The Curious Case of Dorothy L. Sayers & the Jew Who Wasn’t There

By | Jul 20, 2016

A devoted reader examines the‭ ‬odd relationship between the so-called queen of British detective fiction and her Jewish characters‭.‬


by Amy E. Schwartz

Anybody who loves classic British detective fiction must long since have developed a strategy for sidestepping its little anti-Semitic asides. Rather than simply leap out of her seat whenever Jews are mentioned, or give up the genre entirely, the hardened (or addicted) reader draws lines and makes careful, sometimes apologetic distinctions.

When the young protagonist of Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands, a 1903 maritime political thriller that’s often called the first suspense novel, goes to buy oilskins in “a villainous den in a back street, which the shopman said they always recommended, where a dirty and bejewelled Hebrew chaffered with me, beginning at 18 shillings, for a pair of reeking orange slabs,” we sigh and say Childers is just a one-novel author showing his limitations—not enough reason to pass up a thrilling yarn. When Agatha Christie refers to a character’s “thick Semitic lips,” we survey her more nuanced Jewish characters and hope against hope that she is just being lazy. And when Josephine Tey has her star detective Alan Grant observe that the unknown man who killed a bystander with a dagger must be a “Levantine” because “Levantines were notoriously vulnerable in their feelings; an insult rankled for a lifetime, a straying smile on the part of their adored, and they ran amok,” we can write it off as a reflection of the pervasive racialism that dominated polite culture before World War II.

But a strategy like this must break down somewhere, and none of these responses fully accounts for the Jews who curiously populate the writing of Dorothy L. Sayers, widely considered the queen of the so-called Golden Age of British detective fiction, the great flowering between the world wars of whodunits and crime puzzles from the likes of Sayers, Christie, Tey and Robert Barnard that so capture the flavor of those times. Sayers’s novels and short stories featuring the erudite sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey have remained hugely popular and have been repeatedly reissued. They are beloved for both their ingenious plots—whose solutions draw on expert knowledge of subjects ranging from hemophilia to bell-ringing—and the sparkling romance between their two principal characters.

Sometime during World War II, Sayers gave up writing Lord Peter stories, abandoned detective fiction altogether and turned her hand to translating Dante from Italian. She wrote some plays with Christian themes, including The Man Born to Be King, a modernized take for the BBC on the life of Jesus. When she died at age 64, she had become a fearsome public intellectual and a popular Christian apologist in the mode of C. S. Lewis.

I came to Sayers late, stumbling upon a couple of battered 50-cent copies of Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon at a flea market, and fell promptly down a rabbit hole of obsession with the world of the aristocratic Lord Peter—and with the baffling place of Jews within that world. Because I was reading the series back-to-front, starting with the honeymoon and working my way backward through the courtship to the introduction, it took me awhile to notice that the depictions of Jews in Sayers’s stories didn’t fit any of my familiar categories. They did not read like regrettable lapses by an otherwise wise and temperate author. Nor were they quite accounted for by the pre-WWII British habit, so jarring to the modern ear, of expressing the simplest physical or emotional descriptions in terms of racial categories. And they seemed to grow in importance as I moved back in time and the characters (and the author) got younger.

Just how did the celebrated detective novelist actually feel about her Jewish characters—and why, in these books, can’t she seem to shut up about them? Why are there so many? Something is going on, something more complicated and personal than casual anti-Semitism and a good deal more interesting.

Sayers wrote the 11 Lord Peter novels between 1923 and 1937, gradually transforming the classic Agatha Christie-style puzzle mystery into something more psychologically nuanced. Her hero, Lord Peter, is the gadabout second son of a duke, living in luxury in a Piccadilly flat with his manservant Bunter, collecting rare books, tasting wines, solving mysteries as a distraction—we gradually learn—from serious emotional damage sustained in the Great War. He’s a wonderful character, and he made Sayers’s fame and fortune. By the fifth novel, she had given Peter a love interest much like herself, the Oxford-educated mystery writer Harriet Vane. After getting Harriet cleared of a murder charge, he pursues her through several more novels in a blizzard of exchanged poems and quotations, repeatedly proposing marriage until, in Gaudy Night, she finally says yes—in Latin.

