Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Dorothy Sayers, Writer, Translator, Scholar

Dorothy L. Sayers (died 17 December 1957)

Born on 13 June 1893, the scholar, poet, and novelist Dorothy L. Sayers is best known for her series of detective novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and his inimitable manservant and assistant, Bunter.

Dorothy L. Sayers
Sayers's father was headmaster of the choir school at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and she was born there, in the headmaster's house. 

In 1912, she would earn a scholarship to Somerville College (named for Mary Fairfax Somerville, who was Ada Lovelace's tutor). Sayers would complete her education with first-class honors in 1915--although women were not awarded Oxford degrees at the time.

I had thought that I would write about Sayers's detective novels today, since that is how I first encountered her. As a graduate student, I would save up my money and, when I had enough, I would buy the next volume in the series (I still have those paperbacks, published by Avon Books in the 60s). 

I changed my mind, though, after I looked briefly at the Sayers entry in Wikipedia with this blithe assertion: "Although women could not be awarded degrees at that time [1915], Sayers was among the first to receive a degree when the position changed a few years later."

Okay, I guess. But it wasn't quite that simple. So I thought I'd go back a bit to Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, about which I blogged earlier this year. Brittain, too, had attended Somerville College, her studies there interrupted by the outbreak of the first world war. She writes in some detail about the terrible struggle for women to be awarded the degrees they had earned--imagine, if you will, having fulfilled all the requirements for a college degree, but not being given the diploma you had earned. 

"The fight for Degrees for Women at Oxford had always been closely connected with the feminist movement as a whole," she begins, "and in 1919 it shared in the impetus given everywhere to the women's cause by the ending of the War." 

By July of 1919 (the war had ended at 11:00 a.m. on 11 November 1918), there was what Brittain called "a regular chorus of praise of women's war-work." On 22 July, the House of Commons passed a second reading of the "Sex Disqualification (Removal) Bill," which stated: 
A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation. 
The act became law on 23 December 1919. One of its clauses specified that, in Brittain's words, "nothing in the statutes or charter of any university should be deemed to preclude the authorities of such university from admitting women to its membership." 

Already, by the end of November, those at Oxford advocating for degrees for women had begun to take heart, assuming that, once the Sex Disqualification Bill was passed, women would be awarded their Oxford degrees in the next term.  

But, there was opposition, and lots of harrumphing in outraged letters to the Times. How dare women seek to take advantage of the war? If women were "admitted to full membership of the university," there would certainly need to be "stricter discipline than is at present in force."

The "explosive ebullitions of feminine wrath" did not spur the university (or the Times) to move quickly. The next term (Hilary term, January through March) saw a discussion of a new statute granting degrees to women, but the university did not pass its statute until 11 May 1920, with the the statute "com[ing] into force" on 7 October 1920.

What followed was "the matriculation of nearly a thousand women"--women who had fulfilled the requirements for degrees but had never received them, including Vera Brittain herself, along with women "whose hair had grown grey in the process of training generations of girls to educate and work for their still handicapped sex." 

14 October 1920, Brittain "joined the crowds of young women in the Sheldonian Theatre to see the first Degree-giving in which women had taken part":
the excited atmosphere was tense with the consciousness of a dream fulfilled which had first been dreamt years before these feminine Masters and Bachelors were born, by women long dead--women who did not care whether they saw the end so long as they had contributed to the means. . . . 
          When the men . . . had received their Degrees, renewed cheers echoed wildly to the vaulted roof as the first women stood before the Vice-Chancellor; among them w[as] Dorothy L. Sayers. . . . Even the unchanging passivity of Oxford beneath the hand of the centuries must surely, I thought, be a little stirred by the sight of the women's gowns and caps. . . .
Those gowns and caps--the "visible signs of a profound revolution." 

So, yes, Sayers was among nearly a thousand women who had earned but not received degrees--and five long years after "the position changed" (you have to love the passive, indirect construction here), Dorothy Sayers received the degree the university had refused to award her in 1915.

Dorothy Sayers published poetry, the Wimsey novels and a great deal of short fiction, a translation of The Divine Comedy, works on theology, plays, and essays, including my favorite, "Are Women Human?" She also worked in advertising for nearly ten years for the S. H. Benson agency.

The 1933 cover of Sayers's detective novel,
set in an advertising agency.
If Don Draper and his pals were so compelling as "mad men," what might Sayers have to say about the business? Check out her 1933 Wimsey novel, Murder Must Advertise.

Here's a great piece on Sayers by Jane Curran, posted for the BBC Oxford, "Dorothy L. Sayers' Life and Loves." Curran objects to the kind of picture of Sayers that I have posted above, which present Sayers as "a moonfaced, heavily built, bespectacled elderly woman in mannish clothes."

Curran says that like it's a bad thing . . .