N°2 |“A Distinct Novel of the Same Name”: Adapting Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Honeymoon from Stage to Page

Suzanne Bray

Abstract :

Although most works of adaptation theory acknowledge that many forms of adaptation exist, most of them are concerned with the transformation of written texts or true-life stories for the screen. Equally, as Linda Hutcheon remarks, “an adaptation is likely to be greeted as minor and subsidiary and certainly never as good as the original” (xiv), except when the adapter is more famous than the author of the source text. Evaluating the adaptation is made more complicated by the fact that the adapter often has different ideas and priorities from the original author. The case of Dorothy L. Sayers’Busman’s Honeymoonprovides an exception to these norms, thus facilitating its use as an example of adaptation techniques. The play was written first and then adapted into a novel immediately afterwards by the author. The context of the two works is therefore identical. The novel is better known than the play, but both works enjoy approximately the same degree of critical esteem. Moreover, in Sayers’ correspondence with Muriel St Clair Byrne, her collaborator for the play and one of her advisors during the novelization process, the author explains her intentions and adaptation difficulties.

This article traces Sayers’ writing processes during the composition of the play and the novel, showing how the original play is both an adaptation of the principles of detective fiction’s “fair-play rule” for the stage and a traditional comedy of manners. On the other hand, the novel represents a complete rethinking of the plot in terms of narrative, replacing the visual with the verbal, resulting in a work that is “not the ordinary novel of the play, but a distinct novel of the same name” (Letters 23). The two works fully support Kamilla Elliott’s controversial insistence that adaptation proves that “form (expression) can be separated from content (ideas)” (3-5), even if the novel contains additional ideas which are not present in the play.

Résumé :

Bien que la majorité des écrits sur les théories d’adaptation reconnaissent qu’il existe de nombreuses formes d’adaptation, la plupart d’entre eux aborde surtout la transformation de textes écrits ou d’histoires vraies pour l’écran. De même, comme le constate Linda Hutcheon, “le plus souvent on reçoit une adaptation comme une version mineure ou inférieure, jamais aussi bien que l’originale”, sauf quand l’adaptateur est plus célèbre que l’auteur du support d’origine. Évaluer l’adaptation se complique encore davantage parce que l’adaptateur a souvent des priorités et des idées différentes de celles de l’auteur. Le cas deBusman’s Honeymoon(Noces de crime) de Dorothy L. Sayers présente une exception à ces règles, ce qui facilite son utilisation comme exemple des techniques d’adaptation. Sayers écrit d’abord la pièce de théâtre et l’adapte la même année pour en faire un roman. Le contexte des deux œuvres est donc identique. Le roman est plus connu que la pièce, mais les deux ont été reçus avec le même enthousiasme par les critiques. D’ailleurs, dans les lettres rédigées par Sayers à Muriel St Clair Byrne, sa co-autrice pour la pièce, elle explique ses intentions et ses difficultés pendant le processus de transposition en roman.

Cet article suit les méthodes d’écriture de Sayers pendant la rédaction de la pièce et du roman pour montrer comment la pièce est à la fois une adaptation pour la scène du principe de “fair-play” dans le roman policier et une comédie de mœurs traditionnelle. En revanche, pour le roman, Sayers a dû repenser complètement l’intrigue en termes de stratégie narrative, en remplaçant le visuel par le verbal pour en faire une œuvre qui n’est pas “le roman de la pièce, mais un ouvrage distinct avec le même titre”. Les deux œuvres illustrent pleinement l’idée polémique de Kamilla Elliott que l’adaptation fournit la preuve que “la forme (l’expression) peut être séparée du contenu (les idées)”, même si le roman comporte des éléments supplémentaires par rapport à la pièce.


