The Mutual Admiration Society

How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women

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A group biography of renowned crime novelist Dorothy L. Sayers and the Oxford women who stood at the vanguard of equal rights

Dorothy L. Sayers is now famous for her Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane detective series, but she was equally well known during her life for an essay asking “Are Women Human?” Women’s rights were expanding rapidly during Sayers’s lifetime; she and her friends were some of the first women to receive degrees from Oxford. Yet, as historian Mo Moulton reveals, it was clear from the many professional and personal obstacles they faced that society was not ready to concede that women were indeed fully human.

Dubbing themselves the Mutual Admiration Society, Sayers and her classmates remained lifelong friends and collaborators as they fought for a truly democratic culture that acknowledged their equal humanity. A celebration of feminism and female friendship, The Mutual Admiration Society offers crucial insight into Dorothy L. Sayers and her world.


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Muriel St. Clare Byrne (1895–1983). Playwright and historian of the Tudor era. Member of the MAS.

Charis Ursula (Barnett) Frankenburg (1892–1985). Midwife, birth control advocate, expert on parenting, and magistrate. Member of the MAS.

Dorothea Ellen Hanbury Rowe (1892–1988). Known as D. Rowe. English teacher and founder of the Bournemouth Little Theatre Club. Member of the MAS.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893–1957). Known as DLS. Detective novelist, advertising copywriter, playwright, essayist, theologian. Member of the MAS.


Marjorie Barber (1894–1976). Known as Bar. Muriel St. Clare Byrne’s partner. English teacher and author.

Mary Aeldrin Cullis (1883–1968). Known as Susan. Muriel St. Clare Byrne’s lover. Secretary, resident tutor at Bedford College.

Atherton Fleming (1881–1950). Known as Mac. Dorothy L. Sayers’s husband. Writer and mechanic.

Sydney Frankenburg (1881–1935). Charis Frankenburg’s husband. Director of the family firm and philanthropist.

Muriel Jaeger (born Jagger) (1892–1969). Known as Jim. Novelist, essayist, playwright. Member of the MAS.

Catherine (Godfrey) Mansfield (1893–1977?). Known as Tony. Writer. Member of the MAS.

Amphilis Throckmorton Middlemore (1891–1931). Lecturer in English. Member of the MAS.


IT BEGAN IN A QUIET sort of way, over hot cocoa and toasted marshmallows in a student room at Somerville College, Oxford. One evening in November 1912, some new friends, all first-year students, gathered “to read aloud our literary efforts and to receive and deliver criticism.” They brought stories, poems, essays, plays, and fables, and they received far more than merely criticism. In the firelight, over economical treats, they created a space in which they could grow beyond the limitations of Edwardian girlhood and become complex, creative adults with a radically capacious notion of what it might mean to be both human and female.1

The group was named by its best-known member, Dorothy L. Sayers, who would go on to be a famous detective novelist and popular theologian. Let’s call ourselves the Mutual Admiration Society, she suggested, because that’s what people will call us anyway. The name both captures the spirit of the group and misrepresents it. They supported each other boldly and emphatically: no false modesty or feminine shame here. They were willing to be relentless and did not insist on being liked, crucial qualities for taking advantage of the real but tenuous space they had to work within. But they were the exact opposite of the simple echo chamber of praise that the name could imply, in its pejorative sense. They were critical, and they were at odds. They fell apart and came together again, over the course of decades and remarkable careers that ranged from birth control advocacy to genre fiction, from classrooms to the stage.

Four members of the Mutual Admiration Society (MAS) are at the heart of this story. Dorothy L. Sayers was known to her friends by her initials, DLS. Serious and a little weird, DLS was absorbed in her study of French literature and fascinated by the Middle Ages and religion. She would gain fame in adulthood as the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic detective who starred in her mystery novels. Later, she would be equally well known for the essays and plays she wrote to expound her particular understanding of Christianity and personal ethics.

Muriel St. Clare Byrne, who arrived at Somerville two years later than the others, would become DLS’s closest collaborator. Like DLS, she’d loved tales of knights and chivalry and derring-do as a youngster; as an adult, she paid court to the women who became her lovers and partners, immortalizing the experience in verse and drama. She, too, became a wide-ranging writer, bringing Tudor history and Elizabethan literature to life in popular histories crammed with vivid detail.

