It was at St Hilda’s 2007  (see below ) that I heard Jill Paton Walsh discuss Q.D.Leavis’s attack on Dorothy L. Sayers and I have been meaning to find the article ever since; finally I got myself into Birmingham Central Library and obtained the relevant volume of Scrutiny – it is Volume 6,  Number 3 (December 1937) and takes the form of a review of Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon (although for practical purposes one might consider it either as a general critique of Sayers or a specific review of Gaudy Night).

Now I summarised Jill Paton Walsh as saying…..

>>Leavis makes two substantial points…

1.) That DLS idealised academics – they are as corrupt and self-seeking as any other group of professionals, not some specially pure and lofty group dedicated to truth.

2.) That Wimsey is an absurdly idealised hero, who reminded her of someone from Ouida (I was fascinated to hear another reference to Ouida whom Miriam discovers in Richardson’s Pilgrimage – The Backwater – to her great delight). Leavis also hated DLS’s mention of sex.<<

The first is unquestioned and forms much the most powerfully argued, trenchant and indeed accurate part of the article, which stands up as well today as when it was written. Here is an extract treating the description of Oxford in Gaudy Night which displays QDL’s own rhetorical style at its’ best…

“If such a world ever existed, and I would be surprised to hear as much, it does no longer, and to give substance to a lie or to perpetuate a dead myth is to do no-one any service really. It is time that a realistic account on the older universities was put into circulation. Unfortunately for Miss Sayers’ thesis the universities are not the spiritually admirable places she alleges. People in the academic world who earn their livings by scholarly specialities are not as a general thing wiser, better, finer, decenter or in any way more admirable than those of similar social class outside. The academic world offers scope for personal aggrandisement much as the business world does, with the results you might expect. No-one who has had occasion to observe how people get a footing in the academic world, how they rise in it, how appointments are obtained, how the social life is conducted, what are its standards, interests and assumptions, could accept Miss Sayers’ romanticizing and extravagant claims” (my italics).

The second summary which Jill Paton Walsh made was in my view somewhat misplaced however. While QDL certainly has some easy fun at Wimsey’s expense (her best phrase claims that ‘he is able to talk like a P.G. Wodehouse moron’ !) her argument as I read it is not with DLS as a ’successor to Ouida or Edgar Wallace’ but with her literary  reputation. It is this which QDL savages – ‘Miss Sayers fiction when it isn’t a mere detective-story of an unimpressive kind is…stale, second-rate, hollow’. Now we can lay on one side Leavis’s attitude to mysteries – the ‘mere’ reveals her prejudice and makes it highly improbable that she will have anything of value to say on this subject – which she does not. Where her attack is concentrated and expanded is on the literary elements of Sayers’ work.

For instance it is quite wrong to say that she ‘hated DLS’s mention of sex’. The Leavises were after all great admirers and promoters of Lawrence. No for QDL Sayers writing on sex is what we now call inauthentic (the idea that Lawrence’s writing on sex is authentic is – well deeply problematic would be a euphemism but this is no place to go into that). This critique is summed up when QDL quotes Harriet Vane having ‘the novelists habit of thinking of everything in terms of literary allusion’; QDL comments ‘no novelist with such a parasitic, stale, adulterated way of living could ever amount to anything’. I think we can leave on one side the objection that QDL is extrapolating from Harriet to Sayers, because in this case I think that is how Sayers would like to have seen herself. There is a much bigger problem with this, which is that it is in fact merely a statement of Leavis’s own prejudices and critical assumptions. We arrive at their own self-promoted and defined mission to promote their view of literature as necessarily having a moral purpose and being authentic.It is fascinating that in a post-modern world Leavis’s position seems quite extraordinarily old-fashioned. The critique certainly raises interesting questions of all kinds but as an attack on Sayers it fails completely, because it is based on an unproven assertion – Sayers writes in X manner, X manner is bad, therefore Sayers is bad. Well the middle link in the argument is entirely missing. Leavis just asserts and in a bullying and hectoring way. Ellen, who has read a lot of Leavis, has with her usual wonderful turn of phrase provided me with the description of ‘intellectual thuggery’. This is precisely what we have here.

