Caroline: Being a writer is a peculiar occupation in lots of ways. It falls somewhere between job, pastime, hobby and vocation, and might be one, several or none of those things at the same time. Even within the subset of those who write to earn their living, there are plenty of further divisions. Today, you might be a writer of videogames, of books, of scripts, of articles, of podcasts, of comics, of social media posts, or some combination thereof, and even though none of this work is much like any of the rest, everyone who does it is a writer.
It’s a strange job, too, because although there is certainly the potential to achieve a great deal of success and wealth doing it, almost everybody doing it does not become rich and famous. In fact, a report that came out at the end of 2022 revealed that professional authors in the UK are earning a median of £7,000 a year. For comparison, the current annual living wage is around £21,000.
This is nothing new. For centuries, writers have taken other jobs in order to support the writing that they want to do, but which does not pay enough for them to live. And the writers who I talk about on this podcast were no different. Although the golden age of detective fiction that got going after the First World War was lucrative for some, even in that era of high demand for crime stories it was a tough realm to break into as a newcomer.
Today, we’re following the advertising adventures of Dorothy L. Sayers.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
With the advantage of hindsight, it can be easy to assume that the leading writers of the golden age of detective fiction merely put pen to paper, sent their finished whodunnits off to their publishers, and waited confidently for the plaudits and the royalties to roll in. Of course, reality is rarely so straightforward.
In the century since her first novel was published in 1923, Dorothy L. Sayers hasn’t quite achieve the fame and sales of, say, Agatha Christie, but she has certainly enjoyed a level of critical and popular success that very few writers attain during their lifetime, let alone after their death. But when she left Somerville College, Oxford, in 1915 with a first class degree in modern languages, the way ahead would have seemed as murky to a 22 year old Dorothy Sayers as it does to most people in their early twenties.
Her principal skill was with words: she excelled at writing, translation, puzzles and so forth. She was already writing poetry; her first collection, Op 1, was published in 1916, and a religious collection, Catholic Tales and Christian Songs appeared in 1918. As Mo Moulton brilliantly lays out in their book on Sayers and her university circle, The Mutual Admiration Society, the conventional choice that faced Dorothy and many other women leaving higher education in the mid 1910s was “marry or teach”. She felt drawn to neither as the primary way to pass her days, and instead tried her hand at several different occupations in quick succession in those first few years after Oxford, always circling around words and language.
She did have short term teaching jobs, in Hull and Clapham, where she taught French and Latin to teenagers. She also took a publishing apprenticeship at Blackwell’s in Oxford for a while, and spent time in France working as Eric Whelpton’s assistant at the boarding school Ecole Des Roches. Towards the end of this period of moving about and trying different things, two twin goals seem to coalesce for her: to live completely independently and to support herself by writing. And so she did what many generations of young people with these aspirations have done before and since: she moved to London.
It was on the 22nd January 1921 that Dorothy L. Sayers wrote to her mother that she had been “visited with ideas” for both a detective story and a Grand Guignol play. The latter she never started, as far as we know, which is a shame because apparently it was going to end with a poisoned kiss. The detective novel, though, she did get stuck into, in between her job at a girls school in Acton, West London, and her visits home to her parents in Cambridgeshire. Early on, it was going to begin with “a fat lady found dead in her bath with nothing on but her pince-nez”. Those who have read her first published novel Whose Body? will know that she made some tweaks to that opening scenario, but it is still recognisably that same idea that she announced to her mother.
The difficulty that Sayers had, and which first time novelists still have, is that nobody will pay you for your story until you have completed it. That means months of writing with little or no certainty that your time will be rewarded, and when you are paying rent and endeavouring to support yourself in an expensive city like London, this is difficult to do. Sayers was lucky: she was able to make an arrangement with her father that he would act as her financial safety net. In December 1921, when publishers had expressed interest in Lord Peter Wimsey’s first sleuthing adventure, Whose Body? ,but no substantive offers had been forthcoming, she promises him that if she hasn’t been able to make writing work by summer 1922, she will “confess myself beaten and take a permanent teaching job”. For Sayers, teaching seems to have been a profession of last resort, but if it meant that she could finally be independent of her family, she was willing to countenance it. But only if writing didn’t work out first.
I don’t think, at this point, that it was her life’s ambition to be a detective novelist — and indeed, given that she did not devote her entire writing career to this genre, perhaps it never was. She needed writing to pay her bills, and crime writing was an expanding and lucrative area of publishing to be in in the early 1920s. And she enjoyed reading it herself: while laid up with mumps during her time in France, she begged her friend Muriel Jaeger to send all the Sexton Blake books in parcels of two at a time, because she had to eke them out over her 21 days of quarantine.
