One could argue, Moulton suggests, that each woman “lived a queer life, in that they refused neat categories and pushed beyond the boundaries of feminine womanhood in 20th-century Britain.” This isn’t to say that they would necessarily have embraced such categorisation themselves. Sayers maintained an incredibly close, loyal and loving friendship with both Byrne and Bar, but this didn’t stop her also declaring more generally that “inverts make me creep”. Moulton’s project, however, isn’t to try and claim these women as something they weren’t, but viewing their lives through a 21st-century lens does illuminate our understanding of how societal change is an often slow and quietly won process.
One of the best things about Moulton’s book is the way it refuses to heroise these women, heroic as they undoubtedly were at times. But they were also complicated and singular, brimming with the ordinary prejudices of their time... Where the book suffers is in its sturdily dutiful style; the wit and verve of its subjects can struggle to fly free from the pages. It lacks a sense of place and atmosphere. Occasionally continuity suffers as Moulton juggles the large cast; there are small but jarring errors of orthography (“honorary” and “humorous” are, oddly, misspelled throughout the work). Nevertheless, what touchingly emerges is the sense that through all the trials of heartbreak, bereavement and loss, it was friendship that persisted. It is a tribute to that precious but still unsung thing: the loving bond between female friends, based on intellectual exchange and deep affection.
Moulton’s arguments are more persuasive when using language that Sayers and co would recognise: “pashes”, “breeches parts”, “the love-perversions dealt with in Leviticus”. Moulton’s discussions of the obscenity trial of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, with its lesbian theme, and of Sayers’s changing attitude to “inversion” are sensitive and enlightening. But this book is a slim subject with a chronic case of middle-aged spread. Moulton admits: “I suspect they would have been somewhat boring men.” Regrettably, Sayers excepted, they make for rather boring women.
Bcause Moulton’s interest is solely in the community of friendship, we get little sense of each woman’s private character or interior life, which is doubtless how they would have wanted it. Loyalty did not involve intimacy, and it is unclear how much any of them knew about the courage, conflicts or sacrifices involved in one another’s various domestic arrangements... A blend of group biography and social history, Mutual Admiration Society tells a quintessentially English story in a slightly plodding way. From brilliant students, the women evolved into gung-ho, wide-girthed matrons...