Sunday, December 22, 2019

Mo Moulton's "The Mutual Admiration Society"

Mo Moulton is currently a senior lecturer in the history department of the University of Birmingham. They earned their PhD in history from Brown University in 2010 and taught in the History & Literature program at Harvard University for six years. Their previous book, Ireland and the Irish in Interwar England, was named a 2014 “Book of the Year” by History Today and was the runner-up for the Royal History Society’s 2015 Whitfield Prize for first book in British or Irish history.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their latest book, The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women, and reported the following:
The reader who opens The Mutual Admiration Society to page 99 enters Dorothy L. Sayers’s life story at a dramatic moment. Sayers has given birth, in secret, to her son early in 1924. As page 99 begins, I’m explaining the very limited options to the single mother of a child born out of wedlock in this era in Britain, when legal adoptions were not possible and life as an independent single mother almost impossible for someone of Sayers’s background. Sayers herself makes the decision to ask her cousin, Ivy Shrimpton, to take the child; Shrimpton had already been earning a living fostering children. At first Sayers pretends she’s asking “for a friend” but, before she actually delivers her son to Ivy’s care, she comes clean and begs for discretion. The page ends as Sayers returns to London alone: “Her keys were locked inside her flat, and she had to wait to get the charlady’s spare set, sitting by herself at the cinema until the charlady returned.”

In many ways, the test completely fails for my book. I began researching The Mutual Admiration Society after reading one of Sayers’s most beloved novels, Gaudy Night (1935), which is set in a thinly-disguised women’s college at Oxford University. I was moved by the portrayal of this community of women and their commitment to intellectual integrity. But when I began to research Sayers, I found relatively little information about her friendships and collaborations with women. By contrast, the story of her son’s birth has been told and retold, ever since writer Janet Hitchman first revealed it to the world in her somewhat salacious 1976 biography.

In The Mutual Admiration Society, I want to move past seeing Sayers either as a lonely genius or through the lens of her relationships to men as a mother, lover, daughter, or wife. The book traces her lifelong friendships with a literary criticism group she founded at Oxford. They called themselves the ‘Mutual Admiration Society’ in order, she joked, to stop anyone else calling them that first. They were each remarkable in their own ways. In addition to Sayers, the book focuses on Muriel St. Clare Byrne, popular historian and playwright; Charis Frankenburg, midwife, birth control advocate, and Justice of the Peace; and Dorothy Rowe, English teacher and founding member of the cutting-edge Bournemouth Little Theatre Club.

I believe this group transformed its members. In that sense, page 99 isn’t such a bad starting point. It finds Sayers at her most alienated—she commented that having married lovers was a strain in part because it meant losing friends or lying to them. But in the late 1920s, she rekindled those friendships. With Byrne, in particular, she collaborated on a play (Busman’s Honeymoon) and a set of essays, including the one made famous under the title “Are Women Human?” (spoiler: she said yes). Those collaborations helped her to find a way from being a writer of light detective fiction and an advertising copywriter, to being the author who is still admired today for her rich novels, her incisive theological work, and her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I wish page 99 reflected more of the Mutual Admiration Society: but on balance, perhaps a page that shows Sayers, in her most difficult hour, reaching out to another woman for help does capture something essential about the book, and about her life.
Learn more about The Mutual Admiration Society at the Basic Books website.

--Marshal Zeringue