Monday, August 01, 2022

The Many Faces of Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957)

When my mother left her hometown of Sydney, Australia in 1953 to take up her very first job as a house surgeon in a little country hospital in Waimate, New Zealand, among the very few things she brought with her was her collection of books by Dorothy Sayers.

I suppose that might be where I got it from: this persistent taste for the occult and the macabre - not so much the detection bit, but certainly the mystery and horror.

I've read all the Lord Peter Wimsey detective stories many times, but - more to the point - have found perhaps even more to admire in the acumen with which Sayers mapped the whole field of the mysterious in three soup-to-nuts anthologies, issued over a period of seven years, from 1928 to 1934.

Originally published in three large volumes, these collections were subsequently subdivided into six separate sections: three confined to detective stories, and another three devoted to ghost and horror stories.

This has made things far easier for fans of both genres, as the rationalists don't have to be bothered with all the supernatural stuff, and occultists such as myself don't have to pretend interest in the creaky mechanics of whodunnits.

It was there that I first encountered Le Fanu's 'Green Tea' and 'Carmilla', Bram Stoker's 'The Judge's House', and a host of more recent luminaries of the macabre. And it was there that I first read one of my very favourite short stories of all time, Martin Armstrong's 'Sombrero' (which you can read about it in more detail in Bronwyn Lloyd's brilliant essay here).

But who exactly was Dorothy Sayers, and why do her various sets of fans still maintain such devotion to her memory? Why, in particular, do those fans seem content to remain in such mutually exclusive groups?

The Many Faces of Dorothy Sayers, then, would have to include:
  • her dazzling contribution to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, as a contemporary (and rival) of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Josephine Tey, amongst others.
  • her work as a translator - and commentator - on Dante, which resulted in one of the most widely read versions of the Divine Comedy published in modern times.
  • her status as a visiting member of the Inklings, with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, due mainly to her extensive contributions to the field of Christian apologetics.
  • and, last but not least, her work as a critic and anthologist of mystery and ghost stories, which rivals even that of such industrious successors as Edmund Crispin and Peter Haining.

Let's take them one by one:

    The Dorothy L. Sayers Crime Collection (Folio Society: 1998)

  1. Detective Story Writer

  2. Lord Peter Wimsey novels:

    1. Whose Body? (1923)
    2. Clouds of Witness (1926)
    3. Unnatural Death (1927)
    4. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
    5. Strong Poison (1930) [with Harriet Vane]
    6. The Five Red Herrings (1931)
    7. Have His Carcase (1932) [with Harriet Vane]
    8. Murder Must Advertise (1933)
    9. The Nine Tailors (1934)
    10. Gaudy Night (1935) [with Harriet Vane]
    11. Busman's Honeymoon (1937) [with Harriet Vane]

    Jill Paton Walsh & Dorothy L. Sayers: A Presumption of Death (2002)

    I recently came across an interesting paperback in a local vintage shop. It purports to be a collaboration between children's-book and detective-story writer Jill Paton Walsh and the long defunct Dorothy Sayers.

    Dorothy L. Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh: Thrones, Dominations (1998)

    Further research revealed the existence of an earlier volume which actually was based on some unpublished chapters of an unfinished Lord Peter Wimsey novel started by Sayers sometime in 1936, after the completion of Busman's Honeymoon, the last published Wimsey mystery.

    Busman's Honeymoon was written as a stage play before being repackaged as a novel, an interesting change of gear which might lead one to argue that the last bona fide Sayers crime novel was in fact Gaudy Night (1935), which ends with her (at least partial) alter ego, crime novelist Harriet Vane, falling at last into the faithful arms of aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey.

    I enjoyed both of these Walsh / Sayers novels, though perhaps not sufficiently to hunt out the further instalments in the series. Jill Paton Walsh died in 2020, so there are unlikely to be any more beyond the four already completed by her - unless, that is, some enterprising fan-fiction writer discovers unpublished chapters or plot outlines for further such books, and so ad infinitum ...

    Walsh certainly manages a pretty seamless join between her chapters and Sayers' chapters in the 1936-37 abdication era saga of Thrones, Dominations. She is also pretty good on the atmosphere of wartime Britain in A Presumption of Death. What one misses in both books, though, is the relentlessly circumstantial detail of the canonical Wimsey stories.

    What was it like to work in an advertising agency in the 1930s? Sayers had done so, and she paints a vivid picture of the minutiae of the trade in Murder Must Advertise (1933). In fact, so absorbing is her account that one's interest - never strong - in solving the murder mystery the novel is purportedly about begins to shrink into nothingness.

    The same could be said in even stronger terms about the apprenticeship in Campanology (or bell-ringing) offered by The Nine Tailors (1934). Painting in oils is exhaustively canvassed in The Five Red Herrings (1931), and any questions one may have had about the functioning of Oxford women's colleges before the war are very fully answered by Gaudy Night (1935).

    This tendency on Sayers' part to go off into a disquisition on the collecting of incunabula (books printed before 1500 - one of wealthy Lord Peter's principal passions), or some other esoteric topic, instead of sticking to the grimier details of blood-stains and alibis did not go unremarked at the time. Detective story purists decried this lack of focus on the usual content of such stories.

    It is, however, one of the main reasons why they remain so readable almost a century after the Wimsey series began in 1923. She wrote them, at least initially, for money. As time went by, and her sources of income diversified, she continued them as a vehicle for her other passions: old books, and scholarship, and medieval pageantry.

    I mentioned in an earlier post certain problems some readers have had with Whose Body? (1923), the first of the Wimsey novels. The fact that the victim is Jewish and his murderer overtly anti-semitic does not, in my view, add up to evidence that Sayers herself shared these views - on the contrary, in fact. There are admittedly certain parts of the book which read oddly today, but no more so than any other thriller of the time, I would argue.

