Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers

Despite some parallels in their childhoods, and their shared status as ‘Golden Age’ queens of crime, the differences between Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers were far more profound.

Agatha Christie (Creative Commons licence)

Agatha Christie, 1890-1976 (Creative Commons licence)

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was schooled largely at home. Her mother had wanted to hold her back from reading until she was eight, but by the age of five the impatient girl managed to teach herself.

While Christie’s learning was relatively ad hoc, and focused ultimately on helping her to find a good husband, the parents of Dorothy Leigh Sayers (who also educated her at home) kept her to a rigorous schedule.

Dorothy L Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers, 1893-1957 (Image used with the kind permission of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society.)

Sayers eventually won a scholarship to Somerville College at the University of Oxford (also the alma mater of writer friends Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby) and went on to a series of jobs, most successfully in the advertising industry.

Later in life she would return to academia, her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy becoming the work of which she felt most proud. But most remember her as the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, and it was this position as a writer of detective fiction that led her into a friendship with Christie.

Both were members of the Detection Club. This group of leading crime writers, who met regularly to socialise and talk shop, had to abide by a strict set of literary rules designed to give the reader a fair chance of guessing the guilty party in their books. They also jointly-penned several mysteries, three of which – the novel The Floating Admiral and two radio serials – included both Christie and Sayers as contributors.

Each woman’s attitudes to these activities illustrate the contrast in their personalities. Sayers devised the club’s elaborate initiation rituals, threw herself into ceremonies with gusto, and took on the formidable task of organising her fellow writers for their collaborations.

The reserved Christie, on the other hand, merely submitted to her initiation. When she accepted the role of president (succeeding Sayers) it was on the condition that someone else be appointed to make speeches and chair events.

When working on the radio serials, she often proved elusive, leading to frantic phone calls and letters between her and Sayers when at last she’d been tracked down. But Sayers also sent notes praising Christie’s recent fiction and divulged her exasperation at what they both saw as unnecessary interference by J.R. Ackerley, their BBC producer.

The feeling, incidentally, appears to have been mutual. Ackerley later recalled that, though Christie was one of his favourite detective fictionists, he believed she was a ‘little on the feeble side’ as a broadcaster – adding that ‘anyone in that series would have seemed feeble against the terrific vitality, bullying and bounce of that dreadful woman Dorothy L. Sayers’.

Able to earn far more from other writing endeavours, Christie’s sense of loyalty to Sayers was probably a major reason why she agreed to take part in even as many of these joint ventures as she did. But Sayers also came to her friend’s aid on several occasions, including joining in with the search for the author during her famous 1926 ‘disappearance’. She also provided a vital supporting vote when disgruntled members of the Detection Club, unhappy with the ‘unfair’ plot of her Poirot mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, called for Christie to be expelled.

It has been said that, partially due to her shyness, Christie had few intimate female friends. But with Sayers she established an important working friendship, and one on which each woman was able to draw for support through the glory years of their success.

Activity

The Detection Club often held their official dinners at London’s Café Royal. This month, we will visit this historic venue for a cocktail or two. Since the Detection Club sometimes wrote collaboratively and also came up with a series of rules to abide by, we will come up with a list of ‘rules’ for the writing we do together.

Louise Doughty and Jacqui Lofthouse: Tortoises Rather Than Hares

A Class Act

Jacqui: I first met Louise twenty years ago, at the University of East Anglia, on a photo shoot for the Sunday Telegraph. We had both studied there, for our MA in Creative Writing under Malcolm Bradbury, but in different years.

Class Act

Jacqui Lofthouse (middle in black) and Louise Doughty (behind her to the left in polka dots).

It’s a moody photograph (the photographer told us ‘don’t smile, you’ll look stupid’) but the actual mood was celebratory. Louise was wearing a sleeveless polka dot dress and had a brilliant suntan. She looked very stylish and cool. We were both excited about the publication of our first novels. Louise’s was already out and mine was about to appear. I still couldn’t quite believe that I was about to be published by Hamish Hamilton and was mixing with other published authors.

