George MacDonald in Italy

George MacDonald, ca. 1860s-1870s.

George MacDonald, ca. 1860s-1870s. Wade Center Photo Collection: GM / P-1.

George MacDonald’s life led him on extensive travels. In 1872-1873 he offered a successful lecture tour in the United States. He also traveled throughout Great Britain as well as various countries in Europe. However, apart from Scotland and England, the country where he spent the most time was Italy, which became a second home for his family in MacDonald’s later years. How did a Scottish Victorian author come to have such a close connection to Italy? That is what this blog post will explore.

The MacDonald family experienced numerous health issues over the years. George MacDonald himself was in “delicate” health and suffered frequent illness from a young age, particularly with pleurisy. He also battled asthma, lung infections and bleeding, and bouts of debilitating exhaustion as a result of his extensive efforts to write, travel, and speak. Such strenuous work and activities were necessary to support his large family of eleven children. By the 1850s, it was evident that he was suffering from tuberculosis. Out of concern for his health, Lady Byron (wife of Lord Byron and a friend of MacDonald’s), arranged to send George, his wife Louisa, and their daughter Mary to Algiers, where he would be able to recuperate in a more moderate climate.  In September 1856 the three traveled to northern Africa where they remained until May 1857, while the other MacDonald children stayed at home in the care of relatives. The rest cure was beneficial, and MacDonald returned home to Huntly, Scotland strengthened and healthier. The warmer climate and diverse culture in Algiers had not only been rejuvenating, but had also fascinated him.

Algiers came to mind when, in 1877, MacDonald’s daughter Mary developed an advanced case of consumption. Usually a lively and engaged girl, Mary had become withdrawn and listless during her illness, which caused her family great concern. MacDonald was also suffering from an episode of poor health at the same time, and so the decision was made to take Mary to southern Europe or Africa in hopes that the climate could improve her health much as it had done for her father back in 1857. The decision to choose Italy was largely due to a family friend who was accompanying the MacDonalds abroad. The friend, Hatty Russell, spoke Italian and her mother lived in Nervi, Italy, so in spite of the political turmoil present in Italy at that time, it became the chosen destination.

The MacDonald Family, 1876.

The MacDonald Family, 1876. L to R, 1st row: Maurice, Winifred, Bernard; 2nd row: Ronald, Robert Falconer, Irene, George MacDonald, MacKay, Mary; 3rd row (standing): Grace, Greville, Louisa, Lilia, Ted Hughes (Mary’s fiance). Wade Center Photo Collection: GM / P-9.

Louisa, Mary, and three of the other MacDonald children — Lily, Irene, and Ronald — departed for Italy on September 25, 1877 along with Hatty Russell and a maid for Mary. George MacDonald remained in England with his other children, working hard to write his novel Paul Faber, Surgeon. The Italian group of MacDonalds settled in Nervi and rented a home named Palazzo Cattaneo where George and the other children joined them in November.

Rolland Hein writes the following description of Palazzo Cattaneo:

“Out the window lay a large, beautifully terraced garden filled with orange trees. And down the slope to the west shimmered the waters of the Ligurian Sea, placid and clear, dotted with little sailing vessels. . . .  MacDonald’s delight in his new surroundings rapidly grew. He now had greater solitude, cleaner air, and more beautiful sunsets than in England” (George MacDonald: Victorian Mythmaker. Nashville, TN: Star Song Publishing Group, 1993: 301-302).

The mild Italian climate enabled George to feel significantly better with little to no discomfort from his asthma or other lung ailments. Sadly, despite what seemed to be a promising recovery in her strength early in the trip, Mary’s health continued to steadily decline. She died on April 27, 1878, the first of several losses the MacDonald family would suffer in the years to come.

Realizing that remaining in Italy was a more affordable option for the family, they decided to stay another year. After their lease was up in Nervi, they relocated to Portofino and the house Villa Barratta. The new location was isolated and beautiful. There was no carriage road leading to the house, but the MacDonalds had a boat to row across the bay. They began to invest time in learning to speak Italian, and MacDonald was able to write steadily due to the solitude as well as his improved health. His novel Sir Gibbie, a favorite for many readers, was written during this time in Italy and completed by the end of 1878. While living in Portofino, the MacDonald family also entertained guests in their home and performed dramas of stories like The Pilgrim’s Progress. These acting endeavors were a great delight to the family and continued over the years as a way to provide hospitality as well as an extra source of income.

Some may wonder how the MacDonalds could afford to travel abroad when their finances were generally tight. The income generated by George’s speaking engagements and publications was supplemented, as mentioned above, by the family’s dramatic performances. In addition, a portion of their expenses was covered by the generosity of family friends. A kind and loving man, George MacDonald had a large circle of friends who were quite wealthy and were often moved to help the MacDonald family with practical needs for health, housing, and daily life. The MacDonalds in turn were always ready to welcome others into their home, providing warm hospitality and a haven to all who visited them. These visitors included many friends and relatives from Great Britain who were visiting Italy, as well as the needy among their neighbors such as orphaned children and the poor. In addition to these sources of income, Queen Victoria honored George MacDonald with an annual Civil List Pension in the amount of 100 pounds sterling beginning in 1877.

 

Before returning to England in mid-May 1879, the MacDonalds decided to officially make Italy their second home. They resolved to winter there regularly in the years to come and to settle in Bordighera (the images above show views from ca. 1880s and 2009), putting an offer on a house and intending to finalize the purchase upon their return in February 1880. When they arrived back in Italy, however, they were dismayed to find that the house owner was no longer willing to sell; though he did allow the MacDonalds to stay in the home while they made other living arrangements.