    This may be one reason why her subsequent books stick to subjects of more Academic interest. I can see how this might irritate fans of (say) Agatha Christie or the American hard-boiled tradition, but the long, languorous descriptions of Lord Peter's bookshelves with which Sayers occasionally indulges herself have probably drawn in more readers than they've driven away. Bookish folk are a clannish tribe, and the great thing about Sayers - like her near-contemporary M. R. James - is that she does know what she's talking about.

    It's easy enough to plaster together a few Latin tags and booktitles from the likes of Wikipedia if you want to feign close knowledge of some esoteric field. Sayers never does that. It's not just that she fleshes out her account of such things from her own wide reading and classical education. It's also clear that she's speaking from the heart. Feigned enthusiasm can generally be distinguished from the real thing.

    Jill Paton Walsh (1937-2020)

    Jill Paton Walsh was a very well-informed and experienced writer. When, however, she attempts to emulate Sayers' expositions of esoteric areas of learning (the short account of the lost rivers of London in Thrones, Dominations, for instance - or the details of code-breaking and spycraft generally in A Presumption of Death), the results fall too far short of the original to satisfy.

    I see no harm in what she's done - and wish her publishers well in continuing to market these four novels - but the Sayers canon will remain eleven novels and a number of short stories. Unsurprisingly, Walsh channels Harriet Vane far more convincingly than she does Lord Peter. The latter is a pallid shade of his jazz-era self. Harriet, by contrast, seems almost as self-involved and incompetent a detective as she was in the original books.

    The fact that the process of fleshing out Lord Peter's genealogy and post-war career began during Sayers' own lifetime, and that she even collaborated with some of these attempts, can presumably be attributed to her passion for the so-called 'higher criticism' (a term coined by Monsignor Ronald Knox) of Sherlock Holmes.

    There are many Holmes ephemera and sequels also. As long as they don't draw away too much attention from the parent tree, they're as pleasant a way of wasting one's time as any, I'd say.

    Jill Paton Walsh: The Late Scholar (2013)

    Dorothy L. Sayers, trans. The Comedy of Dante Alighieri (Penguin Classics: 1949-62)

  3. Verse Translator

  4. I've already had a bit to say on this subject, too, in a post on Dante's Divine Comedy where I compare a number of translations - including Dorothy Sayers' - of the opening lines of the poem.

    There's no need to repeat all that here, but I should perhaps mention Sayers' own comments on what she'd been trying to do in her own version of this much-English'd poem, which she seems almost alone in regarding as a 'comedy' in the modern sense:
    the pervading favour of Dante's humour is ... dry and delicate and satirical; in particular his portrait of himself is tinged throughout with a charming self-mockery which has no parallel that I know of outside the pages of Jane Austen. ... The easiest way to show what I have done is to lay a few passages side by side with other translations; for example:

    Inf. xi. 76:
    "What error has seduced thy reason, pray?"
    Said he; "thou art not wont to be so dull;
    Or are thy wits woolgathering miles away?"
    Where Cary has:
    He answer thus returned: "Wherefore in dotage wanders thus thy mind,
    Not so accustomed? Or what other thoughts
    Possess it?
    Inf. xvi. 124:
    When truth looks like a lie, a man's to blame
    Not to sit still, if he can, and hold his tongue,
    Or he'll only cover his innocent head with shame.
    Where Wright has:
    That truth which bears the semblance of a lie
    To pass the lips man never should allow:
    Though crime be absent - still disgrace is nigh.
    Inf. xvii. 91:
    So I climbed to those dread shoulders obediently;
    "Only do" (I meant to say, but my voice somehow
    Wouldn't come out right) "please catch hold of me."
    Where Binyon has:
    On those dread shoulders did I then get hold.
    I wished to say, only the voice came not
    As I had meant: "Thy arms about me fold."
    In this last case, it is a question, not only of translating, but of choosing between two possible meanings of the Italian; which one chooses - the unbroken phrase or the broken, gasping one - will depend, precisely, on whether one thinks Dante is laughing at himself or not. I believe that he is, and that his treatment of his own character is suffused throughout with a delicate spirit of comedy, which no reverence should tempt the translator to obscure by dignified phrases.
    - The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine. Cantica I: Hell [L’Inferno]. Trans. Dorothy L. Sayers. 1949. Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972): 62-64.
    Whether or not she was right to emphasise this feature of Dante's poem is a matter of opinion. Myself, I have certain doubts. Her more relaxed and informal way of translating one of the great monuments of world poetry certainly hit a nerve at a time, though.

    Like the other volumes in the new Penguin Classics series, it was very much in tune with the zeitgeist, the increased suspicion of the 'culture machine' expressed in its most extreme form by Adorno's famous adage about the impossibility of continuing to write traditional lyric poetry after the fact of Auschwitz.

    If there was still to be poetry, it could - at the very least - not keep on being so smugly self-satisfied about the nature of its mode of expression. Hence E. V. Rieu's colloquial, almost novelistic translation of Homer's Odyssey (1946). Hence, too, Sayers' Hell (1949) - the avoidance of the more conventional "Inferno" for her title makes a statement in itself.

    According to her friend and biographer Barbara Reynolds, who completed the final few cantos of the translation after Sayers' death, that first volume sold 50,000 copies "almost at once" - the set of three went on to sell a million and a quarter copies over the next half century.

    There have been many, many English translations of Dante. Gilbert Cunningham's two-volume The Dvine Comedy in English: A Critical Bibliography (1965-66) lists no fewer than 83 between 1782 and 1966. In my 2012 blogpost on the subject, I added a further ten which had appeared since then. There's been no let-up in the last decade, though - even one by self-appointed antidote to 'cultural amnesia' Clive James. Who's next? Stephen Fry? me?