Charis Barnett, by contrast, was intensely social, enthusiastic, and empathetic, far more interested in people than in ideas. Her career would follow suit, as she raised four children while becoming a nationally known authority and advocate on child-rearing, birth control, maternal mortality, and juvenile delinquency.

Charis’s closest friend was Dorothy Rowe, or D. Rowe, the joking trickster of the group, who never missed an opportunity for a wisecrack or a limerick that would skewer the foibles and pretensions of those around her. D. Rowe became a beloved English teacher, as well as the founder of a prominent and progressive amateur theater club in Bournemouth.

They were joined by a few others at points along the way: the spiky, cynical Muriel “Jim” Jaeger; the otherworldly Amphilis T. Middlemore; and the quiet, serious Catherine “Tony” Godfrey, in particular.

Their words are preserved in libraries scattered across England and the United States, creating a composite archive that is at once deliberate and accidental. Even though they produced copious and vivid letters, stories, poems, and photographs, the members of the MAS resist any attempt by outsiders to know them completely. Jim would stipulate that her personal papers be burned after her death. DLS probably would have destroyed more of her papers if she hadn’t died suddenly and relatively young. The members of the MAS kept each other’s secrets, too. The question of who knew the truth about DLS’s illegitimate son, and when, has always exercised her biographers, but the members of the MAS are like a wall on this subject: the solidarity of their friendship will not be breached. On the other hand, they also preserved memories and documents. Muriel didn’t destroy some fairly frank love letters from another woman, though she had fifty years to do so. D. Rowe wrote on the backs of all sorts of scraps of paper, creating a double archive of her own life. She also contributed to the scrapbooks that lovingly document the Bournemouth Little Theatre Club. Charis preserved her family newsletters and donated her Somerville diaries to her alma mater, and she told her own life story in her memoir. Virginia Woolf famously suggested that “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” Despite their occasional reticence, the members of the MAS refused to be anonymous. Instead, their abundant archives testify to their insistence that their work and lives were worth recording.2

The women of this generation were well placed to take advantage of the victories won by the previous era of feminist activists. Whereas the women of the late nineteenth century had to fight to gain access to higher education, the members of the MAS enjoyed nearly all that Oxford had to offer, at least in intellectual terms. In their young adulthood, they saw a raft of legislation passed that transformed British women into citizens. Women over thirty, subject to certain property restrictions, would gain the right to vote in 1918; they were granted the vote on equal terms with men in 1928. Women were allowed to stand for Parliament, to sit on juries, and to become lawyers and magistrates. They had increasing access to birth control and well-paid jobs, as well as scope to smoke cigarettes, wear trousers, and socialize in ways that would have scandalized their grandparents.

All of this amounted to a revolution in gender relations. But what happens on the day after the revolution? The members of the MAS made the most of the small but significant opening afforded to them, while continuing to face unequal opportunities, double legal standards, and systematic discrimination. To be a girl or a woman in early-twentieth-century Britain meant facing pervasive limitations on one’s choices, both personal and professional, despite the recent waves of democratization that had knocked down barriers based on class and gender. Even as they sat debating poetry and politics in Somerville College, they were second-class citizens at Oxford University, where they were permitted to take classes and sit for examinations but could not receive degrees. That would change in 1920, five years after most of the group had finished their studies. That year, Oxford decided to grant full membership of the university to all the women who had completed the necessary examinations and coursework, after the passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 cleared the way of legal objections. The degree ceremony, held one sunny October afternoon in the Sheldonian Theatre, was a brief moment of unalloyed triumph shared by the members of the MAS who received their degrees that day. But they returned home, mostly, to chronic inadequate employment, landlords who didn’t want to rent to single women, and relentless pressure to marry and have children.

The Mutual Admiration Society was an incubator. It provided a forum for collaboration, support, and critical feedback, as well as a model for forging other productive partnerships. Although the struggle to build independent lives pulled the members of the MAS apart from each other in the 1920s, the group, remarkably, came back together, in reunions and reconnections around the end of that decade, when its members were in their mid-to late thirties. These reunions led to a series of collaborations that would ultimately transform their careers and reconnect them with work as a life’s endeavor, rather than merely the means to financial independence. DLS’s much-loved mystery novel Gaudy Night, set in a fictionalized Somerville, grew directly out of these collaborations and underscores the importance of balancing the demands of head and heart in this way.

