What's the difference between history and gossip? Well, one definition might be: if the gossip is about dead people, it's history.
The following is therefore a serious historical note, rather than a shameful bit of tittle-tattle.
Not Mere Wimsey
The players, or gossipees:
Dorothy L Sayers (1893-1957). Ms Sayers, the daughter of a respectable English clergyman and his wife, was remarkable in many ways. She was ahead of her time, earning first-class honours at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1915, in modern languages and medieval literature. She was a pioneer in that respect, because at that time, Oxford wouldn't grant degrees to women. That is, they could study, and take the exams – but they were not permitted to matriculate (be students), or get degrees.
This ridiculous situation had existed as long as women had been studying there, beginning in 1870. In 1920, Oxford finally entered the 20th Century. Matriculation ceremonies were held for women, followed immediately by graduation ceremonies in which their long-delayed degrees were finally conferred. The first woman graduate of Oxford was Annie Rogers, who had passed her exams in Latin and Greek in 1877. Forty women graduated in this fashion, including Dorothy Sayers, who also earned an M.A.
What did this well-educated woman do with her excellent degrees? She went into advertising, of course. She was good at it, and influenced British culture profoundly. Who in that proud nation can forget the Guinness Toucan1? Sayers also became a popular crime novelist. Her series of novels about Lord Peter Wimsey led to fame, and modest fortune.
Oh, yes: Ms Sayers was also a Christian apologist. This, for the non-initiated, is a person who writes in a scholarly or popular way in order to convince the skeptical that Christianity, particularly as historically practiced in Western Europe, is a very respectable intellectual undertaking. Its best-known British practitioners are perhaps CS Lewis, who also wrote doctrinally-themed novels like The Great Divorce, and GK Chesterton, who wrote crime novels like Sayers, only with a priest as detective.
At 29, Ms Sayers was a liberated, but respectable woman, with a budding literary career and a life in cosmopolitan London. She had friends who were educated, but while not narrow-minded, by no means anarchist in their outlook. Which makes what she did in the Roaring Twenties seem all the more shocking.
John Cournos (1881-1966). Lord Peter Wimsey's friends might have called John Cournos 'a beastly foreigner', 'a Hebrew', and, frankly, 'not our sort'. They might have used other epithets which Lord Peter, though he might not use them himself, would probably not have contradicted. Cournos, born Ivan Grigorievich Korshun, was born in the Ukraine, but came to Philadelphia in the US at age ten. His first language was Yiddish, but Cournos, a polyglot, became a poet, novelist, and critic in English, as well as a translator of Russian works. In 1912, Cournos moved to London, where he lived and worked for about a decade, sometimes using the pen name John Courtney. From his photos, Cournos was a handsome man, with soulful eyes. From his poetry, he was obviously a deep-thinking, passionate individual.
Cournos moved in literary circles – he knew Ezra Pound – and it was in this way that he met Dorothy Sayers in the early 1920s. Their brief, unhappy romance affected both of them strongly. Both entered into surprising rebound relationships, although only one of these resulted in a clandestine pregnancy. And gossip aside, both of them got novels out of the story.
The novels are the interesting part. They also provide an excuse for all this scandal-mongering.
In 1921, Sayers was working on a novel called Whose Body?, a detective story that begins with a dead middle-aged man in a bathtub, wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez2. The case is solved by her new detective, Peter Wimsey, a cross between Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster, according to his creator. She was still working out the details of how to get the body into the bathtub when she fell in love.
The object of Sayers' affection, John Cournos, was busy writing anti-Bolshevik propaganda. His novel, London Under the Bolsheviks, is a satire on Leftist politics. (The currency gets changed to the 'MacDonald', for Ramsey MacDonald.) Between 1921 and 1922, the two unlikely lovers pursued an intense and unsatisfying relationship.
