn't cope with Lindsay Davis after she had Falco add up as if he were mentally calculating in modern numbers, not CLs and XIVs.

I quite enjoyed Busman's Holiday. blush I must be sappy.

MooncupGoddess Sun 02-Jun-13 21:59:32

Good point re Bunter in Busman's Honeymoon, Joan!

Yes, the mystery plot in MMA is pretty dodgy... but then, the coded shenanigans in Have His Carcase and the murder methods in Strong Poison and Unnatural Death are ropey too. One doesn't read mystery novels for plot believability, and at least DLS is much better than character believability than her competitors.

MooncupGoddess Sun 02-Jun-13 22:04:20

Re your fanfic point, LRD, like you I can't think of any male novelists who have been subjected to it. JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Margaret Mitchell, Austen, the Brontes... they're all women.

I'm trying to think of some, too - especially ones that don't write genre fiction.

Just pondering really but I would like to know whether it has to do with the way women are expected to be all sweet and collaborative, and not to mind about exclusive 'credit' for their ideas.

Or maybe I am reading far too much into it! grin

TheDoctrineOfSnatch Sun 02-Jun-13 22:07:11

If I was only reading one LPW ever again, I'd pick Murder Must Advertise, I think.

<I exclude Gaudy Night, as that's a Harriet Vane book grin>

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