Meaningful, creative work was the birthright of both women and men, they believed. In a pair of essays published in the journal Christendom in response to a special issue on “the emancipated woman,” DLS and Muriel made that case forcefully. They spent a summer writing back and forth to each other and to the magazine’s editor, working out their ideas about why it was so damaging to limit any human being to a narrow set of gendered characteristics. Muriel’s partner, Marjorie “Bar” Barber, read their drafts on the beach during their holiday and offered her own opinions. Developed further under the title “Are Women Human?,” DLS’s response has become an enduring classic. Yes, she argued, women are human, with the same dazzling and bewildering array of talents and foibles as any other subset of humans. In an era when many feminists emphasized the special contributions women could make—to the arts of peace in international relations, say—the members of the MAS were, by contrast, strictly egalitarian. Women, they argued, mostly weren’t special: they were just human, and deserved to be allowed to live and work as people first, rather than having all their actions and efforts read through the lens of gender.

For DLS and her friends, the category of “human” was capacious. It could hold all sorts of expression and eccentricity and possibility. “Woman,” by contrast, was flattening. It turned half the population into a homogenous lump to be summarized and then controlled. The members of the MAS were profoundly shaped by the fact that they were women, within a changing but still highly restrictive gender order. They thought, consistently and deeply, about that order in all aspects of their work. In their lives, too, they challenged any narrow interpretation of what it meant to be a woman. Their self-expression ranged from the masculine to the feminine, with multiple variations in between, and they experienced romance, sex, marriage, and parenthood in a variety of ways, too. The reluctance around the homogenizing category of “woman,” in other words, was grounded in the very real diversity of their own experiences.

Nor were they interested only in expanding access to culture for women as such. Their work was usually aimed at “everyone,” or at least that subset of everyone who read English and was interested in art and ideas. The MAS intervened, in various ways, in what was arguably the core problem of the first half of the twentieth century: the democratization of culture and politics. This widening of access to cultural and political power brought opportunities and perils. Universal suffrage became the British norm for the first time, and literacy rates improved. Britons became famous for newspaper reading, as well as for being devotees of the new art form of cinema. Giving ordinary people unprecedented access to culture and mass democracy could look promising or dangerous, depending on your perspective. Was the new society a crowd of dupes, easily manipulated by advertisers or, worse, demagogues? Or was it a collective of citizens, able to be educated in improved, scientific ways of living and interacting? Was mass culture, in other words, a liberation or a trap?3

Facing these questions, the members of the MAS were simultaneously insiders and outsiders: members of an elite social class, but women. From that very particular position they were able to develop a distinctive set of ideas about the relationships between high art and popular culture, and between elite intellectual ideas and ordinary life. I suspect they would have been somewhat boring men. DLS and Muriel would surely have been fulltime academics, DLS a professor of medieval French, Muriel of Tudor history and paleography, perhaps. D. Rowe might have been a headmaster of a small boys’ school; Charis, a pater familias and competent administrator. (That is, if they hadn’t died serving in World War I, as at least some of them would have.) No doubt they would have done good, even excellent, work. But instead, their marginality within the gender politics of their era served a role like sand in an oyster. They struggled and were pushed out of the main lines of promotion and success, and instead of reproducing the world of their fathers or their mothers, they made something new.

All four worked at the intersections of elite and popular culture. DLS wrote detective novels, that most beloved of middlebrow genres, which merged modernist experimentation with the formulaic delights of thrillers and true-crime stories. Later, she brought religious and ethical ideas to a wide audience, notably through a BBC radio play-cycle on the life of Jesus and a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy published by Penguin. Muriel St. Clare Byrne wrote the history of daily Tudor life, for the ordinary reader as well as for the scholar. D. Rowe brought Shakespeare to her students and moderately experimental theater to provincial amateur dramatics. And Charis Frankenburg sought to popularize the latest ideas about parenting, birth control, and healthy motherhood through clinics and advice books. Their diverse efforts were united by a shared conviction in the value of intellectual rigor and artistic integrity.4

