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Caroline: One chilly night in November 1912, a group of young women gathered together to share their writing with each other. They were all newly arrived first year students at Somerville College in Oxford, part of a cohort of women undergraduates who were still pushing for full equality at the university and in the world at large. Years would elapse between them finishing their studies and actually receiving their degrees, for instance, because at this time Oxford allowed women to take the examinations but they could not formally graduate.
The group was founded as a writing circle, a place for budding poets, playwrights and novelists to share works in progress, receive criticism from other members, and offer their views in turn. Unlike many student enthusiasms, it persisted throughout its members’ university years and beyond, shaping the course of their lives and relationships. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s to this little society that we owe the creation of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, as well as numerous other literary works and distinguished, boundary-pushing careers.
It was the group’s best known member, Dorothy L. Sayers, who came up with its name. Introducing: the Mutual Admiration Society.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. In this episode, we’re going to get to know this group of women much better, and learn how their friendships and their work influenced the direction of detective fiction and women’s rights.
When a nineteen year old Dorothy Sayers named the writing group she had just formed with her new Somerville friends The Mutual Admiration Society, she was reflecting the fact that university women of her time had to be constantly protecting their intellectual endeavours from ridicule and cynicism. At the same time, she was making a joke out of this perennial difficulty, something else that would come to be very typical of the society’s members, who always seemed to have a comic riposte at the ready.
Mo: Right away in their first their first term they formed this group where they would get together in their respective dorm rooms and have cocoa and coffee and share what they’d written and offer each other criticism. So it was a sort of literary criticism society basically and Dorothy Sayers was the was one of the founding members and she was the one who actually named the group. So she said we might as well call ourselves a mutual admiration society because everybody else will anyway. So as a sort of pre-emptive strike although they were not actually they were very critical of each other so they weren’t sort of the pejorative meaning of a mutual admiration society at all.
Caroline: This is Mo Moulton, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Birmingham and the author of a new book titled “The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade The World For Women”. I’ll let Mo introduce you to the key figures in the society that you’re going to hear about today.
Mo: All total over the course of their time at Oxford. There were probably eight to ten people who were at least tangentially part of the society in the book though I focus on this kind of core group of about four or five who were in the society and who kept going throughout their lives. I mean that’s kind of the amazing thing lots of people form clubs at university but they actually continued sharing work and criticizing each other’s work for decades and decades. Most of them had quite long lives. So Dorothy Sayers is the most famous one. She became a detective novelist and then as I imagine everybody listening to this podcast will know that she. She was also a popular theologian and an advertising copywriter. Among other things Muriel St. Claire Byrne was one of the later members to join the group to shoot. She came to Oxford a few years later but she she became an important part of the of the society and she became a historian of Elizabethan England. And she was very interested in the theatre as well. And there’s Charisse Barnett Frank Enberg. She was Carol Burnett at at university and became Charisse Frank Enberg. She became a child advice manual writer child rearing advice and a birth control advocate. And she was one of the first female justices of the peace. So this kind of public facing interested in juvenile delinquency and children and and motherhood really. Then there’s Dorothy Rowe. She became a amateur theatre director and she was also an English teacher in Bournemouth. Muriel Yegor who became a science fiction novelist and a playwright and and also a historian later and later in her life and then and then the loss of a person who I write a lot about in the book is and Phyllis said this is the best name and Phyllis Throckmorton middle more than her friends call her Phil. She was a English lecturer. She moved over to Pennsylvania and worked at Bryn Ma briefly and they stayed in touch throughout their lives.
Caroline: While they were students at Somerville, the members of the Mutual Admiration Society took their studies with differing levels of seriousness, but they always found time for sharing their writing and teasing each other. For instance, on one occasion before they went home for the Christmas vacation, Dorothy Sayers had told the group that she planned to write a story told from the perspective of the men inside the wooden horse at Troy. At their first meeting back in January, she got quite far into reading out what she had actually worked on — a miracle play about the three Magi — before Dorothy Rowe loudly asked “but was this happening inside the wooden horse?” to general hilarity. They also played practical jokes on each other, put on plays and attended costume parties. Their dressing up often defined gender conventions, with Muriel St Clare Byrne in particular being keen to adopt masculine roles, which is a theme she would explore in a memoir later in her life.
