Tuesday 19 April 2016

Was Dorothy Sayers Anti-Semitic (and a Snob)?

His Lordship and I have never held with being narrow-minded.

Whose Body?,
Dorothy Sayers’ first mystery, was published in 1923. A revised version came out in 1935. But is the book, as some have said, full of antisemitism, snobbery, facetiousness and padding? 

Disparaging caricatures of the ‘lower’ social orders as well as dismissive comments about miserly Scots and parvenu Australians. (Sergio Angelini) He also says that the story is told mainly in dialogue (good), but that the story is padded out by Lord Peter Wimsey’s “fatuous” wittering.

Peter alone suffers from fatuousness overdone, a period fault that Sayers soon blotted out. (Jacques Barzun)

The novel introduces us to the volatile Lord Peter, and his serious friend Inspector Charles Parker. Architect Mr Thipps has found a naked corpse in his bath. Thipps is working on the church in Lord Peter’s home village in Norfolk, and Lord Peter’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, hears about the discovery from the vicar’s wife. Naturally she calls her amateur detective son with the news, and Lord Peter goes round to see if he can help, and hopefully pick up some clues. He finds the case is in the hands of the obtuse and obstructive Inspector Sugg, but the friendly Mr Thipps is happy to show off the exhibit. Meanwhile Parker has been given the case of a missing financier, Sir Reuben Levy. Could he be the body? A casual inspection is enough to disprove this theory...

Lord Peter’s fatuousness (facetiousness?) is partly a disguise. He wants to appear an aristocratic “silly ass”, a character well known on stage and screen, in comic strips and school stories. His façade doesn't just hide his intelligence; it also conceals deep psychological wounds from the war, when he was buried in a shell-hole and his fiançee married another man. Plus his blether hides clues which Sayers is carefully planting. But why is he doing Scotland Yard’s forensic work at Levy’s home? Where is Parker’s team? His valet and assistant, Bunter, turns the tests into a lecture demonstration for the servants (and the reader). There is some padding: a long conversation in French in a doctor’s waiting room, and a long dull exchange between two valets.

Lord Peter – a skillful and sensitive pianist who never needs to practise, slightly built but possessed of "curious" strength and speed which he maintains without exercise. (Amazon commenter)

Some cite Sayers' wide reading, which shows itself in references to classical culture and rightfully obscure works of English literature. But I find her humour and social comment more appealing.

Through Parker’s bedroom window, hygienically open top and bottom, a raw fog was rolling slowly in, and the sight of a pair of winter pants, flung hastily over a chair the previous night, fretted him with a sense of the sordid absurdity of the human form.

Sir Julian Freke’s manner as he kissed the Book presented to him with the usual deprecatory mumble by the Coroner's officer was that of a St. Paul condescending to humour the timid mumbo-jumbo of superstitious Corinthians.

The Duchess: Not but what I think socialism is a mistake—of course it works with all those nice people, so good and happy in art linen and the weather always perfect—Morris, I mean, you know—but so difficult in real life.

American financier JP Milligan, who has contributed to the church restoration fund: We haven't any fine old crusted buildings like yours over on our side, so it's a privilege to be allowed to drop a little kerosene into the worm-holes when we hear of one in the old country suffering from senile decay.

Sayers said she made her detective a lord so that she could have the fun of spending his money on rare books and fine food and drink (there’s a scene in a London club where two toffs complain about the Consommé Polonaise and salmi of game).

"Pleased to meet you, Lord Wimsey," said Mr. Milligan. "Won't you take a seat?" "Thanks," said Lord Peter, "but I'm not the Duke, you know—that's my brother Denver."

Milligan (a suspect and a caricatured American, not Australian) gets Lord Peter’s title wrong, thinking that as his card reads “Lord Peter Wimsey”, he should be addressed as “Lord Wimsey”. Wimsey puts him – and the reader – right.

Mr Appledore “could make no definite complaint about Thipps except that his mother dropped her h's, and that he once called on them uninvited, armed with a pamphlet about anti-vivisection.”

The Appledores are introduced mainly so that they can let fall this fact. Also so that Mrs A can claim to be distantly related to Lord P, and he can be horribly rude to her. But she’s not just snobbish, she’s also refusing to look after old Mrs Thipps, whose son and servant (also her carer) have been arrested.