Met with a difficult problem to solve, MacDonald embarked on an endeavor to build a house for his family, which for him was an exciting project requiring his vast creativity. The house was designed with the needs for both a large family and the hospitality of guests in mind. Construction was affordable and happened quickly, and the family moved into their new home in Christmas 1880, naming it “Casa Coraggio” meaning “House of Courage.” William Raeper describes the house:

“It was planted at the front with Scotch firs, and the massive building itself had four floors and a stucco tower. It stood almost back to back with the English church, and only a gate separated the MacDonalds’ garden from the church grounds. The house was a gift from friends, a testimony to the esteem they had for MacDonald.” (George MacDonald. Lion Publishing, 1987: 351)

Michael Phillips writes that Casa Coraggio “quickly became the center of life for a rapidly growing colony of intellectual Scots and English in the area.” (George MacDonald: Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1987: 319) Casa Coraggio not only gave the MacDonald family a wonderful home, but it also gave them adequate space for plays, lectures, musical performances, and the ability to host a steady stream of friends and relatives as well.

 

Barbara Reynolds explains in her article “Bordighera and the British” that the MacDonalds were part of a wave of British visitors to winter in Bordighera regularly. The novel Doctor Antonio, published in English in 1855 by Italian exile Giovanni Ruffini, introduced its British readers of the beautiful scenery in Bordighera and enticed them to visit. Reynolds goes on to say:

“Before long Bordighera was transformed into a British colony complete with Anglican church, a private library containing mainly English books, a museum, an English theatre, an English chemist, an English bank, and an English cemetery.” (Reynolds, Barbara. “Bordighera and the British.” VII. Vol. 12. Wheaton, IL: The Marion E. Wade Center, 1995: 3)

The British came to Italy not just because of the scenery, but also, like the MacDonalds, for health reasons and the hope of escaping or being cured of tuberculosis. Once there, they created a number of charitable and philanthropic endeavors in the area, sharing in the welfare-minded movements of the Victorian era of which MacDonald was also a part.

 

As mentioned earlier, the MacDonalds suffered additional deaths in the family during the years they lived in Italy. After Mary’s death in 1878, their fifteen-year-old son Maurice developed a cough and fever, and died two weeks later on March 5, 1879. They would also lose daughters Grace (d. May 5, 1884) and Lily (d. November 22, 1891), and their little granddaughter Octavia at just nine years old (d. 1891). MacDonald himself (d. September 18, 1905) was cremated in Britain but buried in Bordighera, next to his wife Louisa (d. January 13, 1902), and daughters Grace and Lily. It is perhaps fitting that despite his Scottish heritage and love of Britain, MacDonald’s final resting place should be in this enchanting place that he also greatly loved. Indeed, Bordighera not only nurtured George MacDonald with its beauty, but its temperate climate also helped to restore his health, thereby enabling him to have time and strength to write a number of his best-loved works — ones that would be enjoyed for generations to come.

 

The Religious Cards of Dorothy L. Sayers

From 1953 to 1956, Dorothy L. Sayers produced the text for four illustrated religious-themed cards with the London publisher Hamish Hamilton. The cards featured a unique combination of artwork with accompanying text to tell a story, and were designed for commercial sales and written for children in particular. This “Off the Shelf” post will explore the history behind the creation of the cards as well as Sayers’s involvement.

Hamish Hamilton approached Sayers with the idea of creating an illustrated Christmas card in a letter dated January 12, 1953. The publisher had produced a secular-themed Christmas card the previous year titled “The Days Before Christmas,” which he included with the letter to Sayers as an example of what he had in mind. Sales for this card had increased steadily, particularly due to the innovative design of the card featuring small doors to fold back revealing a picture for each day in December leading up to Christmas. Hamilton wrote in the letter:

“As you doubtless know, similar cards have for years been produced in Germany and other parts of the Continent and are widely sold before Christmas. For some reason the experiment had never been tried in this country until last year. The Continental cards are not accompanied by a text, but we added one for the double reason that we feel that it adds to the child’s interest and that in this way Purchase Tax is avoided as the card becomes a book.”

“Advent calendars” as they are known today were first printed on paper in Germany in the early 1900s. Assuming Hamilton’s statement is correct, this means they did not come to England until December 1952, with the unique addition of text to help tell the story featured in the full page illustration and behind the calendar doors.

Days of Christ's Coming

Including interior text with the Advent calendar was a unique addition that began in England.

While initially Sayers responded to Hamilton by saying she was too busy with other work and would require at least 12 months before she could take on a new project, by January 22 it is evident that she had accepted his proposition and agreed to provide text for the card by the end of February. It is not clear exactly what made Sayers decide to undertake this work, but there was at least one phone call with Hamilton mentioned in the letters, and these additional statements in Hamilton’s January 12 letter may have proved persuasive:

“A number of people … suggested that we should produce a card with a religious theme this year, and it occurred to us immediately that you would be the ideal person … I don’t believe it would take you more than an hour or two, if as much, and it might well prove as remunerative as a book.”

Hamilton paired Sayers with Viennese-born artist Fritz Wegner to do the accompanying illustration for her text. The card was to be named “The Days of Christ’s Coming,” and it would tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Laura Simmons writes of their collaboration:

“[Sayers] was intimately involved in suggesting details for Wegner’s illustrations and even contributed preliminary sketches, but gave him free reign in completing them.” (“’Seeking but to Do Thee Grace’: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Illustrated Religious Cards.” VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review. Vol. 24. Wheaton, IL: The Marion E. Wade Center, 2007: 53)

Wegner would go on to illustrate 3 of the 4 cards that Sayers wrote.

Days of Christ's Coming

THE DAYS OF CHRIST’S COMING card, 1953.

