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.

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