        While most works of adaptation theory acknowledge that many forms of adaptation exist, the vast majority of them are principally concerned with the transformation of written texts (mainly novels) or true-life stories for the cinema or television. Equally, as Linda Hutcheon points out, “an adaptation is likely to be greeted as minor and subsidiary and certainly never as good as the original” (xiv), except in the rare instances when the adapter is more famous than the author of the source text. In most cases, evaluating the adaptation is made more complicated by the fact that the adapter often, quite legitimately, has a different context, different ideas and priorities from the original author, which influence critics’ perception of the later work. The case of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon provides an exception to these rules, thus facilitating its use as an example of adaptation techniques. The play, which was a great success when first performed in 1936, was written first and then adapted into a novel immediately afterwards by the principal author of the play. The context of the two works is therefore identical. In addition, the novel is better known than the play, but both works enjoy approximately the same degree of critical esteem. Moreover, in Sayers’ correspondence with Muriel St Clair Byrne, her collaborator for the play and one of her three advisors during the novelization process, the author explains her intentions and adaptation difficulties in some detail.

This paper will trace Sayers’ writing processes and intentions during the composition of the play and the novel, to show how the original play is, in itself, an adaptation of the principles of detective fiction’s “fair-play rule” for the stage, while combining this with the traditional romantic comedy of manners. On the other hand, the novel represents a complete rethinking of the plot in terms of narrative, replacing the visual with the verbal, resulting in a work which, as Sayers hoped, is “not the ordinary novel of the play, but a distinct novel of the same name” (Letters 2 13), with a completely different structure from the play. The two works fully support Kamilla Elliott’s controversial insistence that adaptation proves that “form (expression) can be separated from content (ideas)” (Hutcheon 9, Elliott 3-5),even if the novel contains additional ideas which are not present in the play.

        In early 1935, while she was writing her penultimate novel Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers was obliged to employ a sweep to clear the chimneys in her Essex home. As Barbara Reynolds recounts, the sweep “wore a number of pullovers, which he peeled off, one after the other as he warmed to his task” (Sayers, Letters 1 342). Sayers found this highly amusing and, when visiting her friends Muriel St. Clair Byrne and Marjorie Barber in London “entertained her friends to a pantomime representation of the sweep’s methods as he tried to insert his body into the chimney” (Williams 213). As Sayers later stated in an interview for The Evening Standard, their subsequent conversation went as follows:

“Splendid,” said Miss Byrne; “there’s an ideal opening to a play.” “I don’t want to write a play,” said Miss Sayers; “I can’t start learning a new technique.” “Well, we’ll write it together then,” said Miss Byrne. So they did. (Williams 213)

        Muriel St. Clair Byrne and Dorothy Sayers had been close friends since their student days at Somerville College, Oxford, where they were fellow members of the Mutual Admiration Society. Since graduating in English in 1917, Byrne had become a lecturer at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and a member of the governing body of the Royal Shakespeare Company. She was therefore the ideal collaborator in writing a play on account of her thorough knowledge of acting and stage technique. Sayers and Byrne both believed, controversially, like Linda Hutcheon and Kamilla Elliott, that the form of a work can be separated from its content or ideas. Sayers would later explain her theories of creativity in her 1941 book The Mind of the Maker. In this study, Sayers presents a trinitarian theory of literary creation where the Creative Idea in the mind of the maker becomes incarnate through the working in time of the Creative Energy or Activity, finally producing, through the Creative Power, a response in the soul of the reader (Mind of the Maker 28). From this point of view, the same idea can give birth to several concrete manifestations, more or less perfectly communicating the idea to the world.

For their collaboration, Sayers and Byrne decided to write a detective play. Both co-authors thought, like Aristotle, that all good plays and all good detective stories should be plot-driven. Just a year before this, Sayers had in fact delivered a lecture in Oxford where she claimed that the “Poetics remains the finest guide to the writing of [detective] fiction that could be put, at this day, into the hands of an aspiring author” (Aristotle 179). As a result, the authors worked on the murder method first (Letters 1 389), then the final dramatic climax and then a plot outline before they started to write at all. From then on:

Sayers would write a draft and Byrne would go over it, making notes, cuts and revisions; then, Sayers would take the manuscript or typescript and produce another version, with Byrne editing that. (Dale xxvii)

