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 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.
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.
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.