It was at St Hilda’s 2007 (see https://movingtoyshop.wordpress.com/2009/02/25/st-hildas-2007/ ) that I heard Jill Paton Walsh discuss Q.D.Leavis’s attack on Dorothy L. Sayers and I have been meaning to find the article ever since; finally I got myself into Birmingham Central Library and obtained the relevant volume of Scrutiny – it is Volume 6, Number 3 (December 1937) and takes the form of a review of Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon (although for practical purposes one might consider it either as a general critique of Sayers or a specific review of Gaudy Night).
Now I summarised Jill Paton Walsh as saying…..
>>Leavis makes two substantial points…
1.) That DLS idealised academics – they are as corrupt and self-seeking as any other group of professionals, not some specially pure and lofty group dedicated to truth.
2.) That Wimsey is an absurdly idealised hero, who reminded her of someone from Ouida (I was fascinated to hear another reference to Ouida whom Miriam discovers in Richardson’s Pilgrimage – The Backwater – to her great delight). Leavis also hated DLS’s mention of sex.<<
The first is unquestioned and forms much the most powerfully argued, trenchant and indeed accurate part of the article, which stands up as well today as when it was written. Here is an extract treating the description of Oxford in Gaudy Night which displays QDL’s own rhetorical style at its’ best…
“If such a world ever existed, and I would be surprised to hear as much, it does no longer, and to give substance to a lie or to perpetuate a dead myth is to do no-one any service really. It is time that a realistic account on the older universities was put into circulation. Unfortunately for Miss Sayers’ thesis the universities are not the spiritually admirable places she alleges. People in the academic world who earn their livings by scholarly specialities are not as a general thing wiser, better, finer, decenter or in any way more admirable than those of similar social class outside. The academic world offers scope for personal aggrandisement much as the business world does, with the results you might expect. No-one who has had occasion to observe how people get a footing in the academic world, how they rise in it, how appointments are obtained, how the social life is conducted, what are its standards, interests and assumptions, could accept Miss Sayers’ romanticizing and extravagant claims” (my italics).
The second summary which Jill Paton Walsh made was in my view somewhat misplaced however. While QDL certainly has some easy fun at Wimsey’s expense (her best phrase claims that ‘he is able to talk like a P.G. Wodehouse moron’ !) her argument as I read it is not with DLS as a ‘successor to Ouida or Edgar Wallace’ but with her literary reputation. It is this which QDL savages – ‘Miss Sayers fiction when it isn’t a mere detective-story of an unimpressive kind is…stale, second-rate, hollow’. Now we can lay on one side Leavis’s attitude to mysteries – the ‘mere’ reveals her prejudice and makes it highly improbable that she will have anything of value to say on this subject – which she does not. Where her attack is concentrated and expanded is on the literary elements of Sayers’ work.
For instance it is quite wrong to say that she ‘hated DLS’s mention of sex’. The Leavises were after all great admirers and promoters of Lawrence. No for QDL Sayers writing on sex is what we now call inauthentic (the idea that Lawrence’s writing on sex is authentic is – well deeply problematic would be a euphemism but this is no place to go into that). This critique is summed up when QDL quotes Harriet Vane having ‘the novelists habit of thinking of everything in terms of literary allusion’; QDL comments ‘no novelist with such a parasitic, stale, adulterated way of living could ever amount to anything’. I think we can leave on one side the objection that QDL is extrapolating from Harriet to Sayers, because in this case I think that is how Sayers would like to have seen herself. There is a much bigger problem with this, which is that it is in fact merely a statement of Leavis’s own prejudices and critical assumptions. We arrive at their own self-promoted and defined mission to promote their view of literature as necessarily having a moral purpose and being authentic.It is fascinating that in a post-modern world Leavis’s position seems quite extraordinarily old-fashioned. The critique certainly raises interesting questions of all kinds but as an attack on Sayers it fails completely, because it is based on an unproven assertion – Sayers writes in X manner, X manner is bad, therefore Sayers is bad. Well the middle link in the argument is entirely missing. Leavis just asserts and in a bullying and hectoring way. Ellen, who has read a lot of Leavis, has with her usual wonderful turn of phrase provided me with the description of ‘intellectual thuggery’. This is precisely what we have here.
In her conclusion QDL says that Sayers is ‘a combination of literary glibness and spiritual illiteracy’ and that is not individual in this but ‘representative’ of a university (women’s?) college. She is in Leavis’s eyes similar to Edward Lear and Rupert Brooke (!) – without value.
When one steps back from all this there are two highly ironical aspects to Leavis’s attack on Sayers. It is an attack by an elitist on an elitist and a conservative on a conservative. No-one who reads either of these writers can doubt that they were conservative elitists for a moment. In another piece from Scrutiny (Volume, no 3 December 1935) during the course of a highly critical review of Dorothy Richardson’s Clear Horizon QDL writes….
>>”The demand for mass rights can only be a source
of embarrassment to intelligent women, who can be counted
on to prefer being considered as persons rather than
as a kind, just as they will wish to work out individual
solutions to their problems, if they have any; nor are they likely
to have any more sympathy with the appeal to ‘We women’
than intelligent men have for the equivalent appeal
to ‘We men'”<<
(which shows that right-wing women attacking feminism has a long history). Sayers’ conservative elitism, is one would hope, obvious to anyone who reads her mysteries – though to see its full, quite loopy, flowering you can check out her educational proposals for the re-introduction of the Ancient Greek curriculum ( The Lost Tools of Learning 1947). So this is a spat between conservative elitists – and as such pretty enjoyable for left-wingers like me.
In fairness however it needs to be said that one half of QDL’s attack, which really specifically relates to Gaudy Night, concerning DLS’s romanticising of Oxford is wholly justified (although it can be applied to many more writers than Sayers). The other half is not I think as Walsh presented. Its substance is that Sayers is not serious enough, not ‘real’ enough by those Leavisite proclamations and dogmas which now seem rather absurd. If Sayers had not had any literary pretensions then QDL would not have objected, as in the full flowering of her snobbery she would have considered the books beneath her attention. This is very clearly absurd elitism of the worst kind.