While her first detective novel was starting to get some promising if elusive attention from publishers, she cracked on with writing the second one, Clouds of Witness. Even though neither of these books had paid her a penny yet, Sayers was confident enough of her abilities to keep going. She did need money to keep the lights on, though, and so she started casting around for writing-adjacent jobs that would use her linguistic skills, pay her a decent wage, and not take up so much of her time that should couldn’t also do other writing.
There were a few different avenues in the early 1920s that might have worked for this. She could have worked in the administrative side of publishing, reading manuscripts or running an office. She could have gone into journalism, either writing articles or in some other way participating in work on Fleet Street. Or there was commercial writing — whether for advertising or companies directly.
It was in this last field that she finally struck gold. She had applied for a junior copywriting position at an advertising firm called applied for S.H. Benson’s in March 1922, and didn’t immediately hear anything. But then in May they got in touch to offer her a month’s trial, which she was delighted to accept. It obviously went well, because she was hired in June of that year on a salary of four pounds a week. Her fortunes had turned around quickly: in April she had signed with a literary agent, and the month after her job at Benson’s became permanent, Whose Body? found a publisher in America, which provided an advance of $250. She could now both proceed with parental support, and avoid having to become a teacher. She was on her way.
Far from being a quick or meaningless “pay the bills” job, S.H. Benson’s was to prove to be a long lasting influence in Dorothy L. Sayers’s life. In 1922, London was the centre for the global advertising industry, and Benson’s was Britain’s biggest advertising agency. It had a reputation both for being progressive and innovative, as well as having some very longstanding and high profile clients. Almost unwittingly, Sayers had entered at the ground floor of a large and successful business. And at a time when the idea of the professional working woman was still a novel one, advertising seems to have been a relatively woman-friendly industry, not least because there was a recognition that the female consumer was a powerful and important part of the retail sector. Having women copywriters and executives made sense for this reason alone, although it does seem that, inevitably, the more senior management jobs during Sayers’ time were dominated by men.
Her new employer worked on campaigns for brands like Bovril, Rowntree’s chocolate, Guinness beer, Lipton’s tea and Colman’s mustard — I find it interesting that over a hundred years on, these are still items I could go into any British supermarket right now and purchase. She seems to have settled in quickly and made a good impression, because her salary was soon raised to five pounds a week, and then £6 10 shillings. That’s around £190 a week, or $220, in today’s money. She wasn’t earning vast sums by any means, but it was a steady income of a kind that would certainly keep landlords and creditors happy.
There is sometimes a sense that when writers have this kind of day job it must be something that they merely endure, so that they can get back to their quote “real work”. For Sayers, this wasn’t the case. She was thrilled that her job as a copywriter finally her a fully financially independent writer, of course, but she also seems to have enjoyed the social side of Benson’s. The company held dances regularly for its staff, and she attended them — including at least once with her lover Bill White, who was to become the father of her secret child (I’ve done a whole episode about that in the past, if you’re interested). A keen musician who was trying her hand at the saxophone at this time, she is even said to have played with the band on at least one occasion. Her colleagues in advertising were a lively bunch and mixed regularly with the journalists who worked on nearby Fleet Street, and it is probably at such a gathering that she first met the journalist Atherton Fleming, or Mac, who was to become her husband Benson’s seems to have been a kindly employer, too, which Sayers must have appreciated — in November 1923 they have her an eight week leave of absence for quote “illness”, which she used to give birth to her son. One Sayers biographer, David Coomes, even goes as far as to say that Benson’s was “her salvation” during these stormy romantic years of her late twenties, while her first few books were just finding a publisher and her heart was being broken.
After the break: Wimsey goes to work.
Although it was a job taken in large part out of financial necessity, Dorothy L. Sayers thrived as an advertising copywriter. A voracious reader with a large vocabulary in several languages including Latin and French, she adored word play, puns and crosswords. The linguistic tricks required to write a good catchphrase for a product came easily to her. If you’ve read any of Peter Wimsey’s dialogue, it will not come as a shock to you that his creator enjoyed playing around with words. The psychological perceptiveness that made her a good crime writer also helped her with writing persuasive advertising slogans.
In an article titled “The Psychology of Advertising” from 1937, Sayers described the work of the advertisement writer very precisely: “In a few hundred words, or perhaps in as few as fifty, he must arrest attention, hold interest, persuade, confute and stimulate to action. He learns to write in the hardest of all schools, where every word must pull its weight and the smallest error is an expensive disaster. And in addition to being a vivid and economical master of language, he must be a shrewd psychologist.”
