On this day in 1893, Dorothy L. Sayers was born in Oxford, the only child of an Anglican vicar Henry and his wife Helen. I have chosen this picture of her in her younger days. There is an element of latent mischief in that face, almost ready to laugh; pictures of Dorothy in her later years reveal a sterner, more severe and matronly countenance.
By all accounts intelligent, precocious and much-loved and indulged by the various adults that surrounded her, Dorothy was heading for the Godolphin School in Salisbury and thence to Somerville College in Oxford, becoming one of the first women to receive a degree. A contemporary there of Vera Brittain and all a cue for me to dust off my copy Dangerous by Degrees by Susan Leonardi.
I'm sure some of you will know this book, an account of women at Oxford between 1912 and 1922 and six Somerville novelists, Dorothy L. Sayers and Vera Brittain as well as Murial Jaeger, Doreen Wallace, Margaret Kennedy and Winifred Holtby. I have only read Dorothy and Vera, have almost meant to read Winifred, have both Doreen and Margaret on the shelf and had never heard of Muriel. I have also been dipping into the biography Dorothy L. Sayers - Her Life and Soul by Barbara Reynolds.
All lives are fascinating but Dorothy's the more so for the fact that she bore an illegitimate son in 1924 whose existence was kept a well-guarded secret from the public until twenty years after her death. Fearing that the discovery would heap shame on her parents, Dorothy hid herself away, taking eight weeks leave of absence from her job with an advertising agency to give birth to John Anthony, who she then proceeded to breast feed for several weeks before appointing a distant relative as a guardian and handing him over; adoption was illegal until 1926 ( I didn't know that) and swearing the guardian to secrecy, a vow that Ivy Shrimpton appears to have kept faithfully, loving John Anthony as her own.
I had just one Dorothy L. Sayers novel on the Have Read list and that was Gaudy Night some years ago, at which point I did the usual and acquired a shelf full thinking how much I had enjoyed it and I must read more, and never quite got around to it, so this week I have been deep into campanology and The Nine Tailors.
It's all a tangled mass of sallies and clappers and Grand Sire Triples, and bodies in the wrong place, and poor old Peter Wimsey who finds himself stranded in the snow on New Year's Eve just as the village of Fenchurch St Paul is in crisis. A man down on the bell ringing team, and with fifteen thousand, eight hundred and forty celebratory Kent Treble Bob Majors to be rung for the next nine hours before morning. Obviously no one needs any sleep in Fenchurch St Paul, and as luck would have it Sir Peter is an accomplished campanologist, along with all his other competencies, and is ready (sort of) and able to slot into the team.
'Nothing would please me more than to ring bells all day and all night. I am not tired at all. I really don't need rest. I would far rather ring bells...'
There may be trouble ahead.
I haven't finished it yet but I am loving it all which is more than can be said for Q.D.Leavis who clearly had the knives out for Dorothy's fiction in general...
'... but no novelist with such a parasitic, stale adulterated way of feeling and living could ever amount to anything. And Miss Sayers' fiction,when it isn't mere detective-story of an unimpressive kind, is exactly that : stale, second-hand, hollow...it is only the emanation of a 'social' mind wanting to raise a snigger...'
Goodness me Queenie, that's bulldog-chewing-a-wasp writing if ever I saw it.
But reading The Nine Tailors was all enough to have me first in the queue and jumping up and down (in my mind) with excitement when we saw this at the summer fair in Buckland Monachorum last Saturday...
Chances to go up church towers are rare but there was the church dressed overall, not a cloud in the sky and trips up to the roof . More about our belfry experience to come, and how we squeezed up the ninety something steps and decided how very thin people must have been in them days and how on earth did they build this in 1490 ...
Buckland Monachorum village history reveals it was not just Fenchurch St Paul that was awake all night listening with copious joy to the music of the bells...
'Church bell ringers have always practised their art and skill with enthusiasm, but records reveal that in 1815, their fervour overcame their judgement and good sense. It seems that although forbidden to have the key to the belfry door by Mark Tucker, Clerk and Schoolmaster, they managed to enter the church late one evening and rang throughout the night. Understandably the village was not pleased, and for their "mutinous and riotous behaviour" they were dismissed.
That music as Dorothy L. Sayers writes it..
'Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo - tan tin din dan bam bim bo bam - tan tin dan din bam bim bo bom - tan dan tin bam din bo bim bom...'
Are you keeping up...have you got your bell competently up and set up at the backstroke and have you adjusted your tuckings, and are you ready for the hunting up, the hunting down, making the thirds and fourths and laying the blows behind before working down to lead the dance again. I do hope so. I think I am almost starting to understand it, and if I tell the musical amongst you that the notes for the Buckland Monachorum bells (smallest to largest) are as follows...
E - D# - C# - B - A - G# - F# - E
Well look, you could almost sing it or replicate a Kent Treble Bob Major on the piano couldn't you.
But meanwhile Happy Birthday Dorothy... any fans out there??
Any bell-ringers who understand it all??