They were linked, too, by the belief that those values should and could be shared beyond traditional circles and traditional modes. Through theater, novels, plays, clinics, cartoons, and more, they sought to bring the most serious of ideas to the largest number of people. DLS formulated the reason behind this goal most clearly: because serious, creative work is what gives meaning to our lives, and a meaningful life’s work is the right of every person. She framed this in religious terms. Creative work is what people share with God, the ultimate creator, and it is our solace in a world defined otherwise by our tendency toward destruction and sin. Charis would have put it differently but meant much the same thing. For her, access to the best science of health and living laid the foundation for a good life in which one could work seriously in respectful cooperation with one’s fellows. Underlying all four careers, though, was the core emphasis on the value of rigorous thought for everyone.

They were not naïve optimists. They were well aware, for instance, that mass advertising and pop psychology fooled people into making disastrous decisions, and that mass politics could produce mass destruction. The answer, they argued, was not a return to stifling hierarchies that limited power and learning to a few well-born men. It was rather to educate better, to turn the mechanisms of mass culture into conduits for enlightenment and imaginative work, instead of simple tools to generate higher profits or more votes. Their encounter with learning and scholarship had been liberating and joyful and ultimately profoundly humanizing. At Oxford, they were transformed from schoolgirls into creative adults by means of conversation with texts and each other. Their work spanned from midwifery to mystery novels, and from theology to theater, but it was united by the desire to share that transformative education more widely.

On one level, their story reveals the generative power of friendships, which create an intimate local space in which we can become something or someone quite different from our assigned social or familial categories. It also suggests the generative power of marginalization. This is not to argue that exclusion is a good thing, but to recognize that the experience of being marginalized can generate sharp insights, original approaches, and powerful solidarities alongside the toll of damage and loss. The members of the MAS lived at a very particular moment in the histories of both democracy and of women’s rights. They experienced radical shifts in inclusion—the ability to attend Oxford and then to receive degrees and the right to vote, most notably. They also experienced the effects of persistent structural exclusions, manifesting most obviously in their struggles to earn adequate salaries independently. As a result, they saw the widening of access to culture as a movement of immense promise and possibility.

They were no revolutionaries. If their position in the gender order rendered them marginal, then class, race, and political affiliation largely placed the members of the MAS in a very central, privileged position. Their party politics varied—DLS once referred to her “vaguely church-&-landed-gentry bias,” in contrast to Muriel’s “vaguely sympathy-for-labour-&-women bias.” But they agreed more than they disagreed. In keeping with the mood of interwar Britain as well as with their politics, they tended to support what has been called “conservative modernity” by historians of this era. The phrase suggests an embrace of new technologies and perspectives—mass communication, political rights for women—alongside a reverence for what was traditional, local, and even insular.5

For the members of the MAS, conservative modernity meant recognizing the many benefits to breaking down the walls that kept the ancient traditions of learning and scholarship separate from ordinary people. As DLS recognized early on, even illiterate audiences shaped the development of medieval drama; the grand traditions of European literature grew out of their cheers and boos. She and her friends applied that principle to modern life, believing that vibrant, organic culture only thrived in a society that thoroughly integrated its highest culture with the full range of its population. Through their diverse careers, they worked to make the best ideas, the most creative work, and a joyful encounter with learning accessible to a wide range of people. That, they believed, was one of the greatest achievements to which a democratic society could aspire.

In advance of its sixtieth birthday, Somerville College began, in 1938, to compile information about the careers of its graduates. The Observer pointed out the “exceptionally large number of good writers” included in that list, singling out DLS and Muriel St. Clare Byrne among others. But, the paper went on: “not less important are the diligent scholars who live out-of-the-way lives, the scientists, social workers, and school-mistresses who may not be known to the general public, but who continue to raise the level of women’s mental responsibility.” In their careers, the members of the MAS did more than that. As writers, but also as teachers and public figures, they sought to raise everyone’s level of mental responsibility, by insisting that women be heard, finally, as fully human members of society.6

Part 1

Oxford, 1912–1918



ON OCTOBER 11, 1912, CHARIS Barnett and her mother took the train from London to Oxford. Her aunt met them at the station, and together the three women went to Somerville College, where Charis planned to spend the next several years living and studying. They spent the day readying her room, breaking only for lunch at the Cadena Café in Cornmarket, where, as the advertisement said, dinners, luncheons, and afternoon teas were “daintily served with dispatch.” Then Charis brought her mother back to the railway station. After tea, they parted: her mother went home, and Charis returned to Somerville to begin her university education.1