An advance copy of the Christmas card was sent to Sayers on September 15, 1953, and she writes to Hamilton the following day that she is so pleased with the artwork, she would be willing to put in an offer to purchase the original piece (we never learn if she did so or not). She also asks for a half dozen advance copies to use for publicity to promote the publication, and 5 dozen copies at her author’s discounted price to hand out. The card was advertised on television on December 9, and Hamilton reports that sales of the card are very respectable. “The Days of Christ’s Coming” features 27 doors rather than the typical 24 or 25 doors. A review of the card states that the doors were intended to be opened from December 14 until January 7, including both Christmas and Epiphany. (Canter, Doris. “Books for Older Children.” The Friend. December 4, 1953: 112-113)

Days of Christ's Coming

THE DAYS OF CHRIST’S COMING card interior, 1953.

Sayers’s text was later re-published in 1960 as a bound picture book format in New York by Harper, and in London by Hamish Hamilton.

dcc-book-e1520372317288.jpg

THE DAYS OF CHRIST’S COMING in book form, 1960.

The book carried the same title, The Days of Christ’s Coming, and also featured illustrations by Fritz Wegner that, while similar to the earlier ones he did for the card, were new compositions which embodied a style reminiscent of medieval paintings. The text, itself, was identical to that included with the 1953 card, and tells the story of the nativity through the flight to Egypt. The correspondence held by the Wade Center only covers the time period of the creation of the Christmas card, so the inspiration to produce the picture book remains unknown.

On February 1, 1954, Sayers mentions in a letter to Hamilton that she is giving thought to the idea of making a 1955 “Easter card.” Sometime between April and June, the project shifts from a single card to 2 cards: one for Easter, and the other telling a similar story but with a few different elements presented in a manner that would make it appropriate for sale at any time of year. Sayers brainstorms an impressive list of possible occasions the card would be appropriate for in addition to Easter: confirmations, first communions, Sunday school prizes, godchildren’s birthdays, ordinations, etc. Hamilton calls Sayers’s list of ideas “really inspired!” in his reply dated July 12, 1954. The two cards became: “The Story of Easter” showing the Passion Week, death, and resurrection of Christ; and “The Story of Adam and Christ,” outlining Christ’s life as well as a series of other stories central to the core of Christianity and salvation: Adam and Eve, Abraham, the Passover, the Prophets, and the Last Judgement.

Sayers acknowledged a fundamental difficulty in creating the Easter card since the timing of the story elements does not warrant opening a single door per day during Passion Week. For example, some events occur only hours apart in the timeline. Thus, the decision was made to simply tell the story, and allow the parents and children reading the card to determine how and when to open the doors depicting each event.

Hamilton writes to Sayers on June 18, 1954 that Fritz Wegner will not have sufficient time to illustrate both cards in production, and he assigns another artist named Biro to work on “The Story of Easter.” He reports that Biro “in addition to having done a number of most effective jacket designs for us has also  done a further card for this Christmas … I am sure that you would find him every bit as pleasant and intelligent as Wegner.”

Wegner meanwhile began work on the “Story of Adam and Christ” card which Sayers and Hamilton had determined would not feature “advent calendar” style doors, but would instead open as a fold-out card with text on either side of a brilliant central stained-glass window illustration, with panels depicting story episodes from the text. Wegner was enthused to work on a project unlike any other he had yet done. He included a small card template, pictured here, with his October 9, 1954 letter to Sayers to see what she thought of the design.

Biro’s progress for “The Story of Easter” card underwent several rounds of back and forth critique from Sayers. She wrote on August 25, 1954 after seeing some early designs:

“Christ is frightful. He has a silly face, and a horrible wiggly cloak, and He looks as though He were dropping into tea; neither does He look as though He were about to sit at the right hand of God the Father – and in fact there is nothing for Him to sit on.”

Biro responded with good humor to the criticisms in a letter to Sayers on September 28, 1954:

“May I again thank you for the enormous help you gave me throughout this job, and for your really constructive criticism which, even if you hadn’t made so amusing, would not have bothered or hurt anyone. I do hope that perhaps I may have another chance to collaborate with you again.”

Sayers gave her final blessing on the proof of the artwork on October 4, 1954 in a letter to Hamilton:

“Yes – well, I think we had better pass Christ into Heaven now – not perhaps with First-class Honours … Let us say that he has ‘satisfied the examiners’.”

The final proofs of both cards were sent to Sayers for review in December and January, and despite one oversight by the printer (the final 15 lines of the Last Judgement were inadvertently omitted), the cards were approved for publication in 1955.

Hamilton’s letter to Sayers dated February 21, 1955 mentions his pleasure in hearing that Sayers is interested in producing another Christmas card, this time depicting “The Story of Noah’s Ark.” Sayers begins work on the text for the card right away, but writes on March 28 to Hamilton that she is postponing further work until she gets a list of the animals Fritz Wegner intends to include in the illustration. Several delays occur and Sayers receives a draft of Wegner’s Noah’s ark illustration in August, but without the promised list of animals. Further delays caused by health and travel lead to Hamilton concluding that “The Story of Noah’s Ark” will not be ready in time for a Christmas 1955 publication date. Sayers waits until December 7 when she writes an exasperated letter to the publishing house beseeching them to get the list of animals from Wegner so she can finish work on the text:

“We have been waiting for this LIST OF ANIMALS more months now than the waters of the Flood rested upon the earth, and though it has been promised many times I see as yet no rainbow of hope. If it possible to extract a LIST OF ANIMALS from Mr. Wegner without doing irreparable and permanent damage to his nervous system I should be glad to have it; if not, a blunt declaration that no LIST OF ANIMALS is to be looked for would spare me the horrors of suspense.”

