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.
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.