The Art of Change-Ringing

This is the second in a series of three posts written by students in Dr. Christine Colón’s Dorothy L. Sayers literature course at Wheaton College.

“The art of change-ringing is peculiar to the English, and, like most English peculiarities, unintelligible to the rest of the world.”

– Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors

9780151658978-uk-300The year 2004 marked the 70th anniversary of the publication of Dorothy L. Sayers’s novel The Nine Tailors. And this occasion certainly did not go unmarked by a very unique group of nine people. It all began when the Dorothy L. Sayers Society, a large fan base for the author, wanted a special peal of bells rung for the anniversary. In fact, it was to be the Kent Treble Bob Major, the same peal rung on New Year’s Eve by Lord Peter Wimsey and the group of worthy village men for nine hours. The society wanted someone named Tailor to be one of the ringers, just as an extra touch. But here the true devotion of these fans showed through. It was not enough that they were ringing this complicated peal, or even that only one of the ringers was named Tailor. Oh no. Nothing would do, but that each of the nine ringers would be named Tailor, or some variation on the spelling of the name. Remarkably, perhaps the most remarkable part of the whole story, it was done. E-mailing through the bell-ringers e-mail list, they managed to find nine bell-ringers named Tailor/Taylor. In three hours, they managed a neat job of ringing 5,088 changes, ringing on the nine bells of All Saints’ in Basingstoke, Winchester diocese.

When I first came across the article mentioning this story in the Wade Center archives, I was struck by two things: first, that bell-ringers have an e-mail list. Second, that their devotion and the devotion of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society was so great that they would even think to have rung this special peal – let alone in the manner that they did. But this article really speaks to the power and popularity of The Nine Tailors, especially among those few people who are proud to call themselves change-ringers.

Change-ringing is definitely what one would call a niche interest. By definition it is the rhythmic ringing of a set of tuned bells, in a changing sequence set out according to mathematical principals and executed by learning the pattern. But if that’s too much of a mouthful, one could really refer to it as a very loud, very long noise. It combines all the best aspects of a hobby in that it is simultaneously an antique art that has existed for hundreds of years, a highly coordinated musical performance, and a team exercise.

Typically, a peal is done on a set of six to ten bells, more bells meaning more possible permutations and thus longer peals.  Bell-ringing takes a long time to learn and an even longer time to master – ringers who want to ring peals must memorize the distinct patterns that make up the peal, and be able to ring them continuously without error. Those who dedicate a part of their life to learning this craft are likely to find a group of people with whom they can share a lasting friendship.

Outside of the bell-ringing community, virtually nothing is known about the art. In Sayers’s time, the general public would likely have had a better idea of what change- ringing was than readers today, as church bells were still typically used as a call to worship, as an announcement of a death in the community, as a celebration of a holiday or special occasion. This may seem even stranger to readers from the United States, where communities aren’t always built around a church fitted with bells for this purpose. It was in England, not America, where all church bells were silenced during WWII until they could ring in the peace once the war was ended (www.bellringing.org/history/). As I quoted earlier, Sayers notes that change-ringing is “peculiar to the English.”

Even with this being true, The Nine Tailors was a huge dose of publicity for a community that was virtually unknown even in England. According to Sayers herself, her interest in the art was sparked when she picked up a secondhand copy of Troyte’s Change Ringing and saw the immediate possibility for a cipher in a diagram laying out the method for ringing a particular peal. Geoffrey Lee Alan, in an unpublished paper on The Nine Tailors written for the Dorothy L. Sayers Society, speculated on the strange fascination the art must have inspired in Sayers: “She did nothing by halves, and her determination to master an esoteric and, to her, uncongenial discipline speaks volumes for the fascination that the complex numerical patterns of change ringing exercised upon her mind. It is to this determination, this mastery, that The Nine Tailors owes so much of its coherence and power” (Lee, Geoffrey Alan, “Lord Peter Rings the Changes; A Study of Change Ringing in The Nine Tailors.” Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex, England: The Dorothy L. Sayers Society. Unpublished manuscript. Wade Center Article File).

