Academic journal article Mythlore

The Victorian Approach to Modernism in the Fiction of Dorothy L. Sayers

Academic journal article Mythlore

The Victorian Approach to Modernism in the Fiction of Dorothy L. Sayers

Article excerpt

THE VICTORIAN APPROACH TO MODERNISM IN THE FICTION OF DOROTHY L. SAYERS. Aoife Leahy. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. viii + 203 p. ISBN 978-1-4438-0993-4. $58.99.

AOIFE LEAHY ARGUES THAT SAYERS HAS ECHOED Victorian authors' books and lives in her mystery fiction, in contexts that allow them to comment on the themes of modernism. Most of the time she assumes that these echoes are deliberate on Sayers's part and that indirect didactic purposes are Sayers' goal. Leahy is certainly right about some of the allusions she points to, and she makes interesting cases for the purposes. But this reviewer was left with the belief that much is overstated in these arguments.

The easiest example for discussion is the second section of the first chapter: it surveys the allusions to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (and sometimes Through the Looking-Glass) that appear in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. The allusions in other chapters and other sections of this chapter are to the novels of Wilkie Collins, the fiction of Oscar Wilde, and the lives of George Eliot and John Ruskin (among the writings and lives of other Victorians). For members of the Mythopoeic Society, knowledge of Lewis Carroll is more certain than of the Victorians generally, so it makes a better illustration here.

In addition, Leahy says that the influence of Carroll on The Unpleasantness is the simplest example she is discussing because Sayers indulges in the fewest allusions (26). In reading through Sayers' novel, this reviewer sees three obvious borrowings from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Two of them appear in speeches by Sir James Lubbock, "the well-known analyst," in Ch. 7. (He analyzes traces of material at crime scenes for testimony, if useful, at court hearings.) When Lord Peter Wimsey tells him what he is to analyze and what case it is related to, Sir James says, "Curiouser and curiouser. Never mind, it's nothing to do with me." Alice exclaims "Curiouser and curiouser!" at the start of Ch. 2 of Wonderland:

"Curiouser and curiouser!" cried Alice (she was so much surprised that for a moment she quite forgot how to speak good English); "now I'm opening out like the largest telescope that ever was! Good-bye, feet!"

Slightly later in the conversation in Sayers' novel, Sir James reacts to Wimsey's suggestion that the analyses may be important without giving any detail, "You're only doing it to annoy, because you know it teases." This is a slight rehandling of two lines of the "sort of a lullaby" that the Duchess sings to her baby in Carroll's Ch. 6:

"Speak roughly to your little boy, And beat him when he sneezes: He only does it to annoy, Because he knows it teases."

Since Sir James is only a minor character in The Unpleasantness, presumably these two allusions are meant to suggest something about him outside of his science, making him slightly more rounded as a personality.

The third allusion is later in Sayers' book, Ch. 12. Wimsey has been speaking about a "person" whom another character has invented as an obfuscation. "Well, you see, I had a feeling that unless we did something pretty definite, Oliver would keep vanishing and reappearing like the Cheshire Cat [...]" (The Cheshire Cat appears and vanishes several times in Ch. 6 of Wonderland and makes a final appearance and disappearance in Ch. 8.)

So much for what this reviewer finds; now let him illustrate Leahy's comparative technique by simply citing the first five examples in "Post-War Alice" (the second section of the first chapter, as mentioned). Her thesis statement seems to be this one: "George [Fentiman] is an Alice figure struggling through a world where the people around him seem inhumane and uncaring in the face of his pain." (His pain is due to "shell-shock" [PTSD] from World War I.) Leahy continues, "Sayers continually uses imagery and reference from Carroll's novels to remind her readers of this" (30). …

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