6 June 2020

Dorothy Sayers and the Wars of the Enclitics (2)

So Greeby was murdered for his Platonic enclitics. Or perhaps he wasn't. At the time Sayers wrote Murder at Pentecost, John Dewar Denniston was reading systematically through the whole of Greek Classical Literature to perfect his maximum opus: The Greek Particles published in 1934. I wonder if Sayers knew what he was working on, and, with a tactful variatio, is alluding to it.

Denniston was a mighty scholar. In our day, academe has arranged its wagons into a fortified corral; it is manned by in vitro life-forms generated in PhD manufactories; dominated by a culture of five-papers-a-year. Denniston's was a broader era when teachers hopped back and forth between posts in Oxbridge and jobs in Public Schools or Whitehall, and the Detective Fiction novel was a literary form enjoyed and respected by the Intelligentsia (some of whom, indeed, such as 'Michael Innes', wrote it).

Denniston was a very serious practicioner of the art of Prose Composition: i.e. putting passages of English into Latin or Greek. He rightly believed that you haven't really understood a language until you have become expert at writing it yourself. He was particularly attached to Greek Prose Compo, and formed a group of Oxford College tutors who not only taught the undergraduates this art, but practised it among themselves. In 1949, they published Some Oxford Compositions. Another member of this group, Maurice Bowra, who wrote an obituary of Denniston for the British Academy in 1949, wrote that "He excelled at Greek Prose and was equally accomplished in the Platonic and the Demosthenic manners. ... the first produced more dazzling results in versions from Shelley and Meredith and Dorothy Sayers ... for every word and every phrase he found an equivalent at once exact and exciting, and the final result was itself an accomplished piece of art. For example, in translating a piece of Dorothy Sayers he had to deal with something which was undeniably conversational but had none the less a literary distinction ..." Bowra then quotes the passage from chapter 3 of the Bellona Club which begins "Well, Felicity ...", and  gives four lines from Denniston's Greek version; and comments "This called for something in Plato's most dashing manner, and got it in Denniston's version ... This is certainly Plato, but it is also Miss Dorothy Sayers".

Agatha Christie did a fair bit of damage to the prestige of 'Detective Fiction', with her mechanical denouements, her superficial cardboard characters, her wooden style, and her lack of intellectual depth. Sayers, on the other hand, gives witty and penetrating expositions of life and culture between the Wars; the bohemian underworld and the Left Book Club; rich widows and their gigolos in seaside grand hotels; the advertising industry; women's colleges in the decade after "women got their degrees at Oxford"; exploitative Lesbian relationships; the fad for 'Spiritualism"; the Abdication Crisis  ... And she can contrive the most diverting genre-confusions: has anybody else ever realised the erotic potential of the Oxford Degree Ceremony?

I do urge any readers who have a curiosity about the Thirties and have not yet met Dorothy Sayers, to do so. She was so good a writer of English prose that the best brains in Oxford used her books for their most mind-stretching intellectual exercises. Her own style was honed and polished by her studies in the Greek, Latin, and English Classics, her love of French, and her adventures translating Dante.

And she was an extraordinarily able apologist for orthodox Christian belief. She took no prisoners.

Don't be put off by Media "adaptations". As with Narnia, so with Sayers: adaptations are devised by non-Christian subliterates with the motive of excising anything which lies outside their own poverty zones.


william arthurs said...

Dorothy L. Sayers taught my grandmother at Hull High School for Girls during the Great War. I'm afraid my view of Sayers has always been coloured by my grandmother's comments about her. I recently read Sayers's correspondence from this period and it seems that the sentiment was mutual !

armyarty said...

I am surprised by your comments regarding Agatha Christie. I do not actually read her, but the Joan Hickson Miss Marple, and the 1970s film Murder on the Orient Express were marvelous!

T. Leo Rugiens said...

"adaptations are devised by non-Christian subliterates with the motive of excising anything which lies outside their own poverty zones." Ouch! That'll leave a mark.

Sue Sims said...

While I can't altogether disagree with your assessment of Agatha Christie, she outsells Sayers, as she always has done, for one reason: her plotting is astoundingly good. I reread Sayers for her writing, her characterisation and her evocation of a time now far past (and, indeed, her wit and use of irony); but as a detective novelist, she can't compete with Christie. Her plotting was never as good as the rest of her achievements: some of her death machines are either ridiculous (Busman's Honeymoon) or incorrect (Unnatural Death and The Nine Tailors), and she has a tendency to insert things that fascinated her without really considering their importance to the novel - think of the code-breaking sequence in Have his Body. No, Sayers is an infinitely better writer than Christie, but she's a novelist who wrote detective stories, rather than a detective story author.

