Time, Gin, Denton and Dorothy Sayers

Given the multitude of people on social media confused by the instigation of this year’s British Summer time, we ought be thankful that William Willett’s original proposal to move the clocks forward by 80 minutes, in 20-minute weekly steps on Sundays in April and by the reverse procedure in September, was altered to the deceptively simple alternative of an hour forward in March, then reversed in October.

Mark, a reader of Time’s Flow Stemmed, kindly reminded me that Maurice Denton Welch was born on 29 March 2015. To mark Denton’s centenary I drank two gin and limes, a drink, with gin and French, that he frequently mentions in his Journals.

Like Max Sebald, Denton’s written texts comprise a seamless body of work in which he repeatedly returns to the same themes, experimenting with different forms. The Journals are a delight, patchy as any journals, but with moments of such radiance. Mark suggests that Denton’s short stories bridge the apparent leap in expressive quality between his first two novels and A Voice Through a Cloud. 

While I await delivery of a couple of collections of Denton Welch’s short stories, I’ll read an unusual book I came across in a second-hand bookshop in Cecil Court. The Passionate Intellect by Barbara Reynolds is a full-length study of novelist Dorothy L. Sayers’s fourteen year obsession with reading and translating Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’ve never Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, but share her fascination with Divine Comedy. 

Reynolds bases much of the book on the remarkable correspondence that Sayers exchanged with Charles Williams, at the time a much esteemed poet, essayist and critic. Sayers became absorbed with Divine Comedy after reading Williams’s The Figure of Beatrice, which I ought also to read sometime soon. Dorothy Sayers starting reading Divine Comedy in August 1944, a period Denton Welch writes of brilliantly in his Journals, when almost ten thousand buzz bombs or V-1s were fired at south-east England. Sayers writes of the hold that Divine Comedy took on her imagination:

The plain fact is that I bolted my meals, neglected my sleep, work and correspondence, drove my friends crazy, and paid only a distracted attention to the doodle-bugs, which happened to be investing the neighbourhood at the time, until I had panted my way through the Three Realms of the dead from top to bottom and from bottom to top.

I’ve never read any of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels. Should I? How about Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of the series: ghastly or noteworthy?

11 thoughts on “Time, Gin, Denton and Dorothy Sayers

  1. Couldn’t comment on those authors, but I notice that secondhand bookshops have become a pursuit since the age ago that I visited London. I think I used to associate Cecil Court with high-end rarities. I’ve tended to wander across to Skoob after getting off the train at Euston. Clearly need to plan and explore next time. Thanks for the incidental info!

    • Cecil Court is reasonably high end but far from exclusively, and right around the corner in Charing Cross Road are a few very browsable second hand shops.

  2. A book about a fourteen-year obsession with translation is a book I should probably read. Sounds wonderful. I grew up surrounded by Dorothy Sayers novels, but have never read one.

    • Barbara Reynolds book is a delight. I feel sure you’d enjoy it as much as I am. Sayers considered her Dante translation to be her finest work; the genre fiction was to put food on the table. Or so I gather.

    • How this reading thing spirals.

      Barbara Reynolds’ super book takes as its starting point a series of letters on Dante between Charles Williams and Dorothy Sayers. These letters makes up volume 3 of Sayers’ collected letters, available very reasonably from the Dorothy Sayers Society. Of course, I decided I must read these letters in their entirety. CS Lewis thought Sayers’ letters the best part of her literary achievement.

      Somehow, despite his notoriously obscure style, I’ve also become intrigued by Charles Williams. I’m desperately trying to resist sampling his work, but I dare say I shall succumb to his book on Dante. Thankfully it’s proving hard to track down a nice edition.

  3. I looked online immediately for The Passionate Intellect this morning at my local library, but of course they don’t have it. They do have Denton Welch’s journals, so I’ll pick those up tomorrow and am happy I can read them along with A Voice through a Cloud and Maiden Voyage.

    I love the idea that Sayers’s Letters would be her finest literary achievement. It makes me think how different Woolf’s fiction is from her journals and from her letters (which I should be reading alongside the journals but haven’t managed – fiction and journals is already so much). And how each can be considered a genre/art on its own.

    Worthwhile literary spiral, I should say.

  4. You’ve piqued my curiosity about the Reynolds book on Sayers. I know Barbara Reynolds from her incredible work in translating Ariosto’s Orlando furioso into English by daring to keep to the poem’s original ottava rima. She also famously completed Sayers’ translation of The Divine Comedy. I’ve not read that translation of Dante, but apparently many readers feel the parts Reynolds translated are an improvement over Sayers.

    • It is so interesting that you say that. I’m just reading her chapter about taking over the task of translating the last 13 cantos of Paradiso, and the contrast between Reynolds and Sayers work struck me. I’m intrigued to read her Orlando Furioso.

      • I read large parts of Reynolds’ Orlando furioso, but liked the Guido Waldman prose translation more (between the two). Still, that’s like comparing Cezanne and Monet – both are terrific in different ways, and Reynolds deserves mega extra credit for recreating the rhyme scheme. I see my library has a copy of Passionate Intellect, so I’m definitely picking that up tomorrow, thanks.

  5. How do you make a gin and lime Anthony? Is that the same as a gimlet?

    I have two Denton Welch’s on their way to me, in part due to your blog and in part due to Galley Beggars’ championing of him. For later this year hopefully.

    • Yes, Max, essentially a gimlet, though I suspect Denton Welch had the original (invented by Roses) which was equal parts of lime cordial and gin. I tried that and also adulterated versions with both soda water (heresy to some) and tap water. To my surprise I preferred the original version; the two flavours combine well, though I’d struggle with the 5-8 gin and limes that Denton refers to having with his heavy-drinking friend Eric.

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