    There are not so many which could actually be said to matter, though - Cary's pioneering 1814 version, composed in Miltonic blank verse, certainly; Longfellow's 1867 American translation, for its fluent readability; Philip Wicksteed's dual-text Temple Classics crib (1899-1901), as it was the edition read by Eliot and most of the other Modernists; possibly Laurence Binyon's 1933-43 rhyming terza rima translation, praised so highly by Ezra Pound ...

    Among these latter you would have to include Dorothy Sayers', though. It's still not a bad place to start on your Dantean journey. It's readable and easy to follow, and while she certainly struggles to match the pictorial grace of Dante's extended metaphors, who doesn't? I'd certainly argue that it's better to enjoy her exceptional facility as a storyteller than to criticise her for failing to provide us with yet another piece of pretentious bombast.

    Dorothy L. Sayers: The Man Born to be King (BBC: 1942-43)

  5. Christian Apologist

  6. It was, according to Barbara Reynolds' article pictured above, Charles Williams' 1943 book The Figure of Beatrice which got Dorothy Sayers started on Dante in the first place. By then she was already well-known for her popular expositions of Christian doctrine - something of a boom industry during the dark days of the Second World War.

    This brought her into close contact with the group of Christian writers and friends known informally as the Inklings, whose principal members were C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Williams himself.

    There are a number of snide and rather misogynistic references to her in (especially) Tolkien's letters, but the others accepted her with a better grace. It's worth emphasising just how much greater than any of theirs her sales and influence were at the time. They may have far outdistanced her now, but then they were simply a small group of Oxford Dons whose following was largely due to Lewis's wartime broadcasts - subsequently collected as Mere Christianity (1952).

    A massive amount of her time post-Wimsey was spent on composing such spiritual propaganda (I use the term advisedly): some of the highlights being her dramatised life of Christ, pictured above, her book of essays The Mind of the Maker, and the various studies necessitated by her all-consuming work on Dante.

    Dorothy L. Sayers: The Mind of the Maker (1941)

    Dorothy L. Sayers, ed.: Great Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror (Second Series: 1931)

  7. Anthologist

  8. I think that I've probably said enough above, in the first part of this post, to give you an idea of the effect that these three, brilliantly curated collections of the macabre have had on me, at least. Sayers also wrote a study of sensation novelist Wilkie Collins, which remained unpublished till long after her death, and there are enough references to occult maestro Sheridan Le Fanu in the Wimsey corpus to make it clear that he, too, was a subject of deep interest to her.

    I guess that the overall point I wanted to make by piecing together these various disparate aspects of Sayers' ongoing influence was to point out how protean and fascinating her work remains. The same must, I suppose, be admitted of her life also, given the number of biographies and collections of letters which continue to appear.

    Dismissing her as a detective writer with pretensions - or, worse, a thwarted scholar diverted into popular writing by poverty and circumstances - fails to explain why her books retain their vigour. Why, in short, do people continue to read them?

    Part of it may be nostalgia for the (so-called) golden age of the detective genre, but Sayers' appeal goes far beyond that. Her characters are alive in a way that (say) Agatha Christie's or Edmund Crispin's - for all their technical ingenuity - are not.

    Dorothy Sayers is, it appears, here to stay - and I, for one, am overjoyed to hear it.

John Doubleday: Dorothy L. Sayers (2015)

Dorothy Leigh Sayers


  1. Whose Body? (1923)
    • Included in: The Second Gollancz Detective Omnibus: Whose Body?, by Dorothy L. Sayers / The Weight of the Evidence, by Michael Innes / Holy Disorders, by Edmund Crispin. 1923, 1943 & 1945. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1952.
    • Whose Body? 1923. NEL Books. London: New English Library Limited, 1977.
  2. Clouds of Witness (1926)
    • Included in: The Lord Peter Omnibus: Clouds of Witness / Unnatural Death / The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. 1926, 1927, 1928 & 1935. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1964.
  3. Unnatural Death [aka The Dawson Pedigree] (1927)
    • Included in: The Gollancz Detective Omnibus: The Moving Toyshop, by Edmund Crispin / Appleby’s End, by Michael Innes / Unnatural Death, by Dorothy L. Sayers. 1946, 1945 & 1927. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1951.
    • Included in: The Lord Peter Omnibus: Clouds of Witness / Unnatural Death / The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. 1926, 1927, 1928 & 1935. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1964.
  4. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
    • Included in: The Lord Peter Omnibus: Clouds of Witness / Unnatural Death / The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. 1926, 1927, 1928 & 1935. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1964.
  5. Strong Poison (1930)
    • Included in: Three Great Lord Peter Novels: Strong Poison / Murder Must Advertise / The Nine Tailors. 1930, 1933 & 1934. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1978.
  6. [with Robert Eustace] The Documents in the Case (1930)
    • [with Robert Eustace] The Documents in the Case. 1930. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1949.
  7. The Five Red Herrings [aka Suspicious Characters] (1931)
    • The Five Red Herrings. 1931. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1937.
  8. [with Members of The Detection Club: Canon Victor Whitechurch, George and Margaret Cole, Henry Wade, Agatha Christie, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy, Sayers, Ronald Knox, Freeman Wills Crofts, Edgar Jepson, Clemence Dane, Anthony Berkeley & G. K. Chesterton] The Floating Admiral (1931)
  9. Have His Carcase (1932)
    • Have His Carcase. 1932. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1935.
  10. Murder Must Advertise (1933)
    • Murder Must Advertise: A Detective Story. 1933. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1953.
    • Included in: Three Great Lord Peter Novels: Strong Poison / Murder Must Advertise / The Nine Tailors. 1930, 1933 & 1934. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1978.
  11. [With Members of The Detection Club: Anthony Berkeley, Milward Kennedy, Gladys Mitchell, John Rhode, Sayers & Helen Simpson] Ask a Policeman (1933)
  12. The Nine Tailors (1934)
    • The Nine Tailors: Changes Rung on an Old Theme in Two Short Touches and Two Full Peals. 1934. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1942.
    • Included in: Three Great Lord Peter Novels: Strong Poison / Murder Must Advertise / The Nine Tailors. 1930, 1933 & 1934. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1978.
  13. Gaudy Night (1935)
    • Gaudy Night. 1935. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1935.
  14. [With Members of The Detection Club: Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts, Father Ronald Knox, Sayers & Russell Thorndike] Six against the Yard (1936)
  15. Busman's Honeymoon: A Love Story With Detective Interruptions (1937)
    • Busman's Honeymoon: A Love Story with Detective Interruptions. 1937. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1949.
  16. [With Members of The Detection Club] Double Death: a Murder Story (1939)

