One of my favorite things about reading old books is the look that they offer into the past. While as a history student I spend a great deal of my time reading more didactically-focused texts, I appreciate how much can be gleaned incidentally about an author’s culture and time period from the novels that they write. With careful enough study, a novel can serve as a sort of microhistory.
Dorothy L. Sayers’ series of Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels provides an uncommonly well-developed portrait of an era. In Sayers’ case, her eleven Lord Peter novels published between 1923 and 1937 chronicle life in England in the interbellum period; although the books were not written to be intentionally didactic, they entertain while teaching modern audiences about English culture between the wars.
For this reason, I propose to create an online exhibit titled “Lord Peter’s England: Britain Between the Wars” that explores the cultural history of England during this time period using the Lord Peter Wimsey books as a window inside.
Admittedly, the Lord Peter Wimsey series is fairly niche in the modern era. However, an audience still interested in Sayers’ work is out there! Clues: A Journal of Detection has continued to publish articles on the Lord Peter novels as recently as 2018, and the Dorothy L. Sayers Society continues to “support and promote the appreciation of the many aspects of Sayers’ work and interests,” as well as writers and creators who work with her novels.
Additionally, while Golden Age mystery novels enjoy only a narrow following, cultural history is a subject of perennial interest to scholars and amateur historians alike. My aim is that the exhibit will provide illuminating and useful information to students of cultural history who seek to better understand England during this area through the interesting and engaging lens of the Lord Peter stories.
Comparison with existing projects
Lord Peter is hardly online. The Sayers Society webpage only offers links to traditionally published materials on the author’s work, and other widely available online material is scarce. Although all eleven novels have entered the Canadian public domain and are thus available on FadedPage, and although Wheaton College has Dorothy L. Sayers’ papers in their special collections, none of this material is interpreted in any extensive way.
However, similar projects have been undertaken with other sources. For instance, the American Antiquarian Society’s “Women and the World of Dime Novels” site provides a model of a site examining literary women in the context of their society and era and gives a look at what “Lord Peter’s England” might look like on Omeka.
I have not yet decided between Omeka and WordPress for the platform—while Omeka lends itself more easily to building exhibits, Omeka sites’ focus is often more on uploading and sharing collections than on writing interpretive material. WordPress might be a better option for a relatively text-driven digital exhibit. It would also allow a simpler means for audience engagement through commenting and using tags to make the exhibit more discoverable.
As for the exhibit’s contents, I plan to organize the site thematically, exploring how the Lord Peter Wimsey books address certain topics. The themes I currently plan to explore include:
- Shell-shock and men returning from war
- Economic vicissitudes postwar
- The woman’s place in British society: her role in relationships, in academia, and in the workforce
- Attitudes toward immigration and foreigners
- Consumer society
For each theme, I plan to include a synthesis of traditional historical scholarship on the topic along with a review of how it plays into the literature, analyzing the historical implications of the literary text.
Additionally, I plan to include at least one page whose purpose is to teach visitors how to read literature historically, using excerpts from Lord Peter Wimsey novels to illustrate what historical context in a novel might look like so that visitors will be able to identify similar features in other old books.
Outreach and publicity
If I create the exhibit using WordPress, it will be easier to publicize using tags. In any case, I plan to reach out to the Dorothy L. Sayers Society as well as to the Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections to share my project upon its completion so that they can in turn share it with their communities.
With an eye to the limited audience for such an exhibit, I would consider the site successful if people visited it and offered feedback. On the still more limited scale of this class and with the idea in mind that I may not finish an exhibit of sufficient quality to share with literary societies by the end of the semester, I would consider it a success if visitors to the site reported finding it illuminating about the period in question or reported reconsidering what literature can teach us about history.