Dorothy Sayers and T.H. White are both writers intensely engaged with the idea of “mysteries”. That’s a speculation I’d like to explore in this piece, and see how it illuminates (or doesn’t) their novels. There are various senses of the word “mystery” which apply to their writing, in more and less obvious ways. Sayers is one of the major authors of what has been become known as the Golden Age of mystery writing, and her books are at least nominally concerned with a narrative in which something needs to be explained and secrets discovered. Someone definitely dunnit, after all. White’s Arthurian novels engage with a tradition which values the mysterious as well as the magical or unusual, and is itself something of a mystery, with ill-defined borders and uncertain origins.
But it’s another sense of “mystery” which I want to think about here, the meaning which the OED lists as the word’s second discreet meaning. From at least the thirteen century the word meant a “craft, art; a trade, profession, calling”, encompassing both the role and the lore which was necessary to carry it out. In appears in phrases like “the art and mystery of cookery”, “the said science mistery and trade of a woollen draper”, Ther is not at this day sufficient noumbre of persones in the said mysteris to be cleped a crafte”, and even in a description of Salome’s dance, when she “daunsed & sange to tumble with-al; alle wonderred on hir in þat halle, for ho sa wele hir mystri”.
It also designated the institutions which inducted people into these mysteries, and maintained their exclusivity: “M. Sebastian Cabota..gouernour of the mysterie and companie of the Marchants aduenturers”, “President of the mystery of the workers in iron”, “The shoemakers, who later formed their own mistery, were already numerous enough in the lordship in 1400.” A friend on Facebook pointed out the easy slippage which “mystery” and “craft” enact between trade guild and esoteric systems by referring to the Freemasons, and Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon does fascinating work on the relationships between Masonic and similar lore and various ritual magics. (Given the direction of this thought, it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that “the Craft” became attached to Wicca and that most streams of pagan witchcraft refer to their activities as “working”.)
“Mystery” was the word that eventually surfaced as I was thinking about how concerned Sayers and White are with the details and protocols of people’s professions. Other words – like “job” or “role” – inadequate to the strength and depth of what is being described. Though of course, “job” is the word which resonates through Sayers’ discussion of women’s lives and roles in Gaudy Night. This is most obvious in the extended discussion in Chapter 9:
“No, one can’t,” said Miss de Vine, “However painful it is, there’s always one thing one has to deal with sincerely if there’s any root to one’s mind at all…One may commit all the sins in the calendar, and still be faithful and honest towards one person. If so , then that person is probably one’s appointed job. I’m not despising that sort of loyalty’ it doesn’t happen to be mine, that is all
I once got engaged to somebody. But I found I was always blundering – hurting his feelings, doing stupid things, making quite elementary mistakes about him. In the end I realized I simply wasn’t taking as much trouble with him as I should have done over a disputed reading. So I decided he wasn’t my job…For all that, I was fonder of him than he was of me. He married an excellent woman who is devoted to him and does make him her job. I should think he was a full-time job…
[Harriet Vane] “I suppose one oughtn’t to marry anybody, unless one’s prepared to make him a full-time job.”
[Miss de Vine] “The worst of being a job…is the devastating effect it has upon one’s character. I’m very sorry for the person who is somebody else’s job…”
[Harriet Vane] “Then you’re all for the impersonal job?”
“But you say you don’t despise those who make some other persons their job?”
“Far from despising them,” said Miss de Vine; “I think they are dangerous.”
The term also appears all through the book, in describing Peter’s sense of duty, Miss Cattermole’s parents’ ambitions for her, and even Miss Schuster-Slatt’s eugenic mission for the encouragement of marriage amongst the upper middle class. But “mystery” brings together other elements which aren’t quite covered by the sense of existential purpose and (potential) social role which “job” implies here/ Mostly I mean the fascination Sayers has with the sheer detail of people’s occuptations. Her novels are full of systems and social niches, which bring with them the sense of a complete set of lore around people.
