Ringing the Changes

The Book Club have been looking at Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers for their December read. This 1934 novel, featuring the aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, is something of a Christmas story, although it opens on New Year’s Eve up in England’s fenland countryside.

Now, much as I love Dorothy Sayers, I have to admit that the book is far from perfect. Sayers has an unfortunate taste for the twee in her writing, and an uncomfortably easy acceptance of her era’s class structures and racist (and sexist) attitudes.  Too, her plot here is as convoluted as they come, while the murder at its center is frankly implausible, if not outright impossible.  Sayers doesn’t seem to trust the mystery to take care of itself—one of the cases when, as Raymond Chandler (The Art of Murder) noted about her writing, “the weakest element in them is the part that makes them detective stories.”  As for the research in the novel, even those of us who adore picking up odd bits of knowledge in our mysteries end up feeling somewhat bludgeoned by the sheer quantity of information on the minutiae of bell ringing.

And yet, the book sings.  Sayers always has a knack for shaping exactly the right phrase, the one that captures a moment or implies a complex sub-text: how after nine hours of physical work her character is so famished he feels his sides “clapping together like an empty portmanteau”; how a suspect has the “face of a man pushed to the last extremity, haggard and grey, and pinched about the nostrils like a dead man’s”; how during a ring of bells “the whole tower was drenched and drunken with noise.”

She paints pictures with words—

Before the cars reached St Paul, the flood was rising and pursuing them. Wimsey’s car—the last to start—was submerged to the axles.  They fled through the dusk, and behind and on their left, the great silver sheet of water spread and spread.

But it’s more than cleverness with words and a knack for language.  In Nine Tailors, Sayers is writing about a countryside she loves and a way of life that is in her bones—and it shows. You might not agree with her, in attitudes or in the construction of plot, but even a critical reader can’t say she doesn’t give her heart to this book.

What else would explain how choked up I get reading the story?  How some passages just seem to fill my lungs and eyes, ridiculously but undeniably:

The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting up in the high tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo…little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them.

These are church bells, for heaven’s sake, bashing away in their towers, each clapper slapping its bronze surround in unnecessarily complex patterns and keeping everyone from sleep. But the language! The shape of the words, the names of each bell, their individual personalities, the verbs describing their movements and the tin/tan/din/dan/bim/bam/bom/bo of the initial descending sounds before each launches off into its mapped-out pattern—all those things come together to play a reader’s emotions as the ringer plays the bells overhead.

I challenge the reader not to feel a surge of emotion when, after one mystery has been solved and an act of heroism has taken a life, as the besieged village grows weary of the floods, Wimsey finds the waters starting to inch down—

…and returned, waving a handful of laurels from someone’s front garden, as the nearest substitute for an olive-branch.  That day they rang a merry peal of Kent Treble Bob Major, and across the sundering flood heard the bells of St Stephen peal merrily back.

I love this book, despite—because of?—its flaws.

Nine Tailors is also the source of one my fondest memories.  Many years ago, I was driving my brother and his wife through England.  As we went, heading from Salisbury to Oxford, we were listening to Nine Tailors on the rental car’s tape player.  As dusk settled in, I decided that our chances of finding hotel rooms (in those pre-cell phone days) might be easier outside the city, so I stopped in the nearby market town of Faringdon.  The scene on the tape was clearly drawing to a close, so I let the car idle for a couple of minutes outside of a likely coaching inn…and when I shut it off and we climbed out to stretch our weary limbs, we were surrounded by the sound of bells from All Saint’s Church, and discovered that the inn we were parked in front of was called The Bell.

I am ashamed to admit, however, that even at the time, I couldn’t have told you if they were playing Kent Treble Bob Major.

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  1. Merrily Taylor on December 22, 2018 at 5:36 pm

    This reminded me so much of when Alice and I stayed in an hotel in York that was (literally) adjacent to the Cathedral, and got to listen to 45 minutes or more of up close and personal bell ringing. It went on so long that finally we called down to the front desk and asked what was up, and the desk clerk said “Oh, it’s Wednesday night, it’s bell practice!”

