Friday, March 4, 2011

Rue de la Paix

Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first women to be awarded a degree by the University of Oxford. She is most famous as a writer of detective fiction, much of it both stylish and funny.

I quote here, however, a rather unfortunate passage from Clouds of Witness (1926). The offending clause, so casual and gratuitous, may have passed in the 1920s, but strikes us today as totally unacceptable.

A detective is making inquiries at a jeweller's shop in the Rue de la Paix:

The majority of the staff failed to recognize the photograph, and Parker was at the point of putting it back in his pocket-book when a young lady, who had just finished selling an engagement ring to an obese and elderly Jew, arrived, and said, without any hesitation: 
'Mais oui, je l'ai vu, ce monsieur-là. It is the Englishman who bought a diamond cat for the jolie blonde.'


  1. Is the anti-Semitism the author's or her character's? Is it like the racism of Blazing Saddles, in which the people using the N-word are themselves clearly objects of the filmmaker's satire?

    This is not a rhetorical question from me...I don't know Sayers!

  2. The offending observation is clearly authorial. My awkward use of (two sets of) quotation marks confused things, so I have deleted the outer ones. (Your comment alerted me to the problem.)

  3. She is triply prejudiced: old, fat, and Jewish!

    But maybe old and fat are there to make the Jewish seem even worse than it would be (supposedly) on its own. She could not have said "a slim young Jew".

    Dorothy Sayers was the translator of Dante, and a keen Christian apologist. TS Eliot was also keen on Dante, and a Christian apologist, and subtly anti-Semitic. Strange.

    The Wikipedian entry quotes this from Edmund Wilson on Sayers as a fiction writer: "I set out to read [it] in the hope of tasting some novel excitement, and I declare that it seems to me one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field. The first part is all about bell-ringing as it is practised in English churches and contains a lot of information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopedia article on campanology. I skipped a good deal of this, and found myself skipping, also, a large section of the conversations between conventional English village characters ... I had often heard people say that Dorothy Sayers wrote well ... but, really, she does not write very well: it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective-story writers and that she thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level."

    Is she that bad?

  4. Alan, I may put up a sample of her writing soon. I have only read the one book of hers (and it was like the curate's egg, I'd say).

    On the reference to the obese Jew - it rather shocked me because there is a suggestion, I think, that this old man may be marrying a young woman on the strength of his material resources. Jews were of course stereotyped as greedy and materialistic. I think one is supposed to imagine a young bride. I did. Some people I asked also did.

  5. Apologies if I've missed the point, but isn't "Jew" intended to be descriptive and not anti-Semitic? I also don't read French, so I'm probably missing the full context.

  6. Yes, HR, "Jew" is intended to be descriptive, but my take on it is that the description indicates - or is playing on - a negative view of Jews. The Jewish customer does not come into the novel except in this casual and gratuitous clause. Your lack of French does not matter here, and I respect your reaction and your view. Maybe I am reading more into it than is there. I think the author was making an observation about rich old men using their wealth to facilitate marriage to younger women. So far so good, but the addition of the epithets 'Jew' and 'obese' are designed, I think, to titillate (with faint disgust) an audience primed to think ill of Jews.

    That's my reading of it, anyway. I could be utterly wrong, and the problem may be entirely with me!!