JANUARY 27, 2020
I WROTE A LOT of my book of essays about love and friendship in my friend Rebecca’s peaceful upstairs guest room. When I needed an escape from my roommates or from solitude, her home was always open. Sometimes I could hear her family life happening downstairs — the drone of a vacuum cleaner, the shrieks of her small daughters at play — but the sounds always soothed rather than distracted me. I would sit for hours on the bed with books and notes strewn around me and my laptop on my lap, typing more or less steadily. Sometimes I’d come down and roughhouse with the kids for a while. Sometimes after they went to sleep Becca and I would sit by the fire and exchange our day’s writing with each other and talk it through.
Now when I look back at my book I see our conversations everywhere. After more than a decade and a half of friendship, Becca knows me well enough not only to polish my ideas and sentences but to push me as a person: to ask me to revisit difficult memories from another point of view, or to fundamentally reimagine the way I’m writing about childlessness and loss. Only one of the essays in the book was written especially for and about Becca, but she read and improved them all, as did my beloved friends Cathy, Colleen, and Tara. Other friends read drafts of particular chapters that I had written with them in mind. By the time I sent my manuscript to the publisher, it had already been carefully edited by a host of friends from grad school, divinity school, and my teaching job. Not a single page was written alone.
While I was laboring to finish my book in that magical guest room, I happened to pick up Becca’s tattered paperback copy of Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers, a classic 1937 detective novel, and I found renewed courage and joy in its memorable dedication page. Sayers begins her book with a lavish love letter to her friends Muriel St. Clare Byrne, Helen Simpson, and Marjorie Barber:
Dear Muriel, Helen, and Bar,
With what extreme of womanly patience you listened to the tale of Busman’s Honeymoon while it was being written, the Lord He knoweth. I do not like to think how many times I tired the sun with talking — and if at any time they had told me that you were dead, I should easily have believed that I had talked you into your graves. But you have strangely survived to receive these thanks.
You, Muriel, were in some sort a predestined victim, since you wrote with me the play to which this novel is but the limbs and outward flourishes; my debt and your long-suffering are all the greater. You, Helen and Bar, were wantonly sacrificed on the altar of that friendship of which the female sex is said to be incapable; let the lie stick i’ the wall!
To all three I humbly bring, I dedicate with tears, this sentimental comedy.
Sayers’s heartfelt, explicitly feminist tribute to her friends and collaborators inspired me to pull out all the stops in my own book’s 10-page acknowledgments section. It can also be read as an urtext-in-miniature for Mo Moulton’s marvelous new group biography, The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women.
Sayers (known as “DLS”), Byrne, and Barber (“Bar”) were college friends who, along with their classmates Charis Frankenburg, Dorothy (“D.”) Rowe, and a few others, formed a more or less formal writing group that lasted off and on for most of a century. The Mutual Admiration Society (so named by DLS as a way of anticipating and deflecting external mockery) was, in Moulton’s words, “a forum for collaboration, support, and critical feedback” that ebbed, flowed, and evolved from its founding in the 1910s until the deaths of its last surviving members in the 1980s. As Moulton writes:
Although the struggle to build independent lives pulled the members of the [Mutual Admiration Society] 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.
Moulton writes that the story of the group demonstrates “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.” The book is dedicated “To chosen family.”
As a beautifully pieced patchwork of fascinating archival material from 21 libraries and collections on two continents, MAS (as Moulton calls the group, and as I’ll call the book) combines immense narrative interest with delightful detail. It practically begs to be made into a miniseries featuring dashing women in trousers, neckties, tea gowns, and/or academic gowns — complete with vaguely bohemian London flats, rainy train stations, lesbian love triangles, secret love children, cute cats, devoted dogs, pastoral picnics, and tragic telegrams. Though some of the women stipulated that certain personal papers should be destroyed, the towering boxes of letters, journals, newspaper clippings, theater programs, photographs, and manuscripts that survived clearly provided Moulton with everything that was necessary to reanimate the women’s voices and perspectives.
MAS is also an illuminating work of analysis that engages substantively with and contributes to scholarship on women’s history, queer history, and the histories of childhood, friendship, and higher education. And it provides literary-critical thrills to fans and scholars of DLS, offering fresh ways to read the Peter Wimsey mysteries Busman’s Honeymoon (often considered a minor or marginal work in the Sayers canon) and Gaudy Night (commonly acknowledged as one of DLS’s greatest achievements). By placing these texts primarily in the context of DLS’s network of friendships, Moulton makes them new.
In no sense a hagiography, MAS is forthcoming about the women’s various faults and limitations, particularly the ways in which they perpetuated the received values of the white middle class that they were born into. Moulton’s official title is “Senior Lecturer in the History of Race and Empire,” and the women’s comments on both of these topics are sometimes indefensible. Nor does Moulton ignore the ways that the MAS is also an example of friendship’s fragility and failure: over the years, many original members of the society completely fell away from the group, and there were various fallings-out. In some ways, the four women at the center of the society represent the inevitable attrition of friendship as well as its persistence. They were simply the ones who remained.