Louise: Jacqui struck me immediately as enviably calm and serene.  We swapped notes on being students on the UEA MA and how neither of us felt regarded as the stars of our year – we laughed about that, and about how we were tortoises rather than hares.

The Polymath and the Will of Steel

Jacqui: Louise has been more focussed than me over the years, in terms of her writing, whereas I’ve been more distracted by entrepreneurial ventures, such as setting up my business coaching writers, but also by other art forms, returning to my love of drama and even having an interlude training to be a drama teacher. Right now, for example, I’m developing the business, finishing a second draft of a play, in discussion with a filmmaker and attending screen acting classes. Louise is focusing on her latest novel full-time. Some of this relates to financial decisions, but I think it’s also about our character types. She has a will of steel and I can’t stop myself diversifying.

Louise: Jacqui is more of a polymath than me: she’s much more plugged in to social media, has trained as a coach and run her own business.  I’ve focused very much on the novels and although that’s paid off to a certain extent I think her life is more interesting and varied than mine.

The Unrest Cure

Jacqui: One dinner that particularly stays with me was the night when I told Louise I was planning to train as a secondary school drama teacher. In the end, it was only a two year interlude, but it felt hard breaking the news that I was going to do something so different and apparently out of character. I was ready for a change, what Saki calls the ‘unrest cure’. I wanted to give something back to young people, to be more ‘out in the world’ but I remember, at that time, also feeling somewhat jaded with the literary world and saying ‘but what would you do?’ I don’t think Louise had an answer but I imagine she was thinking ‘I’d rather starve in my garret than do something as crazy as that!’ But she was gracious enough not to try to hold me back from something that I so clearly wanted to do. Those two years, in fact, served to remind me how vital writing is in my life; how impossible it is for me to do without it.

Girl Novelists’ Dry Martini Club

Louise: At one point, just for a laugh, we formed something called the Girl Novelists’ Dry Martini Club.  There were five of us and an agreement that whenever one of us signed a book deal, we would all go out for martinis.  It started out as just an in-joke between a group of friends but it got picked up by the media – I think I mentioned it on Radio 4’s Midweek – and the next thing we knew it was mentioned in articles and we received letters from women asking if they could join.  I thought it was a hoot when the Club made it into Jacqui’s satirical novel The Modigliani Girl.  Almost every aspect of writing and the writing world gets satirised in that book.

Silent 3

Jacqui: Louise introduced me to the novelist Charles Palliser at a reading we did together. I was awestruck because an old beau of mine had bought me a copy of Charles’ novel The Quincunx so it was clearly the book to have! Meeting Charles, who had real literary kudos, made me feel incredibly grown up, but more importantly, he is now a genuine friend, whose devotion to writing and books never fails to inspire. In turn, Charles introduced me to a number of other writers and we still meet for an annual dinner each January at Louise’s home and talk about the year we’ve had, sharing the ups and downs of the writing life – and indeed, of life beyond writing.

Louise: This writing group is Silent 3 (don’t ask me why it’s called that, no idea), which was set up by Robert Irwin, a renowned Arabic scholar who also writes science fiction. The group used to be very large and meet in a pub in central London once a month but has shrunk to a hard-core now and every January we all have dinner at my house and review our writing years – another member brings the food and I do the long table etc.

Louise Doughty and Jacqui Lofthouse

Louise Doughty and Jacqui Lofthouse

Rollercoaster

Louise: When I look back over the twenty years I’ve been publishing, it strikes me just how essential my writing friends have been: my other close writing buddy is the novelist Jill Dawson, but along with her and Jacqui there is a wider circle of writing friends, mostly women but not exclusively, who I feel I have really grown up with.  Those friends are incredibly important, partly because you know each other’s personal and domestic lives as well, but also because you know that the successes are hard-fought for and well-earned and the disappointments often arbitrary.  A writer’s life is such a rollercoaster of success and disappointment that it’s invaluable having friends that will understand and support you whatever part of the ride you are on.  Friends are far more important, at the end of the day, than finding an agent or a publisher.