Nine Tailors is perhaps the clearest examples, probably because fewer of her readers might share the interest in bell-ringing and the mathematical patterns involved with it, than might be interested in how an advertising office works in Murder Must Advertise. To quote a friend “Bong, bong, bong, bong, has this woman swallowed a bloody book on bell-ringing or what?” But even within that novel there is another account of a system: the canals, sluice-gates and waterways which are involved in the climax. Sayers cares about the specifics of how things happen and how people do them. (In some ways this aspect of her work reminds me of Frederick Forsyth – not a novelist I know very well, but his book The Afghan demonstrated a similar concern with simply exploring and explaining things, with a story slung together to connect it all.)
Once you start looking for mysteries in this sense, they appear throughout her work. Mrs Pettican on the way to make a casserole and the insistence on the use of her name rather than being called “Cook”; the entire Nutrax row, with its extended account of how a few scribbled lines become an advert and how that can go wrong; the fake séance held reluctantly by Miss Climpson; the way oil-paints have to be arranged and handled, which gives away the murderer in five Red Herrings. These all seem to go beyond the “research” for which detective writers are praised or blamed, which is simply to produce verisimilitude or a neat plot twist. They seem to create brief glimpses of another world, with its skills, its problems, its dignities and its habitus, all clustering around a particular job or profession. This may also connect with Sayers’ theology of craft and work as necessary and a participation in the work of creation, as expressed most obviously in The Zeal of Thy House, and discussed in Christine Fletcher’s The Artist and the Trinity: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Theology of Work.
The concern with the way a profession or craft can produce its own world and its own epistemology finds an echo in T.H. White. Indeed, the most of first opening chapters of The Ill-Made Knight form not only a painstaking account of a particular craft, but a demonstration of the obsession it can involve someone in, and the way their life and self of sense can be shaped by it.
Uncle Dap was the only one in the family who took Lancelot seriously, and Lancelot was the one who wasserious about Uncle Dap. It was easy not to be serious about the old fellow, for he was that peculiar creation which ignorant people laugh at – a genuine maestro. His branch of learning was chivalry. There was not a piece of armour proof in Europe buit what Uncle Dap had a theory about it. He was furious with the new Gothoc style, with its ridges and scallop-patterns and fluting. He considered it ridiculous to wear armour like the ropework on a Nelson sideboard, for it was obvious that every groove would be liable to hold a point. The whole object of good armour, he said, was to throw the point off – and, when he thought of the people in Germany making their horrible furrows, he nearly went frantic. If anybody committed any of the grosser errors – such as putting metal on metal or colour on colour – he became electrified with passion, and he waved his arms and jumped up and down and wagged his eyebrows and almost fizzed. Nobody can be a maestro without being subject to these excitements…
[Of Lancelot] Tennyson and the pre-Raphalites would have found it difficult to recognize this rather sullen and unsatisfactory child, with the ugly face, who did not disclose to anyone that he was living on dreams and prayers. They might have wondered what store of ferocity he had against himself, that could set him to break his own body so young.
There is, of course, another mystery or secret being hidden here: Lancelot’s love for Arthur, and his mortifying of his own body in order to become worthy of him. It’s tempting to psychologise this aspect of the “mystery” of chivalry in The Ill-Made Knight, but I also want to consider what light it sheds on craft elsewhere in the Arthurian works. These passages share with Sayers a feeling for the physical aspect of craft, the way it brings together knowledge and sense experience so that one does not precede the other. (Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman makes intriguing attempts to theorise this aspect of a craft, and how it produces particular dynamics of knowing and relating to others.) Part of the mystery of a mystery here is the way it cannot be articulated or explained verbally, even though it may involve an awful of discussion and talking.
From this point of view, much of The Sword in the Stone is also about the young Wart being offered a glimpse of mysteries: other worlds which do not simply look different, or provide another perspective, but which organise meaning differently. The extended sequences in which Wart is turned into other creatures sometimes weary readers and reviewers, but they provide more than a trite liberal moral lesson that seeing the other person’s point of view is a good thing. (Or they try to do so.) The encounters he has in these episodes also have a faintly ritual feel, with their songs, exchanges of question and answer, and (sometimes near-lethal) games. There is an obscure sense of being inducted into something, which brought me back to this idea of “mystery”.
So this isn’t a coherently worked-out critical category, or a reading of their work, but once I had realized “mystery” was the word I had been searching for, it seemed to shed light on some threads throughout the novels, some of their characteristic concerns. I know there are a number of very astute readers of both authors who read this blog – what do you think?