In addition to DLS, the detective novelist, popular theologian and dramatist, and translator of Dante, the four “main characters,” as Moulton calls them, include Muriel, “[p]laywright and historian of the Tudor era”; Charis, “[m]idwife, birth control advocate, expert on parenting, and magistrate”; and D. Rowe, “English teacher and founder of the Bournemouth Little Theater.” Moulton also discusses seven members of the “supporting cast” who were either members of MAS or in its orbit. Of these the most central is “Bar,” a teacher and writer who was Muriel’s life-long partner. (Moulton refers to all the women by their nickname or first name, which suits the intimacy of the narrative.)
DLS has been the subject of multiple biographies, and her life is easy to salaciously oversimplify. She was the clergyman’s daughter who turned to a life of fictional crime and real fornication; the not-especially-happily-married writer who wrote one of detective fiction’s great love stories; and the not-especially pious Christian who became a popular theologian. Moulton adds nuance to this narrative by writing empathetically about DLS’s unconventional experience of motherhood (as a single woman, she had a son with a married man, paid a distant relative to foster him almost from birth, and kept him a secret from her parents and most of her friends), her complicated and inscrutable marriage to her fellow writer-motorcyclist Mac Fleming (though I still couldn’t stop myself from writing “ugh Mac” in the margins whenever her husband was getting particularly tedious), and the devotion to creative work that was at the heart of her fiction, her friendships, and her sense of the divine.
The other women are much less well known, and Moulton provides a great service in telling their stories. Muriel, a scholar who had to make her career outside the academy because of her less-than-stellar undergraduate record, supported herself by writing popular history and plays while still managing to complete her epic masterwork, a scholarly edition of a Tudor family’s papers. She worked dauntlessly on the project through the Blitz and beyond, until the University of Chicago Press finally published the papers in six volumes in 1981. She was also (to use anachronistic and inexact terms) a polyamorous gender nonconformist. She and Bar maintained the longest-lasting romantic partnership of the group, while Muriel occasionally formed additional partnerships with others as well.
If Muriel and DLS were one dyad amid the group — co-authoring plays, co-editing a book series — Charis and D. Rowe were the other. Charis was clearly a force. A happily married wife and mother of four, she lost her brother, her husband, and one of her sons to violence or illness caused by the World Wars. Despite these staggering losses, she helped bring countless babies into the world as a midwife, founded and defended a controversial birth control clinic, turned her home into a school for evacuees during the war, served as a magistrate in family court, and wrote multiple parenting books. She did all of this while maintaining meaningful relationships within and beyond the Jewish community during a period of appalling antisemitism (her father and husband were both Jewish). The eccentric spinster of the group, D. Rowe was Charis’s lifeline during her years of mourning. Although she taught secondary school full-time and wrote on the side, her primary creative outlet was the amateur theatrical group she ran with professional passion, and her house was crammed full of vintage clothes to be used for costumes. Charming and charismatic, she wrangled her untrained actors into giving performances of note.
Beyond the inherent interest of these women’s lives, there are quite specific ways in which their stories resonate today. Moulton concedes at the outset, “I suspect they would have been somewhat boring men,” and imagines the straightforward lives they would have led had traditional careers been open to them. But, of course, they weren’t men: “[I]nstead, 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.”
During an era like ours, when stories about millennial burnout go mega-viral and a book about the structural pressures on Gen X women called “Why We Can’t Sleep” climbs the best-seller list, it is strangely compelling to read these historical stories about frustratingly non-linear professional and personal lives, and the ways that friends have helped each other to navigate an uncharted path through decades of professional stress. Like many would-be scholars of my generation, I spent most of my 20s and 30s training for and then failing to get a tenure-track job, so when Moulton tells us that “Muriel St. Clare Byrne was beset by insomnia in the early 1920s, and for good reason. She wanted to be an academic and researcher, but she struggled to break into that world, hampered both by her gender and her need to support herself and her ailing mother,” I am selfishly riveted. Now in my early 40s, I’m currently figuring out a Plan B midlife career as a creative writer, while relying on the abundant help of my friends. Thus when the fortysomething DLS, overwhelmed and frustrated by the struggle to write a new kind of book, appeals to Muriel for advice about Gaudy Night and assures her “[p]lease don’t mind altering anything at all that seems to you weak or inadequate. I trust your judgment quite implicitly,” I am moved in my soul.
Because of the sexist limitations they faced, and because of their own desires (but how can these things ever be separated?), these women found ways to make fulfilling careers combining scholarly and popular modes, and individual and collaborative efforts, in a way that seems strangely contemporary. DLS and Muriel wrote what we might now call “public-facing scholarship,” among other things. Charis combined writing with hands-on and administrative nonprofit work. D. Rowe collaborated with neighbors to make ambitious art for her local community. Together and separately, they figured it out.