Sayers was quite hesitant, being only too aware that “the novelist’s approach by argument and explanation is clearly unsuited to the stage” (Love All 5) and relied heavily on her co-author, telling Byrne: “Please don’t mind altering anything at all that seems to you weak or inadequate. I trust your judgement quite implicitly” (Letters 1 348). Part of Sayers’ problem was how to convey the idea in words in a theatrical context. She wrote to her collaborator: “As regards Kirk and Sellon – I think what really happened is this […] I don’t see how the situation can be made clear in the dialogue” (Letters 1 348). Although it may seem strange to refer to “what really happened” with regard to a work of fiction, this indicates that, in Sayers’ mind, there is an original idea with which she is struggling in order to find an appropriate form or expression to reveal it to the theatre audience.

Sayers referred to their work as “this highly experimental play” (Love All 6) as the co-authors saw Busman’s Honeymoon as “an attempt to show in dramatic terms […] the fair-play rule” (Love All 5) famous in Golden Age detective fiction. This meant that, as in a detective novel or short story, “every clue must be shown at the same time to the public and to the detective” (Love All 5), giving the members of the audience every opportunity to solve the mystery for themselves before the solution is revealed in the final scene. However, in a play, these clues must be shown visually as much as, if not more than, verbally. As a result, for Sayers, the challenge comes from the fact that “every movement is done, every clue is laid, in full sight of the audience” (Williams 213), but ideally when the audience’s attention is focussed elsewhere. For example, in Busman’s Honeymoon, the murderer cleans the blood and hair off the murder weapon while everyone is paying attention to a fascinating conversation on the other side of the stage (Love All 22).

In the “Author’s Note” to the published version of the play, Sayers explains how this was achieved. To start with, “for the First Act, the chosen method is that of visual presentation […] the clues as to the Means are displayed, silently but conspicuously, down-stage” (Love All 5). This means that the murder weapon, a very large cactus in a heavy metal pot, hanging from the ceiling on a chain, is clearly visible on the stage, as is the murder victim’s radio, used to spring the trap. The audience cannot miss them, although the authors hoped that their significance would not be apparent. In the Second Act, the technique changes. As Sayers remarks: “the method, while still contrapuntal, is slightly varied. While the inquiry is ostensibly directed to the Motive, the information actually conveyed to the audience chiefly concerns opportunity, or lack of it” (Love All 5). In this Act, all the characters are introduced and their potential, and numerous, reasons for committing the murder become apparent. The authors deliberately introduce red herrings to lead the audience astray, in the hope that “they will gallop off on the trail of the motive” (Letters 1 390) and forget the practicalities of the crime. In the first scene of the Third Act, the atmosphere changes and “an effort here is made to do for the detective play what has already been achieved for the detective novel – that is, to combine it with the comedy of manners” (Love All 6). The interaction between the characters sheds light not only on the motives for murder, but also on the essential foundations of a happy marriage and what makes relationships between the sexes go wrong. The detective couple, Harriet and Peter, are seen adapting to their newly married state and creating a creative balance in their relationship, while other characters show they do not know how to control their emotions and become unbalanced. In the final scene, “both the disguised and ostensible clues, extracted from the previous scenes, are presented afresh in a visual reconstruction to solve the problem on purely theatrical lines” (Love All 6). In front of the audience, as Sayers explains, “the stage is literally cleared […] of almost everything” (Letters 1 389) except the murder apparatus, and a dramatic reconstruction of the crime enables Peter to trap the murderer into an admission of his guilt.

By September 1935, Sayers’ previous novel Gaudy Night was finished, as was the script for Busman’s Honeymoon,and Sayers decided to start work immediately on the book of the play, adapting her own and Muriel St. Clair Byrne’s work into a novel. This time Sayers was the sole author, but she frequently met Muriel St. Clair Byrne, Marjorie Barber and Helen Simpson in London and discussed the novel at length with them. The novel is dedicated to these three women whom, she claimed, were “wantonly sacrificed on the altar of that friendship of which the female sex is said to be incapable” (Honeymoon v), and who provided helpful criticism and insights.