Thomas F. Miller said...

what sequence of readings would you recommend for someone coming new to Dorothy Sayers?

Grant Milburn said...

Dorothy Sayers introduced me to Dante.(At University in the 80's I was told always to use the first name and surname of a female author.) One day in a second-hand bookshop a blue-bordered paperback caught my eye. It was Sayers' translation of Purgatory for Penguin Classics.

Sue Sims said...

Thomas F. Miller: As far as the detective novels are concerned, I'd start with Strong Poison, partly because it's one of her better plots, but also because it introduces the lady who becomes a major character in the following books. Most of the others are fine (Murder Must Advertise is a personal favourite, but it's very...English), but I'd avoid Five Red Herrings unless you're a fan of the sort of mystery novel that relies on timetables. And there's rather a lot of carefully transcribed Scottish dialect.

Other than that, try The Mind of the Maker for very accessible theology (very appropriate, too, for Trinity Sunday) and her wonderful sequence of radio plays, The Man Born to be King.

Animadversor said...

The Particles! I remember coming across this book in my college (university) library. I sat right down then and there on the floor in the midst of the stacks, and I did not get up, except to rearrange my legs, for several hours. If this book were more widely known and appreciated as it ought to be, there would no doubt be a general reformation of manners.

Oliver Nicholson said...

And Edmund Crispin of S. John's

Banshee said...

Sayers is my favorite of all time, but how can you say that Christie isn't intellectual, or doesn't teach a lot about human nature? Her characters aren't cardboard; I run into them every day! And she did the terrible thing of using experimental fiction formats, in order to make them work for a living.

If you think Agatha Christie was lazy, just try to duplicate her work.

I've never understood this need to push one writer up at the expense of another. Ngaio Marsh has some very sneering words about Sayers which always make me snarl. (Another good reason to skip forewords. Seriously, I could happily have lived a lifetime without reading Marsh's youthful smacks at the predecessors who helped her make money.)

I mean, sure, I can see "this is a great writer, and the others aren't so great", but I like pretty much all the Golden Age writers, and am enjoying the revival of the ones I never got to read or hear about. Heck, I even like the incredibly pulpy stuff they are reprinting from early Creasey, because it is fun.

Banshee said...

Murder Must Advertise is awesome! And if you've ever worked in advertising or marketing, it is twice as awesome! But it's also a nice picture of how offices work, even if the specific customs are no longer the same.

The really nice thing is how the imagery and motifs perfectly blend into theme, plot, characters, and the solution of the mystery, while also being full of interest and feeling. I learned a lot about how to use motifs covertly to draw the reader in. Much more educational than several years of English and creative writing class.

Of course, part of the point of advertising is getting your message across....

Banshee said...

Re: adaptations, it is amazing how bad they are these days, and it hurts because I used to look forward to BBC and Granada adaptations. But fortunately, the music and cinematography makes me want to turn them off right away, even before they get going. Still, Kenneth Branagh's Poirot was just horrible, and his Artemis Fowl is allegedly the worst adaptation of _anything_, to the point that people were not even bothered by the plot alterations that had infuriated them when they first heard about them. I really start to think that the Devil is sucking people's brains out, when things get this stupid.

Btw, and apropos of Oxford, have you read Tolkien's Lost Chaucer? It's a pretty interesting nonfiction book, which I guess came out several years ago but I missed until now.

The important bit was that (unmentioned in previous biographies) Tolkien was originally a Middle English guy, and was hired to be the Anglo-Saxon professor in order to give him time to work on annotated selections for a Chaucer reader for students for Oxford's press. But for various reasons, the Chaucer reader never appeared; and Tolkien spent a lot of time on his actual job he was hired for, and on his own book projects.

So a lot of the other English professors basically thought Tolkien was that lazy jerk who totally wastes time, when he was really doing a lot of hard work. (And writing some of the greatest fiction of the 20th century.)

I do think that a departmental typist/secretary would have helped some, but I don't think that was a thing in the 1930's.

The book also spends some time on noting famous scholars in linguistics, English, and other subjects who were tutored by Tolkien or who otherwise took him as a mentor. It was a surprising list to me, because I had never heard of the Tolkien connection to any of them, but they all made sense. I figured that he must have influenced more people than Diana Wynne Jones, but it was pretty impressive.