by Guy Lawley

SayersMany readers will be aware that Dorothy L. Sayers, writer of the acclaimed Lord Peter Wimsey stories [1], had some admiration for Sexton Blake. Editor Bill Howard Baker quoted Sayers on the cover of his hardback reprint of the Blake novel COMPANY OF BANDITS [2]: "The nearest approach to a 20th Century national folklore."

How many Blake fans know, though, that Lord Peter Wimsey himself first appeared in the pages of a Sexton Blake story written by Sayers?

This surprising tale is told in Barbara Reynolds’s biography, DOROTHY L. SAYERS, HER LIFE AND SOUL [3]. Here we learn that in late 1919 or early 1920, the 26 year-old Sayers was working in a school in Normandy, France. She had already decided, with a group of like-minded friends, to try her hand at writing detective stories. She went down with mumps, and was confined to her room for 21 days. Quoting from Reynolds:

She was spirited and well enough to write to Muriel Jaeger, asking her to send all the Sexton Blake books she could lay hands on. Together they conducted a brilliant spoof analysis of the Sexton Blake saga, tracing its origins to solar mythology, resurrection legends and folk rituals. Muriel wrote learned letters under the name of "Hunter". Dorothy signed herself "Alexander Mitchingham". In this persona, she argued that the Sexton Blake stories were connected with the Osiris mysteries and possibly with the Mithraic solar ritual and with Oriental Jesus-cults, "whose solar origins have been so indisputably established by Drews and Robertson". (She was to make Charles Parker refer solemnly to these authors when he discusses theology with Lord Peter in Whose Body?) The Sexton Blake romp was an anticipation of the contributions she was later to make to the "higher criticism" of the saga of Sherlock Holmes.

The "national folklore" quote comes from the Sayers’ introduction to an anthology which she edited for publisher Victor Gollancz, GREAT SHORT STORIES OF DETECTION, MYSTERY AND HORROR (1928). The part of this essay discussing detective fiction is "recognised as a masterpiece by connoisseurs," according to Barbara Reynolds. There had been only one previous attempt to analyse the genre, she says, in 1924, and Sayers’ piece is "more comprehensive and, for its time, definitive."

The Sexton Blake stories, Sayers said here, were in the Holmes tradition, but "crossed with the Buffalo Bill adventure story." Reynolds goes on to quote Sayers further:

The really interesting point about them is that they present the nearest modern approach to a national folk-lore, conceived as the centre for a cycle of loosely connected romances in the Arthurian manner. Their significance in popular literature and education would richly repay scientific investigation.

It should be added that Reynolds can’t bring herself to take Sayers completely seriously on this point. She comments:

"This is surely an echo of the "higher criticism" of the series in which she and Muriel Jaeger indulged in 1920, and a provocative challenge to the serious-minded."

You will recall that Sayers and her friend were enjoying a humorous parody of literary criticism in those letters. Was Bill Howard Baker knowingly or unknowingly using a somewhat satirical quote from Sayers? [4] Or was Sayers herself in fact anticipating the whole field of Cultural Studies?

Her own previous essays and lectures on literature had been in a more rarefied academic realm, the analysis and critique of poetry. Reynolds tells us that Sayers’ collection of detective fiction begins with stories from the Bible, the classical Greek Aeneid and the Roman writer Herodotus, and she discusses detective themes in Aesop’s Fables and the mediaeval poem Tristan & Iseult. Reynolds does not feel the need to accuse her of being satirical in these instances. It seems possible that Sayers was by this time being reasonably serious also about the Blake saga, if perhaps defending herself with sly humour in referring to "the Arthurian manner". She may have been concerned that publishing an essay taking detective and horror fiction seriously was setting herself up for some heavy flak! But then again, she had also stated earlier in the essay, says Reynolds, that:

The defender of the weak in modern fiction was no longer the knight errant but the detective — "the latest of the popular heroes, the true successor of Roland and Lancelot."

Reynolds describes this as a "romantic" notion, but she means the term seriously and is not accusing Sayers here of taking the piss.

Dorothy Sayers was certainly taking Sexton Blake seriously in 1920, in one sense anyway, when she and a group of friends had hatched the idea of writing detective stories as a way of making money. We don’t know whether she had it in mind specifically to write a Blake story before the mumps incident, or whether reading a lot of Blake at that time (and the exchange of letters with Jaeger) may have inspired the idea. As far as we know her Blake story was never completed, or submitted for publication. Some parts were written and the whole plot laid out in a synopsis.

These fragments survived in Sayers’ papers and are discussed at some length by Barbara Reynolds in Chapter 12 of Her Life and Soul, "Enter Lord Peter Wimsey". Reynolds does not give the story a title, though it seems surprising that Sayers hadn’t come up with one. 'The plot,' Reynolds tells us, 'is outlined as follows.'

A distinguished French politician, Monsieur Briffault, is found murdered in Lord Peter Wimsey's flat in Piccadilly and there are signs of a robbery. Sexton Blake is called in to investigate. Suspicion points to a young French actor named Jean Renault, who had accompanied Monsieur Briffault home the previous night. The French Ambassador, however, suspects treachery on the part of Britain and insists on further investigation. Blake's boy assistant, Tinker, discovers a cipher among Monsieur Briffault's papers, based on a code book, which is missing.

Lord Peter's flat is entered by a Belgian workman who tells the man-servant (unnamed) that he has come to clean the windows. The Belgian is Renault in disguise, who sets about searching for the cipher. He is discovered doing so by the man-servant, there is a fight and Renault escapes. Blake and Tinker chase him through London but he gives them the slip. Baffled, they wander into Westminster Cathedral. It is Holy Week and the office of Tenebrae is in progress. Tinker grows bored and his wandering eye singles out a member of the congregation who, he is sure, is Renault. He points him out to Blake who moves towards him, but at that point in the service the lights are dimmed and in the darkness Renault escapes again.

