Caroline: In October 1928, the novelist Virginia Woolf gave two lectures to literary societies at women’s colleges at Cambridge University. Her subject was women and fiction, and she ranged throughout history to build up her case for how for centuries structural inequality had systematically excluded half the population from literary work. The lectures were later published as an extended essay, which has been so popular in the decades since that it’s never gone out of print.
Detective fiction in the 1920s had no shortage of successful women writers, but they were still subject to all of the same intellectual and economic oppressions that Woolf laid out. Dorothy L. Sayers, for instance, who had a university degree and a great talent for writing, still struggled with the feeling that she didn’t fit into an intellectual sphere and an economic system designed by and for men.
That’s what we’re going to look at today. To borrow Woolf’s famous question: if a woman needs a room of her own and five hundred pounds a year to write fiction, what does she need in order to write crime fiction?
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Four of the most popular authors from the golden age of crime fiction — Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngiao Marsh — are often referred to as the “Queens of Crime”. I’ve yet to track this phrase back to its source, so I’m not sure exactly when or why this monicker attached itself to these writers in particular, but I’m sure their popularity and ubiquity had a lot to do with what was probably originally a publicity ploy. The phrase has lasted, though, because it represents a truth: against the example of other literary genres, some of the highest profile crime writers from the 1920s and 30s were women. The title and premise of this very podcast is an allusion to this fact. To put it another way: there are no “Kings of Crime”.
Which is not to say that there weren’t successful male crime writers — of course there were. Anthony Berkeley, Ronald Knox, John Dickson Carr and others all thrived alongside Christie, Sayers and the others. But the prevalence and indeed dominance of these women novelists was sufficiently remarkable that it was worth pointing out to readers. It was noticeable and unusual that not all of the popular whodunnits from this time were written by men, in other words.
There had been women novelists writing professional before, of course, albeit often under a male pseudonym. But the public success of so many women working in one genre as can be seen in golden age detective fiction was unprecedented, and the fact that it happened at all had a lot to do with a series of rapid societal changes in the 1910s and 1920s.
Francesca: The universities were opening up to women and allowing them for the first time to take degrees, at least at Oxford. Cambridge didn’t for many years after that until 1948. But there was this sense that possibilities were expanding. The suffrage movement was growing. And I think women like Dorothy Sayers, who’d graduated from university and were looking to to live an independent kind of life, very different perhaps from the lives that their mothers would have led, were looking to find places where they could set up home not just in a family home, but living by themselves or with friends and dedicating their lives to their work.
Caroline: This is Francesca Wade, the author of Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars. She has spent years researching this moment of opening up that occurred in the period between the First and Second World Wars, when at least for a certain class of woman, there were suddenly more options beyond the traditional paths of wife and mother.
Many different factors had coincided to make this change possible. Decades of campaigning by women in Britain’s universities had finally resulted in some institutions allowing women students to actually receive degrees, meaning that they had credentials they could take out into the world to push for jobs on an equal footing with male graduates. Legal changes in the 1870s and 1880s enabled married woman to own and manage their own property — until this happened, anything that a wife earned or possessed legally belonged to her husband. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed, which allowed women over 30 to vote — about two thirds of women qualified — and in 1928 women over 21 were given the same voting rights as men. As we’ve talked about several times before on the podcast, the First World War also had a profound impact on how women were perceived. As men went to war, women took over their roles in factories, on farms and in offices, as well as serving in the forces. When the Armistice was signed in November 1918, it was much harder than before to tell women that they just weren’t allowed to do things, when they had been flourishing in these roles for four years.
This is where Woolf’s “room of one’s own” comes in. It’s all very well having the ambition to write professionally, but as her essay lays out, without physical and mental space (and the economic resources that provide those), it’s unlikely to happen. Francesca’s book is about the lives of five women who at one time or another lived in one London square. They all came to Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury seeking their own rooms and the time to write in them, and although they aren’t all crime writers, I think their experiences are very instructive. I’ll let Francesca introduce them to you.
