Unpopular Opinions: Twenty-One Essays by Dorothy Sayers, Or In Which I Render Myself a Populist, Act I

July 6, 2010

Harcourt Brace and Co, 1947

(most essays previously published)

Finished: early April

Source: Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot

Genre: essays

On the Scales: middleweight

I opened this collection of essays with the same confident anticipation as a really good chocolate bar.  Der Mann and I had just watched the BBC Wimsey and Vane adaptations then listened to an audio version of Strong Poison that had us laughing like goofballs.  She was every bit as great as everyone was saying!

Such was my confidence, I stopped to read the introduction.

I have called this collection of fugitive pieces Unpopular Opinions, partly, to be sure, because to warn a person off a book is the surest way of getting him to read it, but chiefly because I have evidence that all the opinions expressed have in fact caused a certain amount of annoyance one way and the other . . .

Ho, ho! I chuckle.  I skip introductions because I have found that they often make me like a book less, and never make me like it more; but how could any opinion that annoyed the po-faced hoi polloi of the first half of the 20th century possibly annoy modern me?  And what’s more fun than a guiltless laugh at the past’s expense, through the eyes of woman so eminently ahead of her own time?  I read on:

. . . Speaking generally, the first section courts unpopularity by founding itself on theology and not on “religion.”  The second will offend all those who are irritated by England and the English, all those who use and enjoy slatternly forms of speech, all manly men, womenly women, and people who prefer wealth to work.  The third will annoy those who cannot bear other people to enjoy themselves in their own way.

My laughter grows nervous.  I have been moved to irritation by England and the English at times.  Notice how Sayers lumps me together with entitled slackers and those who patronize the literary equivalent of prostitutes.  I feel her rapier wit turning, turning . . . and a sudden need to duck.

The essays are divided into three sections: theological, political, and critical.  The theological section includes work that could be called philosophical, like “Towards a Christian Aesthetic”–less about Christianity and more about aesthetics and ethics, with a look at Plato and Aristotle.  The critical section features Sayers’ foray into the genre of spoof literary criticism that treats the Sherlock Holmes stories as memoir.  The political section includes her famous feminist essays “Are Women Human?” and “The Human-Not-Quite-Human,” but aside from those, is mostly given over to essays about English national character English usage.

“The Mysterious English” is a speech delivered in London in 1940.  To an English audience.  Remember that.  Actually, no need: Sayers makes it pretty hard to forget.  After she describes the history and geography that have contributed to make England an Island Nation of proud mongrels, the very essence of which is its integrative spirit (“If ever you hear a man boast of his pure English blood, he may be a Bostonian, he may be a Jew; but whatever he is he is not English.”), she speaks about language (for of course only one real language has ever been spoken at a given time by the people that matter in the Island Nation) and finally draws her thesis up to the present era:

A direct result of the mongrel nature of the English, and a thing very noticeable about them, is that they have never in their lives been what the Germans still are, that is, a Volk.  From the first beginnings of their Englishry they have been, not a race, but a nation.  The comparative absence of folk-music and folk-customs from England is remarkable, compared with their energetic survival in, say, the Highlands of Scotland; and the English have never had a folk-costume at all.  The thing that ties them together is not a consciousness of common blood so much as a common law, a common culture and a very long memory of national consciousness.  The law, generally speaking, is Saxon; the culture, generally speaking, is continental.

I could rip this apart.  Not in anger, Ms. Sayers.  But in terms of European and British history, I could come up with a pretty darned good argument to counteract pretty much every assertion (implied or otherwise) in this paragraph—and you are so much smarter than me!  Really, how could you put yourself in such a position?

Well, yes, I understand your audience’s need to dissociate themselves from Volk just now, and I understand this is rhetoric, not a scholarly essay.  Perhaps if I just read the rest as if it were called “How The English Needed to See Themselves In 1940,” I will remain un-irritated and avoid the needle-sharp point of your scorn.  Back to national character:

We are not a military nation, as has sometimes been said; and I doubt whether it is correct to call us a martial race; but we are an adventurous people.  We are the magpies of Europe.  We love to decorate ourselves with foreign spoils, mental and spiritual as well as material.  We feel we are in no danger of losing our own individuality by decking ourselves in these borrowed plumes.  Insecurity tends to turn the soul inwards upon itself, so that it keeps on reckoning itself up to see that it is all there . . . but security looks outward.

That’s interesting.  You are not military Volk.  Not “a martial race.”  I believe that your next point will be that your own stab at a worldwide Empire (unlike some we could name) was a reflection of your innate confident eclecticism.  Is that right?

England is an adventurer and a collector of unconsidered trifles.  It would be true to say that she did not conquer her Empire; she did not even very deliberately acquire it in the interests of her trade; the fact that she collected it casually, and almost accidentally, in a spirit of lighthearted adventure, as a sailor will collect monkeys and parrots and, like the sailor, found herself committed to looking after the creature.  The English, though they have done a good deal of conquering in this random kind of way, have never considered themselves to be a nation of conquerors, in the sense that Hitler understands the word, or even as Caesar understood it.  We do not see ourselves as invaders of conquered territory.  It is true that if you turn out the Englishman’s luggage you will find it full of bits of land of alien origin; but the possessor will explain, with perfect sincerity, and more truth than you might suppose, that he never had any idea of foreign conquest.  He was just roving about the world doing a little business, when he came across something, the Elgin Marbles, or Cleopatra’s Needle, or an island or so, or possibly half a continent that nobody seemed to be looking after, and he just slipped it in his pocket to take care of it.

What is more he does take care of it.  Like the sailor with the parrot, he feels it is his duty to feed it, make it comfortable, and teach it the English language, and will go to a surprising amount of trouble and expense to do the right thing by it.

