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.
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.
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 19th 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-20th-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 20th 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?
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.
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.
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.
[pullquotes]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.[/pullquote]
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.
Excerpted from The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women by Mo Moulton. Copyright © Mo Moulton 2019. Reprinted with permission from Basic Books.