  17. Short Story Collections:

  18. Lord Peter Views the Body (1928)
    • Lord Peter Views the Body. 1928. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1949.
  19. Hangman's Holiday (1933)
    • Hangman's Holiday. 1933. NEL Books. London: New English Library Limited, 1978.
  20. [As Matthew Wimsey: with others] Papers Relating to the Family of Wimsey (1936)
  21. An Account of Lord Mortimer Wimsey, the Hermit of the Wash (1937)
  22. In the Teeth of the Evidence and Other Mysteries (1939)
    • In the Teeth of the Evidence. 1939. NEL Books. London: New English Library Limited, 1973.
  23. The Wimsey Papers (1939-40)
  24. A Treasury of Sayers Stories (1958)
  25. Talboys [aka Striding Folly] (1972)
    • Striding Folly: Including Three Final Lord Peter Wimsey Stories. Introduction by Janet Hitchman. 1972. NEL Books. London: New English Library Limited, n.d.
  26. Lord Peter: A Collection of All the Lord Peter Wimsey Stories (1972)
  27. The Wimsey Family: A Fragmentary History Compiled from Correspondence With Dorothy L. Sayers. Ed. C. W. Scott-Giles (1977)
    • Scott-Giles, C. W. The Wimsey Family: A Fragmentary History Compiled from Correspondence with Dorothy L. Sayers. 1977. NEL Books. London: New English Library Limited, 1979.
  28. [With Members of The Detection Club] The Scoop and Behind the Screen [Radio playscripts, 1930 & 1931] (1983)
  29. [With Members of The Detection Club] Crime on the Coast and No Flowers by Request [Detective serials, 1953] (1984)
  30. The Complete Stories (2002)

  31. Jill Paton Walsh (1937-2020) - Authorised Sequels:

  32. [with Dorothy L. Sayers] Thrones, Dominations (1998)
    • [with Dorothy L. Sayers] Thrones, Dominations. 1998. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998.
  33. [with Dorothy L. Sayers] A Presumption of Death (2002)
    • [with Dorothy L. Sayers] A Presumption of Death: The New Lord Peter Wimsey Novel. 2002. A New English Library Paperback. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003.
  34. The Attenbury Emeralds (2010)
  35. The Late Scholar (2013)

  36. Drama:

  37. [with Basil Mason] The Silent Passenger [Screenplay] (1935)
  38. [with Muriel St. Clare Byrne] Busman's Honeymoon: A Detective Comedy in Three Acts (1936)
  39. The Zeal of Thy House (1938)
    • Included in: Four Sacred Plays: The Devil to Pay / The Just Vengeance / He That Should Come / The Zeal of Thy House. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1948.
  40. He That Should Come: A Nativity Play in One Act [Radio play] (1938)
    • Included in: Four Sacred Plays: The Devil to Pay / The Just Vengeance / He That Should Come / The Zeal of Thy House. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1948.
  41. The Devil to Pay: Being the Famous History of John Faustus, the Conjurer of Wittenberg in Germany: How He Sold His Immortal Soul to the Enemy of Mankind, and Was Served Twenty-four Years by Mephistopheles, and Obtained Helen of Troy to His Paramour, With Many Other Marvels; and How God Dealt With Him at the Last (1939)
    • Included in: Four Sacred Plays: The Devil to Pay / The Just Vengeance / He That Should Come / The Zeal of Thy House. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1948.
  42. Love All (1940)
  43. The Golden Cockerel: Adapted from Alexander Pushkin [Radio play] (1941)
  44. The Man Born to Be King: A Play-Cycle on the Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ [Radio play] (1941-42)
    • The Man Born to be King: A Play-Cycle on the Life of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Presented by the British Broadcasting Corporation, Dec. 1941–Oct. 1942. Producer: Val Gielgud. 1943. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1946.
  45. The Just Vengeance (1946)
    • Included in: Four Sacred Plays: The Devil to Pay / The Just Vengeance / He That Should Come / The Zeal of Thy House. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1948.
  46. [With Members of The Detection Club] Where Do We Go From Here? [Radio play] (1948)
  47. The Emperor Constantine: A Chronicle (1951)

