Chris Calderon – The Hermetic Mystery Cycle of Dorothy L. Sayers


Chris Calderon, long time stalwart of Hogwarts Professor has submitted a guest post that argues that three of Dorothy L. Sayers  Wimsey novels (Strong Poison, Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night), that feature Harriet Vane, form an alchemical sequence. Chris makes a compelling argument, check it out after the break:

The Hermetic Mystery Cycle of Dorothy L. Sayers.

By Chris Calderon.

I’ve had this idea for a while that three of Dorothy L. Sayers Wimsey novels form an alchemical sequence.  I’d like to highlight how the settings of these three novels correspond to the three-color stages of the Opus, and how each is reflected in the circumstances of the two main leads, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Harriet Vane.

Stage 1: The Cell.

The first time readers were introduced to Harriet Vane, she was behind bars, awaiting a death sentence.  This all happened in the novel Strong Poison, the rest of whose plot concerned an infatuated Lord Peter’s attempts at clearing her name.  The imagery of prison forms a powerful background metaphor for this mystery.  It works as a symbol on several levels.  First, as a plot device, second, as an allegory for the mistreatment of women, and third as an emblem for the Nigredo stage.  Prof. Lyndy Abraham’s description of the alchemical meaning of the prison image acts as a neat summation of Strong Poison.

During the putrefaction the matter in the alembic is said to be captured in a dungeon or a prison.  In order to make the philosopher’s stone, the old…matter for the Stone must first be dissolved…Philalethes equated the vessel with the ‘prison’ and stated that, at the opening of the opus, ‘the Artist must in the first places expect to be in Prison a long time’…When the matter for the Stone is dissolved, the male and female seeds of metals known as the bride and bridegroom are released from the mercurial prima materia.  In order for the philosopher’s stone to be conceived, the seeds or bride and bridegroom, Sol and Luna, must be united in the chemical wedding (156). 

It’s the setup of Strong Poison, in miniature.  Harriet is a woman who has had her life taken apart, and in turn, has caused a change in Peter’s life that he didn’t count on.  He never expected to fall in love, and so here he is trying to save the girl of his dreams.  The Nigredo stage comes to an end, yet the work of Sayers Opus isn’t done yet.

Stage 2: The Sea.

The next time we meet Harriet is near the English coast in the mystery, Have His Carcass.  It involves her discovery of a dead body on the beach, and her attempts to find out who could have committed the crime.  The entire plot, meanwhile, is surrounded by the seaside.  It’s a potent symbol of the White stage of the Opus.  The best way to describe it is as a pallet cleanser, after all the dross has been burned away in the Nigredo.  The Harriet we meet in these pages is on her way toward becoming a new woman, though there are still a few unresolved issues she is dealing with from her past.

While Harriet accepts that Lord Wimsey is madly in love with her, she has been burned badly once before, and is not eager to repeat it, while at the same time showing signs of harboring her own unacknowledged feelings for the Duke of Denver.  This is something Peter is both aware of, and tactless about.  At one point he even gets in a shouting match with her over it.  It’s a good sign of just how much things have changed for both of them, as Wimsey is one of the most level-headed sleuths in fiction.

The fact that each partner is starting to get under the other’s skin is a hint that, while they may not know it at the time, they have become a Quarreling Pair on their way to full Couple-hood.  This rough, yet genuine progress is signaled by the way the characters keeping coming in contact with the Albedo waters of the sea.  Always the case forces them to submerge themselves from head to toe in an attempt to solve not just the Crime of the Week, but also the Mystery of themselves.

Stage 3: The Castle.

Oxford University is not a castle in the strictest sense.  However, it makes a perfect Emblem for the final, Red stage of the Work.  Abraham describes the castle as:

…the container which holds the arcanum, the secret of the philosopher’s stone, and that container can be a book of alchemical secrets, the alembic, or man himself (32).

This is the function that Oxford serves well as Peter and Harriet solve the mystery of a college “poltergeist”.  It also proves the setting where their differences are resolved, and each finds out the truth about what it means to love another person.  Sol and Luna have found their wedding.

Bear in mind, this is all the barest preliminary sketch.  There’s a lot more mining to do with an idea like this.  I’m willing to stick with the idea that Dorothy Sayers has written the tripartite alchemical sequence into what amounts to her three best mystery novels, with the final book being her masterpiece.

