Monday, July 23, 2012

Sayers being prescient

This is a slightly odd posting for me, firstly because I rarely use this blog for writing about a book I happen to be reading (though I seem to have ranted about modern detective stories and a history of cookery books before) and, secondly, because I may seem to be trespassing on the territory so ably occupied by the Boss of EURef, the early days of World War II.

The book I am reading is David Coomes's Dorothy L. Sayers - A Careless Rage for Life. Unusually, Mr Coomes spends considerably less time on the detective stories than on Sayers's religious writings (he is the erstwhile Head of Religion at the BBC), plays and, less happily, on attempts to get at the person beneath the carapace she had built for herself. The book is outstandingly good in that it quotes Sayers herself, her less well known essays, articles and many letters extensively. Whatever one thinks of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, there is no question, that Sayers was a superb writer. Her prose sparkles, whatever the theme.

Sayers more or less stopped writing about Wimsey in 1937, putting aside around 170 pages of a planned novel, Thrones, Dominations, completed much later by another detective story writer, Jill Paton Walsh. There are many possible explanations as to why Sayers decided not to carry on with the book and the most likely one is that she really did lose interest in the Wimsey saga and gained interest in many other things, not least the theatre and playwriting in general.

However, in the autumn of 1939 the Spectator decided that it might be a good idea to revive Lord and Lady Peter Wimsey as well as a number of other characters in order that they should discuss the war and provide some well-written patriotic propaganda. A number of Letters to and fro the various people appeared through late 1939 and early 1940 after which the scheme was abandoned. Jill Paton Walsh put the published Letters to good use as a starting point to her second novel about the Wimseys, Bunter and others, A Presumption of Death. There has, since been a third novel, The Attenbury Emeralds and I do hope that there will be no more. I fear my hopes will not be realized. (I did write about the three novels on another forum for those who might be interested.)

There is one particular passage in the Letters that is surely of interest to all of us, those who are interested in Sayers as she expressed very strong convictions and those who are interested in the way this country developed during and after the war. David Coomes, who quotes it is unhappy with the sentiments and thinks Sayers shows herself to be merely tetchy because of private problems. As an ex-BBC man he, presumably, finds those sentiments deeply unpalatable.

Lord Peter, somewhere in Europe on an unspecified mission is writing to his wife, Harriet.
You are a writer - there is something you must tell the people, but it is difficult to express. You must find the words. Tell them, this is a battle of a new kind, and it is they who have to fight it, and they must do it themselves and alone. They must not continually ask for leadership - they must lead themselves. This is a war against submission to leadership, and we might easily win it in the field and yet lose it in our own country ...
It's not enough to rouse up the Government to do this and that. You must rouse the people. You must make them understand that their salvation is in themselves and in each separate man and woman among them. If it's only a local committee or amateur theatricals or the avoiding being run over in the black-out, the important thing is each man's personal responsibility. They must not look to the State for guidance - they must learn to guide the State. Somehow you must contrive to tell them this. It is the only thing that matters. 
I think we can safely say that the battle was lost in this country and not just on the left or among professed admirers of the state. The fact that so many supposed opponents of that, so many supposed eurosceptics, so many supposedly on the side of freedom can still solemnly call for a leader to take them out of the wilderness would have horrified Miss Sayers.


  1. Remember it was only a few years later Hayek's The Road to Serfdom was published, with a dedication "To the socialist of all parties".


  2. True enough. Sayers did, somewhat arrogantly, make pronouncements on economics without knowing a great deal about it but she continually asserted the greater importance of other matters.