  48. Non-fiction:

  49. The Murder of Julia Wallace. In The Anatomy of Murder, by The Detection Club (1936)
  50. The Greatest Drama Ever Staged: Essays (1938)
  51. Strong Meat: Essays (1939)
  52. Begin Here: A War-Time Essay (1940)
  53. Creed or Chaos? and Other Essays in Popular Theology (1940)
  54. The Mind of the Maker: Essays (1941)
    • The Mind of the Maker. 1941. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1946.
  55. The Mysterious English (1941)
  56. Why Work? An Address Delivered at Eastbourne, April 23rd, 1942 (1942)
  57. The Other Six Deadly Sins: An Address Given to the Public Morality Council at Caxton Hall, Westminster, on October 23rd, 1941 (1943)
  58. Even the Parrot: Exemplary Conversations for Enlightened Children (1944)
  59. Making Sense of the Universe: An Address Given at the Kingsway Hall on Ash Wednesday, March 6th, 1946 (1946)
  60. Unpopular Opinions: Essays (1946)
  61. The Lost Tools of Learning (1948)
  62. The Days of Christ's Coming (1953)
  63. Introductory Papers on Dante (1954)
  64. The Story of Easter (1955)
  65. The Story of Noah's Ark (1956)
  66. Further Papers on Dante (1957)
  67. [with others] The Great Mystery of Life Hereafter (1957)
  68. The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement, and Other Posthumous Essays on Literature, Religion, and Language (1963)
  69. Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World: A Selection of Essays. Ed. Roderick Jellema (1969)
  70. Are Women Human? Essays (1971)
  71. A Matter of Eternity: Selections From the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers (1973)
  72. Wilkie Collins: A Critical and Biographical Study (1977)
  73. Spiritual Writings (1993)

  74. Poetry:

  75. Op. I (1916)
  76. Catholic Tales and Christian Songs (1918)
  77. Lord, I Thank Thee (1943)
  78. The Story of Adam and Christ (1955)

  79. Translation:

  80. Tristan in Brittany, Being Fragments of the Romance of Tristan, Written in the Twelfth Century by Thomas the Anglo-Norman (1929)
  81. The Heart of Stone, Being the Four Canzoni of the "Pietra" Group by Dante (1946)
  82. The "Comedy" of Dante Alighieri the Florentine. Cantica I: Hell (1949)
    • Alighieri, Dante. The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine. Cantica I: Hell [L’Inferno]. Trans. Dorothy L. Sayers. 1949. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
  83. The "Comedy" of Dante Alighieri the Florentine. Cantica II: Purgatory (1955)
    • Alighieri, Dante. The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine. Cantica II: Purgatory [Il Purgatorio]. Trans. Dorothy L. Sayers. 1955. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.
  84. The Song of Roland (1957)
    • The Song of Roland. 1957. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959.
  85. [with Barbara Reynolds] The "Comedy" of Dante Alighieri the Florentine. Cantica III: Paradise (1962)
    • Alighieri, Dante. The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine. Cantica III: Paradise [Il Paradiso]. Trans. Dorothy L. Sayers & Barbara Reynolds. 1962. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

  86. Edited:

  87. [with Wilfred Rowland Childe & T. W. Earp] Oxford Poetry, 1917 (1918)
  88. [with T. W. Earp & E. F. A. Geach] Oxford Poetry, 1918 (1919)
  89. [with T. W. Earp & Siegfried Sassoon] Oxford Poetry, 1919 (1920)
  90. [with the Editorial Committee] The Quorum (1920)
  91. Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror (1928)
    • Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror. Part I: Detection and Mystery. 1928. London: Victor Gollancz, 1950.
    • Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror. Part II: Mystery and Horror. 1928. London: Victor Gollancz, 1951.
  92. Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror — Second Series (1931)
    • Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror. Part III: Detection and Mystery. 1931. London: Victor Gollancz, 1952.
    • Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror. Part IV: Mystery and Horror. 1931. London: Victor Gollancz, 1952.
  93. Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror — Third Series (1934)
    • Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror. Part V: Detection and Mystery. 1934. London: Victor Gollancz, 1952.
    • Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror. Part VI: Mystery and Horror. 1934. London: Victor Gollancz, 1952.
  94. Tales of Detection. Everyman's Library (1936)

  95. Letters:

  96. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: 1899–1936: The Making of a Detective Novelist (1995)
  97. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: 1937–1943, From Novelist to Playwright (1998)
  98. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: 1944–1950, A Noble Daring (1999)
  99. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: 1951–1957, In the Midst of Life (2000)
  100. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: Child and Woman of Her Time - A Supplement to the Letters (2002)

  101. Secondary:

  102. Hitchman, Janet. ‘Such a Strange Lady’: An Introduction to Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957). 1975. NEL Books. London: New English Library Limited, 1979.
  103. Brabazon, James. Dorothy L. Sayers: A Biography. Preface by Anthony Fleming. Foreword by P. D. James. 1981. A Discus Book. New York: Avon Books, 1982.
  104. Dale, Alzina Stone. Maker and Craftsman: The Story of Dorothy L. Sayers (1993)
  105. Reynolds, Barbara. Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (1993)
  106. Duriez, Colin. Dorothy L Sayers: A Biography - Death, Dante and Lord Peter Wimsey (2021)

English Heritage Blue Plaque: 23 & 24 Great James Street, WC1 (London)

Sunday, July 17, 2022

The Gold Bug

[Warning: numerous plot-spoilers ahead]

Recently I've been beguiling my leisure by watching the reality TV show pictured above. Would I recommend it? Not really. There are moments when the cast seem literally to find solace in gathering around their truck watching paint dry, and their most exciting cliffhangers generally turn out to be disappointments.

By far the most thrilling event to date has been the explosion of some abandoned WWII ordinance by a visiting explosives expert, but even this failed to turn up anything faintly resembling treasure - unless you count old bale-hooks or discarded drink cans.

But then, that's pretty much what I expected coming in. I guess what amazes me is the extent to which people are still fascinated by the lure of gold - finding it, digging it up, panning for it ... You name it, there's a reality series devoted to it.