Francesca: The first woman is the poet Hilda Doolittle, the imagist poet who came over to England from America in 1911 and lived during the First World War in Mecklenburgh Square. Her husband, Richard Aldington, was away fighting and she was living in the square, working on a series of translations from Greek tragic choruses, particularly focused on the suffering of women left at home by war. The second is Dorothy Sayers, the detective novelist, who moved into the very same flat that HD had left just a few years before. And she spent the year that working on her very first detective novel Whose Body?. The next is the classicist Jane Harrison, who came to the Square in her 70s. She’d spent most of her career in Cambridge, where she’d written these groundbreaking works of imaginative, mythological excavation that restored these matriarchal goddesses to history, who she argued had been erased by later cults to the kind of patriarchal gods of Olympus that we know about. And she came to the Square with her partner, Hope Mirrlees, to work on Russian translation. And the fourth is the mediaeval historian, Eileen Power, who is an amazing scholar and pacifist and internationalist. And she taught economic history at the London School of Economics and was known for her radio broadcasts of world history to schoolchildren and for the parties that she hosted in her kitchen. And the last is Virginia Woolf, who is the most associated with Bloomsbury, I guess, of all of these women? Well, maybe of everyone. And she moved in the very week that the Second World War was declared and spent a very uneasy year moving between London and the countryside, working on her memoirs and a biography of her friend Roger Fry and her final novel, Between the Acts.
Caroline: Bloomsbury is now a term used to describe the middle class Bohemian set that Woolf and her artist sister Vanessa Bell belonged to, as well as the name for the central London district around the British Museum where many of these people lived. But until I read Francesca’s book, I thought it was pure coincidence that it was this part of the city that attracted these creative people. It turns out, Mecklenburgh Square and a few others around it were ideally suited to women in search of rooms of their own, thanks to a quirk of architecture and property development.
Francesca: Bloomsbury has a really interesting architectural history. It was laid out or developed over the course of the nineteenth century on land belonging to the Duke of Bedford, who initially wanted to create a kind of upper middle class suburb with grand mansions for middle class families. But by the time these squares were ready to live in, most families who could have afforded to live there actually wanted to live in west London where the area was much more fashionable. So Bloomsbury ended up in this strange situation of having these huge houses which no one wanted to buy or live in. So they ended up being generally divided up into flats.
Caroline: Because the grand houses were divided up into flats or even individual rooms, they were affordable for women who needed somewhere to be alone with their ideas. The Stephens sisters — Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell — first moved to Bloomsbury from Kensington when their father died in 1904, and by the time the First World War ended, the area was already associated with literary and artistic endeavour.
Francesca: Bloomsbury, of course, had a very literary reputation already because it was the neighbourhood of the British Museum, which was the library open for everyone to come and read in free of charge. And there were universities around. So it was a place where in particular women who had literary or intellectual aspirations could congregate.
Caroline: In the immediate aftermath of her graduation from Oxford in 1920, Dorothy L. Sayers felt the pull of literary London acutely. She was one of the first women to receive a proper degree from the university, but even in that moment of triumph and progress there was uncertainty — what could a female graduate do in the real world? Even among the five women profiled in Francesca’s book, there weren’t many optimistic role models for the likes of Sayers.
Francesca: I think they were they were establishing ways that they could have [independence] for themselves and that other women could have it in the future. I mean, Jane Harrison is an amazing example. She isn’t a generation older than the other women in this book. She is one of the first women to study at Cambridge. And after she left, she found it very difficult to find a job because she was excluded from the professorships at universities simply for being a woman. And her career is a really amazing example of a woman reshaping the way that she works and the work that she does in order, say, to carve out a new image of what a woman scholar could look like.
Caroline: The options for Sayers’s generation seemed quite limited: teach or marry. Neither appealed, and she was determined to forge a different path, as a writer. She wrote to her parents that “more than ever, I realise the paramount necessity of always being on the spot – I feel as if I hardly dared leave London for a second.”
