The subtitle of this impressively large group biography makes a big claim: ‘How Dorothy L Sayers and her Oxford Circle remade the world for women’. The publishers have latched onto the most obviously marketable aspect of the book – the selling power of Dorothy L Sayers’ name and life – and thus skewed the reader’s expectations to anticipate an account of world-changing achievements on a par with becoming an influential and respected best-selling author. I am as big a devotee of Gaudy Night as the next woman, but there is something off-balance in setting a well-known life alongside the much less well-known achievements of three or four of her friends, and claiming that these ‘changed the world’ because they all happened to know each other at Oxford.
I don’t think that ‘the world’ paid much attention to these women as a group: they were high-achieving friends who knew each other privately. The lives of many British (not world) women and men were positively affected by Charis Frankenburg’s campaigning for better birth control provision. Thousands of theatre-going people in the south of Britain in this period may have been to one or more of the plays that D (Dorothy) Rowe produced and made possible with her game-changing Bournemouth Little Theatre Club, and that’s a good thing. Muriel St Clare Byrne’s books and teaching were undoubtedly influential for those looking for education on Tudor history. I am particularly impressed that she edited an edition of Henry VIII’s letters, and her epic work in collating and editing the Lisle Letters is simply magnificent, worthy of an honorary DPhil at least. The conduct of her life as a queer woman and her marriage in all but name with Marjorie Barber, and her relationship with Mary Cullis, was influential, but to a very small group of people, who knew they loved each other, but not, absolutely not, to ‘the world’.
Also, what about all the other people who were working in these fields at the same time? Margery Spring Rice is not in the index, but ought to be, for her early birth control campaigning at the same as Frankenburg. Josephine Tey was a massively popular detective novelist and playwright working at the same time as Sayers, but she’s not in the index. I don’t know enough about theatre history to suggest the names of D Rowe’s contemporaries who pushed theatre standards forward alongside her work, but I bet there were a lot, all over the UK, and certainly in ‘the world’. On the performativity of lesbian lives, I present Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, who were a prominent lesbian married couple at this period, as well as also being poets, as was St Clare Byrne.
But none of these examples were at Oxford: and that’s the point of Mutual Admiration Society. Oxford generated world-changing women by its culture and world-class education, and the restrictions that this particular generation experienced as undergraduates gave them the training to continue breaking barriers, crossing boundaries and leading the way for other women to follow. I understand the thesis, but I have a problem with its argument (if there is one: it feels like a corollary) that only Oxford at this time could produce such an influential and talented generation. It was not the only university in Britain, and statistically there must have been similarly talented and pioneering women emerging from the other British universities. And why stop at universities? Why not from the teaching colleges, or the technical schools? Surely it would be worth more to recover the lives of individuals from those underexposed fermenting pots? But, cry the marketing departments in London publishing houses, Oxford sells.
The lives of some women who weren’t at Oxford are also included and discussed in detail, because they were connected with the central four: so this muddles the parameters even more. Being part of the group was what matters. And yet, what was this group? The acronym from the title is used throughout the book to suggest that the MAS were a coherent, constantly affiliated group of individuals, working for clear aims as a group. Yet they clearly weren’t: for most of the 1920s they were not in touch, as a group. Following the lives of these women after they left Oxford by calling them a group makes as much sense as following the lives of my friends from Aberdeen University Creative Writing Group after we graduated. One is a world-famous novelist, another is a distinguished academic, one is a national newspaper columnist, and occasionally we meet one another and that’s really nice but we are not a group. Not have we changed the world, though in our own spheres we’ve done impressive things. I don’t see the difference between us and the MAS, and I don’t see why such a group needs to be written about as a group.
Mutual Admiration Society is a very thorough group biography, perhaps too thorough: I would have left out some of the personal details of their lives that lead to inadvertent bathos with the juxtaposition of domestic details and national events. It’s also extremely long. I began skipping two-thirds of the way through because I wanted to get the damn thing finished. It’s impressive, undeniably important for the lives that it recovers, and contextualises. But from lazy publishers’ marketing, good Lord deliver us.