Dorothy L. Sayers' Are Women Human? book cover and portrait.

Are Women Human? A Historical Mystery with Medical Interruptions

In 1938, the British crime writer and theologian Dorothy Leigh Sayers addressed a women’s society on the simple question: “Are Women Human?” Adding her voice to the ongoing discourse on the “woman question,” Sayers expressed frustration with the wonder and criticism directed towards those people whose lives divert from the path expected of their gender. “It is extraordinarily entertaining,” she told her audience,

to watch the historians of the past, for instance, entangling themselves in what they were pleased to call the “problem” of Queen Elizabeth. They invented the most complicated and astonishing reasons both for her success as a sovereign and for her tortuous matrimonial policy. She was the tool of Burleigh, she was the tool of Leicester, she was the fool of Essex; she was diseased, she was deformed, she was a man in disguise. She was a mystery, and must have some extraordinary solution.

Sayers’s comments on the historical understanding of England’s most beloved monarch hit upon a stubborn theme in medical history: the mystery of the female body as an allegory for deeper mysteries of gender. From the diagnosis of social unrest as hysteria to the defense of female murderers as victims of “uterine insanity,” the ambiguous and dangerous qualities attached to the female body in medical history have always reflected concerns about the female body politic.

Sixty-five years before Sayers gave her 1938 speech, Dr. E. H. Clarke of Harvard Medical College proposed quite a different answer to the question of the “humanity” of those women who, like Good Queen Bess, seem to pose a “problem” to medical understanding through their active engagement in pursuits previously reserved for men. In Sex in Education, or, A Fair Chance for the Girls, he argued that while it was certainly possible, in strictly technical terms, for a woman to pursue an education equal to a man’s, it was hardly practical, since the development of the reproductive organs required energy and power that would be sapped away by hard study. In those women who did venture into the halls of higher learning, he observed:

the special mechanism we are speaking of remained germinal,–undeveloped. It seemed to have been aborted. They graduated from school or college excellent scholars, but with undeveloped ovaries. Later they married, and were sterile. [And what worse fate, of course, could a woman in 1873 — in any age — face?]

This argument, expressed most famously in Dr. Clarke’s work but repeated and extended throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by countless writers, was surely familiar to Sayers, who was herself one of those unnatural, “underdeveloped” women Dr. Clarke warned against. She attended Oxford’s Somerville College from 1912 to 1915, graduating with first class honors five years before the University allowed women to matriculate and earn degrees; her MA, arriving in 1920, was half a decade late. It could hardly have been a surprise that such an unusual woman, given to unhealthy academic pursuits, would take up the profession of writing, not cookbooks or love stories, but crime novels and theology.

As a representative of Britain’s Golden Age of detective fiction along with such greats as Agatha Christie and G.K. Chesterton, Sayers is notable for the social commentary that underpins her carefully constructed plots. In The Unpleasantness of the Bellona Club (1928), Sayers addressed the isolation and abandonment of World War I veterans; her Gaudy Night, which follows a series of increasingly violent crimes against the members of a women’s college, has been called the “first feminist detective novel.”1 Even her final Lord Peter novel, which Sayers herself described as less a murder mystery than “a love story with detective interruptions,” includes serious themes about the expectations and realities of modern marriage and a strong condemnation of the death penalty.

But it’s one of the least talked-about Sayers novels that most closely explores that old, stubborn question that’s troubled doctors and politicians alike for centuries: “Are women human?” In fact, Unnatural Death (1927), an early installment in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, is in essence a medical mystery as much as it is a murder mystery. In most Golden Age murder mysteries, we begin with a cast of colorful characters and intrude upon their lives and secrets until the murderer is revealed to be the most normal of the lot. In Unnatural Death, we know the murderer’s identity from the start — indeed, she sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. Miss Mary Whittaker is a frigid, unapproachable, shockingly un-nurse-like nurse whose wealthy aunt has died unexpectedly, leaving her an enviable inheritance. The mystery, as introduced to Lord Peter by the distressed physician who signed the certificate, is how Miss Whittaker achieved the crime at all, since Scotland Yard’s best medical men could find no trace of poison in the body.

If you haven’t read the book — and I recommend you do — I won’t spoil the ending. But Unnatural Death is a book peopled with exactly the kind of women Sayers’s “historians of the past” would have seen as problems: happily independent spinsters, faithful and devoted lesbians, career girls, divorcees, and gossips. The villain is an intelligent, driven woman with a keen knowledge of medical science, but she’s pitted against an equally intelligent female adversary in the person of Miss Climpson, Lord Peter’s eloquent and eccentric investigative assistant.

Like all the Lord Peter novels, Unnatural Death is a book about murder, but it’s also a book about the mistrust of the modern: of modern medicine, certainly, but above all of modern women — the kind of woman Sayers was and knew best — women with careers and ambitions, women who love women, and women who love no one, women about whom — to quote Sayers in 1938 — “there is very little mystery … except the exasperating mysteriousness of human beings in general.”

Notes

  1. Carolyn G. Hart, “Gaudy Night: Quintessential Sayers,” in Alzina Stone Dale, Dorothy L. Sayers: The Centenary Celebration (New York: Walker & Co., 1993). Return to text.

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