Very little has been written about the novelization process in general. For Linda Hutcheon, adapting a novel into a film is first and foremost “a labour of simplification” (1). It is therefore, perhaps, legitimate to claim that novelization implies a labour of complexification. The novel Busman’s Honeymoon is certainly longer than the play and moves forward at a more leisurely pace; there are 451 pages in the latest paperback edition of the novel and only 113 in the script of the play. Sayers refers to her novel as “the limbs and outward flourishes” (Honeymoon v) of the play, which implies a form of embellishment, also adding a means of moving around to a static body. However, the plot remains identical. For Sayers, novelization implied principally “rethinking the story in terms of narrative” (Letters 2 3), which implied changing the order of appearance of several elements in the plot and rethinking how information is to be communicated. The author pointed out to a potential backer: “You will see how much general information has been extracted from the first act and expanded into novelist’s rigmarole” (Letters 1 389). The key word here being “expanded,” as if the skeleton was gaining extra flesh.

Linda Hutcheon points out that “fans of films enjoy their novelizations because they provide insight into the characters’ thought processes and more details about their background” (118). Part of the difficulty in Busman’s Honeymoon comes from the fact that those who have already read Sayers’ other detective novels already know three of the characters fairly well. In the play, however, very little attempt is made to connect the murder mystery to the rest of their lives. On the other hand, the novel takes its place in the Wimsey series and is deliberately presented as a continuation of the story told in Gaudy Night. This is achieved by restructuring the work and adding a “Prothalamion”at the beginning and an “Epithalamion”at the end which provide a framework for the action. Equally, as Thomas Leitch remarks, “stage plays have to be opened up” (69) when they are adapted and move beyond the physical limitations of the theatre. It is no longer realistic, for example, to have all the action taking place in just one location, as it does in the play of Busman’s Honeymoon,or for so few people to be involved in the events.

In the novel of Busman’s Honeymoon, Sayers solves this problem by bridging the gap in the Prothalamion between Peter and Harriet’s engagement at the end of Gaudy Night and the first morning of their honeymoon, which is where the play begins. Various characters, many of whom the reader has already met in previous novels, give their opinion on the wedding and on Peter and Harriet’s chances of happiness. This not only sets the scene for the comedy of manners elements in the plot, it also enables Sayers to introduce one of her most popular characters, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, Peter’s mother. Peter, Harriet and Bunter are all replaced in their context and reconnect with their past, their families and friends, making them both more credible for the reader and more complex. On a more practical level, Talboys, Peter and Harriet’s honeymoon house, has to be given a geographical location in the novel with consistent distances from the other places mentioned. In the play, it is just in some rural village in the south of England. The restructuring of the plot and the framework also allow more time and space to be devoted to the more serious themes: what makes for a happy marriage and the pros and cons of capital punishment, which was still practised in England at the time. It is also important that the murderer can be seen outside his employer’s living room, enabling Sayers to give him a private life and thus adding realism to his motive.

         However, the principal change implied in the novelization process is moving from the visual to the verbal. This also involves a lot of necessary description. For example, in the incident with the sweep which both inspired and opens the play, Mr Puffett’s very unsexy clothing is described using terms which start off  very technical, but in the end remind the reader of an attractive actress’s attire:

His costume […] had reached what, in recent medical jargon, is known as ‘a high degree of onionisation’, consisting as it did of a greenish-black coat and trousers and a series of variegated pullovers one on top of the other, which peeped out at the throat in a graduated scale of décolleté. (Honeymoon 77) 

One page on, we learn that Mr Puffett removed “his coat […] displaying the outermost sweater in a glory of red and yellow horizontal stripes” (78). A page later, Sayers writes that “he removed his top sweater to display a blue one” (79). After six more pages, we read that Puffett “stripped off another sweater to reveal himself in emerald green” (85) and shortly afterwards “peeled off his green uppermost layer,” to show the world “a Fair-Isle jumper of complicated pattern” (88). It is another twenty pages before it is revealed that “he had piled his cast-off sweaters” (108) in a visible location. All this, obviously, does not need to be mentioned in the play as the audience sees Mr Puffett’s progressive, multi-coloured striptease act on the stage. However, the vocabulary chosen in the narrative: “peeped,” “décolleté,” “display,” “glory,” “stripped” and “reveal himself,” conveys the parallel with a cabaret dancer’s performance.

