Most readers today know Dorothy L. Sayers as a mystery writer—creator of the golden-age detective novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane—but in her lifetime she was also renowned for, among other things, her theological essays and a popular translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. But as Mo Moulton tells in The Mutual Admiration Society, Sayers was also at the center of a circle of female friends, formed as Oxford University undergraduates, who became lifelong supporters of one another and their socially progressive work in the arts, academia and the advancement of women’s causes. Moulton’s detailed portrait of these smart, tradition-breaking women highlights not only their lesser–known accomplishments but also the strength they derived from each other at a time when women were only just beginning to demand and receive their due.
When Sayers arrived at Oxford’s Somerville College in the years before World War I, women were allowed to attend the same lectures, do all the same coursework and take all the same exams as their male counterparts, but they were denied an actual degree. (That “privilege” came a few years later, along with the right to vote and other overdue liberties.) Undeterred, Sayers and her female peers threw themselves into their academic and extracurricular pursuits with sometimes giddy abandon. A fluid contingent of six or seven of them banded together to form a writing group they dubbed the Mutual Admiration Society with intentional irony—preempting any outside criticism from those who would invariably accuse them of being elitist or clannish. The young women were all from similar middle–class Edwardian backgrounds, although their political leanings and worldviews varied to some degree.
After university, the women’s lives followed sometimes concurrent, sometimes divergent paths. Most became writers or scholars, although one became a midwife, child-rearing expert and birth-control advocate. Moulton chronicles their public accomplishments and personal episodes with evenhandedness, including their romantic attachments to both women and men and the small scandals that shaped them individually and as a group.
What Moulton best accomplishes in this intimate and scholarly book is a re-creation of a world in transition. The Mutual Admiration Society came of age at a vital juncture in history, a time of new opportunity for women (although still limited by today’s standards). Steadfast, these women seized that opportunity and formed what Moulton calls “a profoundly optimistic project”: “Loving one another, they built a kind of family beyond the structures of patriarchy. . . . Offering one another space for reinvention, they helped to change what it meant to be born female in the twentieth century.”