Dorothy L. Sayers’s famous detective novel begins on a snowy New Year’s Eve in a lonely spot in the Norfolk Fens, as the afternoon fades into early evening. Lord Peter Wimsey has accidentally nosed his Daimler down the bank of a dyke into a deep ditch. He and the estimable Bunter set off for the nearest habitation, guided by a muffled church bell then a fingerpost to the village of Fenchurch St Paul.
So opens one of the best-known novels of the Golden Age and with good reason. The plot is first class, though for us, what makes this story stand out among its peers is the superbly done sense of place. The evocative descriptions of landscape and weather were fairly uncommon at a time when a pared-down style of writing was fashionable.
The title refers to the nine tolls of a passing bell – the teller strokes – rung to mark the death of a man. The ancient bells and church of Fenchurch St Paul are almost characters in their own right – in the same way as that of Morse’s Oxford. The novel is a masterpiece of atmosphere conveyed through the tradition of change-ringing and the watery fenland encircling the village.
In 1933 the writer J.B Priestley toured the country, researching his great social commentary English Journey. He described finding at least three Englands. One was ‘Old England, the country of the cathedrals, manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire.’ The Nine Tailors, published in 1934 evokes that timeless portrait.
Sayers was writing about a landscape and way of life far from the modern England of arterial roads, art deco cinemas and road-houses. It was just as far from the hunger-marches and dying industries in the North and Wimsey’s flat in teeming Piccadilly.
In Fenchurch St Paul the only telephones are at the big house and the post-office. Even the rectory does not possess one. There are few cars, the homes are lit by candle and oil-lamp. Most villagers work on the land or in service to the rector and the squire. In essentials life has changed little since the nineteenth century.
Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) grew up in a village on the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens. Her father was the rector of Bluntisham and the surnames of several of the villagers in the novel are to be found in the churchyard. Her parents are buried in Christchurch, a village on the Cambridgeshire-Norfolk border where her father held his last living. It is thought that the church at the heart of the novel was partly inspired by the Fen churches of Upwell and Terrington St Clement in Norfolk.
We visited Upwell in September. Situated on the Cambridgeshire border it is now a large village bearing no resemblance to the lonely setting of Fenchurch St Paul. Even so it is well worth a visit for St Peter’s is very like the building Wimsey sees. The descriptions of the interior fit almost word for word.
There are several delightful features including two Georgian galleries. These are sadly uncommon as the Victorians tended to dislike them and had them ripped out in their many ‘restorations.’ Reverend Venables in The Nine Tailors had his galleries removed ten years since, though one plays a significant part in the story. The church’s greatest treasure is its breathtaking angel roof and the galleries enable visitors to get close to examples of the wooden carved figures soaring from the hammerbeams.
If you want to curl up with a superb detective puzzle by one of the Queens of the Golden Age – or should you want to know what English rural life was like in the 1930s – you can’t do better.