Louise Doughty is the author of seven novels including Apple Tree Yard and Whatever You Love, which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She is also a critic and cultural commentator and broadcasts regularly for the BBC.

Jacqui Lofthouse is the author of four novels including Bluethroat Morning and The Modigliani Girl. She runs a mentoring and literary consultancy service for writers The Writing Coach.

 

A Motherhood of Writers, a Sisterhood of Readers

My heart sank when Emily challenged me to read The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch.

Although it is hardly in the spirit of Something Rhymed, I considered myself firmly in the Elizabeth Bowen camp. My copy of her Collected Stories accompanied me when I first left for college and has been packed and unpacked so many times since. When I got my first lecturing post, I put it on my syllabus, and nowadays I often quote Bowen to encourage my New York University students to focus on creativity during their time in the UK: ‘Imagination of my kind is most caught, most fired, most worked upon by the unfamiliar’.

My memories of reading Murdoch, on the other hand, are scant and chequered.

My cousin Nic – a voracious and insightful reader – had devoured Murdoch’s novels, and my writer friend Wendy Vaizey had written about Murdoch in her PhD. Nic and I shared a love of Thomas Hardy’s books and Wendy and I had introduced each other to our favourite texts by medieval mystics, so I felt sure that I too would fall in love with Murdoch’s work.

On one of my trips down to stay with Nic in her book-lined cottage in Cornwall, I picked up a copy of Murdoch’s A Severed Head. I read it over Easter, sitting in Nic’s sunlit conservatory – the mugs of tea at my side replaced at dusk by glasses of gin. When Nic got home from work, I’d put down the book and we’d take cliff-top walks or share plates of fish straight from the sea.

There was such a stark difference that week between my external life – full of sunshine and hyacinths and warm conversation – and the world that Murdoch’s novel set up in my mind. Neither the story nor the characters have stayed with me, but the coldness and cruelty of the book have remained.

The Unicorn also has an iciness to it, yet I found it compelling and clever and self-consciously indebted to its literary forebears.

Bowen’s influence is clear: the faded glory of the Irish country house and the Anglo-Irish cast, which are said to have been inspired by guests Murdoch met at Bowen’s Court.

Yet it was another female author who came to mind when I read the opening of The Unicorn. Its gothic setting and the simultaneous presence and absence of the mistress of the house was redolent with echoes of Rebecca.

It quickly became obvious, however, that Murdoch’s approach to the gothic differed from that of Daphne du Maurier. As I read on, I began to feel that The Unicorn shares more of its DNA with Northanger Abbey. Like Jane Austen before her, Murdoch self-consciously plays with gothic conventions, calling them into question and sending them up.

Even more prominent still, is Murdoch’s engagement with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre since, like its predecessor, The Unicorn features an imprisoned mistress of the house. But Murdoch makes Hannah Crean-Smith a more central character than Brontë’s Bertha, and the novel investigates the question of her sanity.

Critics have tended to interpret Hannah Crean-Smith as an enchantress: apparently pure but ultimately revealed as an evil manipulator. I see her more as a damaged being, fashioned by the scarring experiences of torture and imprisonment.

I would love to sit beside my cousin in her Cornish conservatory, sipping gin and finding out what she made of Hannah Crean-Smith. But Nic died last year in a sunlit room, our family reading to her right up to the end. When I talk with Wendy and Emily about The Unicorn – and about Murdoch’s other novels, which I will surely now read – my memories of Nic will inform this conversation between my sisterhood of readers, just as Austen and Brontë and du Maurier lived on as Murdoch’s literary mothers.

Can You Help Us?

We’re hoping that one of our online sisterhood of readers might know of a female writing friendship enjoyed by Daphne du Maurier. If so, please could you tell us about it by using the comment tab below or by using the ‘Contact Us’ form. We’d love to profile du Maurier on this site.

Eva Trout: a Woman in Need of a Friend

For this month’s Something Rhymed activity, Emma Claire and I decided to each read something by one of our current profiled authors: Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen and The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch. Both of these books are said to have been influenced by the work of one author on the other.