Whatever plans the members of the society might have had for their post university careers, the First World War disrupted everything. With male friends and relations fighting in Europe, Sayers and her friends finished their studies in a very different Oxford to the one that they had entered in 1912. They saw out the war and its immediate aftermath with nursing, teaching and translation work, and grieved for their friends and brothers who did not make it back from the trenches.
The decade after the war ended was a difficult time for all of them, as they struggled to forge a path in the world as educated career women. In the book, Mo heads one of the chapters about this with the question “Teach or Marry?”, and it was this stark choice that all the members of Mutual Admiration Society had before them. While at Somerville, the combined support of their parents and the college had provided the mental space and the “room of one’s own” that Virginia Woolf would name in 1929 as being essential for a women to fiction. Out in wider British society, where the Representation of the People Act of 1918 had extended the vote only to women over the age of 30, it was more difficult to find roles that they fitted into that weren’t that of teacher or wife. The job market favoured men who were returning from the war, and in any case the idea of a woman with a top university degree was so new that there just weren’t many ready made opportunities for them. Teaching remained an ever-present option, even the default for the educated woman who wanted to remain respectable and uncontroversial, and indeed most of the members of the society did teach at one point or another — even Dorothy Sayers, who seems like she was not at all suited as a personality to the classroom, doing some supply teaching to make ends meet. Dorothy Rowe, however, seems to have found a real vocation in teaching, and inspired successive generations of students at her school in Bournemouth with her challenging and theatrical literature lessons. Others, like Sayers and Jaeger, were trying to make their way as writers, and Muriel St Clare Byrne was taking her first steps towards a career as a historian, although she would struggle throughout her life with the lack of permanent academic research posts available for women.
It was when they started to become more settled in their own careers, Mo says, that the extraordinary thing happened: unlike most student societies or even friendships, which peter out as the years go by, the Mutual Admiration Society came back together and became intimately involved in each other’s lives again.
Mo: So they were also struggling to make ends meet and so the 1920s their sort of connections and then and then and then distances as well. And then in the late 1920s when they sort of become a little a little more established and come back together as a group they went on holidays together they would rent rent a cabin or a cottage in Devon or the South Downs and so they hang out. They exchanged drafts of writing and offered each other suggestions and sometimes extraordinarily harsh criticism. And then and then in some cases they collaborated as well.
Caroline: One of these collaborations, between Dorothy Rowe and Charis Frankenburg, was a series of education books called Latin with Laughter.
Mo: The idea was that young mothers might want to teach their children some Latin for they went to school which kind of oriented to the class background. But to give them a head start on Latin.
And so there are these these kind of hilarious little stories that children can learn in Latin and in English about various funny situations. And so Charisse wrote the text in Latin and the translations and then Dorothy drew the illustrations so she drew these little cartoons of you know that she donkey walks up the road the young boy throws a rock events at it that sort of thing
Caroline: Although it sounds like fun, and represents an interesting attempt by its authors to give more educational agency to middle class mothers, Latin with Laughter is far from the most interesting literary collaboration to come from the post university incarnation of the Mutual Admiration Society. Find out what that was, after the break.
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In 1920, while she was sick with the mumps, Dorothy Sayers became obsessed with reading Sexton Blake stories. Sexton Blake is a detective character who had been appearing in magazine serials and comic strips since 1893, and while she was ill Sayers wrote to her friends begging them to send more magazines so she could keep up with his adventures. Once she was better, she and Jaeger hatched a plan to write some elevated criticism of the Blake stories. She wanted to write an article equating these pulpy comic books with “the old romance cycles” and mythical figures like Robin Hood. She and Jim got stuck in on it, under the pseudonym of Alexander Mitchingham, and had a great time comparing Blake to Jesus and finding allusions to all other sorts of religious events in them. In the book, Mo makes the point that this is a scholarly tactic typical of the Mutual Admiration Society members — it’s both a bit of good fun, but it was also done with the intention of taking mass culture seriously and applying a critical lens to popular literature.