  2. Rachel T. Keeney on December 22, 2018 at 5:52 pm

    Does Sayers really have “an uncomfortably easy acceptance of her era’s class structures and racist (and sexist) attitudes,” or does she have a pitch-perfect eye and ear for describing and giving voice to each and every character? No, she wasn’t a feminist, by our standards or hers; no, she wasn’t a late-20th-early-21st century American egalitarian. But what she wrote, she loved, and she loved too well to do anything but take her characters as they were and be true to them. We may wish she would have made them revolutionaries, dissatisfied with their lot — but that’s not who they were. We may wish Peter would have a come-to-Jesus moment and become a dedicated, even fervent, Christian — but as she once said, she couldn’t imagine anything less likely for him to do.
    A story without her panoply of real people, of every station, every kind of work, every educational background, every accent, would be as dull and dingy as a peal with bells of one note. They wouldn’t be stories I would care to read, much less read over and over and learn by heart.

    • Mary on December 22, 2018 at 9:29 pm

      I wholeheartedly agree that no author is less inclined to smooth the rough spots of character than Dorothy L Sayers. Her hero bluntly asks what does pain matter if that’s what it takes to be honest – and asks it of someone he loves deeply. She didn’t sugar coat herself or others.

    • Agnes on December 23, 2018 at 11:05 am

      I found that set of criticism a little odd. I think by her standards she was a feminist. There’s plenty of approving discussion of women taking on economic and intellectual roles in _Have his Carcase_ and _Gaudy Night_. She’s certainly a snob in some ways, and there’s some unpleasant antisemitism in her writing (I haven’t noticed a lot of racism per se). But you can say all that about Agatha Christie, too, whose writing is nowhere near as good.

      • Rachel T. Keeney on December 24, 2018 at 11:22 am

        Sayers stated a preference not to be called a feminist (whatever she perceived that to be in her time), so that’s not meant as a criticism from me. I agree, she clearly did not believe women should be confined to traditional roles, in life or in fiction.

  3. Dayna on December 23, 2018 at 8:05 am

    Ms. King, your comments on the book expressed exactly what I have been thinking but did not express in the VBC discussions. Thanks for so eloquently summarizing what I most and least liked about the book. The one other word I would have used (and something I mentioned in the VBC discussion) was the tediousness of the extended narrative of the characters. Although I was tempted to skim or skip them altogether I did not, because I didn’t want to miss the occasional witty gem hidden in the narrative. Haven’t decided if I’ll read another Sayer’s book anytime soon but will keep her in mind when I’m looking for a mystery.

    • Linda Garrison Hardbarger on January 2, 2019 at 9:09 am

      Your a much better reader than I Danya, I could not keep slogging on through the explanations of the bells – I did give it the good ‘ole college try but to no avail. It was so horribly boring I probably skipped 1/4 of this particular book.

  4. Hilary Temple on December 23, 2018 at 11:39 am

    I cannot believe that anyone would use the word “twee” about DLS. Maybe a good dictionary is needed…? The strong points of the book are brought out well in the critique. I just worry that present-day readers bring a 21st century perspective to their reading of fiction which is almost wholly irrelevant to the cultural issues that come up in the course of the plot development.

    • Laurie King on December 23, 2018 at 12:14 pm

      Twee is not so much true in this story, but in her earlier books her attempts at humor are occasionally a bit forced. And I’m not sure our changing perspective is irrelevant, although it definitely must be taken into account. Do I wince at her attitudes in various books towards Jews and lesbians? Yes. Does that discussion (can’t remember where, offhand) about wine, where Lord Peter patronizingly tells Harriet that really good wines are hard to develop a taste for, hit a modern ear as a touch of unnecessarily heavy-handed mansplaining? Sure, just like Mark Twain’s use of the N word, or a story’s easy acceptance of a drunk driving, or loads of smoking in movies, are all a jolt for modern eyes. Doesn’t mean we don’t admire Twain or watch old movies–or love Dorothy L. Sayers.

      • David Beierl on April 24, 2019 at 1:30 am

        “Does that discussion (can’t remember where, offhand) about wine, where Lord Peter patronizingly tells Harriet that really good wines are hard to develop a taste for,”

        I think you’ll find it in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and it’s nothing to do with Harriet at all.