This image is in the public domain.

This image is in the public domain.

I came to Eva Trout afresh, with no prior knowledge of its plot. Since I was going to be reading not only for pleasure but also for this website, I suppose I set out with a preconceived idea that the post I eventually wrote could be about one of the friendships enjoyed by the eponymous heroine.

But that’s the trouble with preconceived ideas. Long before the late stage in the novel when Eva declares ‘I have no friend’, I had been struck by the fact that my original intention wasn’t going to work at all.

The huge gap left by the lack of a true trusted confidante for much of Eva’s life was something I kept turning over in my mind as I moved through the chapters of the novel.

When the reader first encounters Eva at the start of the book, she is a young woman still waiting to come into the fortune left to her by her late father. Despite her personal wealth, Eva has not had an easy start in life. Her mother abandoned her when she was a child, only to be killed in a plane crash soon afterwards. Since her father’s suicide some years later, Constantine Ormeau, a man who appears to have been Eva’s father’s lover, has been her unsympathetic legal guardian.

Constantine regards Eva as a problem, and even Iseult Arble, a former schoolteacher who previously showed a great deal of interest in the girl and has allowed her to move into the home she shares with her husband, has begun to feel increasingly wary towards her youthful lodger.

Eva’s social awkwardness and hard-to-predict behaviour are a puzzle to most of the novel’s other characters, isolating her from those who surround her. As a reader, I don’t mind admitting that I was left somewhat puzzled, not just by the central character but aspects of the novel as a whole.

Certain episodes will undoubtedly live on in my mind – the unbearably stilted conversation that takes place between Mr and Mrs Arble as they wait for Eva to come home one evening; or the restaurant scene during which Iseult tucks into a plate of oysters in a way that is ‘at once methodical and voluptuous’, for instance. But, overall, there was something about the book that I didn’t quite ‘get’ – not in the way that I got  The Death of the Heart, Bowen’s novel from thirty years earlier, or her moving short story ‘The Visitor’ – both of which thoroughly engaged me.

Like several notable readers I’ve since discovered, I struggled with some of Bowen’s decisions about language and structure, aspects of the book which I felt cut me off from the story and characters – particularly interesting in view of Murdoch’s likely influence on Bowen’s approach.

By the time I reached the final page, my thoughts on the subject of friendship had moved away from wishing for a lasting friend for Eva and onto wishing instead that my friend had read this book, so that we could discuss it together.

So, I suppose that this post has ended up as a request to Emma Claire to do just that, because I know for certain that, whether she agrees with my take on Eva Trout or not,  conversations with her always provide me with interesting new ways to think about literary works. And as I mentioned in one of my posts from last month, this is something I’ve really come to value in our friendship.

Get Involved

Reading Bowen’s novel got me thinking about depictions of female friendship in literature. Anne Shirley and Diana Barry in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Jane and Prudence in the novel of the same name by Barbara Pym, and the women of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, are all examples that popped quickly into my mind. If a female friendship from a story, poem or play has left a lasting impression on you, we’d love to hear about it.

Please get in touch by leaving a comment below, or send a tweet via Twitter using the hashtag #SomethingRhymed.

Elizabeth Bowen and Iris Murdoch

The Anglo-Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen, is remembered for surrounding herself with the most lauded of literary women.

Elizabeth Bowen

Image used with the kind permission of Vintage Books.

Never allowing her severe stammer to get in the way of her role as a garrulous hostess, she entertained the likes of Carson McCullers, Rosamund Lehman, Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf.

We were surprised to discover that Iris Murdoch had attended one of the glittering salons at Bowen’s Court since she was twenty years younger than her hostess and has often been mythologised as something of an honorary man. Famously dismissive of her female contemporaries, she refused to read any of Barbara Pym’s novels, despite (or because of) repeated and hearty recommendations from the men in her life.

Iris Murdoch

We sought permission from Harper Collins to use this image.

It turned out that Murdoch and Bowen were first drawn together by their shared Anglo-Irish heritage and admiration for each other’s novels.

