The Lives and Loves of Muriel St Clare Byrne

11th February 2019

Dr Mo Moulton is a lecturer in history at the University of Birmingham, where they also direct the Centre for Modern British Studies. They will be speaking about  Muriel St Clare Byrne (1914, English) at the University of Oxford History Faculty on Thursday February 14, at 11am.

Muriel St. Clare Byrne is a Somerville alumna worth remembering. She entered Somerville College in 1914 and received her degree when women first became eligible for them in October 1920. At Somerville, she became part of the illustrious (and self-named) Mutual Admiration Society, a writing group founded by Dorothy L. Sayers and a few of her friends. After receiving second-class honours, Byrne found it difficult to launch the academic career she wanted: so she created her own role as a hybrid scholar and popular author, publishing books on daily life in Elizabethan times.

Her masterwork was a six-volume edited collection of the letters of Lord Lisle (the 16th century soldier, diplomat and administrator Arthur Plantagenet). She began work on this project in the early 1930s, and the letters were published by the University of Chicago Press in 1981. Nearly half a century of learning is reflected in these volumes, which were undertaken with very little institutional support and were ultimately published thanks to subscriptions from, among other donors, the Queen.

Byrne was also a close collaborator with Dorothy L. Sayers, best known for her detective novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey; the two co-wrote the play Busman’s Honeymoon, and Byrne was an important critic for Sayers as she wrote her beloved novel Gaudy Night, set in a fictionalised Somerville.

In this talk, I will explore not only Byrne’s professional self-fashioning, but also her complex, surprising, and ultimately compelling personal life. Her archive, held by Somerville library, preserves the ephemera of her life-long partnership with Marjorie ‘Bar’ Barber and the home they made together, as well as her relationship with Mary Aeldrin Cullis – both of them fellow Somerville graduates. Byrne’s writings, too, explore the experiences of same-sex desire as well as her own gender non-conformity. Her life and loves, I suggest, offer some new ways to think about queer history in twentieth century Britain.

Dr Moulton’s talk is based on research for their book, The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women, forthcoming from Little, Brown in November 2019.



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