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Lesbianism in the works of Dorothy L Sayers

What interests me is the way that DLS portrays lesbianism, where it occurs in her novels, as a social normality; not only that she did so, but that the popularity of her books suggests that this wasn’t shocking to her readers.

Her books were placed, socially, largely in the upper and Bohemian classes of society in her own time, the 1920s and 30s, but their popularity suggests that they were read by the middle classes. The characters portrayed as lesbian weren’t central to the plot, not highlighted as figures of shock or even of great attention. They were side issues, part of the normal life of the culture into which her plots were set. And that, to me, is what speaks of their normality, both as perceived by the author herself, and as perceived by her audience.

I am certainly aware that there was an established practice during the Victorian era wherein lesbianism had become, certainly not accepted, but recognised and, quietly ‘glossed over’. It was normal practice, if a woman should reach maturity without being married, that she had to make a choice as to how to live her life. There were a limited number of jobs that she could do if she couldn’t afford to fund an independent life at whatever level of society she felt she ‘should’ be living in. Specifically, as a upper or upper middle class woman, an ‘impoverished gentlewoman’ she could become a governess, a schoolmistress or a ‘lady’s companion’ – and that was about it. Or she could become a perpetual ‘maiden aunt’ living with, or rotating among, the households of her various married siblings. All of these possibilities had the potential to be fairly unpleasant.

If, on the other hand, she were able to fund an independent life, it was simply not acceptable for a woman to live alone, noting that ‘alone’ didn’t what we would mean by it today. A woman might have a household of servants but be considered to be living alone if no-one in her household were of her own social class. While it was acceptable for a man to live alone in a household presided over by a housekeeper or a valet, this would have truly scandalous behaviour in a woman unless she were old enough that the major figure in her household was a nurse.

A woman of less generous means might respectably take up life in a boarding house, run by a retired upper servant, someone who while from working-class origins had established themselves within the households of the wealthy as being utterly respectable. And the lady running the household would act as housekeeper to a number of ladies living within her house. Still, very limiting.

No, for the most independent life which could be lived in Victorian society by an unmarried, or indeed widowed, lady of any means at all – she needed to settle with another woman of her own class. That would most likely require employing an impoverished gentlewoman, the ‘lady’s companion’ previously mentioned but it could also involve two women in similar circumstances choosing to settle together. Such arrangements were normal and would not have attracted any attention or been considered suggestive of anything which could have been considered ‘improper’ in an era when only married relationships between one man and one woman were socially acceptable.

And yet society was perfectly aware that among these pairs of women living together, some had relationships that were rather deeper, both emotionally, and quite possibly also sexually. Victorian society being what it was, where even the legs of tables were considered ‘rude’ and requiring to be kept hidden, this was simply ignored, glossed over. The ladies concerned were living lives within an established social norm, and by merely choosing not to enquire as to the nature of their relationship, and ignoring it when it was obvious, women could choose to live out their lives in deeply committed relationships without any issue within society as to whether or not those relationships were sexual.

The situation for men however was vastly different. The homosexual couple was a stock ‘figure of fun’ until really very recently. It is one of the reasons, quite apart from a sense of justice and fairness, why I support the issue of gay marriage. There was no social stereotype or role model for a young man, realising that he was gay, to build upon in developing an emotionally secure relationship – which I have always felt was very negative. In a society where women were perceived as lesser beings, a homosexual relationship between men suggested that one of the men was placed in a woman’s role: passive, effeminate, not in control. That was socially unacceptable and the man concerned was a source of laughter. The idea that a sexual relationship, whether hetero- or homo-sexual could be a partnership of equals was still a long way away, and hasn’t yet been entirely achieved. No, the sexual life of homo-sexual men was perceived as being one of sordid sexual encounters, not even amounting to what we would today call ‘one-night-stands’, and often with the more masculine of the pair being seen as preying upon the more feminine – leading to a mythology (and it is nothing more than a mythology) which suggested that homo-sexuality necessarily implied sexual predation, since surely no man would willingly choose the subject position of the female. This has nothing to do with sexual practices and everything to do with the position of women within society – lesser, and powerless creatures who were not citizens of the world except through their male relatives : father, brother or husband.

There are two noticeable lesbian couples in DLS’ works. Both in Bohemian society, one in London – friends of Harriet Vane in Strong poison; the other in a small Scottish town, known for its society of artists, in Five Red Herrings. They are in both cases obviously lesbians, there is no pretence of the Victorian norm of ladies of the gentry living together for respectability. Lord Peter Wimsey, the central character, an upper class gent and amateur detective, relates easily to both couples and indeed, is portrayed as looking forward to meeting up with the couple in Scotland during his visit there, having known them previously.

It seems to be apparent, that while I, growing up in the comparative sexual freedom of the 1960s and 70s was completely unaware of lesbianism, society of the 1930s does seem to have been aware of it. and indeed, not to have been particularly shocked by it – at least as long as it could be dismissed as ‘one of those oddities which could be expected to be found among arty folk’, an eccentricity rather than something wrong. If shock is felt, it is nothing more than a ‘frisson’ of excitement. In fact though, the portrayal of the two couples in Five Red Herrings and Strong Poison is so understated that not even a frisson seems to be expected. It is simply part of the backdrop to the plot. Just as in a major film one must have extras, people who form crowd scenes, and these should reflect the patterns of the society within which the story is told, these two couples could carry their part of the plot perfectly well without being lesbian, but they are described as such as part of Lord Peter’s easy movement, not only with the upper classes (one plot-point hinges on his acquaintance with Royalty (Clouds of Witness) and another on his ability to phone the Archbishop of Canterbury for a chat and to ask for a favour (The Nine Tailors), but also within the Bohemian world of artists and writers.

This could be easily explained away if DLS herself had a tendency to lesbianism, however it seems not. She had a lover in early life, and much later, when she had developed, through successful novel-writing, a great deal of freedom to live as she pleased, she got married. Assuming that she is correct in portraying lesbianism as being socially acceptable within the arty set, then as a writer, that would have been an option for her if it had been her preference, clearly it wasn’t. I feel therefore that we can assume that DLS built these characters in partly to demonstrate Wimsey’s ease of movement between different social sets, and partly because this was the Bohemia she knew, and with reasonable confidence that these relationships would be treated by her middle-class readers, to whom respectability was of vital importance, as being nothing more than eccentricity to be expected of artists.

Eccentricity has been an important feature of my own life, not so much because I am noticeably eccentric, but because of my early experience of both my own and my father’s mental health problems. There was such a difference within society’s attitudes to both of us when we were perceived as mentally ill, to the respect which we were each able to acquire once we were merely perceived as eccentric, that this difference is, to me, important. There is a big difference in the perception of a way of living as being immoral, and seeing it as merely eccentric, the eccentric can acquire respect, even if they are not quite seen as ‘respectable’ those who are perceived as pitiable, wrong-headed or immoral – can’t.

The ladies who live openly as lesbians in DLS’ stories are portrayed as worthy of respect, indeed the two in Scotland are portrayed as being respectable, a different quality altogether. Seemingly Dorothy L Sayers was absolutely confident that she could include such characters without putting off her large middle-class readership, and the popularity of her novels, made as a TV series in the 1970s, bears that out. It seems that while in the 1930s male homosexuality was still, as it was for many years, completely unacceptable, lesbianism, at least within a sector of society known for eccentricity, was something not to be disturbed at by the 1930s. Which while being unfair, I have found to be an interesting observation.

Elspeth Parris
March 2015