Dorothy L. Sayers and the Woman Criminal

Having written the last word of my paper and just about completed the Scalar portion of my project, I look back on all the notes I’ve taken and all that I’ve learned this summer.

Having carefully studied both the press accounts of historical poisoners, Madeleine Smith, Florence Maybrick, and Adelaide Bartlett, and compared them to the plight of Harriet Vane in Sayers’ Strong Poison, I’ve focused on two key elements in all of these cases, this being the way the woman’s physical appearance is described, and the amount of agency the woman shows in her relationships with her lover or husband.

Madeleine Smith

One interesting thing I noticed was the way in which Harriet Vane differed from her predecessors in terms of the way she is described. Throughout Strong Poison, Sayers describes a lot of her characters in great detail, such as Vane’s elderly judge, whose “parrot-face and parrot-voice were dry, like his old, heavily-veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harsh with the crimson roses,” (Sayers 1), and another character, Norman Urquhart, who is said to have “neat dress, thick, smooth, dark hair, and general appearance of brisk and businesslike respectability,” (Sayers 123-24).

Curiously, Vane is not heavily described at all throughout this novel. One of Wimsey’s friends comments that she is “not even that pretty” (Sayers 18) and Wimsey’s mother says that Vane is “not strictly good-looking,” (Sayers 33), and there is little else. This in sharp contrast from the press accounts of the three accused poisoners mentioned above. In the papers, everything from their eye color to the material of their dress is described. In one case, when the woman’s face was covered by a veil, the papers commented in detail on her chin. Thus, Harriet Vane breaks the tradition in one key way here: the story focuses less on her appearance than on the woman herself, and the circumstances in which she has found herself.

Adelaide Bartlett

The second I focused on was the amount of agency that was showed by each woman in her relationship with her lover or husband. Smith and Bartlett are both freed, though they are the most likely to be guilty. According to an analysis by Mary S. Hartman, Madeleine Smith, afraid of being found out, “grasped at a dramatic solution to her dilemma,” in other words, murder (Hartman 81). And of Bartlett, Hartman states that, “When [Adelaide’s] tale is abandoned, the conclusion that Adelaide Bartlett willed and carried out her husband’s death is unavoidable,” (Hartman 198). Both of these ladies show very little agency in their relationships with their lovers and/or husband, and the press does not give them any. Smith pretends to be the victim of seduction and Bartlett the victim of a corrupt husband, thus putting the focus on their victims rather than themselves.

Mr. and Mrs. Maybrick

Florence Maybrick, on the other hand, is much less likely to be guilty of murder, and she shows far more agency in her adulterous relationship with her lover, even apologizing for it in court. Harriet Vane too, shows more authority in her relationship with her lover than Bartlett and Smith do. Neither one tries to hide their illicit relationships, or blame them on someone else. These two ladies, one of whom is innocent, and one probably was innocent, were both nearly condemned to death, whereas Smith and Bartlett are not. Thus, I think Sayers, through her portrayal of Vane is says something about the portrayal of accused woman. Not only is sexual deviancy used as evidence of the woman’s guilt in a crime, but also the amount of agency the woman shows in her sexual affairs.

Through Harriet Vane, Sayers contributes much in the way of separating a woman’s perceived guilt or innocence from the public bias against various aspects of her life. Vane is never punished. In fact, she goes on to be the heroine of a later novel, Gaudy Night.

There are still multiple things that could be better explored. A comparison of the social class of these women may be interesting to look at. Another direction would be to look at the portrayal of other women who poison or are accused of poisoning in fiction and the press. I plan to continue to study these cases here in depth, comparing the language used in each of the four Harriet Vane novels to the press accounts of historical that are mentioned in each of these novels.

One thing is certain. I have come a long way from that book shop in Oxford, and I cannot wait to see where Sayers’s works take me next.


For those who would like to see the digital portion of my project, which exhibits the full extent of my research this summer, just clink the link below:



“Adelaide Bartlett.” From

Hartman, Mary S. Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes. Schocken Books, 1977.

“Madeleine Smith Profile.” From

“Mr. and Mrs. Maybrick.” From

Sayers, Dorothy. Strong Poison. Hodder & Stoughton, 2016.

Dorothy L. Sayers

As I’ve gone through my research this summer, I realized that no blog on Strong Poison would be complete without a brief post on the novel’s vibrant and talented author.

Bronze statue of Dorothy L. Sayers by John Doubleday. The statue is across the road from her home at 24 Newland Street, Witham, Essex.

Dorothy L. Sayers is considered one of the Queens of Crime of the Golden Age. Though Sayers was well known for her research and her interest in true crime, Strong Poison is an exception in that it seems heavily influenced by true criminal cases. Sayers was fond of mentioning true crime cases in her works that were similar to the plot of the novel, as Sharyn McCrumb points out in her essay, “Where the Bodies are Buried,” when it came to creating her novels, “there is little to indicate that she was influenced by any actual case.” (McCrumb, 87). The only other exception would be a short story, “In the Teeth of Evidence,” which she adapted from a murder on Guy Fawkes Night in 1930 (Edwards, 177).

Sayers, as McCrumb points out, was less inclined to ground her stories in true crime, and indeed, some of the methods of murder in her stories and novels, though well-researched, are not altogether practical. The method of murder in Unnatural Death for example has been denounced by most critics and medical experts (McCrumb, 89). However, there is nod ought that “Dorothy Sayers applied that ‘terrific vitality’ to studying what we now loosely call ‘forensics’. She admired the expertise of Bernard Spilsbury… and prided herself on accurate depiction of scientific homicide investigation.” (Edwards, 177). Sayers showed a great interest in real-life murders, and that is especially evident in Strong Poison. Including Madeleine Smith and Florence Maybrick, there are five true crime cases mentioned in the novel, perhaps more that I missed, most of which included poison as the weapon.

Strong Poison does draw a lot from the cases Madeleine Smith and Florence Maybrick, and the case of Harriet Vane shares many similarities from both. However, these similarities are only surface-level detail. Sayers treats Harriet Vane as a unique and vibrant character in a set of circumstances far different from these other women mentioned in the novel, rather than emulating the usual stereotypical woman poisoner of past fiction.

That in itself, I think, more than anything, makes a statement about the treatment of female criminals of the time, in the press and in fiction. Sayers treats Harriet Vane like a person, rather than a category or a stereotype, and despite the rather extravagant (and perhaps a little unrealistic) plot, there is much more to be said of Harriet Vane than her being a mere love interest or author’s mouthpiece.


“Dorothy L. Sayers.” Obtained from

Edwards, Martin. The Golden Age of Murder. Collins Crime Club, 2016.

McCrumb, Sharyn.“Where the Bodies are Buried: The Real Murder Cases in the Crime Novels of Dorothy L. Sayers.” Dorothy L. Sayers: The Centenary Celebration, edited by Alzina Stone Dale, Walker and Company, 1993, pp. 87-98.