This movement from the visual to the verbal is also needed for the detective plot and the respect of the fair-play rule in the novel. When Frank, the murderer, enters the scene of the crime for the first time after his victim’s death, the stage directions merely say that he is “taking it all in” (Love All 18), but it is to be supposed that the actor looks around the stage, including at all the key elements of the murder machinery. He then goes to get a watering can and a cloth to inconspicuously wipe any blood or hair off the cactus pot, although he, obviously, does not explain what he is doing to the other characters. All this occurs without him saying a word. In the novel, Sayers has to describe his actions: “Frank Crutchley’s eyes wandered over the room as though seeking counsel from the dust-sheets, the aspidistras, the chimney, the bronze horsemen, Mr Puffett’s bowler, the cactus and the radio cabinet” (Honeymoon 92). By adding several other things that Frank sees to the important objects, she successfully disguises his intentions while giving the reader the necessary information. One of the principal difficulties for Sayers, as a novelist, was how to give the reader enough information about the cactus without drawing attention to it and inviting suspicion. As she wrote to Muriel St Clair Byrne:

I realise that the technical difficulty of the book version will be to keep the cactus out of the centre of the picture. In a play it’s all right never to ask the question “suppose the cactus wasn’t there when Sellon looked in?” because you can cut off one act and begin another on a new note. But in a book, it’s going to look obvious. Also, in a book, it’s going to be stupid of Peter not to suggest that there may have been a murder-machine… Must think of a way round these difficulties… (Letters 1 364) 

In the end, she solved the problems by ending chapter six in exactly the same place as the end of Act I, thus allowing a change of focus, away from the living room, at the beginning of chapter seven, and by Kirk suggesting that the cactus had been removed from its pot and then proving that this was not possible.

The problem with the cactus continues because, on stage, it is visually obvious that this heavy object swinging on a long chain is sufficiently dangerous that it could kill anybody tall enough who got in its way. In the novel, the fair-play rule obliges Sayers to communicate this information in words. The weight of the pot is estimated: “getting on for fourteen pound” (398) and the fishing line which held it out of sight is described as able to “hold a twenty-pound salmon” (398) and thus, by definition, also a fourteen-pound pot. The sinkers on each end of the line are also mentioned, enabling the reader with a minimal knowledge of mechanics to understand how they would counterbalance the pot. The reader can then imagine what must have happened.

Although the detective plot in both works is identical and the fair-play rule duly observed, it is not unfair to say that the extra embellishments in the novel mean that, while the play may be described as a detective drama with romantic interruptions, the novel is clearly, as was written on the cover of the Victor Gollancz first edition, “a love story with detective interruptions.” In spite of this, the most frequently quoted sentence in the novel, and the only one from Busman’s Honeymoon to found on Wikiquotes, is not about crime but is a declaration of love, and can be found both in the play and in the novel: “And what do all the great words come to in the end, but that? I love you—I am at rest with you—I have come home” (Honeymoon 326, Love All 91).

        Dorothy L. Sayers was aware that she was taking a risk in immediately adapting the play into a novel, particularly if anyone got the false idea that the novel had been written first. The author was aware that adaptations from page to stage or screen were often looked down on by the general public. As she wrote to her agent, David Higham:

It is extremely important from the management’s point of view that people should not suppose the Play to be ‘the novel with all the best bits left out’ which is the sort of thing critics and audiences always say if they imagine that the Play has been taken from the book. (Letters 1 400) 

Fortunately for Sayers, the risk paid off and both works were successful. An initial short run at the Birmingham Theatre Royal in November 1936 went very well and Sayers wrote that the company had “had a very successful first night and a splendid press” (Letters 1 405). It then transferred to the Comedy Theatre in London’s West End and ran for nine months before being transferred to the Victoria Palace. All in all Busman’s Honeymoon played for over 500 performances in the West End before going on tour. It has frequently been revived, including a very successful staging at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in 1988 with Edward Petherbridge and Emily Richard as Peter and Harriet. The script was first published in 1937 at about the same time as the novel.

