Tag Archives: The Nine Tailors

16. The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers

10 Mar

The Nine Tailors, Dorothy Sayers

The orderly, Church-centric English countryside in the 1920s isn’t someplace I should by any rights feel nostalgic for, but reading The Nine Tailors, a great mystery novel written in that time period by a feminist intellectual and devout Christian, makes me so.

This is one of the most popular books in writer Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series, and it takes place in the English village of Fenchurch St. Paul, where Lord Peter’s car breaks down one New Year’s Eve, and he’s pressed into service ringing in the New Year on the bells of that village’s majestic old church, a structure so large and grand that Wimsey thinks it looks like “a young cathedral.” The parish is only 340 souls but, as the selfless and kind Rector Venables explains,

“you find the same thing all over the fens. East Anglia is famous for the size and splendour of our parish churches. Still, we flatter ourselves that we are almost unique, even in this part of the world. It was an abbey foundation, and in the old days Fenchurch St Paul must have been quite an important place.”

Naturally, suspicious behavior ensues during the bell-ringing, leading to a murder and an investigation for Wimsey, but the real heart of the book is the church, its bells, and the lovingly detailed portrait of English religious life in a small town in this era.

Let’s pause for a moment to contemplate church bells, which before telephones, internet, etc., were a system of public address. Each bell had a distinct sound which the population at large was likely to know, and depending on which one was rung and how many times, messages could be communicated. In this book there’s a bell called Tailor Paul and rung nine times it means someone has died, thus, “The Nine Tailors” of the title.

The other bells in Fenchurch St Paul are Gaude, Saboath, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, and their majesty shines even to the  modern reader. Saboath’s voice is silvery and sweet. Tailor Paul was, the Rector explains, “‘cast in the field next to the church in 1614. You can still see the depression in the earth where the mould was made and field itself is called Bell Field to this day.'” And her sound—bells are always female— is “bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them.” Batty Thomas has killed two men, and according to another character is “‘queer-tempered.'”

As the mystery unfolds we see the central role of the church in village life and during emergencies—it’s on high ground and everyone including Lord Wimsey literally lives there for weeks during a flood.

I’m a secular American in a polarized country (in a polarized world), and I can only imagine a society centered on a shared public space of a church, with a deeply habitual sense of shared ritual, where religion provides a code of good behavior and most of the local entertainment, and where this seems like that would be pleasant instead of terrifying. Elsewhere I believe Sayers has referred to the Church of England as “the great compromise,” and the sense of religion bringing people together instead of dividing them is palpable.

Conflict when it comes in this gentle and good society is a source of humor. Sayers often makes affectionate fun of church life, as when Mrs Venables explains about a local dispute:

“‘…they had some sort of dispute with the Minister about their Good Friday beanfest. Something to do with the tea urns but I forget what. Mrs Wallace is a funny woman; she takes offense rather easily, but so far, touch wood’ — Mrs Venables performed this ancient pagan rite placidly on the oak of the screen) — ‘so far I’ve managed to work in quite smoothly…'”

I’m fairly certain the beanfest is meant to be funny, as are the tea-urns.

I’m a social person, a blogger, a PTA mother, a charity volunteer and I often feel lonely in those roles; reading about England in the 1920s I think, Oh, I would have been active in the Church, and that would have been fun.

I’m sure there are people who will say, “you still can,” but I’m hopelessly on the other side of the culture wars for religion today. Which makes this kind of mystery novel a lovely escapist pleasure, and a new favorite of mine in the Sayers oeuvre.