In February 1943, Marjorie Barber, who was known to everyone as Bar, carefully wrapped a lemon in a jeweler’s box and sent it to her friend, the detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers. The packaging was appropriate: a lemon was as precious as a jewel in the depths of World War II in England. This was a war that devastated the home front: nearly 70,000 British civilians died, and no one escaped the shortages, the long hours, or the near-constant menace of bombs.
The ‘home’ front was fraught on another level for Bar and Dorothy. They were both in complex long-term partnerships that frequently offered stress rather than succor and uncertainty rather than support. Their quiet friendship was a refuge and a source of the fresh air, space, and humor that makes it possible keep muddling through in one’s marriage and one’s life, and the lemon, both treasured and refreshing, is its perfect symbol.
Wartime rationing and controls aimed to ensure that every person had access to a minimum supply of basic goods – not only food, but also clothing, furniture, and other items. A points system governed access to rarer items like cereals, lentils, and tinned (canned) foods. Lemons, though, were never rationed: like bananas and other items that had to be shipped from warmer climes, they simply became essentially unobtainable. The war disrupted trade routes and filled ships and cargo holds with munitions and soldiers rather than tropical fruits.
Dorothy called the lemon a “Museum Piece” for its rarity and splendor. Her husband, Mac Fleming, looked at it with a “stupefied gaze” and asked, in mock bewilderment, “What is it?”
But a lemon is not a jewel: it will not last forever. Mac said it “would be a pity to destroy it,” but Dorothy countered that “it would be a pity to let it dry up or grow green whiskers.” He wanted to put it in a glass case and sell tickets for the privilege of viewing it; she wanted to make that curry that he’d rejected before because it was “no good without a squeeze of lemon.” Manifestly unable to agree, they wrapped the lemon back up in its wadding and put it aside.
Bar had lived in London with her partner, Muriel St. Clare Byrne, since the 1920s; while Bar taught English literature to high school girls, Muriel was a Shakespeare expert and historian who taught at Bedford College and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. All three women had attended Somerville College, Oxford, together around the time of the First World War. Muriel and Dorothy were members of the same writing club there, the archly named Mutual Admiration Society. While Muriel and Bar were setting up house in their London flat and writing poems about their beloved cat, Dorothy had a more tumultuous romantic trajectory, involving some fraught love-affairs with men, a son born out of wedlock, and finally marriage in 1926 to Mac — a veteran of World War I, a journalist, and a gourmand who had already been married once before.
By 1943, both partnerships had been through good times and bad – the marriage of Mac and Dorothy, and the partnership of Muriel and Bar, who called each other “friends” or “companions” but functioned socially as a couple and wrote to each other with the frank love, deep concern, and possessive annoyance of spouses. Mac had eventually adopted Dorothy’s son, but the marriage had grown less close and was put under strain by his chronic ill health and the deaths, in rapid succession, of both of Dorothy’s parents. In the early 1930s, Dorothy considered separation and perhaps divorce; she took a long vacation with Muriel to discuss the matter, and ultimately decided to stick it out. Her subsequent letters narrate their spats and disagreements with a witty veneer that is hard to penetrate. To what extent had they found a reasonable modus vivendi, and to what extent does the humor cover a profound marital unease? The lemon incident is only one example: read the exchanges in different tones of voice, and their meaning shifts from the charming to the depressing.
Dorothy found, in her friendships with Muriel and Bar, both emotional and intellectual connection. With Bar’s regular input, Dorothy and Muriel collaborated on a series of writing projects, beginning with a play, Busman’s Honeymoon, that dramatized the early married experience of Sayers’ famous fictional sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, and his beloved Harriet Vane. By World War II, Muriel and Dorothy had launched an edited book series, “Bridgeheads,” that aimed to explore different aspects of a rapidly changing world. The three old school friends were in constant conversation about books, poetry, criticism, ideas, theology, and drama; Sayers’ letters to editors and other friends frequently cite something either Muriel or Bar has said on a given topic. Dorothy wrote a cycle of twelve radio plays on the life of Jesus early in the war, and her work was informed by the reactions of Bar’s students, who listened in each month. But Mac was not entirely left out of this circle: he painted a portrait of Bar, for example, in 1941, and sent it to her when it was not included in an exhibition.
Muriel and Bar, for their part, were separated by the war. Bar followed her students when they were evacuated from London, part of the large-scale effort to protect English children by moving them out of the zones likely to be worst-affected by German bombs. She worried profoundly about Muriel’s safety in London. And she found it harder and harder to cope with the terms of their relationship, which seems to have involved a certain degree of openness or latitude for Muriel to have relationships with other women. One such woman lived in their flat during the war, causing increased tension with Bar. Bar found, in Dorothy’s home, a refuge from those tensions. She spent long holidays with Dorothy and Mac, on a scale reminiscent of a Jane Austen character. Witness Dorothy’s invitation in 1942: “Well, dear, have a good term and come back at Christmas to pay us a nice long Eighteenth-Century visit.” Bar did spend that Christmas with her friends, leaving Muriel in London with her other companion.
Bar advised Dorothy to put the lemon in water occasionally to plump it out again, should it show signs of deterioration. This Dorothy did, until at last, about a month after the lemon’s triumphant arrival, she decided to take covert action. The lemon, it seemed, was beginning to grow whiskers, and the butcher had sweetbreads in stock. So, as she told Bar, “I cast reverence to the winds, cut the precious creature open (it was in perfectly good condition), used half the juice for the sauce, and served up the sweetbreads adorned with slices of lemon as per Mrs. Beeton.”
“You’ve CUT the LEMON!” Mac cried when he saw the dish. But Dorothy placated him by pointing out that he never looked at it and it was growing moldy. And they ate Mrs. Beeton’s sweetbreads and lemon, and then Dorothy made barley-water with the peel and even saved a small piece of the lemon to eat alongside some fish at the following morning’s breakfast.
It was “a very beautiful and encouraging lemon,” Dorothy said. And it carried with it the networks of love and care that had brought it to her doorstep. As she ate it, she told Bar, “I thought humbly and gratefully of you, and of our Armies in Africa and of the Merchant Seamen and the Warships and all the other kind and courageous beings who had toiled to bring the lemon and the sweetbreads.”
When life sends you war, rationing, and personal hardship, true friends send you lemons.
Barbara Reynolds, ed., The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, Vol. II: 1937-1943: From Novelist to Playwright (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996)
Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls, and Consumption, 1939-1955 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)