Much of the pleasure of reading mysteries from this era comes from their teasing sense of a first dawn of modernity, mixed with reminders of how long ago the 1920s really were. There are ad agencies, contraceptives, artistic couples cohabiting in Chelsea without benefit of clergy. Women are in the workforce and getting degrees at Oxford; English society, coming gradually apart in the wake of the Great War, can seem like an almost contemporary mix of races, religions and ethnic groups—though not of attitudes toward them.

Sayers’s Jews tend‭ ‬to comment on the gentiles around‭ ‬them‭, ‬rather‭ ‬than simply serve as picturesque background‭.‬

Detectives, of course, solve their mysteries through extremely exact social observation—generally, by picking up subtleties that no one else has been clever enough to notice. (In a typical star turn in Have His Carcase, Lord Peter deduces copious information about a dead man—his elaborate sense of style, his social class, his downscale work as a hotel ballroom dancer—from the make and shape of his hat and and a few traces of brilliantine.) No genre could be more profoundly revealing, or accepting, of the unspoken assumptions by which people categorize and judge one another.

In Busman’s Honeymoon, the last of the books and the first one I read, the finally wed literary couple solve a murder on their honeymoon while navigating the complexities of marriage. Peter and Harriet are staying in a cottage whose landlord is unaccountably absent; soon he will turn up dead in the cellar. The servant announces the arrival of “a financial individual” from the firm of “Macdonald and Abrahams,” described as “a brisk young man, bowler-hatted, with sharp black eyes that seemed to inventory everything they encountered, and a highly regrettable tie.” The young man is named Mr. “MacBride” (this is one of several jokes about Jews who think it will make a difference to change their names) and has come to collect on a large overdue loan for “Levy, Levy and Levy.” Though obviously unclubbable, he is funny and smart, quick to grasp the situation and to offer assistance when the murdered man is discovered. As he prepares to leave, Lord Peter stops him.

“The legal profession,” [Wimsey] said, “must present you with a comprehensive picture of Christian family life. What do you think of it?’

‘Not much,’ replied Mr. MacBride, succinctly.”

Wait, what? Sayers has something on her mind, though it is unclear what that might be. If she is using a Jewish character as a sort of Greek chorus to point out British society’s flaws, this is, to say the least, unusual.

There’s an echo here of “The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach,” a short story that Sayers wrote a decade earlier, in which Wimsey, looking for information on stolen diamonds, visits a jeweler friend: “This gentleman, rather curly in the nose and fleshy about the eyelids, nevertheless came under Mr. Chesterton’s definition of a nice Jew, for his name was neither Montagu nor McDonald, but Nathan Abrahams.” Mr. Abrahams teases Wimsey about his inability to settle down and complains that when he does pick a wife, he’ll do it in three days and want a custom-designed engagement ring overnight:

“That is the way with Christians…you are so casual. You do not think of the future. Three days to choose a wife! No wonder the divorce-courts are busy. My son Moses is being married next week. It has been arranged in the family these ten years. Rachel Goldstein, it is. A good girl, and her father is in a very good position. We are all very pleased, I can tell you. Moses is a good son, a very good son, and I am taking him into partnership.”

This is caricature, of course—but caricature with a curious note of yearning. It’s of a piece with Sayers’s other Jews, who, though undoubtedly stereotypes—they are mostly jewelers or finance types, with the occasional theatrical producer—have warm family lives and solid values. It’s their tendency to comment on the gentiles around them, rather than simply serve as picturesque background, that makes them so surprising.

Indeed, Jews’ relationships with non-Jews seem to interest Sayers keenly. Here is Lord Peter’s lifelong friend Freddy Arbuthnot, a more or less stereotypical upper-class twit who works in finance, investigating a suspect in 1931’s Strong Poison:

“[I]f I was to put him in touch with Goldberg, don’t you see, it might get him out of a hole and so on. And Goldberg will be all right, because, don’t you see, he’s a cousin of old Levy’s, who was murdered, you know, and all these Jews stick together like leeches and as a matter of fact, I think it’s very fine of them.”