Kevin Burns: The Curse of Oak Island (2014- )

The resonantly titled Pirate Gold of Adak Island comes hot on the heels of the even more tedious (to unbelievers, that is) Curse of Oak Island. I have to confess that when I first ran across the story of the treasure of Oak Island, in a collection of articles from British magazine The Unexplained (1980-83), I found it quite beguiling. In fact I even used it as the frame for a short story ("The Money Pit", 2004). This is how my story began:

Jack Ross: Monkey Miss Her Now (2004)

One fine summer’s day in 1795, a sixteen-year-old boy named Daniel McGinnis rowed over to a small island called Oak Island, off the coast of Canada. He hadn’t been there long when he noticed a track leading inland. He followed it, and found a little clearing with an oak tree at the centre. There was a depression in the ground beside it, and marks of ropes and pulleys on the trunk.

Next day he came back with two friends, and started to dig for the buried treasure they thought must be hidden there. Four feet down, they found a layer of flagstones, which persuaded them they were onto something. At ten feet, they found a layer of oak logs. At 20 feet, more oak logs. At 30, still more. That was as far as they could get by themselves, so they went back to town to try and raise money to dig further.

No-one seemed very interested in their project, so it wasn’t till 1804, ten years later, that they were able to return with the equipment to dig deeper. At 40 feet, they found another layer of oak logs, sealed with putty. Then there was a layer of charcoal, then more logs at 50 feet, 60 feet, 70 feet and 80 feet. At 90 feet they found a stone with strange writing on it, but none of them could read it, so they just kept on digging. By now the ground was very wet, and they were continuously bailing out water. At 98 feet they found a platform of spruce logs, and decided that the treasure must be hidden underneath. It was late on a Friday, though, and they decided to leave the last few feet for Monday morning.

On Monday, when they got back to the island, they found the entire pit flooded with water from about thirty feet down. There was nothing more they could do, so they were forced to leave behind whatever was buried there.

This was just the first of many attempts to excavate the “Money Pit” and decipher the mystery of Oak Island. Each new group who came to dig there messed the ground up more, making it more and more difficult to reconstruct the original arrangements.

Eventually they discovered there were tunnels leading to the pit from the nearby seashore, which is why it flooded at every high tide. As the mine shafts got deeper and deeper, the ground got more and more sodden with water, which is why nobody could ever follow up drills which seemed to touch metal objects down in the darkness.

To this day, nobody has succeeded in discovering just what was hidden at the bottom of this mysterious deep hole in the ground. In 1970 a special submarine camera was sent down over 200 feet. It filmed what looked like a treasure chest with a severed hand beside it. Divers were unable to find anything there, though.

Nobody knows who dug the immense pit – or why.
B(-). This is an interesting story, which you tell very well, but I wonder why it’s of significance to you, and what it tells you as a story? (I take it it’s true and not invented?) You might have included some character sketches of the main people involved, or some theories about who dug the hole (Pirates? Spacemen?) It isn’t really a history essay otherwise, I’m afraid, and can’t be seen as an answer to the question about the nineteenth-century event which seems most significant to you.

After this opening preamble the presumed author of the essay, Laura, a high-school student who reappears in the novella Trouble in Mind, moves on to somewhere else "in time, space, or language", as Roger Horrocks puts it in his blurb above. It does provide a useful summary of the core story of Oak Island and its mysterious money pit, however.

Jack Ross: Trouble in Mind (2005)

You can guess, then, how enthusiastically I watched the first episodes of The Curse of Oak Island when they first reached local TV! Here at last was a chance to see the island itself, not to mention the fabled money pit which had for so long haunted my dreams ...

Only to find a farrago of deserted building sites, endless discussions in boring, ill-lit rooms, loud arguments between men in caps on grimy beaches - and more of the usual stuff of reality TV. It seems unbelievable to me that the quest continues, after (now) nine annual seasons of almost completely uneventful treasure hunting.

I guess, in the end, the ultimate treasure is ratings, and if you can persuade your audience to keep on tuning in, then that's where the money is.

Edgar Allan Poe: The Gold-Bug (1843)

The great grand-daddy of such shows would have to be Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Gold-Bug." The whole apparatus of secret codes, hidden clues, and picturesque adventures on the way to treasure is deployed here in full for virtually the first time.

The Sherlock Holmes story "The Dancing Men" finds its origins here, as indeed does the use of such crypto- and cartographic devices in fiction. Poe may not have invented Science Fiction itself (the credit for that is now generally awarded to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), but he does have a strong claim to be regarded as the progenitor of its close cousin, Detective Fiction.

S. S.: The Gold-Bug (blendspace)

"The Gold-Bug" remains one of Poe's most popular stories. The ingenuity of the plot is equal to any of his earlier tales of Dupin, and the pirate-gold motif (left behind, on this occasion, by no less a figure than Captain Kidd himself) directly inspired such works as Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885), and thus, obliquely, J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan (1904).

John Huston, dir.: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

There is, however, an alternate tradition. The mysterious B. Traven's novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927) was made into an even more famous film by John Huston in 1948. In one of his greatest performances, Humphrey Bogart embodied hopeless drifter Fred C. Dobbs, lured by greed for gold into a homicidal frenzy, until he's finally cornered by a posse of Mexican bandidos.

The film's last image, of gold dust blowing away in the desert wind, aptly sums up its message: Beware! Beware of gold-fever, of excessive greed, of dying alone with your inedible treasure all around you ...

Much the same could be said of Captain Gregory Dwargstof, the seal-poaching pirate reputed to have buried a fortune in gold coins on Adak Island in 1892. After stashing away his ill-gotten gains, it's revealed in the reality series that his ship was wrecked in the Aleutian Islands, and that he himself was imprisoned by the Tsarist authorities, only to die a few months later without ever revealing the location of his hoard.

