As fans of The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women, we were delighted when its author Mo Moulton agreed to write a post for this blog. Long-time readers of Something Rhymed might recall us profiling Sayers’s literary bond with fellow crime author Agatha Christie back in 2015. Mo, though, focuses on the several-decades-long friendship between Sayers and Muriel St. Clare Byrne. It’s a piece that raises fascinating questions about criticism, collaboration and female friendship, and one that we’re sure our readers will enjoy.
‘Did they fight?’
That’s the question I always get when I speak about the Mutual Admiration Society, a writing group founded in 1912 at Somerville College, the University of Oxford, by a group of young women who remained friends and collaborators for life. The answer is yes, of course – if anyone has discovered the secret of decades-long, conflict-free intimacy, it wasn’t them, and it isn’t me. Even the name is a joke rather than a description: future detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, a founding member, said they should call themselves a mutual admiration society, before others did.
In fact, the MAS was free with sharp criticism. Sayers’s closest friend in the group was Muriel St. Clare Byrne, who would go on to be a playwright and a historian of Tudor England. Before that, she was editor of the student literary magazine, The Fritillary. Assessing Sayers’s entry to a poetry competition run by the magazine, Byrne wrote that it ‘has some very good lines in it, but has also too many serious lapses to justify the award of a prize’.
After university, Sayers and Byrne were in less frequent contact, as each struggled to find her own way as an independent woman in postwar London. By the late 1920s, however, they had become firm friends again, and Byrne and her partner Marjorie Barber won a cameo appearance as Harriet Vane’s best friends, Sylvia and Eiluned, in the 1929 Lord Peter Wimsey crime novel Strong Poison. (Eiluned, we learn, ‘scorns everything in trousers’, a classic euphemism if ever there was one.)
Strong Poison is based on one of Sayers’s own unhappy love affairs, and it introduces a romantic interest to the Wimsey novels in the person of Harriet Vane. Having created Vane, Sayers seemed unsure what to do with her, writing several more Wimsey novels that fail to advance the romantic plot. Her writerly impasse echoed her real-life dilemmas, which she and Byrne discussed in depth.
In 1933, they took a road trip together. Sayers introduced Byrne to her son, who had been born out of wedlock a decade earlier and was raised in some secrecy by her cousin in Oxford. They drove on through Somerset, and I imagine them in the car, rattling rapidly between high hedges, talking about whether Sayers should divorce her husband, and, probably, what Byrne should do about her own desire to incorporate another partner into her relationship with Barber.
A year, and no doubt many conversations later, Byrne proposed: why not write a play together, set during the honeymoon of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane? The result was Busman’s Honeymoon, a comic detective play that nonetheless takes on serious questions about how to reinvent marriage to be egalitarian, honest, and liberating rather than constraining and degrading. Drafts of the play reveal the working process to have been frank and equal, too: Byrne and Sayers debate everything from individual word choices to the big questions of motive and emotional integrity.
Having committed to an on-stage honeymoon, Sayers needed to get her characters engaged to be married, which she did in the novel Gaudy Night. Written after Busman’s Honeymoon was completed, but before it was performed, Gaudy Night is probably Sayers’s most beloved novel, an homage to Somerville College as well as a love story. But Byrne was unconvinced by the version she read in draft, finding it slow-moving and unlikely to appeal to readers.
Is this, finally, the fight that folks want, the dramatic falling-out after collaboration? It is not. Sayers rebutted the criticism but took it in stride. In fact, she looked forward to seeing Byrne again soon so they could have ‘a good argufying evening’.
In the questions about fights, I hear an echo of the stereotypes about women and friendships: that women are competitive, they are jealous and catty, they don’t have real friendships. But, as Sayers and Byrne would go on to argue in a pair of linked essays, women are, after all, just human beings, who loved and fought like any other human beings.
Sayers dedicated the 1937 novel version of Busman’s Honeymoon to Byrne, Barber, and their mutual friend Helen Simpson. In her dedication, she dismisses the stereotypes and celebrates, instead, that ‘friendship of which the female sex is said to be incapable; let the lie stick i’ the wall!’
Sayers and Byrne debated and argued and disagreed, but that was a part of their friendship, which ultimately became a collaboration that transformed them both as writers and thinkers.
Mo Moulton is a historian and writer, and the author of The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women. You can find out more at momoulton.com. They are also on Twitter @hammock_tussock. (Photo credit: Holly Revell)