There’s nothing subtle about the idea of Jews “sticking together like leeches,” but the scene soon takes a turn:

“‘But what has old Levy to do with it?’ asked Wimsey, his mind running over the incident in that half-forgotten murder-episode.

“‘Well, as a matter of fact,’ said the Hon. Freddy, a little nervously, ‘I’ve—er—done the trick as you might say. Rachel Levy is—er, in fact—going to become Mrs. Freddy and all that sort of thing.”

Well, now. If Freddy is actually determined to marry into the Levy (and Goldberg) families, should the modern Jewish reader cut him some slack? The hit TV show Downton Abbey, which covers roughly the same time period and offers some of the same pleasures, was sharply criticized for the unwarranted sunniness with which its noble family accepted Lady Rose’s marriage to Atticus Aldridge, the scion of a wealthy Jewish family. Critics cried anachronism, the whitewashing of English prejudices of the time. Sayers’s invented Jews don’t have this problem, of course; they are imaginary, but contemporary. The attitudes she expresses toward them must have existed, if only one could figure out what they are.

Freddy, most improbably, agrees to marry Rachel in a synagogue (“You’ll stand by me, old bean, won’t you?” he implores Lord Peter. “You keep your hat on, don’t forget.”) He consents to raise the children as Jews, “because. . .it would be all to the little beggars’ advantage to be in with the Levy and Goldberg crowd, especially if the boys were to turn out anything in the financial way.” When we glimpse Freddy and Rachel in later books, they are happily married with two children.

Sayers wrote 11 Lord Peter Wimsey novels in the 1920s and 1930s. His last appearance was in the 1942 short story “Talboys.”


As it turns out, it’s the very first novel in the series—Whose Body?, published in 1923—that holds the key. It is a welter of obsession with Jews.

In the opening scene, Lord Peter—introduced here for the first time, an elegant dandy in a cab on his way to a rare book auction—is called to investigate a body found in a bathtub wearing nothing but pince-nez glasses. The body, police think, may be that of a recently disappeared Jewish financier, Sir Reuben Levy (the father, in fact, of Freddy’s Rachel). But the body is not Sir Reuben. The puzzle, which is clever and intricate, involves one corpse being dissected and another one substituted for it. And as the novelist A.N. Wilson notes in a 1993 reconsideration of Sayers’s work, “The publisher made her tone the story down, but the plot depends on Lord Peter being clever enough to spot that the body, uncircumcised, is not that of a Jew.”

Of all the books, this is the one that has been charged most with anti-Semitism, even within Sayers’s lifetime. Sayers’s collected letters include a note to her publisher in 1936, answering a question about a proposed French translation and defending herself from the suggestion that the book portrayed Jews in a negative light: “Certainly they may soften the thrusts against the Jews if they like and if there are any. My own opinion is that the only people who were presented in a favourable light were the Jews!”

The characters in the story live in a world soaked in anti-Semitic attitudes. Sir Reuben’s valet, chatting with Lord Peter’s manservant Bunter as the latter squeezes him for clues, notes, “I don’t hold with Hebrews as a rule, Mr. Bunter, and of course I understand that you may find it to your advantage to be in a titled family, but there’s less thought of that these days, and I will say, for a self-made man, no one could call Sir Reuben vulgar.” Bunter responds, “I agree with you, Mr. Graves—his lordship and me have never held with being narrow-minded. . . a good Jew can be a good man, that’s what I’ve always said.” And, as if to make sure that circumcision is mentioned somewhere in the story, there is this extraordinary aria by the Dowager Duchess Honoria, Lord Peter’s aristocratic mother—established elsewhere as muddle-headed but entirely good-hearted. Honoria is from an earlier generation, and she knew Sir Reuben’s wife, née Christine Ford, as a girl:

“I remember so well the dreadful trouble there was about her marrying a Jew. That was before he made his money, of course, in that oil business out in America…He was very handsome, then, you know, dear, in a foreign-looking way, but he hadn’t any means, and the Fords didn’t like his religion. Of course we’re all Jews nowadays, and they wouldn’t have minded so much if he’d pretended to be something else, like that Mr. Simons we met at Mrs. Porchester’s, who always tells everybody that he got his nose in Italy at the Renaissance…so foolish, you know, dear—as if anybody believed it; and I’m sure some Jews are very good people, and personally I’d much rather they believed something, though of course it must be very inconvenient, what with not working on Saturdays and circumcising the poor little babies and everything depending on the new moon and that funny kind of meat they have with such a slang-sounding name, and never being able to have bacon for breakfast.”

