Dorothy L. Sayers’s graduation day

The first Oxford University graduation ceremony to award degrees to women took place on 14 October 1920; the future crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers was among the fifty celebrants that day. This post is about its lasting effect on her.

Oxford University’s first graduation day for women was a degree ceremony like no other. Never before had a Vice-Chancellor uttered the ceremonial Latin words ‘domina, magistra’ in the feminine gender, and the vast, high-ceilinged auditorium of the historic Sheldonian Theatre rang with the cheers of family, friends and supporters of women’s education. Twenty-seven-year old Dorothy L. Sayers was one of Oxford’s first women graduates, awarded a first-class Master’s degree in modern languages. Sayers had actually completed her studies at Somerville College five years before, but she was determined not to miss out on this historic occasion. She had requested her place at the ceremony, as she explained to her mother, ‘because I want so much to be in the first batch. It will be so much more amusing.’

The women’s long-awaited recognition at Oxford was celebrated at Somerville that evening with a special dinner presided over by the College Principal, Emily Penrose, who since 1907 had made sure that all her students fulfilled the requirements for an Oxford degree. It was attended by former Somerville students Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, among others, and the guest of honour was Professor Gilbert Murray, a classical scholar and strong supporter of women’s higher education at Oxford. His friend, Jane Ellen Harrison, a lecturer in classical archaeology at Newnham College in Cambridge, was jealous.  ‘I gnash my teeth when I think of all your Somerville young women preening in cap and gown,’ she told Murray. ‘So like Oxford and so low to start after us and get in first!’ The 1920 Oxford vote gave hope to Harrison and others that soon they too would be permitted the degrees they had earned. But the following year, a move to award the title of degrees to women at Cambridge was defeated, and the University did not confer degrees on women until 1948.

When Dorothy L. Sayers began studying modern languages at Somerville in 1912 it was still, technically, only an ‘affiliated women’s society’ within Oxford University. Somerville women were called ‘freaks’ by male students because of what was seen as their ‘unnatural’ – and threatening – devotion to learning. In her first term Sayers started up a literary society with a handful of other students, which they named ‘The Mutual Admiration Society’. Despite the jokey name, it was ‘a subversive community within an institution where women were constantly reminded that their talents were not wholly welcome’, as biographer Francesca Wade puts it (Wade, p.100). Sayers had a passion for writing but played down her talents (‘I write prose uncommonly badly, and can’t get ideas’). Only her close friends in the Mutual Admiration Society knew of her secret passion for ‘lowbrow’ crime fiction.

Sayers began to publish poetry and essays, but the possibility of actually making a living as a writer seemed as far-fetched as some of the plots in the novels she loved. During this period, the great majority of women students, no matter their subject of study, took up teaching after university: ‘all that she sees before her, unless she has exceptional talent, is teaching’ observed the economist Clara Collet in 1902 (Sutherland, p.26) Sayers wanted something different, but before her graduation day in 1920, she was not sure what that would be. So in 1916 she took a job teaching modern languages at a girls’ school in Hull, then returned to Oxford in 1917 to work for publisher and bookseller Basil Blackwell. But she soon found that, as Mo Moulton writes in The Mutual Admiration Society, ‘a single woman who was neither a student nor an academic had no obvious place in Oxford society’ (Moulton, p.79). Her landladies were suspicious of Sayers’s wish to hold literary salons for Somerville students and, on one occasion, a respectable tea for wounded soldiers. One landlady told her that she would rather have a badly behaved male undergraduate as a lodger than a ‘permanent woman’.

After her graduation day, Sayers decided that her life had to change. She moved to London, took on translating work and part-time teaching to make ends meet, then in December 1920 found an unfurnished room to rent on the eastern, unfashionable fringe of Bloomsbury. Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting is a wonderful evocation of Sayers’s years in in Mecklenburgh Square, where her lodgings had the advantage of being cheap and close to the British Library (my TLS review of Wade and Moulton’s books is here). On her application form to use the reading room, Sayers proudly wrote down her new academic status: ‘a Master of Arts at Oxford’. She was considering doing a postgraduate degree to work on her thesis called ‘the Permanent Elements in Popular Heroic Fiction, with a Special Study of Modern Criminological Romance.’

