n Mo Moulton’s ambitious yet intimate book, at least a half dozen contemporaries of Dorothy L. Sayers emerge as figures who are as fascinating as the novelist, translator, and playwright was herself. Moulton, who teaches history at the University of Birmingham, spent nearly five years combing archives across England and the United States to round out the previously sketchy portraits of these women, most of whom appear as mere walk-ons in Sayers biographies.
Although several of these women surely deserve full-length biographies of their own, The Mutual Admiration Society celebrates collaboration rather than star performances. In describing their collective contributions to the fields of education, health care, politics, the arts, and literature, Moulton also shines the spotlight on their various forms of sexual expression. Although this element may make the book seem especially relevant today, even more timely is its articulation of the MAS’s shared political and cultural vision.
The book opens with a glimpse of the group’s inaugural members—Sayers, Charis Barnett, Muriel St. Clare Byrne, and Dorothy Rowe (“D. Rowe”)—conversing over cocoa early in their time at Oxford University’s Somerville College. The group expands, and Moulton vividly writes about each woman’s social, religious, and economic background, conjuring up not only the rigor of their academic environment but also the sense of fun they enjoyed. Accounts of ghost story-telling sessions, practical jokes, stage plays, and romantic crushes (some on each other) endear the characters to us even as we marvel at their vast capacity for intellectual engagement.
Moulton’s descriptions of the toll of two world wars draw us further into the women’s circle….