This book comes with the strap line “How Dorothy Sayers and her circle made the world for women”. So what was the Mutual Admiration Society? In 1912, a new group of women entered Somerville College, Oxford – well in advance of the university issuing degrees to women. As a women’s residential college, the students were taught by women academics, but they were allowed to attend lectures elsewhere in the University. The standards were generally high and entrance was restricted to essentially more privileged women who could afford the lifestyle (albeit with some receiving scholarships). With war breaking out in the summer of 1914, not all would go on to complete their degrees at this stage – some were deeply interested in academic study but (as women) would inevitably find secure employment in the field either difficult or impossible. The Mutual Admiration Society (self named) was a group of students who met up regularly to encourage and discuss their own writing across genres. Moulton tells us this was a place they created to grow beyond the structures of “normal” life for Edwardian women. And help them become complex and creative adults.

Even in the university years the group would change and evolve, but Moulton concentrates on four women – with reference to a slightly wider group – and follows them through their lives – the last not dying until the 1980s. She uses archives of their professional lives and rare private papers – admitting that these were often deliberately destroyed – to build a picture of them individually or collectively. Dorothy L. Sayers is the best known – using her crime novels to give her financial security – but with interest in historical and then spiritual matters, D. Rowe taught in a girls school for 40 years in Bournemouth for her living, but built and managed the amateur theatre there, one of the most important in Britain, Charlotte Frankenburg married early. Running her family she also sat on a slew of charities and committees in the North West. She would write on child rearing across the years, but was interested in maternal mortality, child birth, education and other issues. Muriel St Claire Byrne was interested in medieval history and would eventually publish the Lisle papers – but she was a lecturer and writer on popular history books before that. The text reflects on aspects of their private lives – married, unmarried, unmarried relationships, an illegitimate child, and gay relationships, both permanent and more flighty.

All this means that this should be a very interesting book – with these different, intellectual, creative and vibrant women. Women growing through the biggest political changes for all women. This against a back drop of two world wars and the intervening recessions. This placed severe financial and/or emotional trauma on so many. I found it dry and hard to read. Why? First it was presented in chapter order by date – and then in the text this fell apart as Moulton followed thought lines. This led to an imbalance in what was put where – with some chapters filled with letter texts or similar that often seemed irrelevant to the place. But the overall impression was of a series of academic articles or talks crudely patched together and in need of an overall and serious edit.

The other difficulty is that Moulton admits that the women were privileged and that if they were men what they achieved would be close to normal, not far past mediocrity. So the lack of clear focus on why they are so important to her hypothesis needed to be presented in a more coherent way. Set against the political developments and social change that they were benefiting from would have been the economic fallout from the First World War and its massive death toll – that is barely considered in detail. This shaky background raised questions in my mind as to the relevance of her other deductions. I think too there might be debate as to why she “cherry picked” four of the original group when a broader look might have given a different slant to the work and made it more interesting too.

I suspect that this book will catch readers by its title, and maybe introduce readers to women they had little knowledge of previously. So it would just be a “starter”. For serious ideas about either the women themselves or the developing political background readers will have to go elsewhere. Overall, I would describe the whole book as disappointing.

Hilary White 3*

The Mutual Admiration Society by Mo Moulton
Corsair 9781472154439 hbk Nov 2019