One of her biographers, James Brabazon, argues that she could hardly have hit on an occupation more ideally suited to her skills and tastes. He writes: “Whether she was composing an advertisement for stockings or writing a sonnet or a villanelle, ideas still had to be fitted into a neat, predetermined form and expressed with the maximum possible impact. Dorothy loved problems like this, and to be paid for spending one’s time solving them must have seemed like heaven on earth.”
Her first published advertisement was for Sailor Savouries, a range of spreads for sandwiches, which she later described as “all lies from beginning to end”. Whether that was the case or not, her work seems to have pleased the bosses at Benson’s, because it wasn’t long before she was being assigned work for some of their most prestigious accounts. For Guinness, she helped to originate some iconic imagery that the company used for decades after Sayers had moved on from the agency. The makers of the famous Irish stout came to Benson’s with a very clear brief: they did not want to run campaigns that leaned on any of the vulgar associations of drinking beer. They wanted to promote their product as something healthy and lively. This resulted in a series of advertisements that used different animals with little comic verses, some of which were written by Sayers. To go with John Gilroy’s illustrations, she penned lines like:
“If he can say you can
Guinness is good for you
How grand to be a toucan
Just think what toucan do”
This was for the famous toucan, while the pelican that stole everybody’s beer went along with her phrase “My goodness — my Guinness!”. Guinness used these animals in their branding for decades.
Sayers also worked with Gilroy on Colman’s mustard, for which she was tasked with coming up with a way of making this everyday condiment seem exciting and topical. Her solution was to create something called “the Mustard Club”, which was a kind of fan club for Colman’s mustard. It launched in 1926. There were club rules, which included this one:
“Every member shall see that the mustard is freshly made, and no member shall tip a waiter who forgets to put mustard on the table.”
and a password, which was “Pass The Mustard, Please”.
Sayers also produced a club newsletter and even a recipe book, for which her husband Mac contributed some recipes. It was all meant in fun, and Sayers seems to have had a great time feeding stories to the press about the antics of Mustard Club members, as if they were part of an established institution like a golf club or a gentleman’s club. Billboards and posters on the sides of buses asked questions like “Have you joined the Mustard Club?” and “Where’s father? At the Mustard Club”. The campaign overall ran for about two years, and was considered Benson’s greatest success to date. It can hardly be said that Sayers was just marking time there until her detective novels took off: she was really making a splash.
Sayers was very productive during her years as a copywriter at S.H. Benson. Just in the five years between 1923 and 1928, she published 4 novels, 12 short stories and edited an anthology — that’s an impressive output even for someone doing fiction full time, let alone someone working around a secret pregnancy and a busy day job.
She didn’t keep the two sides of her work entirely separate, either. Twice her experiences working at Benson’s appear in her fiction: first, in 1924, with the short story “The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man With No Face”, and then in 1933 with the novel Murder Must Advertise. The former features two characters who work at a publicity firm which borrows some aspects of Sayers’s own employer, and the latter sees Wimsey going undercover at “Pym’s Publicity”, an advertising agency that would surely have been very recognisable to Benson’s employees. For all of its faults, Wimsey finds Pym’s to be a pleasant and mostly collegiate place to work, which was hopefully true of Sayers’s experience at Benson’s too. She even borrowed physical aspects of the office for her book, sneaking in her friend Muriel Byrne to help her work out the practicalities of a murder that involved a spiral staircase — a famous feature of the Benson’s office at Kingsway Hall. And it wasn’t just life inside the office that she drew inspiration from: one of her colleagues really did have a miraculous escape when falling between the train and the platform at Baker Street tube station, which also makes it into the novel.
Murder Must Advertise was written quickly. Sayers was already under contract with another Wimsey novel, The Nine Tailors, but its intricate bell-ringing plot was taking her longer than expected, so she put it on hold and wrote another novel to meet her deadline. The decision to write about a setting she knew very well — the advertising agency — was no doubt also related to this. There was no need to do any research for this one. She wasn’t enthusiastic about it herself, writing to her publisher Victor Gollancz that it was “not one of my best efforts”, but that she hoped people would find the insights into “the technical side of advertising” interesting.
Brought in by the head of Pym’s Publicity to investigate a suspicious death in the office, Lord Peter Wimsey adopts the persona of Death Bredon, a new junior copywriter. These are two of his own middle names, so readers are never in real doubt as to his identity, but he tells us anyway that you can say his first name “any way you like”, either as most people do, to rhyme with teeth, or breath. This choice of second name, incidentally, might be a reference to the A.E. Houseman poem “Bredon Hill”.