The salons at Bowen’s Court, mostly known for their decadence, were, in fact, full of creative ferment. Passages from Murdoch’s The Unicorn are so indebted to Bowen’s style and subject matter that they could almost have been written by the older author. Similarly, Bowen’s Eva Trout is influenced by the ‘demoniac’ subversion that she so admired in the work of her acolyte.

But it was confessions about their romantic relationships that cemented the intimacy of their inter-generational friendship. Murdoch confided her fears about agreeing to wed her lover, the fellow academic, John Bayley: as a married woman, she would be forbidden from continuing in her post as an Oxford don. Bowen, who had felt liberated rather than hemmed in by her own marriage, advised the younger author to embrace the opportunity to spend more time on her novels.

The pair visited each other regularly and commented on each other’s work, developing a deep and mutually influential friendship that lasted for nigh on two decades.

During this time Murdoch’s unconventional marriage endured, in some ways following the example mapped out by the flamboyant Bowen, whose husband was quite an introvert. Indeed, one party guest at Bowen’s Court stumbled into a cupboard in search of the loo only to find him crouched amongst the mops and brooms with a tray of food on his knees. Their successful union was more companionable than erotic, and Bowen sought sexual fulfilment elsewhere – most notably in a thirty year love affair with a Canadian diplomat.

Murdoch was similarly open to extramarital encounters. Most interesting among her affairs, perhaps, was her lesbian relationship, break-up and reconciliation with fellow philosopher, Philippa Foot. And yet, like Bowen, Murdoch was devoted to her husband, as, in both cases, the support of these men helped their creativity to thrive.

Not only did the older author show the younger one how to carve out erotic and creative freedom within a lifelong and nurturing marriage, Bowen also demonstrated by example how to extend wisdom and generosity to the next generation. And so, Murdoch – previously wary of her female contemporaries – ended up taking the young A.S. Byatt under her wing.

Activity

This month, Emma Claire will be reading The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch and Emily will be reading Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen.

Who Cares?

Someone recently told me that she considered my sister’s life to have no value.

My sister has severe autism and cerebral palsy, so she requires constant support from family, friends and paid carers. I stayed with Lou recently and, during this time, it was me who cut up her food into bite-size pieces, bathed and dressed her, held her hand to help her safely cross the road.

It would seem unthinkable now to dismiss Helen Keller’s life as valueless. And yet, many people must have written off this deaf-blind girl and pitied those who looked after this hot-tempered child.

In fact, Keller’s disabilities enabled her to look at our world from a distinctive vantage point – one that came to be valued by prestigious literary journals, world leaders and the general public alike.

As with many of the literary women we’ve featured on this site, it is difficult to prise apart Keller’s dazzling abilities from her apparent disabilities. Could Emily Dickinson have written such wildly challenging verse if she had conformed to the demands of the outside world? Could Jean Rhys have penned Wide Sargasso Sea without her own feelings of imprisonment? Could Virginia Woolf have rendered Septimus Smith’s shell shock had she not experienced the loosening grip of her own sanity?

The courage, determination and soaring talent of these writers were supported by the care and commitment of their family, friends and employees. Infamously reclusive, Dickinson underwent surgery on her eyes and a recent biographer claims that she may also have had epilepsy. Her writing life was facilitated by her siblings, and she received invaluable support from fellow writer Helen Hunt Jackson during a time when few others recognised the genius of her work – a subject we’ve written about for Shooter Literary Magazine.

Shooter Literary Magazine available from Foyles

Shooter Literary Magazine available from Foyles

During our interview with Diana Athill, she told us that Rhys relied in her youth on ‘helpful men’ to guide her through the trials of everyday life, while in later years ‘she was rescued by nice women like me’. Leonard Woolf – his wife’s most prized reader – helped to nurse her through dark times, never doubting her brilliance.

Throughout her long and dignified life, Keller relied on others night and day. Those who helped her were privileged to glean insights on how to value and be valued by a fellow human being. The support, of course, went both ways. Indeed, when Keller turned down offers from world-famous filmmakers in favour of the inexperienced Nancy Hamilton, she acted out of deep care for her friend.

