15 November 2020

Was Dorothy Sayers an anti-semite?

That is a nasty old bullying question. When addresed to admirers of Dorothy Sayers, a nervous answer is often given beginning "Yes, but".

That irritates me. Yes, you're right, I am far too easily irritated.

An apologist for Sayers might often go on to say that it is wrong to judge a writer by the standards of a different age. I disagree profoundly with this, not just because I think that the Standards of Today can be very misguided, but mainly because I think it gets Sayers wrong. 

I will take Whose Body, a book to which I have recently referred. And simply point out that it is the Upper Class Freke who is the murderer ... the Caucasian, the Brilliant Surgeon, the Great Mind, the man whose skill and brilliance all admire. The Clubman and the assured member of an exclusive Establishment. A valued and honoured associate of the Royal Family. The skilled Alpinist who has clear blue eyes; one of the Great and the Good. The scion of an old gentry family and educated at Harrow and Trinity Cambridge. But morally, he is hopelessly flawed and he is a ruthless murderer without an atom of scruple. 

The goody of the narrative is Sir Reuben Levy, the murderee. He is given ... by Thirties conventions ... an unmistakably Jewish character: he is hard-working, has a skilful eye for money, and is immensely devoted to his family. Another financier says of him "He's  decent old domestic bird ... he's straight enough--he'd do you down fast enough, but he wouldn't let you down." One prostitute says to another "It's no good wasting your time with him--that's Levy--I knew him when I lived in the West End, and the girls used to call him Seagreen Incorruptible."

I wonder if a Man from Mars might feel that, if any criticism were to be launched at Sayers, it would be fairer to attack her for pro-semitic prejudice.

Or is the problem that people consider it unacceptable ever to hint at traditional national or racial characterisations, whether factual or (as so very often) fictional? A dear old nursery rhyme taught generations of happy toddlers that Welshmen were thieves. Are we beyond the pale if we allude (even in the most distanced way) to old stereotypes suggesting that Germans are humourless or Americans loud-mouthed? That Italians are bottom-pinchers and the Dutch immoderately given to self-abuse? That the Irish can, and do, talk the hind-leg off a donkey? That the Scots are stingy? That English ...

What sort of prison do they want to lock us up in?

There is one point in the novel where critics of Sayers might ... ill-advisedly ... be tempted to pounce. She uses an old term, at that time a very insulting term (although now, I suspect, obsolete) to refer to Levy.  'Sheeny'. (Or am I supposed to write Sh**ny?)

But this is put into the mouth of a medical student, the "local funny man", and it is repeated "not without embarrassment". What, I think, is going on here is that Sayers is putting 'on the record' the fact that a corpse being dissected in a teaching hospital was Jewish (of course, it will turn out to be Sir Reuben's). An obvious way of doing this would be to reveal, in plain speech, that it was circumcised. But Sayers' publisher, after reading her first draft, forbade her to use that means of identification. Hence this ingeniously circuitous procedure (it would be fun to read her original version of the novel ... is it available?). 

Wimsey finally summarises: " ... Levy--who was nobody twenty years ago--romps in and carries off Freke's girl from under his nose. It isn't the girl Freke would bother about--it's having his aristocratic nose put out by a little Jewish nobody ... Freke isn't troubled by the usual conscientious deterrent."

Oops ... somebody will now accuse me of anti-semitism for daring to transcribe such a phrase as "little Jewish nobody". Jackbooted Wokes will haul me before the Volksgericht ...


Mrs McLean said...

Sayers had a Jewish lover, and was certainly not an anti-Semite. Indeed, she also has a sympathetic character (aristocratic and presumably Anglican) marry Levy's daughter Rachel.

Ladyhobbit said...

Marvelous post! I have been enjoying your discussions of Sayers because I am a longtime fan of her work.
By the way, I never knew that the King had been murdered by his physician. Yikes.

Shaun Davies said...

Don't forget the little rhyme:

Lord Dawson of Penn
Killed so many men
Which is why we all sing
God save the King

OreamnosAmericanus said...

Once I awoke from a lifetime of philosemitic slumbers and realized that this group, as a group, did not at all reciprocate my friendliness, I became astonished at how Gentiles, Christians especially, allow ourselves to be bullied by a word which has no more moral value than "Islamophobia."

Back in 1921, Hillaire Belloc saw things clearly.

Ed the Roman said...

I rather don't allow myself to be bullied by words.

I've had far too many Jewish friends, from childhood, university, the Navy and later, to possibly worry about whether Jews, as a group, liked me or not.

Banshee said...

The Big Bow Mystery, by Israel Zangwill, a Jewish guy writing about the Jewish immigrant community in London, is frequently decried as being anti-Semitic. The samme thing often happens with Georgette Heyer's Jewish references and characters, even though she was ethnically Jewish. (And having a lot of fun mocking the stereotypes, in one case.)

So yes, it's distressing that so many readers today cannot tell the difference between writers decrying prejudices by portraying people who hold those prejudices, and writers who are actually prejudiced.