This blog post begins a series of posts reflecting on Dorothy L. Sayers and her detective novel, The Nine Tailors. The Marion E. Wade Center co-authored this post with Seona Ford and Jasmine Simeone, Chair and Secretary, respectively, of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society.
It was during her time working for an advertising agency in the early 1920s that Dorothy L. Sayers first decided to try her hand at writing a crime novel. Detective fiction writing was a popular enterprise at the time, and Sayers’s first novel Whose Body? appeared in 1923. Her efforts writing detective novels earned her success, the financial and creative freedom to become a full-time writer, and secured her place among the great authors of detective fiction. She wrote 11 novels featuring her aristocratic detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. One of the most highly acclaimed novels in the series, declared a masterpiece by connoisseurs of the genre, is The Nine Tailors which was first published in 1934.
The Nine Tailors is considered a great work not just because it is a well-written piece of prose, or an inventive and original story, or because it includes well-loved characters old and new, or because it is well-structured, or because it documents a time gone by. It is all of these things, but it is also an exciting and very readable story which stands the test both of chronological time and also in the sense that it can be re-read many times and still offer something new to the reader.
Jim Kelly, in questions following his Dorothy L. Sayers Annual Lecture in 2008 (reported in Sidelights Volume LVIII & published by The Dorothy L. Sayers Society), mentioned the intriguing idea that the structure of the story is more like that of a bow tie: it starts in the middle of the story and progresses outwards, returning to the middle again to end it. In this sense Sayers is an innovator in the way she crafted this novel. Kelly also notes that this is a striking story where the landscape is a character in itself, and it would not, he says, be giving too much away to say that in the end “The Fens did it.”
The book takes as its core supposition the idea that in an English country village each person has his/her own place: as in the course of bells in a peal where each bell has its place. If a bell rings out of place it throws the whole peal into a cacophony of noise. Similarly, if a villager behaves out of place, does something to upset the quiet order, then the whole structure falls apart. This makes the book an especially historically perfect record because as the remnants of the village men returned from the First World War, often having gone together as whole platoons under the command of their local Lord, and returning with holes in their order caused by the fallen, they found that their village had to change to accommodate first the absent men and then the losses. Village life in England would never be the same again, and in the 1920s when this book was set, the age-old village was in its death throes. Sayers knew from first-hand experience what the structure of an English village was like before World War I as her home in the Fens was in such a location. Her father, Henry Sayers, was the vicar at the local church which functioned as the center of the community; a role which church buildings continue to embody in English villages today even if the church is not much used.
Upon reading an advanced copy of The Nine Tailors, fellow Wade author Charles Williams wrote to publisher Victor Gollancz in late 1933 exclaiming: “Your Dorothy Sayers …! Present her some time with my profoundest compliments. It’s a marvelous book … The end is unsurpassable. (I dare say I exaggerate, but I’ve only just finished it and I’m all shaken!).” (Reynolds, Barbara. Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993, p. 242)
In The Nine Tailors the fictional village church Fenchurch St Paul plays a critical part in the story, as does the art of change ringing. Indeed, the great bells of the church are almost characters in their own right. Architect David Collins, in cooperation with the Dorothy L. Sayers Society, has created a Virtual Tour of the church with photographs, architectural drawings, and extensive notes. A wonderful complement to The Nine Tailors, this creative visual tour is available for purchase as a CD directly from the Dorothy L. Sayers Society , and will enhance your enjoyment of the novel. The Wade Center also has a number of resources relating to The Nine Tailors for visitors to explore:
- Original manuscripts of the book (see MS-145 to 151)
- Book reviews in the Wade’s Article File
- Different editions of the published work
- Related correspondence (see DLS Papers folder 174)
- The Change Ringing Archive
- The Detection Club Archive
The Dorothy L. Sayers Society was founded in February 1976 to promote the life, works, and thoughts of Dorothy L. Sayers. It began after some members of Witham and the Countryside Society fought a fierce and effective battle to stop the demolition of a little row of houses in the late 1960s, which included the home where Sayers died in 1957. The Bulletin of the Society began publication in March 1976 and continues to be published every two months; sent to a worldwide membership of about 500 persons with about half in the UK and the other half divided between the USA and Europe. There are members as far as New Zealand and Australia, Japan, Russia, India and Singapore. Each year the Society celebrates the anniversary of a book or play, and on June 13th remembers Sayers’s birthday. Membership is welcome to all who enjoy her work. Details may be found on the Society Website and through the Society’s presence on Facebook and Twitter.
The Marion E. Wade Center has had strong and valued connections with the Dorothy L. Sayers Society from its very earliest years, when Dr. Clyde S. Kilby, Wade founder, helped the fledgling group by overseeing subscriptions from American members. We are very grateful for the significant contributions the Society has made to Sayers scholarship as well as the numerous ways the Society helps readers experience greater delight and understanding of her writings. If you already enjoy Sayers’s books or would simply like to learn more about Dorothy L. Sayers and her diverse works, we warmly encourage you to join the Sayers Society.