A circle of friends that changed pre-war English literature


In October 1920, Oxford University granted degrees to women for the first time. Among the 50 women receiving their degrees that day were three friends who had met at Somerville College back in 1912. They were known to their circle as Muriel, Jim, and DLS; their full names were Muriel St Clare Byrne, Muriel Jaeger and Dorothy L Sayers. A decade before Sayers became a crime fiction legend with the creation of her fictional sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, she co-founded a literary circle with Muriel, Jim and a group of other Somerville girls including Charis Barnett and Dorothy Rowe. They called themselves the Mutual Admiration Society.

The self-aware name was suggested by Sayers, who pointed out that this was what other people would call them anyway. Over the next three years, the Society would regular gather in one of their rooms to drink cocoa, share their latest literary works and make each other laugh. The advent of World War I transformed their lives, however. They lost brothers, friends and a fiancé to the mass slaughter; they trained as nurses.

And they emerged from this chaos in 1918 into a world that was changing fast, but not fast enough for intelligent, ambitious women. They now had the education previous generations longed for but were entering an employment market that refused to acknowledge their skills. The options for most young middle class women was, as it would remain (especially in this country) for a long time, “teach or marry”.

The former members of the MAS tried to forge their own paths, and throughout this hugely enjoyable book Mo Moulton uses the lives of the core members of the society to skilfully explore the new roles that women were creating for themselves, roles that women are still trying to define today. While pointing out their prejudices and blind spots, not least their class privilege, Moulton salutes their determination to be taken seriously as women and human beings.

Charis, who married a philanthropically minded businessman called Sydney Frankenburg, drew on her nursing training to become a successful advocate for birth control and maternal health; Dorothy Rowe, known to all as D Rowe, seemed to follow a traditional path by choosing teaching – but she also became a hugely respected producer of amateur theatre productions, creating an actual theatre that attracted the approving attention of the theatrical elite.

Muriel Byrne worked as a freelance historian and lived with her female partner, Marjorie ‘Bar’ Barber, in a relationship that was acknowledged as a serious domestic partnership by her wider circle. And Sayers, of course, became a celebrated author. She also had a baby out of wedlock who was brought up by her cousin, followed by a complicated marriage.

In the tumultuous decade following their graduation, the MAS drifted apart, as they struggled both to find their places in the world, and to educate people without preaching or boring them. But Moulton shows that by the end of the 1920s, core members Sayers, Charis, Byrne and Rowe had rekindled their strong friendships with each other, and these relationships sustained their personal lives and their work – sometimes simultaneously.

One of the most fascinating chapters in the book is the one devoted to Sayers’s work with Byrne on the play Busman’s Honeymoon, which saw Lord Peter finally married to crime novelist Harriet Vane. By writing the play together, Byrne and Sayers explored what it meant to be in a marriage of equals, working out their own ideas through Harriet and Peter.

Almost a century later, the Wimsey-Vane relationship is still held up as one of the most satisfying in literature. For that, and for many other things, modern-day readers can thank the ambitious, complicated, funny, brave women of the Mutual Admiration Society.