This is how Sayers approached her own detective fiction. Her first Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body?, was published in 1923. She had done various jobs since the war ended, including school teaching and translation, and had even considered returning to university for further study. She contemplated applying for a postgraduate bachelor of letters degrees (the BLitt that Harriet Vane considers doing in Gaudy Night). Sayers’s proposed thesis would have taken her Sexton Blake studies much further. It had a proposed title of “the Permanent Elements in Popular Heroic Fiction, with a special study of Modern Criminological Romance”. She never did that degree, but with the Wimsey novels she was always trying new ways of pushing the popular detective novel form further, introducing complicated legal or medical concepts, writing from different perspectives, or situating her sleuth in environments that hadn’t previously hosted a whodunnit. The spirit of the Mutual Admiration Society, whose members sought to take their educational advantages and spread them more widely to the general public, was to the fore in her writing. She wanted to mix the learned and the readable, to find a way of blending highbrow and lowbrow forms into a new kind of writing.
One of the society’s greatest collaborative works grew out of Sayers’ efforts in this area. Here’s Mo again, describing how Sayers and Muriel St Clare Byrne came to write together again long after they left university.
Mo: They collaborated on well a range of things essays and and articles and dialogues and stuff but most interesting to me is their collaboration and busman’s honeymoon. Muriel’s St. Claire Byrne wrote about history. She wrote about theatrical history. She wrote lots of book reviews about things about costumes and stuff like that. She really wanted to be a playwright as well. And she’d written a few plays of her own. She’d had a few plays performed by kind of amateur societies. She was approached to do an adaptation of a Dorothy Sayers novel because it was known that they were friends and she ended up declining that offer. But she said to Dorothy Sayers you know what. What if what if we wrote a play together based on your characters. And so this was in the January February time of 1935. And yeah. So they decided to take what they described as Sayers as proprietary characters. So Harriet Vane and Lord Peter whimsy and you know Bunter bunch of the butler and they would they would develop a a play based on those characters. And that was what turned into Batman’s honeymoon which is you know co-written really 50/50 between between the two of them. [00:09:00] The drafts of the player held by the Muriel Wade Centre Muriel Wade now always same year old because there’s so many murals in my book married the Marion raid centre at Wheaton College in Illinois and there you know you can sort of see that they’re going back and forth of each other there’s an annotations in both of their hand writings alongside these these draft draft play and I think of it as a moment where. It’s really clear that Dorothy Sayers friendship with Merrill St. Clair Burnham with her partner Marjorie Barber. I think. I was kind of the catalyst for Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Ramsey to become these more dimensional complicated characters who are not just vehicles for especially whimsy not just being a vehicle for these kind of fun but a little stylized mystery stories. But actually they start to become novels about life and relationships and sort of the nature of being a person in the world. And I think that’s other people have noticed that that evolution of course. But I think that what became clear to me was that this was something that happened in community in conversation with with Byrne and with Barber.
Caroline: As regular listeners will know, the so-called “rules” of detective fiction strictly forbade the inclusion of romance plots in whodunnits. But as Mo says, Sayers and Byrne were interested in moving beyond those stock tropes to create something more recognisably human. And the origins of the desire to explore the tensions between love, partnership, writing and intellectual work through the characters of Peter and Harriet can be found in these writers own lives.
Mo: Sayers got married in 1926. And so the friendship that developed that sort of redeveloped the reconnection that happened in the late 1920s was really a friendship between two couples. Sayers and Atherton Fleming her husband and St. Claire Byrne and her partner Marjorie Barbour and both of those were fairly complex relationships. You know that neither those were.
Perfectly placid you know marriages or partnerships. And so my sense is that they probably had a lot of conversation between each other amongst each other about the nature of marriage the nature of trying to have an egalitarian partnership. What it meant for one partner to earn more or to have more success than the other partner. And so I think that kind of out of those conversations and out of that that sense of shared experience is where the the turn comes to turn whimsy and vein into this kind of partnership into this lens for thinking through what would an ideal partnership actually look like.
Caroline: One of the most interesting things I learned from Mo’s really excellent book is that the chronology of the Wimsey-Vane novels is not what I’d always assumed — I thought that they must have been written in the order that they were published — Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon. But, in fact, that wasn’t the case. And Sayers did it this way in order to fit things around her most famous collaboration with Byrne.