The Duchess of Denver comments on the inquest jury: What unfinished-looking faces they have—so characteristic, I always think, of the lower middle-class.

Levy’s servants are standard types, and the vicar back home in Norfolk is “Mr Throgmorton”, a stock silly name, and the poor architect is constantly referred to, affectionately but patronisingly, as “little Mr Thipps”. (Do we ever learn his first name?)

The Duchess: “He's such a respectable little man... I always thought him a nice little man." And he lives in a mansion flat in Battersea, the kind that Graham Greene compared to railway hotels.

Lord Peter: “Little beggar called Thipps—lives with an aged mother in Battersea—vulgar little beast, but quite good on angel roofs and things, I'm told."

When at the inquest Thipps refuses to give the name of the friend who can give him an alibi (they were at an illegal nightclub), the Duchess says she almost begins to admire “the little man”.

The original finding of the naked body and the deductions to be made from it were fairly 'daring' for the time. In the original text, Parker decides that the body in the bath could not be Sir Reuben Levy because "...Sir Reuben is a pious Jew of pious parents, and the chap in the bath obviously isn't..." This backhanded reference to circumcision was felt by Sayers' publisher to be too frank, and in the published version the deduction was made merely on the basis that the dead man appeared to have been doing manual labour rather than living the comfortable life of a wealthy financier.

The references are in the Kindle version, and I don’t remember ever reading them before.

Parker: "I went round to see if the Semitic-looking stranger in Mr. Thipps's bath was by any extraordinary chance Sir Reuben Levy. But he isn't." (The following sentence was cut from later editions.) However, as Sir Reuben is a pious Jew of pious parents, and the chap in the bath obviously isn't, I'm not going to waste my time. ... Sugg, of course, says he doesn't take account of fancy religions."

Lord Peter tells his mother: There is one odd little bit of evidence come out which goes a long way to support Sugg's theory [that the body is Levy – he was seen in Battersea on the night in question], only that I know it to be no go by the evidence of my own eyes.

The Duchess is an old friend of Lady Levy, formerly Christine Ford: I remember so well the dreadful trouble there was about her marrying a Jew... (when her family wanted her to marry Sir Julian Freke, the surgeon.)

But Levy “was very handsome, then, you know, dear, in a foreign-looking way... [The Fords] didn't like his religion. Of course we're all Jews nowadays and they wouldn't have minded so much if he'd pretended to be something else, like that Mr. Simons we met at Mrs. Porchester's, who always tells everybody that he got his nose in Italy at the Renaissance... As if anybody believed it; and I'm sure some Jews are very good people, and personally I'd much rather they believed something, though of course it must be very inconvenient, what with not working on Saturdays and circumcising the poor little babies and everything depending on the new moon and that funny kind of meat they have with such a slang-sounding name, and never being able to have bacon for breakfast.” (The Duchess is actually quite well-informed, and through her, so is the reader.)

It’s a prostitute who tells the police she saw Levy in Battersea the night of his disappearance, as Lord Peter tells his mother: "Last night at about 9:15 a young woman was strollin' up the Battersea Park Road for purposes best known to herself... so, not bein' a shy girl, you see, she walked up to him, and said, 'Good-evening.'" Levy kindly brushes the girl off, and a friend tells her “That’s Levy—I knew him when I lived in the West End, and the girls used to call him Pea-Green Incorruptible”. The friend, presumably uneducated, garbles the usual “Sea-Green Incorruptible”. These references, though “backhanded”, are also quite daring for the time.

Levy’s valet: I don't hold with Hebrews as a rule, Mr. Bunter, but... For a self-made man, no one could call Sir Reuben vulgar, and my lady at any rate is county.

Bunter replies: His Lordship and me have never held with being narrow-minded... A good Jew can be a good man, that's what I've always said.

Lord Peter lunches with Freddy Arbuthnot, who’s in love with Levy’s daughter, and calls Levy “a decent old domestic bird”. He tells Freddy: "You might do worse. Money's money, ain't it? And Lady Levy is quite a redeemin' point. At least, my mother knew her people." Freddy replies: "Oh, she's all right, and the old man's nothing to be ashamed of nowadays. He's self-made, of course, but he don't pretend to be anything else. No side.”