Whew! You could write this off in exasperation as a pitch-perfect expression of aristocratic anti-Semitism in its purest form; or you could conclude that the story is partly about anti-Semitism and that the author, sympathetic to Sir Reuben and his ghastly end, is merely capturing it with her customary virtuosity. (That the murderer turns out to be the person Christine jilted to marry Reuben all those years ago—still stewing, Lord Peter notes, over her preferring a Jew to him—certainly suggests the latter.) But you would still be missing something, for surely what is coming through here is anxiety—anxiety about the changing and not-changing status of Jews in society; anxiety about intermarriage and whether it can turn out well. And the anxiety is coming not from the aging duchess—why would she care?—but from the author.

And what did Dorothy L. Sayers, devout Anglican and future theological authority, have to be anxious about? It turns out that at the time she created Lord Peter Wimsey, she was embroiled in what ended up as a desperately unhappy love affair with one John Cournos, a Russian-born Jewish novelist and poet. A bohemian figure, Cournos had fled the Russian revolution at age 10 with his parents and settled in America, then came to England to write. He and Sayers had a passionate though unconsummated romance, detailed for posterity in his otherwise forgotten ninth novel, The Devil Is an English Gentleman, which describes how they would lie naked on the couch together, arguing about whether to go further. Sayers put a slightly more disguised version of Cournos and their relationship into Strong Poison, the story in which Lord Peter meets, rescues and falls in love with Harriet Vane after she is accused of murdering her poet lover. But the author’s real feelings come blazing through in eleven heart-rending letters that Sayers wrote to Cournos after their breakup, which he donated—perhaps with some belated sense of Sayers’s worth—to Harvard University.

More than‭ ‬her actual portraits‭ ‬of Jews‭, ‬what comes through‭ ‬most clearly‭ ‬is the‭ ‬confused urgency of‭ ‬her emotions about them‭.‬

The letters confirm that they broke up over what she called “a point of practical Christianity”: her refusal to use contraception. She wanted to sleep with him, but also to marry him and have his children: “I daresay I wanted too much—I could not be content with less than your love and your children and our own happy acknowledgment of each other to the world.” He returned to America and, curiously, married another detective novelist, Sybil Norton; Sayers took their breakup considerably harder, getting involved with a man named Bill White who left her when she became pregnant. This being 1924, the 30-year-old Sayers contrived to have the baby clandestinely and conveyed him to a cousin who took in foster children, supporting him financially and keeping their relationship secret until her own death. (Sayers later married a journalist who initially agreed to raise the boy in their household, but then reneged.)

Sayers’s biographers and her many fans have managed to piece this story together fairly well, tracing its effect on her views on sex and her later disillusionment with marriage, which runs in increasing contrast to the fictional happiness of Harriet and Lord Peter’s relationship. There is no evidence that Cournos’s Jewishness was a factor in their relationship or in his lack of interest in marrying her. But he does appear to have been intellectually engaged with that Jewishness; his essays include “An Epistle to the Hebrews” (1938), in which he urges Jews to lay more aggressive claim to Jesus. The A.N. Wilson essay notes that Sayers’s first murder victim, the naked Jewish corpse in Whose Body?, “dates from when she herself was lying beside a (live) naked Jewish body from time to time…and suffering from the rage and anguish of sexual frustration.” Taken together, Sayers’s novels tell a broader story, worrying away obsessively (and more sharply as the years pass) at the question of Jews’ social acceptance, their marriages to Christians and what it is like to live in their families. By the end of Strong Poison, Sayers is still toying with the possibility that Freddy and Rachel can be happy; by Busman’s Honeymoon, she is more bitter but still curious how “Christian family life” looks from the outside. More than her actual portraits of Jews, what comes through most clearly is the confused urgency of her emotions about them—and this, in light of her biography, is utterly understandable.

