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Ladykillers - Mercury Writers of Crime's Golden Age: Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers

by Paul F. Newman

Agatha
Christie MemorialThe Golden Age of the crime novel is generally reckoned from the 1920s to the 1950s. Murder mysteries were presented then more as mental puzzles than real-life traumas; more Mercury riddles than gory Mars/Pluto crime scenes.

From the immense number of titles during these years, few of their authors would have believed their work would outlast them, let alone be treated in some instances as literary classics. The ‘whodunnit’ was initially regarded as a trashy throwaway read, sniffed at and looked down on by the patricians of the written word, uniformly demeaned by the literary establishment of its day. It was pulp. Yet we now appreciate that the writing in the best of these is at least the equal of any form of novel written in English in the twentieth century, and the crime novel’s need to be fast and clear undoubtedly influenced and improved written fiction in all genres.

Two female writers however stand out from the crowd.

Agatha Christie was born in Torquay on 15 September 1890 at 4am. Dorothy Sayers was born in Oxford on 13 June 1893, time unknown. Both these ‘Mercury’ ladies (Christie a Sun Virgo, Sayers a Sun Gemini) were Britain’s top female crime writers in the between-the-wars heyday of the whodunnit.

Dorothy L.
Sayers MemorialBoth ladies were born in the 1890s with the Neptune-Pluto conjunction in Gemini, and Sayers’ Moon may have been right on it. One of its contemporary calling cards was Gothic horror in literature; fantastic tales of darkness like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Dracula (1897). But it also carried the seeds of the murder mystery, with the real-life enigma of Jack the Ripper exciting the public as much through its intangible element (Neptune) as its heinous brutality (Pluto). Who was he? The danger was shrouded in mystery. One of the far-reaching consequences of the 1880 Education Act, that became more noticeable with Pluto in Gemini, was that more of the public were able to read, and one of the things they loved reading about was crime, real and imaginary. The more cerebral (Mercurial) deductive element found its popular face in Sherlock Holmes (1888), with the puzzle more compelling than the lurid details of the lawbreaking act involved. Our two ladies grew up within this general background.

Both Christie and Sayers came to public notice in the 1920s, just after their Saturn Returns and the start of new progressed Moon cycles. Agatha Christie’s first crime novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920, Dorothy L. Sayers’ first crime novel Whose Body? was published in 1923. (Note that both titles suggest puzzles). The difference between the two Queens of Crime was that the more classically educated Sayers only wrote popular novels for about a decade and a half until she had secured complete financial independence, thereafter indulging her love of academic and religious study to produce works (as she saw it) of more importance and depth. Christie meanwhile continued writing and refining the body-in-the-library style she had largely pioneered, until her death in the 1970s. Producing at least a book a year, Agatha Christie’s age and ingenuity resulted in her becoming the largest-selling writer in English of all time, second only to Shakespeare. (In fact it is claimed she is the biggest-selling novelist of all time in any language). In its own field the best of her work is little short of genius. But to many Sayers was the greater writer.

In their very first book each author introduced a detective character who became an instant hit with readers and who would be reprised throughout their works. Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles was narrated by a young Captain Hastings invalided home from the Front in the First World War. During his time across the Channel Hastings had met a ‘funny little man’ from Belgium called Hercule Poirot who was now fortuitously in England also, and whose remarkable mental powers were called in to solve a country house murder. Many of Agatha Christie’s leading characters were typical of her Saturn rising in Virgo – fussy old virgins. Poirot was especially known for his fastidiousness in dress and habit and the importance he attached to his Mercury function, his Saturn-in-Virgo ‘little grey cells’. Dorothy Sayers, whose Mercury was conjunct Venus, conjured up quite a different detective hero; a literary-quoting, beautifully-spoken young member of the aristocracy; Lord Peter Wimsey. 1

Sayers chartWimsey, who had also been scarred by the horrors of the Great War, was a character of greater emotional depth (Mercury in Cancer) than Poirot. While Poirot was an extremely polite gentleman (Mercury in Libra) his personal feelings took second place to the logicality of his brain. He even explained ‘intuition’ as the end result of a process of unbiased observation. The answer that came to him in a flash had been ruminating for some time in his subconscious thanks to data fed in from a meticulous eye. It might seem mysterious and even magical to others but to Poirot the deduction was a straightforward, if slightly mercurial process. We can note that Agatha Christie was born soon after a new moon, whereas Sayers was born just before one. Poirot was sure of his powers and generally untroubled by dark moods, while Sayers’ dark-of-the-moon psyche encouraged the creation of a more sensitive and complex criminologist.

Certainly Lord Peter Wimsey is a Mercury man with his quick wit and his mastery of words. (Interestingly Poirot also has an unusual speech pattern; he bi-lingually combines French language structure into his English). Both men are courteous and Wimsey in particular is genuinely kind. These are archetypal British-style between-the-wars literary sleuths of course, as opposed to the tough hard-boiled American school. But Wimsey actually grows in age and character throughout his series of novels, beginning at around thirty in 1923 (the same age as his creator) and finishing in his mid forties in 1938 in the last Wimsey book Busmans Honeymoon. The honeymoon of that final title refers to Wimsey’s eventual marriage to a woman he had been chasing through several previous episodes. Harriet Vane was by little stretch of the imagination a portrait of Dorothy L. Sayers herself. The depth, uncertainties and hidden subtleties of this relationship between Lord Peter and Miss Vane has everything of the dark moon phase about it.