In her conclusion QDL says that Sayers is ‘a combination of literary glibness and spiritual illiteracy’ and that is not individual in this but ‘representative’ of a university (women’s?) college. She is in Leavis’s eyes similar to Edward Lear and Rupert Brooke (!) – without value.

When one steps back from all this there are two highly ironical aspects to Leavis’s attack on Sayers. It is an attack by an elitist on an elitist and a conservative on a conservative. No-one who reads either of these writers can doubt that they were conservative elitists for a moment. In another piece from Scrutiny (Volume, no 3 December  1935) during the course of a highly critical review of Dorothy Richardson’s Clear Horizon QDL writes….

>>”The demand for mass rights can only be a source
of embarrassment to intelligent women, who can be counted
on to prefer being considered as persons rather than
as a kind, just as they will wish to work out individual
solutions to their problems, if they have any; nor are they likely
to have any more sympathy with the appeal to ‘We women’
than intelligent men have for the equivalent appeal
to ‘We men’”<<

(which shows that right-wing women attacking feminism has a long history). Sayers’ conservative elitism, is one would hope, obvious to anyone who reads her mysteries – though to see its full, quite loopy, flowering you can check out her educational proposals for the re-introduction of the Ancient Greek curriculum ( The Lost Tools of Learning 1947). So this is a spat between conservative elitists – and as such pretty enjoyable for left-wingers like me.

In fairness however it needs to be said that one half of QDL’s attack, which really specifically relates to Gaudy Night, concerning DLS’s romanticising of Oxford is wholly justified (although it can be applied to many more writers than Sayers). The other half is not I think as Walsh presented.  Its substance is that Sayers is not serious enough, not ‘real’ enough by those Leavisite proclamations and dogmas which now seem rather absurd. If Sayers had not had any literary pretensions then QDL would not have objected, as in the full flowering of her snobbery she would have considered the books beneath her attention. This is very clearly absurd elitism of the worst kind.

Posted in books, mysteries | 2 Comments

2 Responses

  1. Dear Nick,

    I can’t reach my volume of Scrutiny just now as it’s one in the morning and it’s in the back bedroom where Jim (and Clarissa the cat) are sleeping so can’t back up my response with quotations. Still I have the time now to respond and want to.

    I do think there’s another implicit perspective on Sayers and Dorothy Richardson, one which is found in her attack on _Dusty Answer_ by Rosamond Lehmann. Read all three and you begin to hear a kind of broken record or Pavlovian resentment against a mood and stance towards life that QDL wants to dissociate herself from. She’s least courteous towards Lehmann and mocks her book as about suffering and ever so typical of a kind of book she connects with women. It’s a book which celebrates weakness she says: what she wants is stout activity against unhappiness. None of this complaining whining stuff. She doesn’t want to be associated with failure or dependence. That’s a laugh to me as who supported her?
    who paid for her education originally?

    In this sense Sayers is much finer and less of a reactionary than she. Sayers has an essay on feminism where she says she doesn’t want to be identified with any category but as a person. No solidarity or combination for them. But in the feminism essay Sayers’ tone is not one of fear or bullying and she does not attack those who are feminists. Woolf does those who identify themselves that way — interestingly.

    And it’s not irrelevant that Lehmann was to QDL’s mind part of the Bloomsbury circle, with her brother working for the Woolfs. She resented Woolf’s elite background


  2. edit this on April 29, 2009 at 11:02 am | Reply nick2209

    Many thanks for the further information and valuable observations and insights Ellen. They have given me a much better understanding of QDL’s position.