Mo: So even if I can rewrite mine the Strong Poison so she’d introduced Harriet Vane as a as a character and as a as a love interest for whimsy in strong poison which she wrote right around the same time as she was rekindling this friendship with with Bernard with Barbara. And there are a few a few novels of Harriet Vane in them and then she kind of it’s almost as though she’s not sure how to proceed with the relationship. And. There’s a really funny letter that she she writes too. I believe it’s Dorothy Roe saying well Lord Peter is anxious to get hitched but I don’t know if it’s going to work out for his two decrepit and old and it’s she she says. But he’s here he’s almost forty five he wants to get married before he’s ancient and she’s like she’s in her mid 40s at the same time so she’s clearly feeling this you know at this moment in life so yeah she sort of created this character created this dynamic and then and then it kind of hit pause on it and writes These more dimensional more complex stories in murder must advertise and. The nine tailors that suggests that she’s kind of developing her range as a novelist but Harriet Venus very much talked to one side you as mentioned in one line. Then in 1935 she and Byrne decide to write busman’s honeymoon and they imagine it as the honeymoon that Harriet and Peter go on after they’ve gotten married. And so she’s very clear that. Okay we’re gonna write this play and I have to figure out how it is that he. At what point does Harry accept this marriage proposal that he’s famously repeating on I think April Fool’s Day and her birthday every year. So she realizes that she’s kind of committed herself to to working this out. And so. In the early spring of 1935 Muriel St. Clair burned and Sayers. Right busman’s honeymoon towards the late spring is when Sayers starts writing gaudy night. And her letters are issued its credit she’s very stressed out by the whole process. Muriel is sending her these sort of queries about the play and do we really want this to happen in this scene are we sure that you know this. We haven’t left this plot you know hold dangling or she wouldn’t mix a metaphor like that. At the same time as Sayers a starting Gotti night and tonight there’s even a lower risk she says well you know I’ve had the lead Harriet uncomfortably standing outside Somerville College shifting from one foot to the other while I answer your letter about Busman’s Honeymoon it’s clear that these are really simultaneous processes for her. So although Gaudy Night ended up coming out before busman’s honeymoon but they’re being they’re being thought of in one as sort of one whole meditation on on marriage and relationships.
Caroline: Sayers also wrote a novelised version of Busman’s Honeymoon, although she was very strict with her publisher that it could not come out until Busman’s Honeymoon the play had been staged. And putting Peter Wimsey on the stage turned out to be a big success.
Mo: It was wildly popular actually and had financially it had a really positive impact for both Sayers and for Byrne. [00:17:29] Byrne had been making her living kind of doing adjunct teaching essentially a contingent contingent teaching at various places and took a year off to do her own research based on the proceeds from busman’s honeymoon and also moved to a much nicer house. And it isn’t she doesn’t anywhere say sort. I paid for this with busman’s honeymoon but it’s clear that there is a kind of a step up in their financial well-being as a result of that. And then Sayers used the proceeds to finance some. She was she turned to writing religious plays and a kind of funded them funded their tour and that sort of thing with with busman’s honeymoon. So yeah it was really popular. It wasn’t amazingly received critically. People felt that. Critics said it was a little silly. But but people really enjoyed it. /And it was the play was then actually released. It was published as well. And it was taken up by like repertory theatres and amateur theatres including Dorothy Rose Theatre. They actually put on a production of it as well.
Caroline: As an ardent fan of Gaudy Night, it was a great pleasure to me to read Mo’s book and learn how much of what is in the novel has its origins directly in the experiences of the Mutual Admiration Society while they were at Oxford. The fictional Shrewsbury College isn’t exactly Somerville, nor are any of the dons precise portraits of real people, but there are recognisable elements from the letters the MAS members wrote to each other threaded all the way through the book.
But above all, the feelings that Harriet Vane has in Gaudy Night about the successive generations of university women, about how each cohort has pushed things a little bit further so that the next intake could benefit, match up closely with Sayers’s own experience. She was reluctant to return to Oxford for her own gaudies for years after she left, perhaps avoiding encounters with past versions of herself and old ambitions that had never been fulfilled. But when she did go back, it was because she had reconnected with her old friends and begun to write collaboratively again. Alone, she had been wary of connecting up the writer she had become with the student she had once been. But together, the Mutual Admiration Society could celebrate how far they had come.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. I’m much obliged to my guest Mo Moulton for taking part and to the Brain Charity in Liverpool for hosting our interview. Listeners should also be aware that there is so much more to Mo’s book about The Mutual Admiration Society than I’ve been able to cover here, and I urge you to order a copy immediately online or from your local bookshop. You can find links to where you can do that in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/mas, and there, you can also read a full transcript.
I’ll be back on 13 November with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Notable Trials