To the question of whether Sayers was, or became, anti-Semitic in her personal life, her biographers are split. Fans generally offer the usual sorts of defenses: She got on perfectly well with both of her Jewish publishers, Victor Gollancz and Ernest Benn, and with her Jewish agent, David Higham; in later life she held a celebrated salon where the chief rabbi of Great Britain was a frequent guest and friend. Her increasingly idiosyncratic theology may have been a factor in the episode that most damns her, which had nothing to do with her fiction: Asked in 1945 to contribute to a symposium on Jews in England, she wrote a 26-page article, “The Future of the Jews in England Now: Rambling Meditations on the Subject of Christian Duty,” that was withdrawn after several Jewish contributors refused to allow their work to appear in print alongside it. The essay argued, more or less, that the coming of Christ had been “the turning-point of human history” and that the “Jewish nation” had “missed that turning-point and got stranded,” which accounted for their continuing outsider status in society. Of this episode, her biographer David Coomes can only say lamely, “It is true she may have taken a more sympathetic line had she known of the alarming extent of anti-Semitism elsewhere in the world.” But by this time she had ceased to write fiction, and one can imagine a gradual coarsening of views as the live emotions of her youth hardened into resentment at a life of romantic disappointment.

Call me a soft touch, but all I can feel for this arc is sympathy. How much weight to give to the unknowable dark aspects of an author’s life is a personal decision every reader must make; but what’s written in that author’s works at least lends itself to careful analysis and to the use of the good old traditional skill of close reading. Sayers herself, in the voice of Harriet Vane, is the first to acknowledge that what she writes is not great literature of lasting worth; that’s why in her later years she gave it up for Dante. But less “serious” work still reflects life, not least in its portrayal of wit and wisdom and wrongheadedness all mingled. A continuing affection for such work—for Sayers and the world she’s created—provides a good incentive for a reader to push back a little against the present moment’s tendency to take instant and maximum offense at any questionable reference to anybody. Continuing to read and savor Dorothy L. Sayers offers us a chance to hone our ability to sort out which kinds of questionable comments about Jews are seriously bad, which are bad but forgivable, which are dangerous and in need of denunciation and which are essentially trivial and best ignored. And this is a life skill that will not lose its value any time soon.

22 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Dorothy L. Sayers & the Jew Who Wasn’t There

  1. An interesting essay. But I disagree with your portrayal of the Dowager Duchess. To me she comes across not as muddle headed but as a highly intelligent and perceptive lady with a disorganized speaking style that in part reflects the fact that she thinks faster than she talks or writes.

    I actually stole her for one of the secondary characters of my second novel.

    1. Justin Spring says:

      I agree — particularly after coming upon her comment, “we’re all Jews now,” which made me think that she was speaking of Jewishness as a sort of world-outlook or stance, rather than as a religion.

      1. Barbara Parsons says:

        Re: Dowager Duchess’s comment that “we’re all Jews now,” I fear it is overly-generous to attribute her statement to “a world outlook or stance.” She merely meant that everyone is money-conscious (money-grubbing, even) in post-WWI England. The aristocracy was intentionally taken down with taxes. Peers no longer had the luxury of considering discussion of financial matters vulgar. An effete life of leisure such as Wimsey enjoyed was vanishingly scarce. She is saying we have all fallen as low as Jews have always been.

        The duchess’s little speech here accomplishes many things. It reminds the reader of the tradition of circumcision, informs us of the backstory of the murder victim and his relationship with his wife (her friend), and establishes that the victim was not always either wealthy or coarse-looking, just a handsome, foreign-looking young man. Typically, she couches all this in a bunch of nonsense so figuring out the key elements isn’t too easy for the reader.

        But in terms of this discussion, I believe the universally well-loved character of the dowager is meant to normalize acceptance of Jews in society. She trips up a bit by lowering her own sort to their level, but this seems mild for the time, indeed far milder than Sayers overwhelming attitude.