Having watched (now) what seems like hours of our ill-assorted cast of 'expert' treasure-hunters digging vague holes in the tundra in pursuit of ever more outlandish theories about just where Dwargstof would have left it, or must have left it, or might conceivably have left it, it's hard for me to feel too much confidence in their ultimate success.

And yet, they are in many ways a rather endearing group. There's the ever optimistic 'Doctor M.', whose scientific acumen seems to entitle her mainly to do most of the digging while the men stand around and watch, or else swing their metal detectors in vague circles to encourage her efforts.

Then there's the intrepid Mayor of Adak Island, Thom Spitler, a steely-eyed mountain man capable of either detecting unexploded shells or leading rescue missions in the hills with equally insouciant efficiency. The real surprise of the series is that he needs any assistance from the others at all.

Then there are Burke and Jay, a pair of childhood friends who grew up near the military base on Adak Island, and have a nostalgic attachment to its deserted ruins. While they do seem at times to be longer on bluster than on technical ability, you have to give them credit for constructing some pretty impressive bomb-shielding and rock-lifting gear from random scraps of metal.

The same might be said of technician Brian Weed, who wrangles some wonderfully futuristic gear which seldom seems to detect anything useful.

Despite all my doubts and reservations, though, I have to admit that the series does culminate in an admirably built-up-to climax, which may even succeed in earning them a second bite at the cherry. And, after all, the scenery and atmosphere of the almost abandoned island, with its old rows of prefabs and rain-sodden hall of records, is probably worth the price of admission on its own.

Brant Parker & Johnny Hart: The Wizard of Id

What, then, is one to conclude? That the lure of gold is stronger than any of the excellent reasons other people can come up with to divert your energies elsewhere? That Jack London, Bret Harte, Mark Twain, B. Traven, and all the others wrote their tales of the ignus fatuus of the goldfields in vain?

Yep, pretty much. So long as suckers such as myself continue to watch programmes such as The Curse of Oak Island, Gold Rush, Aussie Gold Hunters and now Pirate Gold of Adak Island, the temptation to cash in on the gold bug will remain.

Rick and Marty Lagina: The Curse of Oak Island

Edgar Allan Poe (1849)

Edgar Allan Poe


  1. [as 'a Bostonian'] Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827)
  2. Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems (1829)
  3. Poems (1831)
  4. The Raven and Other Poems (1845)
  5. The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Floyd Stovall (1965)

  6. Prose:

  7. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838)
    • Les Aventures d'Arthur Gordon Pym de Nantucket. Trans. Charles Baudelaire (1858)
    • The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Edited with an Introduction and Commentary, Including Jules Verne’s Sequel Le Sphinx des Glaces. 1838 & 1897. Ed. Harold Beaver. 1975. The Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.
  8. Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840)
  9. The Prose Romances of Edgar A. Poe (1843)
  10. Tales (1845)
  11. Eureka: A Prose Poem (1848)
  12. Histoires Extraordinaires. Trans. Charles Baudelaire (1856)
    • Histoires Extraordinaires. Trans. Charles Baudelaire. 1856. Préface de Julio Cortázar. Collection Folio, 310. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1973.
  13. Nouvelles Histoires Extraordinaires. Trans. Charles Baudelaire (1857)
  14. Histoires grotesques et sérieuses. Trans. Charles Baudelaire (1864)
  15. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham. 1935. London: Octopus Books Limited, 1986.
  16. The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Harold Beaver. 1976. The Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.
  17. The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe: An Annotated Edition. Ed. Stuart & Susan Levine. Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1977.
  18. The Other Poe: Comedies and Satires. Ed. David Galloway. The Penguin American Library. Ed. John Seelye. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

  19. Collections:

  20. The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe. 4 vols. Ed. Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1850-56)
  21. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. 17 vols. Ed. James A. Harrison (1902)
  22. The Complete Tales and Poems. Introduction by Hervey Allen. The Modern Library of the World’s Best Books. New York: Random House, Inc., 1938.
  23. Selected Writings: Poems, Tales, Essays and Reviews. Ed. David Galloway. 1967. The Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.
  24. Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. 3 vols. Ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott (1969 & 1978)
  25. Poetry and Tales. Ed. Patrick F. Quinn. The Library of America, 19. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1984.
  26. Essays and Reviews. Ed. G. R. Thompson. The Library of America, 20. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1984.
  27. Collected Stories and Poems. Illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, Harry Clarke, Gustave Doré, Edouard Manet, & John Tenniel. London: CRW Publishing Ltd., 2006.

  28. Secondary:

  29. Symons, Julian. The Tell-tale Heart: The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe. 1978. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

Edgar Allan Poe: The Gold-Bug. Illustrations by Mittis (1894)

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Rereading Old Children's Books

Bryan Wharton: John Sleigh Pudney (1967)

In his last few years, just about the only thing my father seemed to want to read were old children's books by the likes of Laurence R. Bourne and Percy F. Westerman, as well as 'Biggles', the 'Swallows and Amazons' series, and the school stories and adventure serials in his almost complete sets of Chums and the Boys Own Annual.

Percy F. Westerman: The Bulldog Breed (c.1930s)

"Resting the tired brain," he would call it. They were large books, printed on thick newsprint, with garish cover pictures, and they eventually occupied most of the bookcases in the house - relegating my mother's collection of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and other school-prize classics to the ever-growing rows of cardboard boxes in the basement.

John Pudney: Thursday Adventure (1955)

I was thinking of him the other day when I ran across a battered ex-library copy of John Pudney's Thursday Adventure in a Hospice Shop. I'd never read it before, but our family collection did include various other instalments in the cycle of "Fred and I" adventures: entitled variously 'Saturday', 'Sunday', 'Monday' Adventure - and so on through all the days of the week. There was even a coda of 'Spring', 'Summer' (and so on) seasonal Adventures.

