Tuesday, 1 December 2009
Miss Sayers and Lord Peter
My laptop continues to languish in laptop hospital. I have odd moments when I get at computers but feel strangely cut-off from cyberworld. Fortunately there are still books - and time to think about writing blog entries.
Like most people, I have a pile of popular fiction for soothing bedtime reading. Recently I've returned to Dorothy L. Sayers.
"But she's a dreadful snob," some people respond. "She's a tory writing about an aristocrat."
There's some truth in that but it's not the whole truth. In the later novels, written in the mid-1930s, she sees Lord Peter Wimsey's class as a problem - at the same time as suggesting it is dangerously attractive. This isn't unusual in the 1930s. Winifred Holtby's South Riding - certainly not a tory novel - makes the same observation and shares Sayers' belief that the power of the aristocracy is doomed.
Most recently I've been reading Gaudy Night and remembered the influence it had over my teenage years. It influenced me in two ways. Like many girls, I grew up in a society that was uncertain of the value of education for girls. I remember debates - even in the 1970s - about whether girls should enter higher education or whether this rendered them unfit for their natural destiny as wives and mothers. Sayers painted such an alluring picture of a women's college in the 1930s that I knew university was for me. At Oxford and later I met other women who chose Oxford because they had read Gaudy Night. I have to thank Dorothy L. Sayers for my three years there.
Gaudy Night - and Oxford - attracted me for another reason. Like many young teenagers. I'd fallen into the habit of convenient, self-protective lies. Suddenly, when I was thirteen, I wanted to change that. I realised that the world was confusing and difficult to understand - and that lies and deceptions made it harder to reach the truth. I made a resolution to stop lying.
In Gaudy Night the values that are repeatedly attached to universities and learning are associated with truth and integrity. The dons may behave badly at times but they value evidence, facts and honesty, even when honesty hurts. The subjects of their research - English prosody, the economics of Tudor England, and so on - may have no immediate relevance to contemporary life but the dons' aim is to uncover the truth in their chosen field. Their integrity is set in opposition to Nazi oppression and the risks women run if they submit to their husbands.
There are, of course, arguments against women's equality and education in the novel. Lord Peter Wimsey is never more admirable in my eyes than when he shows, without question, his support for women at universities and for honesty, whatever the cost. It's undoubtedly an idealised view of university life but there's a lot to be said for ideals.
My latest reading of Gaudy Night set me wondering what Dorothy L Sayers would say to a different Lord Peter: the head of the governments Department of Business and Skills, which also has responsibility for higher education. I must have been at Oxford at the same time as Peter Mandelson but I don't recall him there. As minister in charge of the universities, he doesn't seem to care much for some of the values Sayers cherished. While she foresaw the end of the House of Lords, I don't think it occurred to her that universities would be told to sell their scholarship for economic advantage.
Lord Peter Mandelson doesn't look at universities and see scholars motivated by the search for truth. If he saw that, he would probably think it a bad idea. Instead he sees them as part of the "knowledge economy," and wants them to make money and teach the skill of making money. Universities are instructed to teach their students "business awareness" and to ask business people (bankers, perhaps) to come into universities and design courses which academics will deliver. Educations is now a product consumed by students. But students are also the product of education. They are to be prepared for their consumption by business and government. Research is another product and will be judged not for its truth but for its impact on business, the economy and government policy.
Disagreement with government policy or uncomfortable truths about new products. business and the market are unlikely to have much immediate impact. I wonder what value Lord Peter Mandelson places on academic honesty.