Sayers mentions the LIST OF ANIMALS eight times in the letter, including a postscript, with her characteristic humor. Wegner contritely sends a handwritten letter with the LIST OF ANIMALS to Sayers on December 12, 1955, saying:

“I also felt a little uneasy about identifying all the animals which in some instances were not very accurately drawn. Mistakes of this kind would soon produce a flood of letters from young and old zoologists.”

Story of Noah's Ark

Detail of the Ark windows.

The color proof followed in March 1956, and the card was presumably printed shortly thereafter. The final result was an extremely lush scene full of intrigue with animals both in plain sight, and waiting to be discovered by child readers behind the illustrated doors. Sayers included a playful ending for any children worried that an animal had been left out: “And if you can think of any animals that aren’t in the picture – why, they must be inside the Ark!”

Besides the four cards that were published between 1953 and 1956, the correspondence between Sayers and Hamilton reveals that at least 3 other ideas were considered for card production. In a letter to Sayers dated March 26, 1953, the publisher writes that “Mr. Hamilton does not feel we have the organisation to  market your charming CAT’S CHRISTMAS CAROL.” No doubt this was a disappointment to Sayers, who loved cats and designed several personal Christmas cards featuring them. It is interesting to note that even though at first Sayers felt she had no time to devote to creating a Christmas card in January 1953, she is suggesting other project ideas just two months later.

Hamilton also turns down her idea for “Mr. Spooner’s Transformations” in a September 22, 1955 letter stating that “we do feel that the Christmas and Easter cards are as much as we can cope with and are more in our line. My own feeling is that an educational publisher might be very interested.” “Spooner’s Transformations” refers to prints created by publisher William Spooner in the 1800s, specializing in lithographs of a semi-popular and humorous character.

The third idea Sayers proposed that did not end up being created seems to have enjoyed more exploration than the previous two ideas. Sayers states in a letter to Hamilton dated March 28, 1955 that she sent the “Tale from Boiardo” draft to Wegner as she thought the story would be suitable for an illustrated card format. She suggested that if Wegner had interest in illustrating her story, he was welcome to show the content to Hamilton. Hamilton voices interest in seeing the Boiardo content in a letter response to Sayers on March 31, but that is the last mention of this idea.

The manuscript drafts Sayers prepared to send to Wegner for the Boiardo card still exist, and are available in the Wade Center’s Dorothy L. Sayers Manuscript Collection (MS-84) and in the Religious Illustrated Cards and Booklets Archive under the title “The Enchanted Garden.” The story is adapted by Sayers from the Orlando Innamorato by Renaissance author Matteo Maria Boiardo, and tells the story of Roland’s adventures to gain access to, and ultimately destroy, a walled enchanted garden. Unfortunately, only the text for this story card exists — in both handwritten and typed drafts. There is no evidence that Wegner began work on any related illustrations. Production may also have fallen by the wayside due to Sayers’s untimely death in December 1957.

All of the published religious cards by Dorothy L. Sayers are available for viewing at the Wade Center, along with related manuscripts and correspondence. For more information, see the “related materials” section of the Religious Illustrated Cards and Booklets Archive. Content from the letters of Dorothy L. Sayers was used by kind permission of the Sayers Estate via David Higham Associates.

Bibliography Listing of the Religious Illustrated Cards:

  1. Sayers, Dorothy L. The Days of Christ’s Coming. Illustrated by Fritz Wegner. London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd., [1953] (published card, call number: BT315.2 .S29 1953)
  2. Sayers, Dorothy L. The Story of Adam and Christ. Fritz Wegner. London: Hamish Hamilton, Ltd., [1955] (published card, call number: PR6037.A95 S767 1955)
  3. Sayers, Dorothy L. The Story of Easter. 1st edition. Illustrations by B. Biro. London: Hamish Hamilton, Ltd., [1955]  (published card, call number: BV55 .S29 1955)
  4. Sayers, Dorothy L. The Story of Noah’s Ark. Fritz Wegner. London: Hamish Hamilton, Ltd., [1956]. (published card, call number: PR6037.A95 S76 1956)
  5. Sayers, Dorothy L. The Days of Christ’s Coming. illustrated by Fritz Wegner. London: Hamilton, 1960 / New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960. (published book, call numbers: BT315.2 .S29 1960 and BT315.2 .S29 1960b)

Exploring Screwtape: A Closer Look at The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

“My dear Wormwood” is a phrase many readers will instantly recognize as the opening to C.S. Lewis’s classic work The Screwtape Letters. The book contains a series of letters from Screwtape, a senior devil, to his nephew Wormwood who is just learning the ropes on how to most effectively tempt his first human (aka “patient”). Though the book itself is well-known and widely read, the background to its creation is a fascinating story. In this post, we’ll not only explore the writing of The Screwtape Letters, but also list adaptations of the book over the years, study resources, and highlight our Lenten Reflection series on the book that begins at the Wade Center on February 21, 2018.

BACKGROUND

C.S. Lewis first mentioned his idea for writing The Screwtape Letters in a letter dated July 20, 1940 to his brother Warren, who had returned to active duty as a Major in the Army during World War II. Lewis had been attending a worship service at his church, Holy Trinity in Headington Quarry, when a thought crossed his mind. As he explained to his brother:

“Before the service was over … I was struck by an idea for a book [which] I think might be both useful and entertaining.  It [would] be called As one Devil to Another and would consist of letters from an elderly retired devil to a young devil who has just started work on his first ‘patient.’  The idea [would] be to give all the psychology of temptation from the other point of view.”