I’d also like to leave off with two final suggestions.  The first is the conviction that Sayers has given us a vital key to understanding both Rowling and her Strike series as a whole with the Wimsey/Vane Mysteries.  It puts the Presence’s entire, current Solve Et Coagula moment into perspective for me.  Besides this, however, it is possible that Sayers works dovetails with one of Rowling’s favorite sources of inspiration.  Both David H. Bell and Christopher Lansdown make convincing cases that Sayers made particular use of the work of Jane Austen in her writings.  Though this may just be an initial sketch I hope it provides plenty of food for future thought.  In this type of genre, after all, the game is always afoot.


  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    I wonder how efficiently explicit references by Dorothy L. Sayers to matters alchemical could be followed up? I just checked the Indexes in Barbara Reynolds’s and Ralph Hone’s biographies and volume two of Reynolds’s edition of her letters and found no entry for “alchemy”, but that is not saying much. I wonder what-all books by and about her are ‘electronically searchable’? I suspect there may be much to find, though no examples spring to mind. But, for example, the young DLS was a great Three Musketeers fan, and, wondering if Dumas wrote about alchemy, I find an 1839 play, L’Alchimiste! And she grew up in a time of a lot of interest in the historical literature of alchemy. And had contacts with people interested in alchemy – for instance, Arthur Machen in connection with her edition of Great Stories of Dectection, Mystery, and Horror, Part II – which preceded the publication of Strong Poison.

  2. D.L Dodds,

    Found it! Proof positive.

    “So stands the Church
    Stone upon stone, and Christ the corner stone
    Carved of the same stuff, common flesh and blood
    With you, and me, and Peter; and He can,
    Being the alchemist’s stone, the stone of Solomon,
    Turn stone to gold, and purge the gold itself
    From dross, till all is gold”.

    “Zeal of Thy House”, pg. 61.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says


    Nice – thanks! I wonder if there are oodles more examples? (I wonder if she has interesting things to say about Nicolas – and Pernelle – Flamel, for instance?)

    I don’t think she encountered Charles Williams’s play about an alchemist, The Chaste Wanton, published in 1931, early enough for it to be in the background of Have His Carcase (indeed, I’m not sure she knew it – I should reread what I’ve read about their friendship, and read the rest of her published letters!).

  4. D.L. Dodds,

    While Sayers’ interactions with CW are well known (except to the public at large, that is) there is also another connection she has to alchemy, just as a creative idea. This comes in the form of Sayers’ familiarity with the work of two notable physicists: Albert Einstein and Arthur Eddington. She uses their work in at least two samples of her detective fiction that I’m aware of. The first is in the course of the Wimsey novel “Documents in the Case”, where the idea of both men are brought up during a discussion of the ultimate nature of reality (as one tends to do in Detective fiction, because: why not?).

    The interesting part of this imaginary exchange is that Sayers deliberately links their thought up with that of the ancient, Pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus. It’s worth noting because what she has done in this mere snippet of exchange is to posit the idea that Eddington and Einstein have granted the Classical physics of Heraclitus a place at the table, once more. They have, in a manner of speaking, let the old thinker in through the back door, and the author wishes people to realize the hinted connection.

    What all this has to do with alchemy is just this. While Einstein’s science may have its basis in Pre-Socratic physics, Eddington takes this all a step further by belonging to a Christian sect known as the Society of Friends. In other words, he was a lifelong Quaker. A good source for the spiritually symbolic use that Quakers have gotten out of the Emblem set of alchemy can be found in the link below:

    The best source to consult for how Eddington’s Quakerism influenced his scientific thought, meanwhile, remains Matthew Stanley’s “Practical Mystic: Religion, Science, and A.S. Eddington”. I think the official summary description of the book tells you the basic gist of the study. Stanley “uses the figure of Eddington to show how religious and scientific values can interact and overlap without compromising the integrity of either…For instance, at a time when a strict adherence to deductive principles of physics had proved fruitless for understanding the nature of stars, insights from Quaker mysticism led Eddington to argue that an outlook less concerned with certainty and more concerned with further exploration was necessary to overcome the obstacles of incomplete and uncertain knowledge”.

    Dorothy Sayers’ use of Eddington and his Pre-Socratic physics can be found used half in jest, also in seriousness, in the course of another Wimsey mystery. This time it’s a short story called “Absolutely Everywhere”. A good essay on the subject of Sayers, Eddington, and Einstein can be found here:

    There’s an even better connection between Sayers, Charles Williams, Quakers, and Hermeticism than this. The following is a summary of one of the Mystery author’s festival plays, “The Just Vengeance”.

