Welcome back to Mack’s Musings! Today I’m analyzing another mystery novel, Strong Poison, written by Dorothy L. Sayers. I love a good mystery, and I’ve previously read and reviewed Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky, Still Life by Louise Penny, and In The Woods by Tana French. While this piece isn’t necessarily a review and is more of an analysis of the women characters in Strong Poison, I will be discussing spoilers from the novel, so consider this your only spoiler warning.
Dorothy Sayers’ novel Strong Poison offers an interesting perspective on the roles of and attitudes towards women during the 1920s, the time period the book takes place. When the novel begins, the judge is addressing the jury over the murder of Phillip Boyes by Harriet Vane, a mystery author who is believed to have poisoned her lover with arsenic. The judge reacts negatively to the unmarried lifestyle in which Philip and Harriet decide to live as lovers and his reaction and prejudice seal Harriet’s fate right from the start.
“Now you may feel, quite properly, that this was a very wrong thing to do” (5). He also states that Harriet was corrupted by the “unwholesome influences among which she lived” (5). The judge and several jury members looked down upon Harriet for how she chose to live her life. It didn’t matter that Phillip encouraged Harriet to live with him without a valid marriage. They saw Harriet as a scandalous woman, while they looked upon Philip as carefree and spirited.
“Any woman who could live with a man and not be married to him can’t be trustworthy and deserves what she gets.” These misogynistic views are expressed not only by the men on the jury but also by the two women members as well. They thrive off the limited power granted to them by a patriarchal society. They use their limited status and power to judge and view Harriet as a being not worthy of mercy or understanding.
Harriet’s court case isn’t the only time Dorothy Sawyers touches on the societal misogyny in the book. An elderly clerk, Mr. Pond, whom the story’s detective, Lord Peter Wimsey meets with, says that juries are unreliable, “with women on them” (79). He states that juries have become unreliable these days and that women do not possess legal minds. He tells Wimsey that he is an old-fashioned man. (No kidding).
“The ladies were most adorable when they were adorned and inspired and did not take part in affairs.” He talks about a young lady clerk who suddenly decides to leave him and get married.
“Now with a young man, marriage steadies him and makes him stick closer with his job, but with a young woman, it’s the other way about. It’s right that she should get married, but it’s inconvenient” (79).
Now it seems to me that women of the novel, the ones who work for Wimsey in the Cattery, use the opinions of their sex to their advantage. Peter gets Miss Murchison a job with Mr. Urquhart, a solicitor and Phillip Boyes’ cousin, and she uses the assumptions of women to hide the work she is doing with Wimsey. In one scene, Mr. Urquhart addresses Miss Murchison, who is busily working at the typewriter, so loudly that it causes Pond to regret the intrusion of female clerks.
Mr. Pond and Miss Murchison have a small conversation about the roles and attitudes towards women. Miss Murchison decides to go with Mr. Pond’s opinions to avoid any suspicions over her undercover work for Wimsey.
“Is anything the matter, Mr. Pond?” Miss Murchison asks.
“No, nothing,” said the head clerk testily. “A foolish letter from a foolish member of your sex, Miss Murchison.”‘
“That’s nothing new.”‘ (231), she says dryly in response.
Mr. Pond is even surprised that she is not afraid of mice.
While working undercover in Urquhart’s office, Miss Murchinson discovers a packet of arsenic. She learns Urquhart was not only embezzling money from his aunt but that he would benefit greatly from her will and estate should his cousin, the now-deceased Philip Boyes, die first.
Peter Wimsey and the people around him seem to be the only ones who don’t see major differences between men and women, as far as ability goes. He employes women and trusts them to carry out tasks he knows he wouldn’t be able to carry out himself. He is proud of the women’s work and treats them, especially Miss Climpson, as his equals.
“‘I have a job,” he said to her… “which I would like you to undertake yourself. I can’t trust anyone else” (173).
He sends Miss Murchison to a man who can teach her how to pick locks, a skill which she can learn very quickly.
Another strong character in the novel is Harriet Vane. While she is in trouble and may need saving, she does not have the personality of a damsel in distress. She is strong-willed, and I believe that Harriet would be out there solving her own case if given a chance. Wimsey is drawn to Harriet’s strength and falls in love with her, and while most men would prefer their wives to stay at home and mind the house, Peter is excited that Harriet writes novels and doesn’t seem bothered by her keeping the income that she makes from her books. Ultimately, Harriet is cleared from murder charges after Wimsey and his female companions uncover Urquhart’s plot to murder Phillip, leaving the contents of their aunt’s will all to himself. While she is grateful for Wimsey’s help in the case, Harriet turns down his second proposal of marriage. Though they’d eventually marry later in the Peter Wimsey book series, Harriet’s refusal to accept his proposal allows a genuine relationship to bloom between the two. She’s not his prize for solving the murder case; she’s his equal in every way.
I think the women Dorothy Sayers writes about are all mostly strong characters. They operate in a man’s world, but they know what they need to do, and they use the assumptions of their gender to their advantage. This isn’t to say Sayers’ work is without flaw. Her treatment of Jewish characters in the novel (and other works) are unacceptable. Amy E. Schwartz wrote about Dorothy Sayers’ treatment of Jewish characters in an article for Moment, for which I’ll provide a link here.
The women of Strong Poison, particularly Harriet Vane, Miss Murchison, and Miss Climpson, are active participants in the novel and possess skills and qualities that help them stand out from the rest of the characters. They utilize the misogynistic views of the time (that still exist today) to their advantage, proving themselves capable agents in the process and helping Lord Peter Wimsey successfully solve another case, saving an innocent woman’s life in the process. I haven’t read any other book by Dorothy Sayers, but I’m curious to see what’s next for the character of Harriet Vane.
Thanks for stopping by, and make sure to follow along as I cover more mystery novels. I’m planning on reading and reviewing Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam and Tana French’s The Likeness, so stay tuned for those. In the meantime, check out my website for all things pop culture and stay nerdy!