In the meantime word has come from the Paris Surete that Renault has given instructions for a large sum of money to be sent to Rome, to be paid into the account of a Contessa Malaspina. Blake and Tinker catch up with him in Paris at the Gare de Lyon disguised as a young French woman, who gives "herself" away by using a masculine French word in relation to "herself". (Dorothy was to use this idea later for the short story, "The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question".)

Renault again escapes and Lord Peter is drawn into the chase. He pursues Renault to Rome by aeroplane and finds him there, this time disguised as the Contessa Malaspina, a frail, elderly lady, who announces "her" intention of travelling to England via Germany. By an ingenious trick Lord Peter diverts "her" luggage to Paris, where it is seized and opened by the police. It contains the code book and the cipher can at last be read. Renault is revealed as a thief, who had been employed by Monsieur Briffault (who was much in debt) to gain possession of a valuable jewel, of which the whereabouts are disclosed in the cipher. Sexton Blake lays a trap for Renault, who leads him to the jewel and at the same time falls into the hands of the police. The jewel is restored to an impoverished ducal family, to whom it rightfully belongs. The story was to end with the arrest, death or disappearance of Renault.

Lord Peter himself, in this story, is essentially the same character who would later appear in Sayers’ first published novel, Whose Body?, in 1923. Reynolds quotes from the Blake story, when Wimsey is first mentioned:

"Well, Monsieur Briffault was living in a flat in Piccadilly, lent him by Lord Peter Wimsey."
"Who's Lord Peter Wimsey?"
"I looked him up in Who's Who. Younger son of the Duke of Peterborough. Harmless sort of fellow, I think. Distinguished himself in the war. Rides his own horse in the Grand National. Authority on first editions. At present visiting the Duchess in Herts. I've seen his photo somewhere. Fair-haired, big nose, aristocratic sort of man whose socks match his tie. No politics."

SayersIn Whose Body?, Wimsey’s family has become the Dukes of Denver. In many other respects, Sayers was able to transplant him pretty much wholesale from the earlier story. (Wimsey had one more trial run, appearing as the main character in an unfinished play called The Mousehole: A Detective Fantasia in Three Flats, written sometime between the Blake story and the first novel.)

It’s likely that the facts about Wimsey’s origins would be more well known if Sayers hadn’t written an article entitled "How I came to Invent the Character of Lord Peter", published in 1936. Reynolds informs us:She says there that she does not remember inventing him at all. Her impression is that she was thinking of writing a detective story and that he walked in, "complete with spats", and applied for the job. This suggests that by 1936 she had forgotten her Sexton Blake story (or chose to disregard it). So there we have it. Though Dorothy L. Sayers’ Sexton Blake story was not completed or published, it was clearly a serious undertaking, and one of her earliest forays into fiction, if not the earliest. We know a great deal about the plot, even if we don’t know the story’s name. I am left contemplating two tantalising alternate timelines. One is that in which Dorothy Sayers became a Sexton Blake author. Who knows where her career might have gone, if she had finished the story and sold it successfully?

The second possible world is one in which Sayers did not begin to write a Blake story at all. We might then never have had the marvellous Lord Peter Wimsey stories, and of course none of the rather good BBC TV versions. Looking back, hers may have been one of the world’s most fortunate cases of mumps ever.

That brings me to one final point, though. Reynolds appears to assume, and I tend to agree, that Lord Peter was thought up as a bit player in a Sexton Blake story, but later took on a life of his own. Sayers may however have created Wimsey as a detective in his own right before writing the Blake story, then started the Blake narrative because there was a huge market for Blake, and inserted Lord Peter into it as a ready-made supporting character. Even if that were the case, her fleshing out of Wimsey for his role in the Blake story may well have been a key factor in Sayers’ later development of the character. We will never know the precise sequence of events.

I for one am grateful for the existence of both Blake and Wimsey. I’m pleased that we know about the time the two met and worked together, even if it was never in print, but only in the imagination and the handwriting of Dorothy L. Sayers. [5]

© Guy Lawley
London, Jan 2006

[1] The Wimsey novels (all back in print as paperbacks from New English Library) include Murder Must Advertise, Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night. There were also numerous short stories, collected in Lord Peter by Perennial/Harper Collins. The BBC filmed several of the novels with Ian Carmichael as Wimsey in the 1970s and Edward Petherbridge in the 1980s. All the TV series are now available on DVD. In the later novels Wimsey falls for Harriet Vane, a plain-ish but brilliant lady writer of detective novels. They marry in the final book, Busman’s Honeymoon. The similarities between Vane and Sayers raise interesting questions about Sayers’ motivations in bringing Wimsey to life in the first place.

[2] Company Of Bandits by Jack Trevor Story, originally Sexton Blake Library 5th series no. 17, October 1965. Hardback published by Baker in 1972. If I remember correctly, the Sayers quote had earlier been used in at least one issue of the Library itself.

[3] Dorothy L. Sayers, her Life and Soul, by Barbara Reynolds. Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1993, and Sceptre paperback UK, 2002, St. Martin's Press pb US, 1997. The paperback editions are still available at time of writing.

[4] Baker seemed to be taking the quote seriously, or hoping his audience would. Characteristically, he seems to have been unable to resist the urge to re-write Sayers’ words slightly.

[5] OK, so any clever clogs out there know how and when Wimsey met Sherlock Holmes?