There are two separate but overlapping worlds in Murder Must Advertise. There’s the agency itself, and then the murkier world of illegal drug taking and dealing, which Wimsey must investigate in order to solve the case.
In her November 1937 essay about the creation of Peter Wimsey, also confusingly titled “Gaudy Night”, Sayers describes Murder Must Advertise as containing “symbolically opposing two cardboard worlds” — those of “the advertiser and the drug-taker”. That author herself, and most of her critics, have found that her description of the former is much more successful than the latter, no doubt because of where her own experiences lay.
Sayers used Murder Must Advertise to explore the ethical side of her work at Benson’s. For all that she enjoyed earning money and deploying her talents to good advantage, she worried that using language to manipulate people into buying things they might not need or even want wasn’t a very virtuous pursuit. Wimsey’s fellow copywriter at Pym’s, Ingelby, at one point describes what they are doing as “We undermine ’em with one hand and build ’em up with the other”. Another colleague, Miss Meteyard, says of her own work: “Muck! Dope! And they pay me £10 a week for that sort of thing. And yet, if we didn’t do it, what would happen to the trade of this country? You’ve got to advertise.”
The inclusion of the drug plot in the novel serves this end too: Sayers is exploring the parallels between two occupations that rely on a measure of exploitation — copywriting and drug selling. Wimsey’s friend Inspector Parker makes this connection absolutely explicit at one point, declaring that “all advertisers are dope-merchants”. Both transactions involve a kind of coercion, Sayers is saying. The slogan that Wimsey writes for the Nutrax nerve tonic fits into this too: “If Life’s a Blank Take Nutrax” could just as easily be a catchphrase for the illegal drugs in the case as for this over the counter medicine.
She also had opinions about the duplicitousness of capitalism, and how advertising upheld this harmful system. In an address titled “The Other Six Deadly Sins” that she gave in 1943 for the Public Morality Council, she pointed out that advertising helps to give a friendly face to decidedly unfriendly structures. “It looks so jolly and jovial, and has such a twinkle in its cunning eye, that nobody can believe that its head is as cold and calculating as ever,” said. Writing a few years early, in 1937, though, she reflected on her time in advertising and gave some share of the blame to the consumer, as well as the advertiser. “The moral of all this is that we have the kind of advertising we deserve; since advertisements only pander to our own proclaimed appetites.”
Dorothy L. Sayers handed in her notice at S.H. Benson’s in August 1929, after The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club was published and her agent was able to secure her a lucrative American publishing contract. She was now established enough as a writer to live on the proceeds of her original writing alone; no more need to write slogans for beer or mustard. She did still keep her hand in, though. In 1938, when she needed to raise money for a tour of her religious play The Zeal of Thy House, she did some copywriting for Horlicks in order to provide the necessary funds. “I unblushingly soaked Mammon for what I could get in that quarter,” was how she described it. A leader in the Times newspaper cried with alarm “whither Wimsey” now that his creator was soiling her hands with mere copywriting, and Sayers sent in a letter to the editor that cheerfully pointed out that Wimsey himself had been a copywriter in Murder Must Advertise , and that his creator had been a happy employee of S.H. Benson’s for nearly nine years.
That she was proud of her time with the company was further demonstrated in 1950, when she returned to the Benson’s offices in Kingsway Hall for the ceremonial unveiling of a plaque in her own owner. It read:
DOWN THIS STAIRCASE was precipitated to his death VICTOR DEAN OF PYM’S PUBLICITY with malice aforethought and for the gratification of all who appreciate the fine art of murder
25 May MCMXXXIII
THIS TABLET WAS UNVEILED A.D. 1950
By Dorothy L. Sayers, M.A.
I think we can conclude from all of this that although Sayers did have her qualms about the purpose to which her writing was put during her time working in advertising, she was proud of what she achieved too. A classic reaction, I think, to time spent working a corporate job.
For the last word, though, we must look to her fiction. Sayers ends Murder Must Advertise with a strange stream of consciousness paragraph made up of phrases pulled from adverts, like “Shine Your Shoes With Shino” and “Popp’s Pills Pep You Up”. It’s a grim kind of liturgy for capitalism, the trap in which all her characters, and her readers, are caught. “Advertise, or go under,” the final line extolls. Go forth and be manipulated, she is telling us. Peter Wimsey did try to warn us.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and hosted by me, Caroline Crampton.
You can find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/theadvertisingadventuresofdorothylsayers. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening.