Dorothy Sayers, Child and Woman of her Time

By Dorothy L. Sayers

The final installment of the four volume series of The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers is a relatively slim, but very attractive book. It contains both My Edwardian Childhood and Cat O’Mary. The first was an abortive attempt at memoirs; the second an abortive attempt at a ‘straight’ literary novel. This book contains a very worthwile preface by Christopher Dean, the Chairman of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society, and an insightful introduction by Barbara Reynolds, who has worked with DLS on the translation of Dante and who has edited the other volumes of letters.

  • Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Title: Dorothy L. Sayers, Child and Woman of Her Time. Volume Five. A supplement to The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers.
  • Pages: 163
  • Published: 2002
  • Publisher: Dorothy L. Sayers Society
  • ISBN: 0-9518000-7-8

As the introduction by Barbara Reynolds puts it: Dorothy L. Sayers put everything she learned from writing Cat O’Mary in Gaudy Night, where the theme of intellectual honesty has a much better fit. It is not reasonable, however, to treat Cat O’Mary as a finished work. It falls apart in three sections. The first is a detailed reworking of My Edwardian Childhood.

My Edwardian Childhood is just a concise autobiography. Far too short, but a nice meandering read.

Cat O’Mary is a novelisation of DLS own life, up to a point. The first, longest part, deals with the same period as My Edwardian Childhood plus DLS days at her public school. The text always grips but never gets exciting or action-packed or anything. It’s just enormously well written.

It is entirely unfair to criticize an unfinished work. But still, if I have to do so, I’d say that the portrayal of Geoffrey, Katherine’s husband in the second part of Cat O’Mary, is unfair. I don’t doubt that DLS has been enjoying herself, possible even getting something off her chest, therapeutically speaking. But she lays Geoffrey’s blinkered idiocy on with a trowel. No man can be so stupid that he confesses adultery, discusses a divorce and then says “You trot up to bed — I’ll be up in ten minutes.” Er. Upon consideration, it might just be possible. Still, I think she was already working towards a silly comedy of manners for the stage here.

Barbara Reynolds mentions the difference in tone between the memoirs and the novel, and I think she’s right. In the first part, the author gets gradually more and more negative about Katherine, to a point where reading becomes acutely painful. But there might be more to it. In the memoirs, DLS was simply enjoying herself, reminiscing. In Cat O’Mary she was working towards a goal, a theme — and she would not have felt obliged to keep to the historic truth. That is to say, where Cat O’Mary and her letters are at variance, I’d sooner trust the letters for biographical veracity. The later parts are much lighter in tone.

This brings me to an important point. In the previous four volumes of this series, and enormous number of letters have been published. But not all. And as is shown here, not even all the really important ones. A central issue in Cat O’Mary is the confirmation ceremony. In her discussions, Barbara Reynolds quotes from a letter DLS wrote home about her confirmation; but that letter is not in Vol. I of the letters, and the treatment in Cat O’Mary shows that that was a serious omission.

As with the other volumes, the footnotes by Barbara Reynolds vary between the very useful and the inane. As an example of the inane, there’s a footnote at page 9, saying ‘It is touching to find that Mrs. Sayers, like so many mothers, moved her sick child into her own bed.’ For starters, that bromide doesn’t deserve a footnote. To continue, it’s not just mothers who do that. I put Naomi in my bed when she’s ill without any qualms. In any case, many of the other footnotes are more useful. And the two texts are equally as useful in giving a fascinating image of DLS’ time.

Oh, and reading Cat O’Mary, I was immediately remembered of a childhood crush of mine. In the sixth form of my primary school, there was a girl who was much admired for both her looks and her brains. All the discerning boys were secretly in love with her, but she had a very sharp wit, and we, being pubescent boys, didn’t dare to say anything. This girl had a very similar set to her eyes as DLS has in this portrait:

 

It might be hard to acquire this book. It is published by Carole Green Publishing, 2-4 Station Road, Swavesey, Cambridge CB4 5QJ, UK. You might be able to find it in the best bookshops in the United Kingdom, but Amazon does not list it. You might consider sending email to Carole Green: cag.publishing@virgin.net. It is well worth the effort.