Indeed, one only need look at the reaction of the change-ringers themselves to understand the significance of The Nine Tailors for their community. Sayers received many letters about the book after it was published, and many of those came from different members of the change-ringing community. One admiring campanologist – an individual who studies change-ringing – sent Sayers a letter expressing his admiration and enclosed a pamphlet for a machine he had invented which would work out the mathematical permutations for a peal, once the number of bells and the type of peal had been entered. He also took the liberty of including an itemized list of mistakes he had noticed regarding change-ringing or a peal sequence in the novel – Sayers replied with a vague promise of fixing them in the next edition.

Admiration came even from some of the more distinguished, professional members of the bell-ringing community. On 21 October 1936, Gillet and Johnson, makers of church bells, wrote to Sayers and said,

“As a Bellfounder and also a Bellringer I read your well known book ‘The Nine Tailors’ with unusual interest, and I venture to express my admiration for the skill with which a really stirring story of a murder was interwoven with a faithful picture of a Parish in the Fen District and of the country Parson and, last but not least, with an accuracy of the foibles of change-ringing that would impel one to believe that the authoress was herself a bell ringer.” (Letter from Gillet and Johnson to Dorothy L. Sayers, 21 October 1936. Dorothy L. Sayers Papers Folder 102, p. 6, The Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton, IL).

This, to a woman who had, at that point in her life, never even heard a peal rung! Sayers, as the daughter of a minister, doubtlessly had heard bell-ringing before. But the sheer amount of work involved in memorizing the sequences to be rung and practicing those sequences for a peal means that these impressive feats of bell-ringing are only done on special occasions.

To be considered a peal, there must typically be between 5,000 and 5,280 changes, which can take over four hours to ring. The Kent Treble Bob Major – so named because it was first rung in June of 1774 at Leeds, Kent – has 15,840 changes. In the novel, this takes nine hours – nine hours of endlessly ringing bells. Think about what this must mean for the people on the other end of the ropes! They must control their bells and ring them in their correct sequence. The same person must ring the same bell for the whole peal. Sayers evidently thought this was going too far, as she allows her bell-ringers the scandalous privilege of resting while they ring the Kent Treble Bob Major on New Year’s Eve, by having different people swap places from time to time. This was the worst mistake regarding bell-ringing in the book, if the reaction of bell-ringers in letters is to be believed. (It must be a point of pride for the community). On top of the physical stamina required, the ringers must have the sequences memorized well enough that they will make not a single error – a flawless peal is one of the requirements for recognition from the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, according to their website.

That the 70th anniversary of the book’s 1934 publication should merit the honor of having such a peal rung speaks to the power of Sayers’s writing, and her understanding of the unique interest of change-ringing. One might think that since they were ringing to commemorate the novel, the nine ringers who rang the 5,088 changes would have given themselves a break the way Sayers gave her characters one. But apparently, these ringers were made of stronger stuff than Lord Peter Wimsey.

Sayers’s immense respect for change-ringing earned her enough respect and love from the bell-ringing community that they would even think to undertake ringing such a peal for her novel, which speaks to how impactful it was for the community.  However, Sayers’s famous wit does not fail to see the ridiculous side to change-ringing. She muses upon how funny practicing for a peal must appear at the beginning of the novel, reflecting that “to any disinterested spectator, peeping in upon the rehearsal, there might have been something a little absurd about the eight absorbed faces; the eight tense bodies poised in a spell-bound circle on the edges of eight dining-room chairs; the eight upraised right hands, decorously wagging the hand-bells upward and downward…” (Sayers, Dorothy L. The Nine Tailors. London: HBJ Book, 1962. Print, p. 18).   

ElenaElena Basiletti is a senior at Wheaton, studying English Literature with a Minor in Studio Art. She thinks one of the most interesting things about going through Sayers’s materials at the Wade Center has been reading the sheer volume of correspondence Sayers was able to keep up with friends, family, or fans – and finding all the hidden gems of humor and wisdom with which she peppered her letters.

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