    “In this play, Dorothy L. Sayers addressed the crimes and problems of human life, especially those of the victors in war, in an entirely novel way, by precipitating an airman in the very moment of his death back into the company of citizens of the “City” in this case, Lichfield. The citizens range from Adam and Eve (Adam himself the inventor of the axe which kills Abel) together with other biblical characters in the history of redemption brought to new life as members of the City (e.g., Judas is a common informer). Others bear burdens of shame, toil, fear, poverty, and ingratitude. Former inhabitants (e.g., George Fox, Dr. Johnson) help the airman see that no more than they can he shift the burden of guilt and grief that they all share. There is but one remedy, to join the “Persona Dei” carrying his cross, finding indeed that he bears their burdens for them. The “Persona Dei” is finally seen in resurrection and glory”.

    The description itself is enough to make clear that Sayers is not just drawing on the work of Williams, she seems to have been flat-out inspired by “All Hallows Eve”. The summary alone makes it sound like either a sequel or a re-shuffling of the plot cards in the CW book. You could even go further and speculate if the pilot at the heart of this play is the owner of the same WWII plane that initiated Lester’s journey in “Hallows”. The other important thing to note, however, is one of the names of the characters in the play: George Fox. I call him a character, and that’s a bit of a disservice, inasmuch as he is a historical figure. In fact, between the two of them, George Fox and John Everard are the two main co-creators of the Quaker Christian sect. They are literally the two giants on whose shoulders all Quakers still stand on to this day, and Sayers is using one of them as a spiritual guide in a religious plays written for the Lichfield festival.

    It’s all eye-opening and fascinating stuff, if I’m being honest. What it’s starting to highlight for me is all the other ways that Sayers might be informing J.K. Rowling’s work. Both of them seem to share a sympathy with English Nonconformists, and a very close familiarity the symbolism associated with such breakaway sects. Like I said at the end of the article above, it really is beginning to seem as if Dorothy L. Sayers is yet another name we’ll have to add to the list of writers who make up the compost heap of the “Cormoran Strike Mysteries”.

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says


    Thank you – I’ve never yet ‘read up’ on Eddington, and am grateful for all this detail! There was a fairly recent book on alchemy and 20th-c. physics but the details elude me – a quick unsuccessful search did encounter Ernest Rutherford’s 1937 book version of his Henry Sidgwick Memorial Lecture, entitled The Newer Alchemy! I remember the Just Vengeance as very Charles-Williamsy, but you have me wanting to reread it! For something of a Faust fanatic in my teens, I have bizarrely never yet read The Devil to Pay but was just wondering if she might play with alchemy, there – time to catch up?

    We all owe Tom Wills a debt of gratitude for indexing Charles Williams’s books The New Christian Year (1941) and The Passion of Christ (1939) as well as making them readily available to give us their thought-provoking selections online – there is a link at the Charles Williams Society. The handy index shows eight selections from Fox, four from Sarah Grubb, and one each from Isaac Pen(n)ington and Thomas Story: two weeks’ worth of Quakers!

    As to the Documents of the Case, I would like to know more about Eustace Robert Barton, having enjoyed audiobooks of some of his very different, wilder collaborations with Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith: I don’t recall explicit alchemical details from the ones I listened to, but would not be surprised if there were some (lots?).

  6. D.L. Dodds,

    I was able to discover that Barton does make mention of the Art at one point in his interconnected crime anthology, “The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings” (and how’s that for a Golden Age Pulp title, anyway?)

    The topic is mentioned in passing, while one character is busy explain how a priceless family heirloom (a gold “Goblet”, if that’s at all important) came to its current place of honor. In the course describing the history of this pre-Potter chalice, Barton gives the prospective reader the following piece of narration:

    “It was discovered that an order had been sent by Catherine De Medici to one of the manufacturers at Venice to construct the very goblet which you see there. After it’s construction it was for some secret purpose sent to the laboratory of an alchemist in Venice, where it was seized by Giovanni Pizzi, and has been handed down in our family ever since”.

    Hope this helps.

  7. D.L. Dodds,

    Seems like Sayers has suddenly become the gift that keeps giving. In her collection, “Four Sacred Plays”, in addition to a full transcript of “The Just Vengeance”, she also gives us the following line of blank verse dialogue, during the course of her Nativity play, “He That Should Come”:

    “Always we hope for a formula,
    The master-word, the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life,
    The abracadabra that settles everything (226)”.