Elsewhere, Lewis notes that The Confessions of a Well-Meaning Woman by Stephen McKenna and Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay played influential roles in Screwtape’s composition as well. (Lewis’s 1961 preface to The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast)

It isn’t clear how long it took Lewis to write The Screwtape Letters, but Walter Hooper surmises that it was probably finished by Christmas 1940. (C.S. Lewis Companion and Guide, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996 p. 268) The actual writing process was a tedious one for Lewis due to the mindset he had to adopt while writing in a diabolical guise:

“Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment. … [T]hough it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp. The work into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded. It almost smothered me before I was done.” (Lewis’s 1961 preface to The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast)

In 1940 The Guardian, a weekly Anglican newspaper, had published Lewis’s articles titled “The Dangers of National Repentance” (March 15) and “Two Ways with the Self” (May 3). When Lewis offered Screwtape to The Guardian they agreed to serialize all 31 letters which ran in weekly installments from May 2 through November 28, 1941. The letters proved to be very popular, and later were gathered together and published as a book the following year. Lewis dedicated the book to his friend and fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien, but Tolkien was puzzled by the gesture (see Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, letter draft to Michael Tolkien #252, November or December 1963). And, as Humphrey Carpenter reports, not altogether pleased with the book itself: “for as somebody who believed profoundly in the power of evil [Tolkien] thought it foolish to trifle rather facetiously with such things.” (The Inklings. Pt. 3 Ch. 5. Houghton Mifflin, 1979: 174-5)

As a result of his concern that the Screwtape typescript at his London publisher might be destroyed in a German bombing raid (a justifiable fear in WWII Britain), Lewis sent his handwritten manuscript for safekeeping to his friend Sister Penelope, an Anglican nun at the convent of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin at Wantage. When she later attempted to return it to Lewis, he told her to sell it. This handwritten manuscript is now in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection. The typescript is held at the Wade Center under the call number CSL / MS-107 in our C.S. Lewis Manuscript collection. The Wade’s typescript also includes a handwritten preface which has been examined by Lewis scholar Brenton Dickieson. You can read Brenton’s findings in “The Unpublished Preface to C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters,” Notes and Queries 60.2 (2013): 296-298 and on his blog.

First British edition of THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1942).

The publication of The Screwtape Letters, along with his BBC Radio talks during the 1940s (which were later issued in book form as Mere Christianity), combined to give Lewis heightened recognition as a Christian spokesperson. One example of this was the September 8, 1947 cover of Time magazine that featured an image of Lewis with the caption “Oxford’s C.S. Lewis: His heresy: Christianity.” As a result of this increased profile, Lewis’s fan mail also grew significantly during this time, requiring hours every day for him to write responses to his correspondents.

REVIEWS & SCREWTAPE PROPOSES A TOAST

Following are some brief extracts from contemporary reviews of The Screwtape Letters:

“The book is sparkling yet truly reverent, in fact a perfect joy, and should become a classic.” (Manchester Guardian, February 24, 1942)

“Mr Lewis possesses the rare gift of being able to make righteousness readable, and has produced a pretty piece of homily lit by flashes of insight” (New Statesman and Nation, May 16, 1942).

Charles Williams, fellow Inkling and Wade author, wrote two favorable reviews on The Screwtape Letters in The Dublin Review (July 1942) and Time and Tide (March 21, 1942). His Time and Tide review titled “Letters in Hell” is written as a parody Screwtape letter addressed to “My dearest Scorpuscle.”

Not everyone was as receptive or appreciative of Lewis’s efforts in this book. In his 1961 preface to Screwtape, Lewis reports one humorous instance where a country clergyman, not understanding that that the letters were meant to be read from an opposite point of view, withdrew his subscription from The Guardian stating that “much of the advice given in these letters seemed to him not only erroneous but positively diabolical.”

Despite requests to write additional Screwtape letters, Lewis’s only subsequent Screwtape offering was prompted by an invitation from The Saturday Evening Post that he said “pressed the trigger.” (1961 preface) Published on December 19, 1959 as “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” Lewis switched from an epistolary approach to having Screwtape offer a talk at the annual dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for young devils. This fictional address later appeared in a new edition of The Screwtape Letters in 1961, and is included in most editions today.

ADAPTATIONS

Due to the book’s popularity and impact on readers, The Screwtape Letters has received various treatments over the years through audiobooks, dramatizations, adaptations, and so on. The non-comprehensive list below includes a few examples of these Screwtape variations.

Audiobooks

  • British comedian John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) provided an audiobook reading performance of The Screwtape Letters released by Audio Literature in 1988 (San Bruno, California). Cleese’s recording was nominated for a Grammy that same year for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Recording. This recording will be used at the Wade’s Lenten Reflections on Screwtape in February. See details at the end of this post.
  • Joss Acland did a voice reading of The Screwtape Letters for the HarperCollins audiobook released in 2000. Acland was the actor who portrayed C.S. Lewis in the 1985 television drama of Shadowlands.

Max McLean as Screwtape.

Dramatizations

  • Dear Wormwood: A Play in Three Acts is an early dramatization of The Screwtape Letters for the stage in 1961 by James Forsyth. It was later renamed Screwtape: A Play.
  • The Screwtape Letters stage play adapted by Anthony Lawton with The Mirror Theatre Company. A 90-minute two-person play punctuated by varied dances including tap, Latin ballroom, jazz, martial arts, and rock, along with whips and fire-eating. Performed various times since 2000.
  • The Screwtape Letters stage play adapted by Max McLean with Fellowship for Performing Arts. A 90-minute production that has done national and international tours and been seen by over 500,000 people. Its most recent run was in London 2016-2017.
  • The Screwtape Letters audio dramatization by Focus on the Family Radio Theatre (2009) features the voice of Andy Serkis as Screwtape. Serkis played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson. The recording features a multi-person cast and sound effects.

