I’m on a bit of a mid-century novel binge at the moment, even more than usual, having discovered the “Furrowed Middlebrow” editions published by Dean Street Press. Aside from being a frankly magnificent name for an imprint, they bring out neglected books by British women of the middle of the twentieth century (one of the great genres, according to Aristotle). I’ve only found them in the last month or so, but I’ve been luxuriating in some wonderful writers I hadn’t read before: Elizabeth Fair, Winifred Peck and Ursula Orange. Their novels are thoughtful, closely-observed and satirically-edged accounts of social life in the period, reminding me strongly of E.M. Delafield, E.F. Benson and even (what praise) Dorothy L. Sayers.
In fact Ursula Orange’s Begin Again reminded me quite forcefully today of two passages from Sayers. The book is about a group of young women at the beginning of their adult lives – rather like a British version of Mary McCarthy’s The Group. It depicts, and satirizes, their various earnest and scatty attitudes to life, showing a combination of high-mindedness and pettiness which rang hilariously (and wincingly) true to me. One of the friends is (of course) writing a novel, which will make her famous, and at one point she idles away some time imagining the reviews which will hail her as a passioate and unsparing critic of contemporary mores:
“Miss Somerset,” improvised Florence, “has had the courage not to distort, not to minimize, not to—falsify? ameliorate?—the emotions of a sensitive high-spirited child in the most uncongenial of surroundings. ‘Rubbing off the Corners’ is a powerful indictment of a certain type of school.”
I love the combination of idle self-aggrandising fantasy with the judicious redrafting of the imaginary reviews as it proceeds. Not that any writer might recognise this appallingly self-involved mental game, of course. And it’s only at this point that we (the readers) find out the title of the half-written book – a title which both sums up the social attitudes Florence is criticising, and reveals precisely the kind of unique, original ideas she shares with thousands of her generation. It also – and Sayers devotees may already have seen this – appears to be exactly the book Hilary Thorpe tells her father she’s going to write in The Nine Tailors.
In case the precise scene has slipped your memory, Sir Henry Thorpe is dying, and regrets to his teenage daughter that he won’t be leaving her much money, whilst she protests she doesn’t want an inheritance anyway:
“I’m afraid – if I go west this time – I’ll be leaving you rottenly badly off, old girl.”
“I don’t care a dash about that, old thing. Not that you are going west. But if you did, I should be quite all right.
“There’ll be enough to send you to Oxford, I dare say. Girls don’t seem to cost much there – your uncle will see to it.”
“Yes – and I’m going to get a scholarship, anyway. And I don’t want money. I’d rather make my own living. Miss Bowler says she doesn’t thin anything of a woman who can’t be independent.” (Miss Bowler was the English mistress, and the idol of the moment.) “I’m going to be a writer, Dad. Miss Bowler says she wouldn’t wonder if I’d got it in me.”
“Oh? What are you going to write? Poetry?”
“Well, perhaps. But I don’t suppose that pays very well. I’ll write novels. Best-sellers. The sort that everybody goes potty over. Not just bosh ones, but like The Constant Nymph.”
“You’ll want a bit of experience before you can write novels, old girl.”
“Rot, Daddy. You don’t want experience for writing novels. People write them at Oxford and they sell like billy-ho [sic]. All about how awful everything was at school.”
“I see. And when you leave Oxford, you write another about how awful everything was at college.”
“That’s the idea. I can do that on my head.”
Perhaps because Sayers and Orange were both writers themselves, the aspiring authors in these passages are treated with both sympathy and scepticism. Not having read as widely as I’d like in the novels of this period, I was cheered by the parallel, as suggesting that both authors had a specific slew of novels in mind. In fact The Nine Tailors was published two years before Begin Again, so there would even be a possibility that Orange had read this scene during her writing process, but there seems no need to advance this to explain Florence’s Rubbing Off the Corners, since the point of the joke in both cases is that readers will recognise the kind of novel being sent up. I can’t resist another quick passage of Orange, which really gives us a flavour of Florence’s book, in which a friend advises her about the main character:
Do make her cheer up a little, Florence. I should think the poor child would go off her head soon.”
“I’m not sure she isn’t going to,” said Florence seriously. “I did think at one time I’d make her try to commit suicide in the last chapter. But I think perhaps it would be a little inartistic. Perhaps it would be better just to indicate subtly that she was never quite the same again. What do you think?”
There’s another parallel between Begin Again and Sayers which is even more verbally precise, and which also concerns young writers. Another friend, mistaking the kind of school story she is writing, has made a suggestion to improve it, and Florence regrets that she has not got further on her literary work:
“I think I should make her cheer up and get popular and win a match for the school and get chaired round the quad.”
Disgusted at these suggestions, Florence wondered why even quite intelligent people sometimes missed the point. She was so disheartened by this widespread lack of perceptive power that “Rubbing off the Corners” had been quite neglected lately. Spring was a restless time of the year. She had not felt like settling down to her writing in the long light evenings when Jane and Henry would go off with a picnic supper, and the sound of bouncing balls and players’ voices drifted in from the public tennis-courts below. Spring, the sweet spring, is the year’s pleasant king. . .