        ‘What do you think of the Romanée Conti?’ he asked suddenly.

        ‘I don’t know much about wine. It’s good. Not sweet, like Sauterne. It’s a little—well—harsh. But it’s harsh without being thin—quite different from that horrid Chianti people always seem to drink at Chelsea parties.’

        ‘You’re right; it’s rather unfinished, but it has plenty of body—it’ll be a grand wine in ten years’ time. It’s 1915. Now, you see. Waiter, take this away and bring me a bottle of the 1908.’

        He leaned towards his companion.

        ‘Miss Dorland—may I be impertinent?’

        ‘How? Why?’

        ‘Not an artist, not a bohemian, and not a professional man; a man of the world.’

        ‘What do you mean by those cryptic words?’

        ‘For you. That is the kind of man who is going to like you very much. Look! that wine I’ve sent away—it’s no good for the champagne-and-lobster sort of person, nor for very young people—it’s too big and rough. But it’s got the essential guts. So have you. It takes a fairly experienced palate to appreciate it. But you and it will come into your own one day. Get me?’

        ‘Do you think so?’

        ‘Yes. But your man won’t be at all the sort of person you’re expecting. You have always thought of being dominated by somebody, haven’t you?’


        ‘But you’ll find that yours will be the leading brain of the two. He will take great pride in the fact. And you will find the man reliable and kind, and it will turn out quite well.’

        ‘I didn’t know you were a prophet.’

        ‘I am, though.’

        Wimsey took the bottle of 1908 from the waiter and glanced over the girl’s head at the door. A man in a boiled shirt was making his way in, accompanied by the manager.

        ‘I am a prophet,’ said Wimsey. ‘Listen. Something tiresome is going to happen—now, this minute. But don’t worry. Drink your wine, and trust.’

        • Laurie King on April 24, 2019 at 7:23 pm

          Ah, right, not Harriet—thanks!

  5. Linda Hay on December 23, 2018 at 5:06 pm

    Laurie, Thank you for giving us “your take.”

    Change ringing has to be one of the stranger passions embraced by English men and women. Robin McKinley, one of my favorite writers of fantasy, took it up when she moved to England and her blogs focusing on the exquisite pain one goes through learning to do it, and to pull if off consistently, boggle the mind. However they are instructive.

    There’s something she has written about some of the responses to her books … to the effect that “because I didn’t write the book the way you wanted it to be written does not make it a bad book.”
    I hope I can accept books in the context in which they were written. Few us are offered the chance to be wiser than the time in which we live, or the person who we are.

    Similarly Sayers herself ” strongly defends the view that literary creatures have a nature of their own, vehemently replying to a well-wisher who wanted Lord Peter to “end up a convinced Christian”. “From what I know of him, nothing is more unlikely … Peter is not the Ideal Man”.

    It is interesting that Dorothy Sayers gave up writing mysteries to write religious drama, books and essays of a theological nature, and to translate Dante. The discussions between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane in Gaudy NIght pertaining to her fictional detective and Harriet’s desire to go beyond being the author of popular detective fiction suggests Sayers was already feeling called to a different sort of writing, and perhaps that Lord Peter had developed as much as he was likely to.

  6. susan on December 23, 2018 at 9:01 pm

    ummm…read more about Dorothy L. Sayers…she is in her own way a feminist. that is, if you mean a woman who is supportive of women and promotes women. Harriet Vane is not exactly a shrinking violet. people in those times could not get away from the racism….there are often subtle changes in attitude towards race, but in our day we look back and don’t think it’s “good enough”. walk a bit in others shoes, you will learn a lot. i always enjoy a Dorothy L. Sayers mystery and many of her essays too.

    • Rachel T. Keeney on December 24, 2018 at 11:30 am

      Susan, Sayers said of herself that she was not a “feminist,” whatever she took that to mean in her time. From my perspective I would say she was, but it was a label she rejected. Have you read “Are Women Human?” One of the best feminist essays ever, imo.

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