  2. Alexander J Wei says:

    I agree, David Friedman. One of the characteristics of Lord Peter is what he calls piffling; he feigns to be an empty-headed aristocrat chatting wildly about whatever idea pops into his head. He is in fact highly intelligent and in complete control. I believe that essentially the Dowager Duchess uses her own version of the same technique (the two are very close, and I feel sure that Peter is her favorite child. Also, that Peter takes after her much more than after his father, the late Duke).

    1. Lennea says:

      The Dowager confesses that Peter is her favorite in a letter to Harriet.

  3. Sarah Rayne says:

    An interesting, if contentious article. I definitely agree with David Friedman and Alexander Wei’s comments. I’d also make the point that the description of DLS as the ‘so-called Queen of British detective fiction,’ jarred a bit.

  4. Richmonde says:

    Yes, the Duchess is a literary type. See Mrs Nickleby, Flora Finching and many Wodehouse characters.

  5. Shmuel Ben-Gad says:

    A fine essay. It is interesting to me that, so far as I am aware, two excellent U.S. writers of British golden age type detective stories betray no anti-semitism in their works: John Dickson Carr and Elizabeth Daly

  6. Joyce Beattie says:

    wonderful essay.
    Thank you, I loved this. I also love Dorothy Sayers, and feel that you’ve shown her well.
    (+ that she’s not anti semitic)

  7. Michael J. "Orange Mike" Lowrey says:

    I’ve always assumed that the Dowager Duchess was much wiser, and perhaps even smarter, than she presented herself as being. She is a creature of her class and time, and quite obviously unsuited by temperament for the role of bluestocking.

  8. David Berger says:

    As to the Duchess, at one point, “Clouds of Witness, she refers to Goyles, the fiancé of Peter’s sister as a “sucking socialist.”

    Not a particular sign of intelligence or a decent sensibility. The snobbery of the author, in general, rapidly becomes unbearable.

  9. Nathan McQuillen says:

    What the Duchess says in Clouds of Witness is this:

    “You know, Peter, if you will haunt low places full of Russians and sucking Socialists taking themselves seriously, you ought to know better than to encourage them by running after them, however futile, and given to drinking coffee and writing poems with no shape to them, and generally ruining their nerves.”

    Far worse that being Socialists in the Duchess’s eyes is “taking themselves seriously”. That’s the real crime in her eyes: allowing group affiliations to overwhelm one’s decency. Earlier in the same monologue, in fact, she makes a point of not knowing Lord Nelson’s nationality.

    That’s not snobbery, it’s iconoclasm. Perhaps even a touch of anarchism. Mary gets it from somewhere, one would imagine, and Peter’s really not all that far behind her — for all his veneer of lawfulness, he abhors the justice system and is haunted by the consequences of bringing a murderer to the dock.

    As to Sayers’ alleged “snobbery”, the above passage would have telegraphed to the knowing reader of her time that she was in fact intimately familiar with the Russian-inspired avant-garde: “writing poems with no shape to them” directly references Suprematism and its descendants, hardly a detail a “snob” would hold onto or obliquely reference. This is not snobbery, it’s Sayers telling her readers that she knows these circles, which — we now know, but readers during her lifetime did not — she did, and intimately.

  10. S A Brett says:

    Isn’t it possible that writers reflect in their fiction the world that they observe, rather than create themselves over and over again? The character is not the author.

  11. John A Nickles says:

    “Dorothy L. Sayers, widely considered the queen of the so-called Golden Age of British detective fiction, the great flowering between the world wars of whodunits and crime puzzles from the likes of Sayers, Christie, Tey and Robert Barnard that so capture the flavor of those times.”

    Robert Barnard may have written An Appreciation of Agatha Christie but he was scarcely writing between the world wars, as that’s when he was born. His writing career began in 1974 and ended three years ago when he died.

  12. I had the opportunity to take a seminar with R.W.B. Lewis, who wrote what is probably still the definitive biography of Edith Wharton I think one shouldn’t start on the Harriet Vane subseries before having sampled Wimsey on his own and as mentioned, both

  13. Jonathan Epstein says:

    I’ve always thought that the quoted passage in Busman’s Honeymoon was a shot at the Scottish nation which depended for its force on antisemitism. I quote from memory but more or less it goes:
    Wimsey: Gentleman by the name of Abrahams?
    Bunter: gentleman by the name of Macbride.
    Wimsey: A distinction without a difference.
    Wimsey is not I think asserting that Macbride is the taken name of a Jew but that a Scot is likely to be as rapacious a “financial gentleman” as a Jew.