    On the GA list when my blog was discussed there was some discussion around the whole question of elitism. I realise that I failed to discuss or offer any definition of what I meant by this term; indeed I failed to think about it properly. It seems to me that it can be used in two senses…

    1) An attitude of elitism. For me this is the belief that the holding of some particular intellectual position or standard makes one person intrinsically or morally superior to another. It is a transfer of categories – from the intellectual to the moral, social, political, psychological and a transfer from a recognition of difference to a hierarchy. Now this is what I was talking about in respect of Sayers and Leavis and it seems to me very evident, even though I have only read a couple of short pieces by the latter. As far as Sayers is concerned it is almost the premise on which Gaudy Night is based. I stress that for me this is about the transfer from one category to another – I do not believe that all intellectual positions (or all intellects) are equal and will fight hard for some of my own intellectual positions as better intellectually than opposing ones – but this does not necessarily mean that I judge those who hold opposing positions to be in any way morally inferior – indeed they may well be morally superior! (there are some cases where this is not true – a racist apologist for instance). I haven’t really read enough Woolf to know if she is this kind of elitist.

    2.) Social elitism. This is a matter of behaviour where one acts as though the social circle/class to which one belongs is superior. This has nothing to do with intellect as it is inherently stupid. It might also be described as cliquishness – and we are encountering Trollope’s at times somewhat ambiguous portrayal of this right now in our reading of The Duke’s Children on Trollope-l. I suspect that the Bloomsbury Group were this kind of elitist; probably the Leavis’s had a circle which displayed it too, but I have absolutely no evidence whatever that Sayers was.

    It was about the first type of elitism that I was talking in my blog. And it is worth saying that it is not to be found in Sayers’ mystery peers – Allingham, Christie, Marsh – none of whom display this attitude.

    I was also quite correctly called to account for not making clear that elitism (type 1) is certainly not automatically linked to conservatism – some on the left can and do display this kind of elitism as well (they can display type 2 as well but that’s another question!).

    A valuable contribution to this whole discussion was made on the list by Nick Fuller who has generously allowed me to reproduce the following here….

    >>George Orwell didn’t think much of Sayers either:

    I do not share the opinion expressed in the Observer that Gaudy Night puts Miss Sayers ‘definitely among the great writers’, but there is no doubt that as far as literary ability goes she is out of the class of the other writers I am considering here. Yet even she, if one looks closely, is not so far removed from Peg’s Paper as might appear at a casual glance. It is, after all, a very ancient trick to write novels with a lord for a hero. Where Miss Sayers has shown more astuteness than most is in perceiving that you can carry that kind of thing off a great deal better if you pretend to treat it as a joke. By being, on the surface, a little ironical about Lord Peter Wimsey and his noble ancestors, she is enabled to lay on the snobbishness (’his lordship’ etc.) much thicker than any overt snob would dare to do. Also, her slickness in writing has blinded many readers to the fact that her stories, considered as detective stories, are very bad
    ones. They lack the minimum of probability that even a detective story ought to have, and the crime is always committed in a way that is incredibly tortuous and quite uninteresting. In Gaudy Night Harriet Vane has at last succumbed to Lord Peter’s advances. So it is time that Lord Peter, who is now forty-five, settled down and gave up detection. But needless to say he won’t. He and his title are a lot too profitable for that. A little bird in a yellow jacket has just whispered to me that next year, there will be another corpse in the library and Lord Peter and Harriet (Viscountess Wimsey?) will be off on a fresh quest.

    New English Weekly, 23 January 1936
    (S. Orwell and I. Angus, eds., The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: Volume I: An Age Like This 1920-1940, London: Penguin Books, 1970, pp. 185-86.)<<

    This is a far less searching critique than QDL’s and also I suppose more expected (although one can never really predict Orwell’s attitude to anything!). The really mystifying bit is about Sayers’ powers as a detective writer – but without knowing just what he thought made a good ‘detective story’ or who he held in high regard as a practitioner of the art it is hard to comment further.