I see.  You just happened to put India in your pocket because it needed looking after.  Yes!  I’m irritated.  I’m irritated at the English capacity to use self-deprecating humor to legitimize self-congratulatory self-deception!  I’m irritated at the English!  I’m irritated at YOU Dorothy Leigh Sayers!  Happy?!

Or wait a minute.  Maybe the joke was on me all along?

It is not surprising that the European should suspect a certain hypocrisy in this apparent contradiction between the Englishman’s repudiation of the idea of conquest and the plain fact that he has succeeded in laying hands on so much of the Earth’s surface.  Yet there is really no hypocrisy, and no true contradiction.  Both things spring from the same root: the powerful sense of national solidarity, which results from his being an island mongrel.  His outward security has made it easy for him to go roaming about the world; his mixed blood has made a roaming life agreeable to him.  Like Kipling’s cat he walks in the wild woods, waving his wild tail, and all places are alike to him.

Exactly.  Why.  I’m.  Still.  Mad.

If we’re going to make it a matter of blood–something I would think, Ms. Sayers, you might show a little more reluctance to do in 1940–I suppose you could say this is my Celtic bias.  If you ignore Scandinavia and the Continent, my blood’s a lot more Welsh and Irish than English; what’s more, all the most interesting ancestors and best stories come from those bits of the family.  So let’s just say I’m a raging Celt, genetically programmed to take an obtuse angle on the age-old argument between dominant culture (“All places are alike, so what’s your problem?”) and marginalized culture (“We are us.  We don’t want to be you.”).  Fine.  I don’t mind.  I cede the point.  Let’s wipe the slate clean.

What next, now that we’re friends again?  You know how much I adore your writing.  How about “The English Language” (1936), since I’m sure it’s something we both can agree on.  I’m just wild to hear what you have to say about those slatterns who debase “the richest, noblest, most flexible and sensitive language ever written or spoken since the age of Pericles”!

It is well, then, to know what we mean and to learn how to say it in English.  And by English I mean English, not any other tongue.  In a day when the British Broadcasting Corporation imports its language committee from Ireland and Scotland, and when Fleet Street swarms with Scots, Irish and Americans, it is well to remember that all these persons are foreigners; that the Scots and the Irish were so from the beginning and that the Americans have become so; that they speak our language as foreigners; and that while it is childlike and charming in us to enjoy their sing-song speech and their quaint foreign barbarisms, to imitate these things is childishness and folly.  It is true that a language thrives by piracy: it will do us no harm to adopt a striking word of slang or a vivid turn of expression.  We must not, however, give our pure gold for cowrie-shells or abandon our beautiful and useful grammatical tools because these barbarians do not know how to handle them.

[About to hurl the book across the room, Trapunto pauses thoughtfully at the sight of it’s first American edition green cloth binding and puts in a bookmark instead.]

End of Act I

10 Responses to “Unpopular Opinions: Twenty-One Essays by Dorothy Sayers, Or In Which I Render Myself a Populist, Act I”

  1. Jenny said

    Oh, dear, Dorothy Sayers. And when I want to love her unmixedly. You are quite right in saying that the first essay is exactly what Britain needed to think of herself in 1940, which as I have spent all weekend sniffling over the many braveries of the British in 1940 I am inclined to look on with less judgment. Also because her turns of phrase are rather charming. But no, I am staunch in my condemnation. What an insular piece of crap.

    (Ha! Insular! Literally! Latin word roots are fun.)

    • trapunto said

      Had to look that one up, Ms Classicist!

      I am okay with loving her mixedly now, though it was hit and miss for a while. It helps that I have nearly her entire ouvre ahead of me.

  2. Jodie said

    Oh Gawd! When I got to your third quote I thought she might be satirising with bits like this:

    ‘He was just roving about the world doing a little business, when he came across something, the Elgin Marbles, or Cleopatra’s Needle, or an island or so, or possibly half a continent that nobody seemed to be looking after, and he just slipped it in his pocket to take care of it.’

    because it is so ridiculous. I was expecting her to turn around and cleverly go ‘No, how can you be agreeing with me on this, I am clearly wrong’. But that didn’t happen I see. Aghhhhh!

    • trapunto said

      Yeah, all the time I was reading it, it was as if she KNEW she was pulling my chain. By the time the essay was published for an American audience in 1947, I suppose she must have. What a lady!

  3. zibilee said

    I have never read any Sayers, but have heard a lot about her and her books. That being said, the quotes you provided annoyed me. I don’t think I would really be interested in reading her personal essays at all. I am really curious to see part 2 of this review!!

  4. Jeanne said

    My feelings get hurt when a Brit makes a big point of the distinction between herself and other English-speaking people.

    Hmm, I meant to be kidding there, but there’s an element of truth–when I read history, I got the idea that up until 1776 English history was my history. Actually, since I’m not from a DAR-type family, probably up until the 18th or 19th century.

    • trapunto said

      That’s interesting. I think of it as my history (British Isles, not just England) until the revolutionary war, but I’m not from a DAR-type family either. I knew a women who was a member of DAR. She was a curiosity. They were thin on the ground where I grew up. I couldn’t grasp what the *point* was, although my grandmother tried to explain it to me.

  5. Nymeth said

    I guess I should be glad I didn’t get this instead of Are Women Human, huh?

    You know I’m not one to make excuses for the opinions people held based on when they lived. But as irritatingly wrong as Sayers was, I still suspect that she’s someone I’d like to have met in different circumstances.

    • trapunto said

      I skimmed her wikipedia entry and began to feel quite kindly toward her as a person, not just as a writer. Basically, I would forgive any of her faults based on her iron sense of purpose and heartbreaking moral rectitude.

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