  14. John Cowan says:

    Jonathan Epstein: I am sure you are right. I note, however, that Sayers’s Scottish characters are consistently kinder, more thoughtful, and more decent than her English ones. Consider Mr. Macallister telling off Mr. Tallboy: he tells Tallboy what he needs to know, he does it in private so as not to further embarrass Mr. Smayle, he tells Tallboy he should be damned well ashamed of himself. Tallboy, characteristically, feels vaguely guilt but does not apologize to Macallister, much less Smayle, and implies that it’s all Smayle’s fault and that Tallboy, because he didn’t know about Smayle’s retarded child, hasn’t done anything wrong.

  15. Sabine Lechtenfeld says:

    This great essay has been written a couple of years ago. But it still deserves a comment ☺:
    I really like your evaluation of Dorothy Sayers’ by looking into her private life!
    The American writer and intellectual of Russian-Jewish origins, John Cournos, has IMO shaped and influenced Sayers’ private life and her subsequent writing in major ways! And your analysis of how it might’ve affected Sayers’ writing is spot on! It’s also interesting to realize that the young Dorothy was a stunningly attractive young woman – something we would never guess by looking at later pictures.
    It’s interesting that most Sayers fans entirely adopt Sayers’point of view and criticize Cournos mercilessly. I have the urge to play devil’s advocate here – especially if the devil really ist an English gentleman John Cournos himself hast always said that he would’ve gladly married Sayers after living and sleeping together for a while in order to find out if they were fully compatible as man and wife. For our modern point of view this sounds like a very reasonable plan, and we should remember that even in Sayers’ age there have been intellectual groups who lived and practiced just that! And it shouldn’t be forgotten: when Sayers finally agreed to sleep with Cournos, he refused because he believed that her heart wasn’t in it. He could’ve but he didn’t take sexual advantage of her! This also may show that he didn’t deserve to be marked as the the sole villain of this extremely unhappy love affair. As someone who isn’t religious, I blame Sayers’ deep anglican convictions – and I think that Cournos was quite right not to have sex with Sayers. They were clearly not made for each other! Deep in her heart Sayers was very conservative and not a free-wheeling spirit at all. I’m also repelled by the treatment of her illegitimate son. I can fully understand that she wasn’t prepared to deal with the stigma of being an unwed mother – especially since her conservative parents were still alive. Sayers tried her best when the boy was still young. But after WWII the social norms changed drastically. I think it is very deplorable that Sayers never openly acknowledged her son later in her life. She fled instead into a romantic dream world by marrying Lord Peter Wimsey and her alter ego Harriet Vane. And later she abandonned fiction altogether and became a Christian apologist. For the legions of her fans this is very deplorable. It’s hard to say how her life and her writing would’ve developed If she and John Cournos had become a lasting couple….