Everybody calls Levy, in his mid-50s, an “old man”. He's also described as “a respectable middle-aged Hebrew financier”, and (facetiously) as a “Wandering Jew”. Revealed by his diary, he's: “kindly, domestic, innocently proud of himself and his belongings, confiding, generous and a little dull.” And Parker calls him “an innocent and lovable man”.

Peter and Parker discuss the motive of Sir Julian Freke, who once wanted to marry Lady Levy: “It isn't the girl Freke would bother about—it's having his aristocratic nose put out of joint by a little Jewish nobody.”

Freke on Levy: “And he shrugged up his shoulders and looked like a pawnbroker.”

In Strong Poison, the dim but sympathetic Freddy Arbuthnot goes on the marry 'the beautiful' Rachel Levy in a synagogue... He has promised any children can be raised Jewish, observing that it will be all to their advantage to be in the "Levy and Goldberg crowd", particularly if the boys "turn out anything in the financial way." He observes that these Jews all "stick together like leeches, and as a matter of fact I think it's very fine of them." (The Wikipedia talk page has an interesting discussion on the subject.)

Some moneylenders are referred to in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, who have “friends in the City”, unconvincing Scottish names and crippling interest rates. Similar characters appear in Busman’s Honeymoon: Mr MacBride, “an inquisitive Hebrew”, turns out to be “a brisk young man, bowler-hatted, with sharp black eyes that seemed to inventory everything they encountered, and a highly regrettable tie”. In Unnatural Death there are references to checked caps and narrow shoes worn by “Jew-boys of the louder sort”.

In Sayers’ private correspondence she says she isn’t surprised Londoners are anti-Semitic, in the light of... and she repeats several tenth-hand stories. The Jewish family are the only ones in the street who don’t join in fire-watching, children won’t follow the usual “school code of honour” and so on.
George Orwell collected several such anti-Semitic urban legends in the Second World War. 

Sayers' books reflect a range of attitudes, and a complex cocktail of acceptance and "othering", but it’s a shame that she herself didn’t follow Bunter’s example. The picture shows the late Richard Morant in the part, in the 80s TV series which starred Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter.

More on snobbery and anti-Semitism in Golden Age mystery writers here.


  1. Thanks Lucy, really enjoyed this look at Sayers - a small point, my reference to unpleasant views of Australians in the book wasn't a reference to Millington but from chapter six and the bit about "An Australian colonist, for instance, who had made money?" from the coroner. Love that photo pf Morant - great choice.

  2. "His teeth are in a bad state, and his hands show signs of recent manual labor."
    "An Australian colonist, for instance, who had made money?"

    (A very unlikely explanation, anyway! Unless he'd won the lottery.)

  3. Yes, I reread this one recently and was underwhelmed on several levels. DLS & Lord Peter got better as they went along.

  4. Is Bunter the real hero? Discuss. Just found this in Have His Carcase:

    ‘We should like to add as we think the police regulations about: foreigners did ought to be tightened up, like, deceased being a foreigner and suicides and murders being unpleasant in a place where so many visitors come in the summer.’

    ‘I can’t take that,’ objected the harassed coroner. ‘Deceased was a naturalised Englishman.’

    ‘That don’t make no difference,’ said the juror, sturdily.

    ‘We do think as the regulations ought to be tightened up none the more for that, and that’s what we all say. Put it down, sir, as that’s our opinion.’

    ‘There you are,’ said Wimsey, ‘that’s the breed that made the Empire. When empire comes in at the door, logic goes out at the window.'

    (Could be today.)

  5. Great post. It seems to me that the jury is not out, in answer to your question: she was anti semitic and a snob at many levels as your post shows. Yet people enjoy her books and I understand why, she could be very funny - I like the book set in the advertising agency.

    She had a sad and strange private life which I think she bore very bravely - I've always thought that Lord Peter was a kind of Gothic wish fulfilment hero, a bit like Mr Rochester. Hmmm

  6. I think she had to portray Wimsey and the attitudes of his class the way they actually were. Let's face it English aristocrats and upper classes were often anti Semitic. It gives an interesting insight into the time period and the society of the day. We can't go back and rewrite every book or stop reading books that reflected values which have evolved.

  7. On reflection, Freddy and Rachel couldn't get married in a synagogue unless he converted.

    And Mr McBride is one of the most appealing characters in Busman's Honeymoon - most of the others are "comic" stereotypes. Spinster, rustic philosopher etc.