Reading MAS reminded me of current women’s collaborations like Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle’s Avidly — a Los Angeles Review of Books “channel” and NYU Press book series co-edited by old friends that bridges academic and popular voices and worlds. MAS also seems to be in conversation with another compulsively readable new book about a starry four-woman writing group: The Ferrante Letters, by Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards, which I was reading at the same time. The Ferrante Letters is an experiment in “collective criticism” structured as letters the authors wrote to each other about the novels of Elena Ferrante. “Traditionally, the work of writing is counted and weighed as an individual accomplishment,” write Chihaya, Emre, Hill, and Richards:
A book is attributed to a single author. Praise, prizes, job offers, promotions, and money (rare though it may be) are extended to her. Whatever conversations she may have had surface, if they do at all, in brief expressions of gratitude in a footnote, and the people who helped are relegated to a blur of names in the acknowledgments. Amidst such commonplace protocols for streamlining and standardizing academic writing, it is easy to forget that the words you commit to paper are yours, but they are not yours alone.
In their epistolary energy and collective creativity, the writers of MAS and TFL speak to each other across the years. “From the beginning,” the Ferrante women write, “friendship, with its flexibility, its productive conflict, its necessary individuation, has been our model of collective criticism.”
Since friendship is the foundation of my own writing process, it seems fitting, when writing about writing groups, to consult with the members of my own. In the past few years, Becca and I have joined forces with two other friends we met in our PhD program at the dawn of the 21st century. Like the members of the MAS, the four of us got to know each other when we were young and full of potential, and we reconvened as a group in early midlife, in various states of professional and personal dilapidation and doubt, security and success. When I asked these women about what our group means to them, I was struck by how much their responses echoed the themes of MAS.
Keri Walsh writes:
There are unspoken rules about writing in academia, and a lot of pressure. I absorbed all of these strictures and only recently realized that they were threatening to become the death of me as a writer. They were stopping me from writing with any joy or sense of expertise, or from writing anything playful or personal. And because these writing values I had inherited and absorbed from the culture of academia weren’t compatible with the way I think and live, they were killing my belief in myself as a writer. I developed serious imposter syndrome. I believed I had nothing to say.
But being in a writing group like ours has allowed me to undo and resist all of this and learn to have fun writing again. I learn from my friends who have already broken free of these writing rules and found their voices. From their absolute belief in me, I learn to believe in myself again. They take my interests seriously, they draw me out and encourage me to write things that might seem, from a professional point of view, like a waste of time or too far afield from my training, but are actually the things I most want to write. They remind me that we don’t have to write for some authority figure “out there,” but can simply write for each other.
Beth Boyle Machlan writes:
Picking up on what Keri said, I always tell my students that a good essay is like a conversation, and writing groups bring those conversations to life. As Keri explained, in academia that conversation can often be defensive, leading to writing [and] thinking so careful that it’s essentially immobilized — the play and wave and surprises of real conversation, conversations that arise from love and joy and genuine interest, so easily disappear. The writing group brings to life the best elements of conversation: support, encouragement, the exciting digression, the reflective pause, the “fill in the blanks so someone can catch up,” and helps us to imagine readers who might also be part of that dynamic, instead of waiting to judge, grade, dismantle.
Rebecca Rainof writes:
After jumping through designated career hoops as a professor, I started to feel my simple faith in writing draining away … This group offers me faith (in myself and in writing as a process and life practice), energy to try new things and face past pieces again, and insight (these women are amazing writers, readers, and teachers, and they’re a real joy to see in motion). And the group is fun. It gives me pleasure and comfort. Perhaps it is because we’ve all known each other for 17 years, our lives intersecting at different points after we were all in graduate school together. There’s a comfort that comes with having known each other, even if we weren’t all in constant contact.
Like our counterparts in the early 20th century, the members of my writing group have weathered bereavements, illness, heartbreak, sexism, a global economic downturn, and the rise of fascism. We are married and not, childless and not, religious and not, academic and not. We have different kinds of jobs and we live in different places, and our range of published writing spans everything from sports journalism to sermons to poems to monographs to scholarly editions of James Joyce.
What unites us is what united the MAS: our love for our work; our love for each other; and our faith that these two enduring, transformative loves are both interdependent and inseparable. In a world full of stories of individual ambition and romantic pairings-off, I’m passionately grateful for a book that tells a complex, collective love story like this one, and that tells it so intelligently and well. As soon as I finished the book, I ordered copies for each of my comrades in writing. I can’t wait to inscribe them in mutual admiration.
Briallen Hopper is the author of Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions (Bloomsbury, 2019), a Kirkus Best Book of the Year and a CBC Best International Nonfiction Book of the Year.