  16. Tali Avishay-Arbel says:

    A few comments:
    About Josephine Tey’s “Levantine” comment: That is thought by her detective. Actually, she is being ironic here: her detective is sure that the murderer is a Levantine, because stabbing is a crime of passion; it turns out that it was nothing of the sort! The murderess was a solid British woman, the murder was premeditated and with good reason – to save her daughter’s life. The joke is on the insular detective, and the stereotyping is definitely not the authors’!
    About Agatha Christie: In her autobiography, she expresses horror at Nazi ideology. However, in her books, the stereotyping of Jews is beyond chance – there are more than 10 references to Jews, almost all negative or stereotypical: Jews are financiers, jewel merchants or shady characters; they are described as flashy in looks and vulgar in behaviour. I went through her books searching by word: “Jew”, “Hebrew”, “Hebraic”, “Mosaic”, and found many negative references, and only one positive Jew – the young man in “Three-act Tragedy”. Interestingly, the girl he is in love with exclaims at him, without justification, “You Shylock!”
    One of the problems with these stereotypes is that Jews, for centuries, were restricted in their professions – they couldn’t own land, and they couldn’t work at crafts because they were excluded from the guilds. As a result, they were more concentrated in professions which were open to them – finance and trade. And also, they became frequent in administrative roles in the underworld (dare I say that Jews, being on the average above-average intelligent, could survive in that world?). So that the stereotypes were based on a certain amount of reality. Dickens’ Fagin was not an antisemitic creation – he was a type that was in existance. Dickens was accused of antisemitism after the publication of “Oliver Twist”, and in reparation, created the “good Jew” – Riah in “Our Mutual Friend” – an almost perfect character – so good that he is beyond credance. He only becomes believable when he talks to Jenny after she discovers the truth about him: “‘It looked so bad, Jenny,’ responded the old man, with gravity, ‘that I will straightway tell you what an impression it wrought upon me. I was hateful in mine own eyes. I was hateful to myself, in being so hateful to the debtor and to you. But more than that, and worse than that, and to pass out far and broad beyond myself—I reflected that evening, sitting alone in my garden on the housetop, that I was doing dishonour to my ancient faith and race. I reflected—clearly reflected for the first time—that in bending my neck to the yoke I was willing to wear, I bent the unwilling necks of the whole Jewish people. For it is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, ‘This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.’ Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough—among what peoples are the bad not easily found?—but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say “All Jews are alike.””

  17. I am writing this in October 2021. I found the comments as thoughtful and fascinating as the essay. The quotation from Dickens’s “Our Mutual Friend” might have rested comfortably in George Orwell’s essay “Antisemitism in Britain,” published in April 1945.

  18. Peter Shor says:

    In Josephine Tey’s book “The Man in the Queue”, “Levantine” was substituted by the American publisher for the ethnic slur “dago”, which I believe was then a much worse term in the U.S. than in England. A “dago” was an Italian, Spaniard, or a Portuguese.

    Moreover, in this book, the detective Alan Grant eventually stops calling the suspect a “dago”, and possibly even realizes that the stereotype hr believed of “dago”s being hot-headed and violent was incorrect, something that I suspect Josephine Tey knew quite well. She presumably introduced the ethnic slur and the stereotype to help lead the detective to identify an innocent man as the suspect.

  19. Marian Saska says:

    I only just saw the link to this site on Wikipedia, so forgive me for being late to the party.

    There are two passages in Gaudy Night that I find much more sinister than anything quoted here.

    1) “‘Wot this country wants,’ said Padgett, ‘is a ‘Itler.’”

    2) “‘Speaking as a biologist, I must say I think public money might be better employed. What with the number of imbeciles and physical wrecks we allow to go about and propagate their species, we shall end by devitalising whole nations.’
    “‘Miss Schuster-Slatt would advocate sterilisation,’ said the Dean.
    “‘They’re trying it in Germany, I believe,’ said Miss Edwards.
    “‘Together,’ said Miss Hillyard, ‘with the relegation of woman to her proper place in the home.’
    “‘But they execute people there quite a lot,’ said Wimsey, ‘so Miss Barton can’t take over their organisation lock, stock and barrel.’
    “Miss Barton uttered a loud protest against any such suggestion, and returned to her contention that her social principles were opposed to violence of every description.
    “‘Bosh!’ said Miss Edwards. ‘You can’t carry through any principle without doing violence to somebody. Either directly or indirectly. Every time you disturb the balance of nature you let in violence. And if you leave nature alone you get violence in any case. I quite agree that murderers shouldn’t be hanged — it’s wasteful and unkind. But I don’t agree that they should be comfortably fed and housed while decent people go short. Economically speaking, they should be used for laboratory experiments.’”

    I can’t find a full date for the first publication of Gaudy Night, so we don’t know if it occurred before or after the promulgation of the Nuernberg Laws in 1935. Even so, Nazi Germany was already showing its true face at the time of publication, but Sayers shows us that the ladies of the High Table were more concerned with women being trapped with the 4 Ks (Kirche, Kueche, Kinder, Kleider), and being inundated by the “unfit.” And Paget wants the country to be saved by a Hitler. Elsewhere, Sayers mentions a student named Miss Isaacs. One wonders what she would have felt about all this, but Sayers never tells us.

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