Probably because I was already thinking of Sayers, this reminded me of the opening lines of Gaudy Night, so I looked them up:
Harriet Vane sat at her writing-table and stared out into Mecklenburg Square. The late tulips made a brave show in the Square garden, and a quartet of early tennis-players were energetically calling the score of a rather erratic and unpractised game. But Harriet saw neither tulips nor tennis players. A letter lay open on the blotting-pad before her, but its image had faded from her mind to make way for another picture. She saw a stone quadrangle, built by a modern architect in a style neither new nor old, but stretching out reconciling hands to past and present.
The echo is even stronger than I had thought: in both passages a young female writer sits at her desk during Spring, overhearing people play tennis whilst she contemplates an imaginary quadrangle. The publication dates here are even closer: Gaudy Night came out in 1935, only one year before Begin Again. Thus I suppose there a few theories that fit the facts, which I’ll (over)state in turn:
Sheer coincidence: both Orange and Sayers are known for depicting the social life of their time acutely and precisely. People played tennis and sat at desks frequently in the 1930s, and quadrangles were quite popular. There is absolutely no reason why these words shouldn’t have ended up on the page in the work of two contemporary authors in coincidental proximity to each other. When a reader has not read enough of a given body of writing in a particular period, they will often see intertextual connections between books which are actually mimetic connections between individual books and reality. Shakespeare and Jonson both mentions taverns because taverns were part of London life in the late sixteenth century, not because they were quoting each other.
Direct influence (conscious): Sayers was one of the most famous novelists in the English-speaking world in the mid 1930s. She had been publishing the Wimsey novels since 1923 to increasing acclaim, and she contributed to publications such as Time and Tide, Punch and The Spectator, the kind of magazines which an aspiring writer of Orange’s background would probably have read. Orange was leaving her teens and entering her twenties at Oxford whilst Sayers brought out Strong Poison, which introduced the character of Harriet Vane, the detective novelist.
In 1934, Orange could have read The Nine Tailors and ruefully recognised the accuracy of Sayers’ sketch of an aspiring teenage novelist, and in 1935 Gaudy Night produced a powerful and moving picture of the emotional and existential turmoil of a female novelist. In this version of events, Orange not only admired Sayers but used her works as part of her own personal mythology as a writer, including quiet references to Hilary Thorpe and Harriet Vane as homages to the greater artist.
Direct influence (unconscious): A less deliberate reading of Sayers’ work led to Orange associating certain phrases and ideas with the character of a young female writer. When she reached for a scene in which Florence thought dreamily about her own work, she inadvertently drew on the picture of Harriet Vane, and accidentally included the quadrangle, the tennis game and the Sprint setting. Without knowing why, these elements coalesced to form a really satisfying image for her and she used it in her book.
Social and intellectual context: Orange had perhaps read Sayers, or perhaps hadn’t. However, the two writers shared certain experiences which gave a symbolic freight to particular images for them, and no doubt for other women of their background and tendency. They both studied at Oxford (Sayers at Somerville, Orange at Lady Margaret Hall), in a period where this was not exactly odd but was certainly far from the expected course for every young woman of their class. They both had literary talents which they would express via novels after their formal literary education had ended.
Tennis was a popular part of middle-class social life in the period, providing a . particular opportunity for young people to meet and enjoy each other’s physical prowess in short skirts and light trousers. What dancing was to Austen’s Emma, tennis was to some young people of this era. Tennis is curiously sexualised in a number of writers from the early half of the twentieth century. A jealous man in Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder (trying to avoid spoilers here) slashes a tennis net “to ribbons” to prevent a younger woman from meeting and falling in love with young men. In E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, the heroine’s lack of tennis ability produced a sense of inferiority balanced by an implication that she is proud of her husband’s virility and social usefulness to hostesses because of his skill at the game. Perhaps John Betjeman’s most famous poem, ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ contains these lines early on:
Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me!
Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! Weakness of joy
Th warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less
Therefore sitting at a desk in good weather, hearing the voices of people playing tennis somewhere else might have been both an experience which young writers of the period remembered having, and one which summed up the social and sexual life they were not indulging in at that moment. Both Gaudy Night and Begin Again are concerned with the relationship between women’s ideals and their love life, between their intellectual and economic work and their place in society.
Given this background, overhearing a tennis game whilst sitting at a desk might well work as an effective symbol for writers and readers alike of the negotiation between sexual and intellectual life, between women’s expected social roles and their individual callings, between their education and their possible lives. In that situation, imagining a quadrangle would be another potent symbol, since it represents their education and – by being imaginary – the fact that they are no longer at Oxford but still carry its influence and memories with them, even if they’re not sure how to integrate that with the life they’re living (a major theme in both novels.)
This theory doesn’t require influence, but rather suggests that both writers produced a clutch of symbols which had particular meanings for them, their readers and their novels, and which summed up several aspects of their social and cultural situation. To us, who do not share that background and context, it seems surprising that they should put the same images together, but they can be accounted for by the set of ideas and pressures which they represent for female writers of the time.
I don’t know which – if any – of these theories are true, but they all seem to cover the facts. Either way, I’m delighted to have found Orange, and to be one step further forward in the great intellectual endeavour of connecting absolutely everything back to Dorothy L. Sayers.