After My Own Heart: Dorothy L. Sayers's Feminism

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Lord, teach us to take our hearts and look them in the face, however difficult it may be.

--Gaudy Night (1935)

Might as well admit it: once upon a time, disinclined to mix business with pleasure, I round the very idea of the "Philosophical Novel" off-putting. It was Alison Lurie's Imaginary Friends, a deliciously comic exploration of cognitive dissonance and of the pitfalls of social-scientific inquiry, that changed my mind and persuaded me of the merits of mixing pleasure with business. I began to appreciate how a work of fiction may explore philosophical questions and--by means of statements which, being about fictional characters, are not true--convey philosophical truths; and I soon began to acquire a taste for (not the epistolary but) the epistemological novel.

In this genre, I have a particular admiration for Samuel Butler's reflections on the ubiquitous epistemological vices--self-deception, sham inquiry, hypocrisy--that really are The Way of All Flesh, and an especial fondness for Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night, a book I discovered only when a graduate student who had heard me give a lecture entitled "Concern for Truth: What It Means, Why It Matters" sent me a copy. She was right on the mark. For The plot of Sayers's story turns precisely on a character's concern for truth and the disastrous series of reactions it prompts, and an important preoccupation is the relation of epistemological to other values: why is honesty valuable in scientific and other inquiry? Is suppressing a fact as bad as telling a lie? What is the relation between epistemological and ethical values? Do the obligations of one's job always, or ever, override considerations of personal loyalty?

Sayers's story is set in an imaginary Oxford women's college, Shrewsbury, of which Harriet Vane, professional detective novelist and part-time sleuth, is a graduate. Miss de Vine, Shrewsbury's history don, is "a soldier knowing no personal loyalties, whose sole allegiance [is] to the fact," her devotion to the intellectual life "a powerful spiritual call." In her previous position as Provost of Flamborough College she exposed the dishonesty of a professorial candidate who, when he found an old letter that undermined his thesis, instead of ripping up his dissertation and starting again, purloined and hid the evidence. The exposure costs him his career and, as he turns to drink and falls into despair, his life. His widow, now using her maiden name of Annie Wilson, has taken a post as scout as Shrewsbury, where she expresses her rage at Miss de Vine, and her resentment of women scholars generally, in vandalism, poison-pen letters, and even attempted murder.

Significant among Annie's acts of vandalism is the destruction of the college library's copy of C. E Snow's The Search. In Snow's novel (loosely based on the early work in x-ray crystallography by W. T. Astbury and his group at Leeds), a young man starting out in science is tempted to destroy the photograph that undermines his beautiful theory, but resists the temptation. Later, however, just as he is about to be appointed to an important post, he finds he has made a careless mistake in his work, the discovery of which costs him the position--after which he decides he doesn't really want to be a scientist after all.

To suppress a truth, avers Miss Edwards, Shrewsbury's biologist, is to publish a falsehood. The bursar wonders aloud what anyone could hope to gain by deliberate falsification, and her colleague Miss Lydgate concurs: "what satisfaction could one possibly get out of a reputation one knew one didn't deserve? It would be horrible." But Miss Hillyard notes that such dishonesty frequently happens, out of ambition, or to get the better of an argument. The dean recalls that at the end of Snow's novel another scientist deliberately falsifies a result, but the man who made the original mistake says nothing, because the culprit is hard up and has a wife and family to keep. …