This may have been partly true. After her undergraduate studies Sayers had thought about staying on as an academic at Somerville, but decided that she was ‘too sociable’ to spend her life in a women’s college. She had always loved detective novels – she devoured the popular Sexton Blake thrillers – but knew that her secret wish to write such stories herself would not be seen as worthy of an Oxford graduate. Now in London, as she mixed with bohemian writers and artists and went to see ‘Grand Guignol’ plays near the Strand, she began to see crime fiction in a different light. In an unpublished essay, probably written in the British Library, she addresses ‘Miss Dryasdust, M.A.’ who ‘disapproves of my fondness for detective stories of the more popular kind’. Sayers tells Miss Dryasdust that she is wrong, and that crime fiction holds the same place in the contemporary imagination as Beowulf and the heroic epics of ancient Greece once did.

‘Miss Dryasdust’, with her prized Master of Arts degree, could be the alter ego of Dorothy L. Sayers herself, as the Oxford scholar who pursued her research interests at Somerville. Instead, in January 1921, Sayers began sketching out an idea for her first book, published in 1922 as Whose Body? It introduced Lord Peter Wimsey, the wealthy, athletic and intelligent protagonist of several of Sayers’s subsequent novels and stories who delights in solving mysteries for  his own amusement. He embodied the opposite of everything in her life at time, as she later recalled: ‘After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet.’ 

In Strong Poison (1930) Sayers introduced the character who was much closer to herself: Harriet Vane, a successful crime writer and former Oxford student who lives in Mecklenburgh Square. In Gaudy Night (1935) Vane is invited to return to her former college (here named Shrewsbury) to help the women there to solve a series of hate crimes. As she hesitates, wondering how her former academic community will welcome her now, she realizes that these are the women who taught her to value her own intellectual ability and independence, and the three years she spent among them at Oxford enabled her to achieve the creative life that she wanted. ‘Whatever I may have done since, this remains’, Vane reminds herself, gathering her confidence, and her voice could be that of Dorothy Sayers after her graduation day in 1920. ‘Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University’.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, 17 October 2020 (all rights reserved)

Sources: Vera Brittain, The Women At Oxford: a Fragment of History (Harrap,1960); Ellen Brundrige, ‘Translations of Latin in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night’; Janet Howarth,'”In Oxford… but not of Oxford”: the women’s colleges’, History of the University of Oxford, ed. Brock and Curthoys, vol VII (OUP, 2000)  pp 237-307; Mo Moulton, The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women (Basic Books, New York, 2019); Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night (Gollancz, 1935);How I Came to Invent the Character of Lord Peter Wimsey’ quoted in Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (1997); Gillian Sutherland, In Search of the New Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Britain 1870-1914 (CUP, 2015); Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (Faber & Faber, 2020)


Somerville College (with photo of Dame Emily Penrose & Gilbert Murray):

Women Making History, 100 years of Oxford degrees for women:

4 thoughts on “Dorothy L. Sayers’s graduation day

  1. Tamsin Wimhurst says:

    Always to interesting to hear about the lives of women and what has influenced them in their writing. I love the idea of having a alter ego on paper that you can write your utopia world into Thank you Ann

    Liked by 1 person

  2. simonboydsite says:

    Very interesting on the history of women’s (non)acceptance by Cambridge – shameful. I think incidentally that the following must be wrong: ‘But 14 October 2020 was a graduation day like no other,’
    Thank you. I have never seen a photograph of Dorothy L Sayers before and had no idea she did a thesis in criminological romance. She was a very good crime writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • akennedysmith says:

      Many thanks Simon, and also for pointing out my typo which I have now corrected! It’s a nice photograph of Sayers, isn’t it – I believe a new biography of her is coming out soon. She turned much more to academic work in the 1940s and 1950s, translating Dante and writing about theology.


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