In December 1920, she moved into number 44 Mecklenburgh Square — the very room, in fact, that the poet Hilda Doolittle had vacated in 1918.
Francesca: I mean, they all lived in in different circumstances. When Sayers moved in the house, number 44 that she moved into was one of the boarding houses. She writes a lot about the landlady, who is clearly quite an eccentric figure, who lived in the house and rented out the rooms and took an interest in the lives of her tenants. And she says that she thinks that the landlady particularly likes having slightly bohemian people around. H.D. writes about the suffragettes who lived upstairs and who could always be heard burning their toast. And I think Sayers enjoyed that sense of rubbing along and having to get on with her neighbours and doing her laundry and doing her cooking and living a life that to her was one of independence.
Caroline: Sayers described the room as having three great windows that she could not afford to curtain, a fireplace, a gas ring and no electric light. She wrote at the time that “All I want [is] to be left alone, and I can’t think why people won’t leave me!”
Despite her reluctance to become a full time teacher, the necessity of earning a living lead her to accept a temporary post at at a school in Clapham, south London, and she did some freelance translation work as well. And in January 1921, she was “visited” by the idea for a detective story in which a corpse is found dead in a bath wearing pince nez. The room was working its magic already.
After the break: enter Harriet Vane.
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In 1921, Dorothy L. Sayers was a figure imagined by Woolf in her essay: an unknown girl writing her first novel in a bed sitting room. She was getting by on her teaching and freelance income, but she wanted more, and commercially successful detective fiction is the way she was going to get it.
Francesca: Looking at the letters that she wrote to her parents and to her friends at that time, she’s so determined that she that she wants to do something different and so kind of single minded and her and her insistence that she will do whatever it takes to finish a novel.
Caroline: Although Bloomsbury today is a very expensive and sought after neighbourhood, at the time when Sayers lived there, it was not fashionable and not particularly expensive — that’s why she was able to afford to live there at the start of her career, after all. The boarding house at number 44 Mecklenburgh Square employed someone to do the washing up and basic cleaning, which was a great luxury for someone trying to write a book, but in other ways it was hardly a fancy place to live. Sayers’s room didn’t come with curtains or electricity, so she lit the room with an oil lamp and enjoyed the view of the tennis courts in the middle of the square at all hours. She fried her own meals on her little gas ring, or went out to eat at cheap restaurants in the West End. As long as she could keep paying the rent for her room, she still had a foothold in literary London. Her fiction became a kind of financial escapism as well as means of hopefully earning money in the future.
Francesca: There’s a letter or an essay she wrote later where she said that part of the way that she created Lord Peter Wimsey was by giving him all of the kind of accoutrements that she at that point couldn’t have herself. When she didn’t have enough money to pay her bus fare, he gave him a horse and carriage and a rare book collection when she was off to the library.
Caroline: Years later, when Sayers had moved away from Mecklenburgh Square, she returned in her imagination by giving that same address to Harriet Vane. Gaudy Night, published in 1935 is the third book in which Vane appears. She’s a detective novelist who shares some of Sayers’s own experiences, including the view from her desk out onto the square.
Francesca: I think the significance in Gaudy Night of Sayers giving that address to Harriet Vane, I think is is very notable because that novel is so much about all the questions that she was really asking during her year there, about to know how to live a life that combined intellectual and emotional satisfaction. And what sort of life she wanted to have and what sort of books she wanted to write.
Caroline: At the start of the novel, Harriet is looking out the window at the tennis players and the tulips, and thinking back to the quadrangles at the Oxford women’s college where she had been educated and wondering whether her life now is the one that she would have imagined for herself then. She decides that she will return to the college for a reunion, even though she is worried that her infamous past — she lived with a man without being married to him, and was then tried for his murder — will make it awkward. Sayers didn’t have those kinds of regrets, but she did leave years before returning to her own Somerville college, I think perhaps partly because she felt that her career as a crime writer was not the academically high flying profession that had been expected of her as a student.