In its own simple way, the scene, which was repeated dozens of times around the ancient city that week, was remarkable. Charis came from a middle-class family. She was not part of the vast class of young women in Victorian and Edwardian Britain who were expected to work as a servant or in a factory. Had she been born earlier, or into a family that cared less about educating its daughters, she might have assumed she would remain at home until (and unless) she married. Instead, she left home to study, following in the footsteps of centuries of men but only a few short decades of women. Despite the poignancy of leaving her mother at the station, she was already ecstatic the next day, writing home: “I am very happy here—I don’t know of anything that I would alter if I could.”2

Somerville College, one of the first women’s societies, or colleges, at Oxford, was well designed to foster the transition between a sheltered girlhood and modern adulthood. The culture it created honored both the ideals of middle-class femininity and the traditions of the university. It gave the members of the MAS, as well as their classmates, the necessary support to enable them to master a challenging curriculum and develop their intellectual interests. The MAS took that a step further. Seeing one another without the limiting lens of Edwardian gender roles, they gave each other scope to develop. In their writing, in theatrical productions, in debating societies, and in their relationships, they tried on different styles and personalities and perspectives. They expected, mostly, to use their educations in order to gain paid employment later in life. But for the MAS, work was never only about passing examinations or securing future employment. Writing and thinking instead took on a transcendent importance, not least as the medium through which new friendships and new identities could be consolidated.

Somerville’s own position was still tenuous: not everyone at Oxford welcomed the increasing presence of women as nearly equal students at the ancient, masculine university. Even as they studied, the members of the MAS had to negotiate intense anxieties about gender and the place of women within the university.

Although Somerville College was only thirty-three years old, the cohort of 1912 entered “a ready-made inheritance” in an appropriately imposing edifice. Beyond the tiny entrance was a large quadrangle that housed one hundred students, as well as common rooms, dining facilities, and a library. In her first year, Muriel sent postcards home to her mother. One featured the library and another showed the Common Room, where, she explained, “one works after brekker.” When it was founded, Somerville had been in a manor house, but over the intervening years it became less and less like a Victorian home and more and more like any other Oxford college. The construction of Maitland Hall and a new entrance in the summer of 1913 would plunge the college into what DLS called “a most grisly turmoil,” with “dust & workmen everywhere.”3

The buildings were tangible evidence of the progress made toward including women in higher education at all levels. This had begun with the establishment of the Ladies’ Educational Associations in the mid-nineteenth century, which offered instruction for women as well as support in preparing for university examinations. The first university in Britain to offer degrees to women was the University of London, in 1878. By the beginning of the twentieth century, women could study and take degrees at numerous universities in Britain and elsewhere, but not yet at Oxford. Oxford resisted in no small part because its characteristic traditions—boat racing, formal debating societies, and so on—were designed, in the nineteenth century, to promote a professional, imperial, masculine elite. The MAS and their fellow students arrived only a few decades later, and they pushed the university to widen those traditions to include middle-class British women.4

Muriel St. Clare Byrne, probably at Somerville (MSBC 9/3)

Female students living at Oxford were a curiosity, and the spectacle of young women living the kind of studious, single-sex college life that had for so long been exclusively male attracted attention and questions. Writing to her fellow student and future MAS member Tony Godfrey during Easter vacation in 1913, DLS complained at length about it:

I’m simply dead sick of telling people about Oxford, & how many there are of us at Somerville & how many dons there are, & why have I got to do an exam in German when my subject’s French, & do I see much of the Prince of Wales, & do we have lectures with the men, & is there a tennis-court at Somerville, & what is the name of our Head, & what times are lights put out at night, & how do we get milk when we make our own tea, & may we go to the theatre, & have I made any particular friends, & what sort of people live in my passage, & have I one room or two & will the new buildings be finished when we get back, & do the maids wear caps & aprons, & when was the college founded & are there more women students at Oxford or Cambridge?

But this was at home. Back within the walls of Somerville, students were sheltered from the limelight and assimilated into an ordinary college life.5

On Sale
Nov 5, 2019
Page Count
384 pages