Printed Works and Parodies

Influences

  • OhHellosThe music group The Oh Hellos released the album Dear Wormwood which they have described as a form of speculative fiction from the point of view of “the patient.”
  • In the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin’s teacher is named “Miss Wormwood” — her name, according to creator Bill Waterson, is based on the apprentice devil in Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.
  • Lewis himself may have borrowed the name “Wormwood” from a Biblical star mentioned in Revelation 8:11, although it is also a plant name, and a name meaning “something bitter or unpleasant.”

STUDY RESOURCES

For those interested in learning more about The Screwtape Letters, here are some additional resources:

Annotated

Annotated edition by Paul McCusker.

LENTEN SERIES AT THE WADE CENTER:
February-March 2018

During the Lenten season this year, the Wade Center will host reflections on The Screwtape Letters: Wednesdays at noon in the Wade Center’s Bakke Auditorium beginning on February 21 and extending through March 28, 2018. These reflections will be led by David J. P. Hooker, Professor of Art and Art Department Chair at Wheaton College, and Elaine Hooker, Catalog Librarian of the Wade Center.

Since Lent has historically been a time of repentance for Christians, The Screwtape Letters offer an opportunity for readers to take a fresh look at the patterns of behavior in their own lives and consider places where change may be needed. Through the voice of Screwtape, Lewis presents our own brokenness to us so creatively that he enables us to see our lives from a new perspective.  Traditionally, Lent is also a time for slowing down, reflecting and re-focusing. Elaine Hooker will share information and artifacts related to this work taken from the collections of the Marion E. Wade Center, while David Hooker will share how this work has become a regular and beneficial part of his own spiritual practice over the last 10 years.

For more information, contact the Wade Center at 630.752.5908 or wade@wheaton.edu.

Featured Artifact: Wooden Chest and Bookshelves belonging to Charles Williams

The Wade Center owns a number of artifacts that were once in the personal possession of one of our seven authors. Our featured artifacts for this blog post are a set of bookshelves and chest from the home of Charles Williams. These handsomely carved wooden pieces can be viewed in the main hall near the museum displays as you enter the Wade.

The bookshelves stood for more than thirty years in the Williams’s flat at 23 Antrim Mansions, Belsize Park, London; they were given to the Wade Center in August 1979 by Michael Williams (son of Charles and Florence “Michal” Williams). The bookcases were originally used to hold Wade reference volumes and related office materials, but once relocated to our current building, the bookshelves were put to practical use displaying items in our sales area – which they still do to this day. The bookshelves measure 26 inches wide, 9.5 inches deep, and 41.5 inches high. We do not have any additional information on who made the shelves or how they came into the possession of the Williams family.

In January 2016, a beautiful carved wooden chest arrived at the Wade Center from England. It also originally belonged to Charles Williams, and was later passed on to his son, Michael, who used it to store various editions of his father’s books. Upon Michael’s death in 2000, the chest was given to his friend Terry Drummond and his family: wife Lynda and son Matthew, who later kindly donated it to the Wade Center.

The chest measures 14 inches wide, 20 inches high, and 3 feet long. Along with the bookshelves, it is now on display in the main hall of the Wade Center where each of these Williams artifacts can be enjoyed by our thousands of visitors.

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A sign describing the chest’s history which reads: “This carved wooden chest originally belonged to Charles Williams and was donated to the Wade Center in January 2016 by Terry, Lynda, and Matthew Drummond. Charles Williams’s son, Michael, inherited the chest after his parents’ deaths. He used it to store various editions of his father’s books as well as works by T.S. Eliot. Upon Michael Williams’s death in 2000, the chest was given to his close friends the Drummonds, for whom Michael served as an honorary grandfather to their son, Matthew.”

Revd. Drummond has graciously provided the memories below of his family’s close friendship with Michael Williams, including details on the wooden chest.

Wade hallway

The hallway in the Wade Center where the chest and bookshelves are displayed. The bookshelves (not visible in this photo) are near the front windows on the right.

Michael Williams (1922-2000): A Reflection on a Friendship

It was a cold March Sunday in 1976 when my wife Lynda and I first met Michael Williams. We had arrived at the closed door of the church of St. Botolph’s Aldgate, where I was joining the staff to work with the single homeless. Standing at the door was Michael, and we had a brief conversation before the doors opened.

I later discovered Michael’s anticipated impressions of us when he had heard the previous week that a Captain (that is a Church Army Captain) and Mrs Drummond were joining the staff on the following Sunday. He had thought that this would be of no concern to him; Captain Drummond would be in his mid-50s and Mrs Drummond would most likely be of a similar age and he would have little contact with either of them.

During the Eucharist he realised that the Drummonds were the same young couple he had met earlier at the door (I was 25 years of age). This was a surprise given his preconceptions.

Our next contact was on a Monday lunch time for mid-day prayers. These were led by the Lady worker, a German Jew who had escaped Hamburg with her father when the Nazis came to power. Trudie was tiny and very Germanic, her prayers included something along the lines of ‘we pray for Mr. Brown, Mrs. Brown and the baby Browns’. I looked up from my stall and caught Michael’s eyes and from that point a friendship developed.

The coming weeks and years led to a deep and close friendship. At an early stage I discovered that Michael was the son of author Charles Williams. I had read all Williams’s novels and was of course pleased to get to know his son.

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Charles Williams, 1935 (Wade Photo Collection, CW / P-3)

One Saturday we went to lunch at his flat in Belsize Park. It was at this lunch that he showed us the wooden chest (now in the Wade Center) which was filled with first editions of various of his father’s books, along with some of the works of T.S. Eliot — including signed first editions of each of the four poems eventually comprising the Four Quartets.

As our friendship deepened it became clear that Michael had no great love of the memory of his father, and could become quite angry as he recalled their relationship. He was never happy talking about him, and when for instance he met Humphrey Carpenter who was researching his book The Inklings I was present to offer support.