As I talked about on the Happily Ever After episode of the podcast, Gaudy Night is a novel about female ambition and whether emotional and intellectual life can coexist within an equal marriage. The time that Sayers spent living in Mecklenburgh Square was clearly formative for her on both of these subjects — it’s where she completed her first novel, and it’s also where she experienced great heartache in an ultimately doomed relationship. Whether or not it was a completely happy time, the days she spent sat at the desk above the square like Harriet stayed with her. It was her first room of her own and she would not forget that easily. Francesca argues in her book that Sayers could not put the difficulties of her time in Mecklenburgh Square behind her until she had written about it, and I think that’s what we see in Gaudy Night. As Harriet learns to reconcile the two parts of her life — before her trial and after — she becomes more at ease with the links between Mecklenburgh Square and Shrewsbury College. She’s able to see her life as a progression from one place to the next and to command respect in each, rather than having to hide from her past.
Woolf’s essay is about equality and her argument that women require a “room of one’s own” has resonated with the feminist movement for decades. Plenty still find it inspiring. But I think it’s just as important to look at who doesn’t get to inhabit such a room as it is to celebrate those, like Woolf, Sayers and others, who do. As I’ve already mentioned, as a movement “Bloomsbury” was a very middle class enterprise. Woolf, her sister and her friends were able to spend lengthy periods of time working on their novels and paintings because they were from wealthy families and didn’t have to work for an hourly wage in order to make ends meet. They could domestic help so that they could ignore the constant demands of cooking and cleaning. Even when she lived at number 44 Mecklenburgh Square in the early 1920s, Sayers benefited from the fact that the boarding house had a regular cleaning woman who took care of the basic chores for the residents. The room and the money that Woolf mentions aren’t the only things you need, it would seem — you need somebody else to shoulder the domestic labour.
In one sense, it’s unfair to apply this critique too strongly to Woolf’s argument. Just because housework has traditionally been women’s work, it doesn’t mean that the women who choose to seek a different kind of life must bear the ethical burden of resolving this conundrum in its entirety. Woolf’s husband Leonard, also a writer, undoubtedly benefited greatly from their servants’ work too, yet because Virginia actually wrote about this issue, her work attracts more dissent on the subject. Criticism for hiring cleaners still today falls disproportionately on women, because there’s still a lingering assumption that a woman should be doing that kind of work for herself, that it’s a woman’s work, not a man’s. Feminist writers have been grappling with this question for decades, and recently there’s been some great work on applying this historically, such as in Katrine Marcal’s book Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?. It’s an interesting exercise, I find, when reading the work of great male authors of centuries past, to wonder who was beavering away elsewhere in their house in order to have dinner reader when they decided to stop writing for the day.
All of the women that Francesca writes about in Square Haunting were aware of their privilege in this area, and several of them addressed it directly in their writing.
Francesca: I mean, it’s something that a lot of these women thought about a lot and I mean, sometimes it is contradictory and hypocritical to some extent. Eileen Power, for example, had a housekeeper who is, by all accounts, an integral and devoted part of her household. And it’s hard to see, she doesn’t mention her much much in the correspondence that survives, but it’s difficult to know whether she would have seen the incongruity that her own independence did rely on the labour of another woman within her household. And that’s something that Virginia Woolf thought about a lot, in fact. And at this time in her life was reflecting on quite a lot more the kind of discomfort that the freedom that she had obtained and had argued for was not applied to the women who actually lived and worked with her in the house. And it’s something that I think a lot of women at this time were complicit in, but also wondering about in interesting ways.