During the past weeks, while I was helping my sister to bathe and dress and eat, she was looking after me in ways that were subtle but just as significant. Before travelling up to stay with her, I had been feeling uncharacteristically low. By welcoming me into her daily routine, Lou reminded me that joy can be found in all sorts of places: her face would light up when she selected an outfit from the clothes I’d laid out on her bed; in the cinema, she sang along to ‘Tomorrow’ with Annie, clapping her hands above her head; one evening, she dragged me around the marine lake at sunset, forcing me to run against the wind and laughing all the way.

Lou bringing a smile to my face

Lou bringing a smile to my face

Later that night we went to a gig and Lou shook hands with all and sundry, repeating her favourite phrases: ‘What’s your name? You’re a ratbag! I like college.’ In this way, we got chatting to a young man, who – full of despair – had just dropped out of university. Lou reached across me to take hold of the young man, and they sat hand in hand for a long time. I like to think that she was helping him that night just as she was helping me: that her zest for life was rubbing off on him; that he would value – as I did – her reminder that there can be dignity and kindness in seeking and accepting care.

The Ship has set sail

We are delighted to announce that yet another of our guest bloggers has a book out this month. What’s more, Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship asks wise and searching questions about the value of life and what it really means to care.

 

Taking a Closer Look

Inspired by profiled writers Nancy Hamilton and Helen Keller, this month we each decided to introduce our friend to something new…

I must admit that when Emma Claire first suggested we visit a snowdrop trail together, I had my doubts that this was quite in the spirit of the challenge we’d set ourselves.

True, we’d be going to a new location for me, London’s Chelsea Physic Garden. But as for the snowdrops themselves, well, I thought I was already well-acquainted with those white-petaled flowers that emerge each year out of the coldest winter chill.

IMG_1186I could understand why Emma Claire was keen to go to this event. Snowdrops play a part in her novel, The Waifs and Strays of Seaview Lodge, but, recalling that I’d been able to identify one of these plants since the age of three or four, I wondered whether our planned morning would really provide me with enough new material on which to base this post.

Of course, as Emma Claire must have anticipated thanks to her research for her novel, the snowdrop varieties on show at the garden extended far beyond the Common and Double types with which I was familiar.

IMG_1183Some grew taller than any I’d previously seen; some had distinctive green markings; or uneven surfaces; or petals that extended outwards like wings. And without the accompanying signage, I’m not sure I would have recognised some of them as snowdrops at all.

Thinking about the morning afterwards, I remembered that when Emma Claire first suggested we consider profiling Helen Keller on Something Rhymed I’d had a similar reaction.

Although I was vaguely aware that this legendary deafblind woman had written an autobiography, I wasn’t sure whether that was enough to place her in the same category of ‘literary heroine’ as the other women whose friendships we’d been considering on this website.

But it turned out that the rather sugar-coated impression I’d had of Keller was formed almost entirely from a single book that I’d treasured as a child. Encouraged by its author, I can recall closing my eyes and blocking up my ears with my fingers to try and gain an inkling of how Keller experienced the world. From these pages, I’d learned of her amazing achievements, personally, and as a campaigner for others with disabilities.

But I had gleaned next to nothing about Keller’s wider political activism, as a socialist and supporter of women’s suffrage for instance. I didn’t know about her style of writing, or the spirited voice that shines through in essays like this one. Other than her student-teacher relationship with Anne Sullivan, who famously spelled out the word ‘water’ on the young Keller’s hand – I was in the dark about Keller’s other female friendships.

IMG_1197Over the years, Emma Claire’s influence has encouraged me to take a closer look at many things I’d once thought I understood. I have returned to books I disliked purely on the strength of her enthusiasm. I’ve adjusted my views on all sorts of subjects thanks to the back-and-forth of our conversations.

But until we went to see those snowdrops together, I don’t think I had truly noticed that this was one of the aspects I most value about our friendship. So, perhaps in the end, this was the real ‘something new’ I experienced as a result of this month’s challenge.