John Pudney: Tuesday Adventure (1953)

The one I remember best was, I think, Tuesday Adventure. At any rate, the plot summary for that one included on the flyleaf of Thursday Adventure definitely rings a bell. I remember thinking it wonderfully imaginative and exciting at the time: it has some mildly Science Fictional elements in it, as do the other volumes, hence the inclusion of its author, John Pudney, in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction database.

For years I'd had in the back of my mind the desirability of acquiring a complete set of these books, days and seasons alike, all 11 of them - perhaps even deducing the hinted-at identity of "I", the narrator of the stories. Is "I" in fact a boy at all? And is Fred "I's" brother, or cousin, or what? For that matter, is "Uncle George" a real relative, or just a family friend?

John Sharp, dir.: The Stolen Airliner (1955)

Now I'm not so sure. Thursday Adventure, despite being the only one in the series to be filmed - as The Stolen Airliner - doesn't evoke quite the same feelings I expected it to. The storytelling seems a little on the perfunctory side, the heroes and villains too neatly lined up for our inspection from the kick-off.

Perhaps if I'd been able to read it when I was younger it might be different. Lord knows I wanted to - but our school library was sadly lacking in thrillers. Never mind, I'll always be grateful for those few unobtrusive SF anthologies it did include.

Anthony Asquith, dir.: The Way to the Stars (1945)

Though I didn't realise it at the time, John Pudney was a far more versatile and interesting figure than he seemed. As a slightly younger contemporary of W. H. Auden, he'd published a number of books on the fringes of the Macspaunday group in the thirties before finding his true audience in the forties as a war poet.

The Way to the Stars, pictured above, is famous for containing two poems by Pudney which are implied, in context, to have been written by Michael Redgrave's character in the movie: "Missing" and "Johnny-head-in-air." The latter, in particular, became a kind of R.A.F. anthem:
Do not despair
For Johnny-head-in-air;
He sleeps as sound
As Johnny underground.

Fetch out no shroud
For Johnny-in-the-cloud;
And keep your tears
For him in after years.

Better by far
For Johnny-the-bright-star,
To keep your head
And see his children fed.

John Pudney: Selected Poems (1946)

It was probably on the strength of this that his Selected Poems was published as a mass-market paperback in 1946.

His subsequent career as a hard-working journalist was punctuated by two sets of children's books, The "Fred and I" series mentioned above, and the "Hartwarp" series (for younger readers) in the 1960s. He also wrote a number of other novels and stories, though his main source of income appears to have been the non-fiction works he was commissioned to write, especially those on aeronautical subjects.

He was also an alcoholic. His eventual success in overcoming this habit forms the principal subject of much of his later verse, particularly that included in his second volume of Selected Poems, which I also own:

John Pudney: Selected Poems 1967-1973 (1973)

What of it, you may ask? He had his day; his "sins were scarlet but his books were read" (as Hilaire Belloc once put it). Is there any real need to resurrect him now? I suppose that I'd hoped "Fred and I" would retain the fascination they held for me as a pre-teen, but they don't, not really.

I don't regret making the experiment, though. It's true that we did feel at the time that my father was disappearing down a rabbit-hole of infantile fiction, dedicated principally (it seemed) to brave boys upholding the values of the British Empire against posturing Prussians, bloodthirsty Bolsheviks, and rebellious natives.

The other main thing he read was history, though, and the essentially tragic nature of that long chronicle of "old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago" perhaps justified his predilection for the less testing pleasures of boy's literature.

I, too, now find myself reading old children's books both for relaxation and for the window they supply on the values of even the comparatively recent past. The "Bannermere" books of self-conscious leftist Geoffrey Trease, for instance, may seem fearfully buttoned-up and tame nowadays, but when they they were written - at much the same time as John Pudney's "Fred and I" stories - they definitely constituted a reaction agains the landed gentry assumptions of earlier children's fiction.

Annie Gauger, ed.: The Annotated Wind in the Willows (2009)

Much though I love Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, for instance, it's hard not to concur with my old Edinburgh Professor Wallace Robson's classic analysis of the class values that underlie it: the proletarian weasels' attempt to encroach on the inherited domains of Toad, the local squire, who has to be upheld by our heroes, Mole, Rat and Badger, despite their own contempt for Toad's foolish and criminal antics.

There's a lot to be learned, then, from children's books. It would have to be admitted that they can constitute an insidious form of brainwashing for the precociously literate. But the values of heroism, self-reliance, and refusal to kowtow to bullies encoded in most of them, regardless of fashion or era, is surely not to be despised then or now?

Bruno Bettelheim: The Uses of Enchantment (1976)

So I'll continue to collect and read them despite my occasional misgivings. There's some shocking stuff in some of them, I would acknowledge, but sheltering your mind from any views contrary to your own is not really much of a recipe for continued mental health.

I've always felt there was a lot in Nazi concentration camp survivor Bruno Bettelheim's claim of the continuing value of the shockingly violent and disruptive world of Grimm's fairytales, despite the understandable reluctance of many contemporary parents to expose their children to this barbarous world of ravening monsters and arbitrary power.

The goalposts may shift from era to era, but the need to think your own thoughts, defend your own values, and stand up for what you believe in lies deep at the heart of all the great works of children's literature from Lewis Carroll's Alice to Philip Pullman's Lyra books.

Children who don't read at all are in much greater danger of falling for charlatans than those who've imbibed copious doses of fairytales and beast fables at a formative age.

John Tenniel: The Nursery Alice (1890)