Caroline: This is one of the things I found startling about Francesca’s book, actually — so many of the concerns that Woolf, Sayers and the rest were thinking about are the same ones that women face today. In the expanded version of her initial talks that was published in 1929, Woolf ranges through literary history, seeking to explain why there are so few women poets from the Elizabethan era, say, or why it is significant that Jane Austen never married or had children. As she said to the women students she was addressing, the thwarted literary spirit of Shakespeare’s sister “lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed”. Equal pay also came up in Francesca’s research:
Francesca: They were emerging at a time when they really had to negotiate the barriers that very much did remain, often slightly more subtle ones. I mean, Eileen Power, for example, was furious that she was paid less than her male contemporaries even when she was doing the same work or collaborating with them. She writes amusingly about how often she would turn up at dinners in her honour, and the men would just assume that she was someone’s wife rather than the professor of economic history that they had all come to celebrate. She was very alert to that sort of disparity and kind of enjoyed and sort of relished defying people’s expectations whilst also being very keenly aware of the prejudice that she was having to constantly fight.
Caroline: And what women were allowed to wear if they were to be considered “serious”:
Francesca: Eileen Power loved clothes and fashion, and she didn’t think that it should be that if you wanted to be taken seriously as a woman intellectual, you should look as a sort of a dowdy bluestocking. That was itself the stereotype. That was the kind of allowable image of a woman intellectual. And she said she didn’t think there was any incongruity in loving clothes and being interested in them.
Caroline: Sayers was very interested in this question of feminine presentation too.
Francesca: There’s some amazing descriptions of her at university wearing increasingly outlandish costumes, and sort of skull and crossbones cufflinks and earrings with parrots in cages. And in fact, in later in life, she generally moved into wearing male clothing because she wrote this essay Are Women Human?, where she insists that the virtues that are traditionally considered feminine are ones that subordinate to women and that she doesn’t want to be considered as a woman. She wants to be considered a person, which actually is a refrain, strangely, that that links several of the women in this book. When they wrote about questions of gender, they will write repeatedly about wanting to be treated as a person, you know, whether that meant redefining femininity or changing people’s impressions.
Caroline: That essay, Are Women Human?, began as an address that Sayers gave to a women’s society in 1938. In it, she argues for true equality, in which she is not a “woman writer”, but just a writer. Among detective novelists, at least, I think she achieved this. Perhaps because of the ubiquity of female authors in the genre, there’s no sense today that there is “women’s golden age detective fiction” as distinct from men’s, not least because many of the bestselling and more influential books are written by women anyway. The power imbalances that are present in other areas of literary endeavour are absent.
It isn’t just an analysis of class and labour that is largely missing in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. The Black American writer Alice Walker, in the title essay of her 1982 collection In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, applies Woolf’s historical analysis of female creativity to racial oppression. Walker writes: “What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmother’s day? In our great grandmother’s day? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood.”
Walker goes on to write about the eighteenth century African American poet Phyllis Wheatley, who was captured and enslaved at the age of 7 and transported to North America from her home in West Africa to serve a white family. Wheatley became famous for her poetry, largely on the terms of her owners who promoted her as a kind of curiosity or anomaly. Phyllis was allowed to write, but she lacked the autonomy that Woolf never even has to question. It’s meaningless to talk of owning a room with a lockable door and a sufficient income, Walker argues, when we talk of Phyllis Wheatley, “who owned not even herself.” What matters about Wheatley, the essay goes on, is not the poetry itself — which was written in the colonised context that Wheatley inhabited — but the notion of black women’s creativity that she kept alive through her writing.
The room of one’s own was never just a room, of course. The slightly dowdy little flats in Bloomsbury that Sayers and countless others occupied in the years when they were still affordable for struggling writers were not inherently creative spaces in and of themselves. It was the separation they represented that mattered. Decades on, it’s still pretty much the case that you need financial security and the mental freedom to ignore the rest of the world in order to write. The only difference is that now I think we’re talking more about who has access to those things and who doesn’t, and why.
Crime writing is no exception to this. As Woolf put it, who gets to have “the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think”? It isn’t everybody, yet.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton and edited by Euan McAleece. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/aroom where there will also be further reading suggestions on the topics I covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts
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I’ll be back on 19 August with another episode.