Funny Gal

Dorothy Sayers is often described in terms of her intellectual attainments (by her supporters and detractors), as falling in love with her own hero (usually by her detractors, including Ngaoi Marsh) and generally being high-falutin and academic and all that. What everyone seems to miss is that Sayers is also extremely funny.

I'm not refering to the blithe Peter Wimsey. Rather, I mean the wit behind the creation. There's a scene in Gaudy Night where Harriet attends a literary cocktail party which is so perfect (and so contemporary), I've excerpted it below:

The room in which [the literary cocktail party] was held was exceedingly hot and crowded, and all the assembled authors were discussing (a) publishers, (b) agents, (c) their own sales, (d) other people's sales, and (e) the extraordinary behavior of the Book of the Moment selectors in awarding their ephemeral crown to Tasker Hepplewater's Mock Turtle . . . A very angry young woman, whose book had been passed over, declared that the whole thing was a notorious farce. The Book of the Moment was selected from each publisher's list in turn, so that her own Ariadne Adams was automatically excluded from benefit, owing to the mere fact that her publisher's imprint had been honored in the previous January. She had, however, received private assurance that the critic of the Morning Star had sobbed like a child over the last hundred pages of Ariadne, and would probably make it his Book of the Fortnight, if only the publisher could be persuaded to take advertising space in the paper. The author of The Squeezed Lemon agreed that advertising was at the bottom of it . . .

"But what's Mock Turtle about?" inquired Harriet.

On this point the authors were for the most part vague; but a young man who wrote humorous magazine stories, and could therefore afford to be wide-minded about novels, said he had read it and thought it rather interesting, only a bit long. It was about a swimming instructor at a watering-place, who had contracted such an unfortunate anti-nudity complex through watching so many bathing-beauties that it completely inhibited all his natural emotions. So he got a job on a whaler and fell in love at first sight with an Eskimo, because she was such a beautiful bundle of garments. So he married her and brought her back to live in a suburb, where she fell in love with a vegetarian nudist. So then the husband went slightly mad and contracted a complex about giant turtles, and spent all his spare time staring into the turtle-tank at the Aquarium, and watching the strange, slow monsters swimming significantly round in their encasing shells. But of course a lot of things came into it--it was one of those books that reflect the author's reactions to Things in General. Altogether, significant was, he thought, the word to describe it.

Harriet began to feel that there might be something to be said even for the plot of [her latest mystery]. It was, at least, significant of nothing in particular.
This is smack dab in the middle of a rather more serious book than usual for Sayers and has nothing, really, to do with the rest of the plot. I think it's hilarious, especially the Book of the Fortnight bit and the stuff about "one of those books that reflect the author's reactions to Things in General." This sort of scene is actually more typical of Sayers than not, although she is usually more circumspect. If you listen closely to her dialog, there's all kinds of wacky stuff going on. And yet no one seems to notice.

I suppose if anyone did notice, her supporters would say she was "witty" and her detractors would say she was "flip" or "snide"--once again, artistry (or craftmanship) gets reduced to a label. So much seems to be invested these days in deciding the merits of a work rather than in actually enjoying it. C.S. Lewis once complained about students who insisted on taking everything they read so seriously, they couldn't appreciate that Jane Austen was funny and Chaucer wanted to make people laugh. Such works aren't even analyzed for whether they were well crafted or not, just whether or not they are ideologically "significant." So Sayers ends up being serious rather than funny when she was usually, for most of her books, more funny than serious.


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