As for the novel, ever since its publication in 1937 it has gone through numerous editions and never been out of print. An Audiobook also exists and it has been serialised for radio by the BBC. It has also been translated into several languages.

Is the novel the same as the play or was Sayers right in referring to it as “a distinct novel of the same name?” This depends on your point of view. The plot is identical. Much of the dialogue from the play has been imported into the novel. The characters are all recognisably the same people. There are no contradictions between the two works. And yet, the novel is in many ways a much more serious piece of writing than the play. The extra space for reflection on relationships between the sexes and the exploration of the results of detection in a country which practises capital punishment give the novel extra depth. Busman’s Honeymoon is probably the only Golden Age story where the detective is fully confronted with the horrible consequences of his detection in the person of an unrepentant murderer who dies hating him. As Lizzie Seal has noted, Busman’s Honeymoon “link[s] trauma with capital punishment” (42) and also “highlighted the moral ambivalence of the detective’s role, in which he is implicated in the violence which he ostensibly opposes” (43).

And yet, this does not detract in any way from the merits of the play. As Gary Bortolotti and Linda Hutcheon observe: “an adaptation stands on its own as an independent work, separate from the source, and can be judged accordingly” (445). In fact, both works, original and adaptation, should be judged separately, according to the constraints and specificities of their own genre. Busman’s Honeymoon, the play, is a detective drama that observes the fair-play rule; it is also a comedy. It is dramatic and full of suspense, with a forward-driving plot that builds up successfully to a satisfying dramatic climax. It ends with the triumph of justice. The novel, part of a series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, combines a detective plot, which scrupulously observes the fair-play rule, and contains an interlinked exploration of two important social issues. It has several climaxes and periods of suspense, but ends with the triumph of love. Both works, with their different forms, successfully convey their authors’ idea to the general public and provide a different incarnation of what, in Sayers’ words, “really happened.”

Works Cited

Bortolotti Gary R. and Linda Hutcheon. “Rethinking Fidelty Discourse and Success: Biologically.” New Literary History 38.3 (Summer 2007): 443-58. Print.

Dale, Alzina Stone. “Introduction.” Dorothy L. Sayers, Love All and Busman’s Honeymoon. Kent OH: Kent State UP, 1985. xv-xxxvii. Print.

Elliott, Kamilla. Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Leitch, Thomas. “Adaptation Studies at a Crossroads.” Adaptation 1.1 (2008): 63-77. Print.

Sayers, Dorothy L. “Aristotle on Detective Fiction.” Unpopular Opinions. London: Methuen, 1946. 178-90. Print.

—. Busman’s Honeymoon. 1937. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003. Print.

—. Love All and Busman’s Honeymoon. Kent OH: Kent State UP, 1985. Print.

—. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers 1, 1899-1936: The Making of a Detective Novelist. Ed. Barbara Reynolds. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995. Print.

—. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers vol.2: from Novelist to Playwright. Ed. Barbara Reynolds. Hurstpierpoint: The Dorothy L. Sayers Society, 1997. Print.

—. The Mind of the Maker.1941. London: Mowbray, 1994. Print.

Seal, Lizzie. Capital Punishment in Twentieth-Century Britain: Audience, Justice, Memory. London: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Williams, Stephen. “Lord Peter Wimsey Takes to the Stage,” London Evening Standard, 5 November 1936. Qtd in Dorothy L. Sayers, Love All and Busman’s Honeymoon. Ed. Alzina Stone Dale. Kent OH: Kent State UP, 1985. 213-14. Print.

The Author Suzanne Bray is professor of British literature and civilisation at Lille Catholic University. Her research concerns the history of religious ideas in England during the 20th century and she has published many works on the relationship between theology and popular literature.