Congratulations to our newest PhD graduate, Sally Beresford, on a successful PhD Defence! Her dissertation is titled “Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Detecting Community in their Public, Private, and Fictional Lives.” Dr. Carol Acton supervised, with committee members Drs. Kate Lawson and Victoria Lamont. The internal external was Dr. Jane Nicholas, and the external was Dr. Ann C. Martin.
This thesis examines the detective fiction of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers in the context of their public and professional lives. Both women became professional detective fiction authors in the same social milieu while exploiting the same social and cultural productions which surrounded publishing popular fiction in this interwar period.
To consider how these women re-imagined the detective fiction genre, this thesis examines embodied social communities in Christie’s and Sayers’s fiction. It further examines how both of these writers in their representation of women push the gendered expectations of roles for women in their social and cultural settings. Building upon Benedict Anderson’s theory in Imagined Communities, and the role which the cultural artefacts of the newspaper and the novel play in establishing imagined communities, I examine how the rise in popularity of detective fiction also coincided with a revolution in a type of print culture, which contributed to the rise of a ‘golden age’ in the British interwar period for both newspapers and popular literature, including detective fiction (Mayhall “‘Indecently Preposterous’: The Interwar Press and Golden Age Detective Fiction”, 145).
The Introduction establishes the social, cultural, and critical background to my examination of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L, Sayers, their lives and their fiction, in the interwar years. Providing the social and cultural background, Chapter 2 first examines how women were targeted by the press to become readers, and yet, in turn, how women writers could reach a further reading community through participating in celebrity culture in the press; specifically, the ways in which Christie and Sayers could serialize their novels in the press. Chapter 3 compares/contrasts how Christie and Sayers each dealt with personal trauma and how this was reflected in their public lives and the types of advertisement which they performed for the reading public. Moving into textual analysis, Chapter 4 focuses on Agatha Christie’s 1930s travel novels to show how characters abroad or back home can imagine social communities built upon these cultural artefacts of the newspaper and the novel. Ultimately, these imaginings are forced to be re-examined once murder exposes the anxieties of these communities and social structures. Building upon this, Chapter 5 turns to Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night to examine how social imagined communities – academic and professional – can be reconstructed as places which can offer ‘equal citizenship’. Chapter 6 takes the detective fiction trope of the sidekick, and through the characters of Miss Climpson and Harriet Vane, examines how Sayers navigates expanding genre expectations in her conversation surrounding women in the interwar society.
Understanding the ways in which Christie and Sayers built these communities – in their lives and in their fiction – allows us to further re-evaluate and assert that Sayers’s and Christie’s writing(s) can be seen as “serv[ing] as the vehicles for the articulation of feminist goals and challenges”, and thus one can find the “compelling evidence of the pluralisation and diversification of interwar feminist discourses” (DiCenzo “Feminist Media and Agendas for Change: Introduction” 313), throughout the interwar period and within the various texts of the newspapers and the novels. Additionally, it allows us to increasingly understand and examine the literary, cultural, social, and lasting impact of these two women detective fiction authors, whose contributions extend far beyond their influence on the detective fiction genre.