    She gives those words to one of the Three Wise Men, for what it’s worth. In addition to this, she earlier cites alchemy by name in the course of her treatment of the “Faust” myth, on page 199. And last, in the course of introducing the reader to the Lichfield “Vengeance” play, Sayers’ gives the following author’s note: “Readers will recognize echoes from many other writers, ranging from the Apostles and canonized saints to Charles Williams and T. S. Eliot, and Dantists in particular will take pleasure in picking out and attributing to their rightful owner the lines and images from the “Comedy” which occur at frequent intervals throughout (280)”. For any Quaker readers in the audience, she is also kind enough to bring up the following anecdote: “The curious story of George Fox’s vision in the streets of Lichfield is narrated in his Journal for 1651 (ibid)”. All of these textual elements can be discovered for free on the Internet Archive Database:

    With all of these compound elements assembling together, I’m going to go a bit out on a limb, here. I started the article above with nothing more than a personal surmise that the three “Wimsey” books discussed in the essay “might” be connected to the hermetic schemes found in certain Mythopoeic texts. The evidence gathered here over the course of days (with the invaluable help of Prof. Dodds) has now changed things in a definite positive direction. I’d now like to suggest that the “suggestion” of the Guest Post is now a firm conviction that Sayers knew about the Mercurial elements of Mythopoeia, and was using it as the narrative thread for the three books cited above. I want to go a bit further though.

    I hinted in the article that the “Wimsey/Vane Cycle” exerted a literary influence on the “Strike Series”. Well, now with the accumulated data to fall back on, I’ll go further up and out on a limb and make what may sound like a bold claim. I wish to suggest that the saga of “When Harriet Met Peter” is the guiding story, Ur Text, or undergirding narrative that ultimately structures the nature of the Denmark Mysteries, and the plot trajectories of its two main leads. Perhaps a better way to put it is to borrow a phrase from T.S. Eliot. It helps if we see Rowling’s detective stories as the work of an Individual Talent, with Sayer’s Austenian Gothic Noir Triad of novels as the Tradition from which she is drawing that may amount to the ultimate source of inspiration for both Strike and Robin. I’d argue it is not too nonsensical to posit that Ms. Murray’s dynamic duo are positive/negative mirror reflections of Wimsey and Harriet respectively. In other words, Strike and Robin are what you get if Sayers’ quarreling couple were turned inside out, thus making the latter set of characters a kind of photo negative of the previous two.

    I find the resemblances between the struggles of a female protagonist like Harriet as very telling when she is paired with the travails of someone like Robin. Both of them are women who have been on the receiving end of manipulative and aggressive men, and this in turn has created what Charles Williams might describe as a “crisis” for each of them. The whole crux of the issue (or Nigredo, to use another term for it) is that these negative experiences have given each super sleuth an unnecessary, yet inevitably skewed/schizoid outlook on the very ideas of love and romance. As such, Rowling’s series, and Sayers’ Triad Cycle each concern the journey a woman makes as she tries to come to grips with the actual nature of reality, and how this can or may affect them on a personal level. The same idea applies to both Strike and Wimsey, in a sense. Both are men for whom the idea of a relationship is a warped concept. In some ways, Strike has it worse than Peter, yet even here, they both share a similar type of background as Brothers in Arms, for lack of a better term. Both have been maimed by war in a way.

    This is something that is reflected in both their characters. There are still a lot of unresolved issues that Strike carries around with him from his stint in the army, while Wimsey’s story is the familiar one of post-World War I disillusionment. The Great War robbed him of whatever college boy idealism he might have had, and a lot of the sort of early modern playboy lifestyle that he adopts is really his own coping mechanism for a long time in his own series. It’s what he uses to keep a lot of bad memories at bay.

    Sayers never goes into the issue as much as Rowling does, yet it is at least implied that Wimsey is best described a regular One Night Stander. In that sense, he recognizes Harriet as something of a lifeline tossed his way out of the clear blue, when he least expected it to happen. She’s the first person he’s ever found himself caring about on a level he thought had been knocked out of him in the trenches, and yet here it is, seemingly back from the dead. To his credit, this is a realization that he’s able to recognize almost at once, and it becomes his own personal catalyst for personal transfiguration. Rowling has seen fit to make her own gumshoe a lot slower on the uptake, yet the idea is the same in both their cases.

    It is these two intertwined stories of “Crisis” and “Change” (as Williams terms it) that Rowling appears to be drawing on for her own series more than any other. It’s true she does a bit of re-shuffling of Sayers’ Austen-like card trick formula. However, even this involves little more than stretching out the runtime of journey for just a while longer, rather than any major deviation from the Tradition, or template first laid out by Sayers.

    At their essence, Strike/Wimsey, and Robin/Harriet are moving along a closely shared plot trajectory, from what I can tell, anyway. So it makes sense to argue that keeping a close reading eye on the three books discussed above should be a good way to gauge how “Mr. Galbraith’s” thriller series goes in the future. In particular, I’d like to see if we’re looking at a case of shared themes between the two writers.

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