Mo Moulton’s ‘Mutual Admiration Society’: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford circle remade the world for women

Mo Moulton.

In 1912, Dorothy L. Sayers and five friends founded a writing group at Somerville College, Oxford; they dubbed themselves the ‘Mutual Admiration Society.’ Barred, initially, from receiving their degrees despite taking classes and passing exams, the women battled for a truly democratic culture that acknowledged their equal humanity, pushing boundaries in reproductive rights, sexual identity, queer family making, and representations of women in the arts – despite the casual cruelty of sexism that still limited women’s choices.

Brought to life by Dr Mo Moulton in this celebration of feminism and female friendship, Mutual Admiration Society reveals how Sayers and the members of MAS reshaped the social order – and how, together, they fought their way into a new world for women in Interwar England. Janet Weston spoke to Mo for History about writing the book, reflecting on its major themes, its contributions to pre-Stonewall queer history, conservative modernity, and women’s rights in Britain, and the emotional bond they developed with Mutual Admiration Society across the distance of time.

History: To start off, how did you decide on the title of your book, Mutual Admiration Society?

Moulton: The book is the story of a group of friends who formed a writing group at Oxford in 1912. They called themselves the “Mutual Admiration Society,” to pre-empt anyone else calling them that first! I chose it as my title because I think it captureis how funny, irreverent, but also ultimately fearless these women were.

History: What inspired you to research and write about these women?

Moulton: I read Dorothy L. Sayers’ brilliant novel about women and academic life, Gaudy Night (1935). I instantly wanted to know more about that female scholarly community, and was surprised to find that most biographers focus on her relationships with men rather than her friendships with women. So I started digging and was thrilled to discover a set of stories that would let me delve into questions about culture, gender, sexuality, and social connections in new ways.

History: What are the major themes that Mutual Admiration Society addresses? 

Moulton: At its heart, this is a book about how people are changed by two very fundamental things: being excluded, and being in community. The members of the MAS had access to new rights and opportunities as women in early twentieth-century Britain, but they were still excluded from the establishment in many ways. But they gave each other the space and critical support to flourish. That combination, I argue, allowed them to make a distinctive contribution to early twentieth-century British culture, one that emphasized the importance of merging high culture and mass media. 

On a more personal level, I’m interested in the variety of relationships these women had: not only their friendships with each other, but also the very modern marriages and partnerships they made, and how those relationships were in conversation – how they were able to compare straight and queer relationships, for example, in ways that modern ways of categorizing might actually make more difficult.

Figure 1. Somerville College, Oxford, where the group met,
and which served as the inspiration for Sayers’ Gaudy Night,
(1935). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

History: What sources did you use in your research? 

Moulton: I was very fortunate in that three of the four main subjects of the book left personal archives that are now housed in various archives in the UK and the US. Their letters were very important, and so were Muriel St Clare Byrne’s appointment diaries, which were tersely written but revealing. The archives of the institutions they founded or worked for were also crucial. So, although Dorothy Rowe’s papers were destroyed after her death, I was able to understand her work through the archives of the amateur theatre club she founded, for example.

History: How might your book be used in teaching? 

Moulton: I think it offers an accessible perspective on some of the main issues of interwar British history and culture: mass media, democratization, conservative modernity, women’s rights and feminism, middlebrow culture, changing ideas about sexuality and marriage and motherhood. I’d love it to provoke conversations about how we write queer history, especially pre-Stonewall queer history. Byrne’s archive is a good example of an under-studied queer archive. Through it, I argue, it’s possible to think in new ways about the histories of queer kinship, polyamory, and gender non-conforming people. 

History: Was there anything particularly surprising that you learnt, in the course of researching and writing?

Moulton: I was surprised by how much I came to care about these women! I loved writing my first book, but it wasn’t personal in the way that a biography, even a group biography, is. Even though I disagree with them about many things, and recognize their limitations, I felt that I came to know them in a very textual but very real way. I wrote the chapter about their deaths in the British Library and had to stop and have a chocolate croissant and sort of re-centre myself because, even though of course I knew they weren’t alive anymore, it was suddenly painful to me that they were gone and I’d never get to meet them.

History: You describe it as a ‘group biography’. Can you say a little bit about what this means to you? 

Moulton: To me, the book isn’t just four life stories; it is a biography of a relationship, or a set of relationships, and how the people in the MAS were changed by it. I do proceed chronologically, and try to make sense of each person’s life trajectory, but I also foreground the connections and interactions that defined this set of friendships as they waxed and waned and ultimately endured across the decades.

History: And finally: what questions do you still have about the members of the Mutual Admiration Society?

Moulton: I would love to know more about what they thought about later developments in the fight for civil rights for women and for LGBTQI+ people. Did Byrne think of herself in terms informed by gay liberation by the time she died in the 1980s, for example? I wish I knew! I also wish I knew the answers to some of the questions they refused to answer in their own lifetimes. When did Sayers tell Byrne about her son, for example, who was born out of wedlock and kept secret? Did she tell any other members of the MAS? They are deliberately silent on that subject in their own writings and later interviews, but I wish they’d tell me.

Dr Mo Moulton is a historian of 20th century Britain and Ireland, interested in gender, sexuality, and colonialism/postcolonialism. They work as a Senior Lecturer in the History Department at the University of Birmingham, where they are the Director of the Modern British Studies Centre. Moulton earned their PhD from Brown University and spent several years working in the History & Literature program at Harvard University. As well as ‘The Mutual Admiration Society’, Moulton is the author of Ireland and the Irish in Interwar England (May 2014, Cambridge University Press).

Book cover and author photograph provided by Mo Moulton.

Figure 1. Somerville College Library, Oxford, by Aivin Gast. Used under Creative Commons license, sourced via Wikimedia Commons.

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