Sayers had never been in love before, as far as we can tell. Cournos had, presumably, but he, too, had highly romanticised notions of the role of the passions in life. There was heavy petting, but the pair stopped short of sex. Sayers wanted to marry Cournos and have his babies. Cournos was not sure if he loved Sayers enough. He wasn't sure, moreover, if she loved him enough. To prove it, he claimed, she'd have to move in with him, and forgo all that bourgeois marriage business. Sayers' father was a clergyman, and she refused. They wrote each other passionate letters, but broke up. Cournos moved back to the US.
Then came the shock for Sayers: in America, Cournos got married. To a crime novelist, no less, just like Sayers. Had this woman passed the 'test', where she had not? Whereas Cournos reacted to the breakup by marrying someone much like his former girlfriend, Sayers, in an emotional turmoil, ran in the opposite direction from all that soulful romance. Instead, she got involved with a car salesman named Bill White. White was certainly an antidote to all this rarefied love business, and the relationship was certainly physical.
She probably didn't know he was married until she found out she was pregnant.
Once it was obvious that 1920s birth control methods were not infallible, White fled, leaving Sayers to deal with matters herself. She had her son alone, confiding only in her cousin Ivy Shrimpton, who fortunately raised other people's babies for a living. Years later, her son Tony expressed the opinion that his mother had done the best she could for him. When she did marry3, the couple never officially adopted Tony, and he continued to be raised by Ivy, although he took Sayers' husband's last name. Sayers left her estate to her son when she died.
All of this carry-on might have been none of the literary historian's business. That is, if the participants had only kept quiet about it. After all, Dorothy Sayers never told her aged parents, nor did she ever acknowledge her son in her lifetime. But she did tell the world her side of the story. Or at least, Harriet Vane's side of the story.
Philip wasn't the sort of man to make a friend of a woman. He wanted devotion. I gave him that. I did, you know. But I couldn't stand being put on probation, like an office-boy, to see if I was good enough to be condescended to. I quite thought he was honest when he said he didn't believe in marriage – and then it turned out to be a test, to see whether my devotion was abject enough.
Well, it wasn't. I didn't like matrimony being offered as a bad-conduct prize.'
– Dorothy Sayers, Strong Poison, 1930.
That seems to sum up Sayers' version of the love affair, such as it was. Fair enough. But then she described Harriet's previous lover – the murder victim in this story – as, 'rather a defeatist sort of person... apt to think people were in league to spoil his chances...' That has to have hurt.
Two years after Strong Poison appeared, Cournos published The Devil is an English Gentleman, which could be said to contain his side of the story.
The Devil is an English Gentleman
If Sayers considered Cournos 'a defeatist sort of person', the Russian American writer described her as 'a provincial virgin'. He did admire her 'Leonardo smile', though. He pointed out that she talked too much, and thought her 'badinage' was clever. Then he got pretty frank, which might have offended Lord Peter.
They caressed one another with languid passion, deliberately restrained, as if in fear of the consequences of excess. She did not resist him, and he might have taken her. Though she desired to be taken, she inwardly held out against him and refrained from speaking the magic word he waited to hear.
– John Cournos, The Devil is an English Gentleman, 1932.
Was the magic word 'rewrite'? This novel must have been painful for Ms Sayers to read, in more ways than one. Besides, the offensive passage is in Volume II.
Clouds of Witness
The astute 21st-Century reader may snort at this point. 'This is ridiculous!' might be the reaction. 'Nobody has a love affair like this. Especially not when the man is middle-aged and the woman in her late twenties. Educated people, too. This is all made up for the sake of selling novels.'
Surprisingly, no, it isn't. And literary gossip mongers... sorry, researchers can prove it. Because Sayers' letters to Cournos are extant, all 11 of them. They are housed at Harvard University, for police detectives and crime novel historians to see. The letters confirm all the gory details.
Even Lord Peter could not have denied this evidence. His client was guilty as charged – of being passionate, naïve, and foolish enough to put it down in writing.
So what have we learned? Gossip is for journalists, but really juicy gossip about historical figures is the purview of true scholarship. All the really hot blackmail material shows up, sooner or later, in a carefully catalogued file box. Just ask a librarian.