On other occasions visitors would come to talk about Charles. For instance Wade founder Clyde Kilby was always welcome; his relationship with Michael was a close one. Others were also welcomed though he could become irritable with those he thought were ignoring him and trying to be close to his father.

In 1978, our son Matthew was born, and from the very beginning Michael became an honorary grandfather! This may seem like an unusual designation, but it was one that Michael loved. He was also Godfather to his friend Hilary’s two boys, and in many ways our two families became his extended family.

At the beginning of our relationship, his Aunt Edith (Edith Williams, sister of Charles) was living in St. Alban’s in the family home. I visited her with Michael on one occasion and it seems that I was one of the few people who had ever seen the inside of the house. When Edith died in July 1977, Michael inherited the estate, though in those days this was not as large a sum as it would be in the years that followed when inflation increased the value of properties.

The inheritance allowed Michael to buy a flat in Bethnal Green for the now inconceivable sum of £11,000; a flat today in the same area would cost 25 times more. The flat was his home for the rest of his life; a place in which he was happy and felt that at last he could settle into a life of his own.

In the biography of Charles by Greville Lindop (Charles Williams: The Third Inkling. Oxford UP, 2015) there is a suggestion that Michael had less of a life because he lived in the shadow of his father. It is certainly true that the shadow was ever-present. It is also the case that Michael built a life of his own when he moved to Bethnal Green in East London; he made friends with a neighbour and they spent a lot of time together. The neighbour was an East Ender through and through, and had no idea about the Williams family.

Michael also developed other friendships; one of which was with my mother who lived in Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast. He would book a taxi and be driven to stay with her. It must be said that this horrified my mother who thought the cost of a taxi was far too much, especially when he could have travelled by train. I believe that for Michael the cost was not important; his friendship with my mother and her friends was what mattered. He would share evenings with them playing bingo in what is called a Working Men’s Club. The culture there was very different from the one in which he had been brought up.

Michael was a good friend and a generous one. He, like so many of us, had his demons which I believe were banished by the friendships that came later in his life. The three boys, that is the two godchildren and Matthew, and their parents were for him a new family.

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Michael Williams with his mother Florence “Michal” ca. 1967. (Wade Photo Collection: CW-F / P-8)

Whilst he had difficulties with his father, his love for his mother Michal was total. Following Michael’s death, Hilary and her husband travelled with Lynda and the three boys to take his cremated ashes to Oxford where they were buried in the grave of his parents.

Many years ago, Michael Williams donated some bookshelves to Wheaton College that had also belonged to the Williams family; I saw them on a visit I made in the 1980s to the Wade Center. The shelves were being used to hold a mix of papers; to be honest they were cluttered! The librarian asked me what ‘Mr William’s would think if he had seen the shelves being put to such daily life use’. I could only respond that ‘Mr Williams would think it was the best use they could have’! A view that was affirmed when I told him the story.

I started this remembrance with Michael’s expectation that Captain and Mrs Drummond would be nice 55-year olds who would have no effect on his life; how wrong he was! That cold March Sunday when we first met led to a friendship that lasted until his death.

Revd. Terry Drummond

Wade Collection ca. 1980s

Wade Collection ca. early-mid 1980s. The Williams bookshelves are visible in the background behind Wade staff member Evelyn Brace. Lewis’s wardrobe is on the left. (Wade History Archive Photos Collection)

The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien

SnowyThe Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien (alternate title: Letters from Father Christmas) is a delightful volume for personal or family reading during the Christmas season. With Tolkien’s skillful storytelling abilities and charming illustrations, the book can quickly become a holiday favorite. In this post we will explore some of the historical context for the letters and provide a brief overview of the book.

Each year in the Tolkien household from 1920 until 1943, Tolkien’s four children John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla could expect a letter delivered to them from Father Christmas (the name for Santa Claus in England), complete with news about the happenings at the North Pole over the past year and accompanying illustrations. Each letter was carefully written in the shaky handwriting of Father Christmas (for he was over 1900 years old after all), and bore an “authentic” North Pole stamp. Sometimes the letter would appear in the home dusted with snow or with snowy footprints across the floor; other times it would be delivered by the postman, making the arrival seem very official. The children’s own letters to Father Christmas would likewise disappear from the fireplace and make their way magically to the North Pole with their own news and Christmas present requests. When the elder children stopped writing to Father Christmas, all family members encouraged the younger ones to keep up the correspondence, maintaining the delight of the holiday ritual.

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HarperCollins 1999 edition

The content of the letters varied over the years as Father Christmas moved house, had several adventures, and gained more members of his household and the North Pole community. Characters mentioned include Snow-elves, Snow-men, Red Gnomes, Cave-bears, Goblins, and Father Christmas’s personal secretary, an Elf named Ilbereth. One character who maintains a consistent presence in the letters is Father Christmas’s assistant, the North Polar Bear. Some of the most memorable letters include stories of how Polar Bear’s foibles and curiosity often, while trying to be helpful, lead to accidents and disasters. These include causing the North Pole to break and fall on Father Christmas’s home, falling down a staircase with a pile of gifts, letting the bath water overflow, and setting off two years’ worth of northern lights all at once. These accidents sometimes account for deficiencies in the gifts Father Christmas has brought the Tolkien children, and in other cases are meant solely for comedic and dramatic purposes. Polar Bear offers his own commentary with his distinctive angular script in the letter margins, with occasional contradictions of some of Father Christmas’s accounts of how the accidents happened.  Polar Bear proves very helpful in later North Pole events, however, when he battles invading Goblins. His nephews, cubs Paksu and Volkotukka, also join Father Christmas’s household in later letters.