Harriet Vane is an author of detective stories (could there be a closer identification with her author?) who is also fiercely independent and intelligent. Like Dorothy Sayers she is university educated, and returns to solve a crime at her old all-female Oxford college in the novel Gaudy Night. The cloistered womb-like atmosphere of the city of dreaming spires is plainly where Miss Vane’s (and Miss Sayers’) heart lies, for she is a woman who has not loved wisely in the outer world and has paid a price for it (Venus square Saturn). Unusually if not shockingly for a heroine in a novel of the 1920s/30s, she has been a kept woman, a mistress – and Sayers also had a child out of wedlock. Wimsey clearly does not find the misplaced immorality of his beloved an impediment to his continual proposals of marriage. It is Miss Vane who gently defers.

Poirot never marries. Neither does Miss Marple, the spinster of St Mary Mead. Neither did Sherlock Holmes come to that, so a married detective was a rarer bird in crime fiction’s Golden Age. With Dorothy Sayers’ Mercury in Cancer (conjunct Venus) Lord Peter Wimsey’s hereditary family often came into the plots and when he married he built a family of his own.2

Christie chartCommunicating the Neptune-Pluto idea of murder in a fictional or unreal atmosphere or setting came naturally to Agatha Christie as her Mercury trined the elevated Neptune-Pluto conjunction on her chart. Methods of murder could be highly imaginative, but Neptune-Pluto is especially reminiscent of poison. Poison had the reputation of being a particularly feminine way of committing murder and both our authors showed a preference for poison in their plots. One of Dorothy Sayers’ novels was actually called Strong Poison but Agatha Christie was the expert. She had worked in the Great War as an assistant in a hospital dispensary and this firsthand knowledge of dangerous substances came into her fiction from the start.

Agatha Christie’s Mercury in Libra not only gave us a refined well-mannered symmetry-obsessed detective in Poirot, but the Libran social aspect often described the murderer in her stories too. To remain inconspicuous amongst many suspects the guilty party could hardly be portrayed as a nasty piece of work but one whose social skills were at least the equal of the others’. There is also a greater sense of Libran justice in Agatha Christie’s novels in that the wrongdoer is always unmasked at the end. In Dorothy Sayers’ novels a crime is solved but there may be other unrelated emotional issues running alongside. Almost invariably with Agatha Christie the unmasking takes place in a scene in which the detective, like a judge summing-up, communicates at length to the gathered crowd the whys and wherefores of the case (Mercury in Libra) before pronouncing the irrefutable verdict.

Both our ladies were members of The Detection Club, formed in London in the late Twenties with a typically Pluto-Neptunish secret robed ritual,3 and the club still exists today. Apart from this, with natal Suns exactly square, the more reticent Agatha and the more clubbable Dorothy rarely appear to have sought each other out. They were ‘acquainted’, people said. Nobody went as far as to call them bosom friends.

Chart data and Footnotes:
Agatha Christie. 15 September 1890. 4am GMT. Torquay. Porphyry houses. Source: AA Chart Data Base
Dorothy L. Sayers. 13 June 1893. Time unknown. Oxford. Noon chart used. Source: Biographies, Internet etc.

1. If the name ‘Wimsey’ has a Mercury-Venus feeling of light capriciousness, its Cancer placement emphasises this by leading the author to create a family shield with heraldic Moon-ruled mice and the motto ‘As My Whimsy Takes Me’.
2. According to the short story Talboys, written by Dorothy Sayers in 1942 but not published until after her death, Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane had three sons.
3. Those born under the Neptune-Pluto conjunction were fond of instigating rituals in all manner of areas when they reached adulthood. Charles Carter (born 1887) introduced the robed astrology ritual for members of the Astrological Lodge in the 1920s and Dorothy Sayers was prominent in creating the Detection Club’s mock-solemn robed ritual in which, almost in defiance of Pluto-Neptune, new members swore on a skull not to make use in their detective plots of “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or Act of God”.

First published by: The Astrological Journal, 2010

Author:
Paul F. NewmanPaul F. Newman
has had over 300 articles on astrology published in magazines throughout the world. He is the author of Declination in Astrology: The Steps of the Sun and the cartoon collection You're not a Person – Just a Birthchart.He teaches astrology privately and is closely involved with The Wessex Astrologer publishing house. He can be contacted at pneuma@ukonline.co.uk

Image sources:
All charts provided by the author
Christie Memorial: Ethan Doyle White at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Christie Plaque: By Edwardx (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Sayers Plaque:  Mike Quinn [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Sayers Memorial: By GeneralJohnsonJameson (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

© Paul F. Newman - published by The Astrological Journal / 2017

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Current Planets
18-Oct-2017, 01:30 UT/GMT
Sun2451'50"9s38
Moon417'55"1n24
Mercury111'23"11s46
Venus431' 2"0n23
Mars271'30"2n15
Jupiter137'25"11s05
Saturn2324'17"22s15
Uranus2635'29"r9n42
Neptune1148'25"r8s00
Pluto1656'47"21s47
TrueNode2225'16"r14n02
Chiron2519' 8"r1n46
Explanations of the symbols
Chart of the moment
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