GreenAnd with every letter, Tolkien’s accompanying artwork brings the story to life in enchanting ways. As many readers may already know, Tolkien created a great deal of artwork for his writings such as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and other tales he wrote for his children like Mr. Bliss and Roverandom. He studied art from an early age with his mother and it remained part of his creative expression throughout his life. Seeing Tolkien’s depictions of the Aurora Borealis blaze in full color over the North Pole horizon, or Polar Bear in the thick of a goblin battle, adds greatly to the reader’s enjoyment of the tales, as the illustrations must have done for the Tolkien children as well.

Several editions of The Father Christmas Letters have been published over the years, and a few of those are shown here. The most complete collection to date is the HarperCollins 1999 edition (blue cover above) with a cover depiction of Polar Bear after toppling down the staircase with a trail of crushed gifts in his wake. Variant editions with a unique aesthetic appeal include the HarperCollins 1994 edition consisting of three miniature volumes in a boxed set; and the CollinsChildren’sBooks / Houghton Mifflin 1995 edition, featuring facsimile envelopes with individual letters to pull out and read.

Whichever edition finds its way to your home, the Wade Center recommends sharing it with loved ones and having a ready supply of hot cocoa to accompany the reading sessions. We’ll let Father Christmas have the last word:

“A merry Christmas to you from North Polar Bear.
And love from Father Christmas to you all.”

– Letter dated December 20, 1926

Sacred and Secular: Change-Ringing in The Nine Tailors

This is the third and final post in a series written by students in Dr. Christine Colón’s Dorothy L. Sayers literature course at Wheaton College.

Most people have never heard the word “change-ringing” before or, if they have, they have almost no idea what it means. Dorothy L. Sayers, however, in her novel The Nine Tailors exposed the niche interest of bell-ringing to the world, and the novel became one of the lasting icons of the change-ringing society for this very reason. At the Wade Center there is even a whole archive dedicated to change-ringing in which one can learn about the curious people who have been “bitten by the bug” of campanology.

So, for those like myself who before reading The Nine Tailors had no idea what change-ringing is I will provide a quick rundown. The definition provided by the North American Guild of Change Ringers is that change-ringing is:

“a team sport, a highly coordinated musical performance, an antique art, and a demanding exercise that involves a group of people ringing rhythmically a set of tuned bells through a series of changing sequences that are determined by mathematical principles and executed according to learned patterns” (Source: http://nagcr.org/pamphlet.html).

As this definition highlights, ringing bells is an art as much as it is a mathematical formula, and interestingly, the newspaper article, “Factorial Mathematics and the Art of Change Ringing” reveals that those in charge of the change-ringing group at Kalamazoo College are either retired mathematicians or computer software designers.

Why are those so left-brained interested in the art of bell ringing? Well, change-ringing depends upon knowing combinations, permutations, and patterns in order to known when each person should ring their bell. The bells, for their unique combination of being both intellectually and physically challenging while also being musically rewarding, have an intoxicating effect on those who wish to get involved. In the article, the father of change-ringing at Kalamazoo College, Dr. Jefferson Smith, notes, “Not everybody is susceptible to change ringing, but if you can find a student who gets caught up in it, they burn with a hard blue flame” (The Chronicle of Higher Education. September 19, 1997, pp. B10-11. The Change Ringing Archive, Folder 6. Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL).

It’s intriguing that the people who become interested in change-ringing seem to become “foolhardy aficionados” who can’t stay away from the bells; and since the bells are almost always located in a church, what better mission outreach?

This is where we have a unique intersection of the sacred and secular. People who don’t usually attend church now have to in order to ring the bells. And although the ringer might be involved with change-ringing simply for the math or the exercise or the music, it is unavoidable for him/her to partake of the sacred duty of the bells. These duties include calling people to worship and ringing tolls at peoples’ deaths (from tradition this would help the souls ascend to heaven by warding off evil spirits). In The Nine Tailors, the sacred duty of ringing the bells becomes even more pronounced as the bells seem to act as the hand of God enacting judgment on Deacon, an unrepentant criminal. Were the bell-ringers responsible for killing Deacon? To what extent do the ringers get wrapped up in the spiritual nature of the bells?

Brian Ashurst wrote an essay titled, “A Thousand Years of Bells: For centuries their mysterious harmonies have expressed the joy of the Gospel” which delves into the intimate connection between the church and the bells. He goes so far as to say that, “the swinging tower bell stands as a symbol of the church second only to the cross” (The Anglican, 10.38 Summer, 1979. The Change-Ringing Archive, Folder 2. Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL.) He tracks the dense history of the bells from their early use in pagan rituals to their association with superstition to their modern use with the church and as a hobby. When talking about the bells today, he recognizes that, “there is a growing enthusiasm in this country [England] for change-ringing, as its mysterious attractions for those outside the church as well as for worshipers are seen to justify the cost and effort put in.” Could Sayers’s novel The Nine Tailors have played a role in this increasing interest in change-ringing? And if so, does this make her novel evangelical?

Even before Sayers had ventured into writing explicitly about the Christian faith, The Nine Tailors may have had missional possibilities simply for its use of change-ringing. Sayers herself would have agreed that any good writing could glorify the Creator even if it isn’t explicitly Christian. This being said, her use of the bells and their inseparableness from the church reinforce this unique meeting place for the sacred and the secular, and thereby, provide an outreach opportunity to all interested in change-ringing.

RachelRachel Post is a senior at Wheaton College studying English Literature and Art History. While taking the Dorothy L. Sayers class, she enjoyed learning how Sayers herself was interested in both art and literature and how she often drew/sketched out images to go along with what she was writing – whether it be a detective novel or religious play. She enjoyed researching in the Wade Center, and finding Sayers’s sketches (often of cats) pop up in her letters with various people!

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.