Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (Oxford, 13 June 1893Witham, 17 December 1957) was a British author, translator, student of classical and modern languages, and Christian humanist.


History and Personal Life

Dorothy L. Sayers (and she always insisted on that "L.") is perhaps best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, a series of novels and short stories featuring an English aristocrat who is an amateur sleuth.

Sayers was born in Oxford, where her father the Rev. Henry Sayers, M.A., was chaplain (and headmaster of the Choir School) of Christ Church College, Oxford. She was educated at Somerville College, Oxford, where she took first-class honours in modern languages, although women could not be granted degrees at that time; she was among the first women to receive a degree when they were allowed a few years later. She worked as a teacher and later as a copywriter in an advertising agency, S.H. Benson's, in London. This was to give her a useful insight into the advertising industry which she used in one of her mysteries, Murder Must Advertise.

"Strictly Confidential. Particulars about Baby."

In 1922 Sayers became involved with an unemployed "motor car salesman" named Bill White. After brief, intense, and mainly sexual relationship, Sayers discovered she was pregnant. White reacted negatively, storming out "in rage & misery" when Sayers admitted to being pregnant.

Fearing the effect her unmarried pregnancy would have on her parents, who were in their 70s, Sayers opted to hide herself away from friends and family. She continued to work at Benson's until the beginning of her last trimester, at which point she pleaded exhaustion and took an extended leave. She went alone to a "mother's hospital" under an assumed name and the child, John Anthony, was born January 3, 1924, at Southbourne, Hampshire. She remained with John for three weeks, nursing him and caring for him.

Not able to return to her life or work with an unexplainable child, Sayers arranged for him to be raised by her cousin Ivy Shrimpton. She wrote to Ivy, telling her the sad story about "a friend" and asking for Ivy to take the child. When Ivy agreed to take John, Sayers sent a her another letter that began "Strictly Confidential. Particulars about Baby." which revealed the child belonged to her. Sayers swore her cousin to silence about the child's parentage.

Two years later, by which time she was already writing her detective novels, she married Oswald Arthur "Mac" Fleming (a journalist whose professional name was "Atherton Fleming") and they later adopted her son; but he never lived in the Sayers household.

The Lady as a Writer

After graduation, Sayers struggled to find her place in the world. It is conjectured that she began working out the plot to her first novel sometime in 1921. The seeds of the plot for Whose Body? can be seen in a letter Sayers wrote on January 22, 1921:

"My detective story begins brightly, with a fat lady found dead in her bath with nothing on but her pince-nez. Now why did she wear pince-nez in her bath? If you can guess, you will be in a position to lay hands upon the murderer, but he's a very cool and cunning fellow..." (p.101, Reynolds)

Lord Peter Wimsey burst upon the world of detective fiction with an explosive "Damn!" and continues to engage the reader through the course of ten novels and two sets of short stories. Sayers once commented that Lord Peter was a mixture of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster, which is most evident in the first five novels. However, it is evident through Lord Peter's development as a round character, that he existed in Sayer's mind as a living breathing, fully human entity.

When she tired of grinding out detective stories, Sayers introduced Harriet Vane, a detective novelist and amateur detective, in the definitive Strong Poison. She remarked on more than one occasion that she had developed the "husky voiced, dark-eyed" Harriet to put an end to Lord Peter via matrimony. But in the course of writing Gaudy Night, Sayers imbued Lord Peter and Harriet with so much life that she was never able to, as she put it, "see Lord Peter exit the stage."

Sayers also wrote a number of short stories about Montague Egg, a wine salesman who also solves mysteries.

Turning Heart and Hands to God's Work

Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante's Divina Commedia to be her best work. She also wrote religious essays and plays, of which The Man Born to be King may be the best known.

Her religious works did so well at presenting an orthodox Anglican position that in 1943 the Archbishop of Canterbury offered her an honorary doctorate in divinity, which she declined. In 1950, however, she accepted an honorary doctorate in literature from the University of Durham.

Her essay "The Lost Tools of Learning" has been used by several schools in the US as a basis for a revival of classical education.

She was acquainted with C. S. Lewis and his circle, and on some occasions joined Lewis at meetings of the Socratic Club. Lewis said he read The Man Born to Be King every Easter, but he claimed to be unable to appreciate detective stories. J. R. R. Tolkien, however, read some of the Wimsey novels and scorned the later ones, such as Gaudy Night.

Literary Criticism

Addressing the question of "Just who is Harriet Vane?"

Many literary theorists have concluded that Harriet Vane is, in fact, Dorothy L. Sayers. Almost as if Sayers was projecting herself into Lord Peter's realm for a taste of the "happy ever after."

Addressing the issue of LPW as a character with a flaw

Detective characters must be free to detect, thus we have independently wealthy and titled individuals running amok in London between the wars, solving mysteries. Lord Peter (fondly, LPW) is both a second son (thus not tied to the family seat and in need of amusement) and well-invested (as the Dowager Duchess discovers in Busman's Honeymoon when she's told about the "London properties"). He's rich, well-educated, charming, and brave. To all this Sayers added one more thing, like the last fairy to come to the bassinet: Lord Peter is given a nervous disorder and phobia of responsibility, both brought on following his War service, when as a Major in the British Army he was blown up and buried and dug out by his men.

Addressing the question of anti-semitism in Sayers' work

The subject of anti-semitism in her works has been much debated. Many have found in the novels an unblushing anti-semitism which was marked even for the time and place of their writing; others cite the most offensive passages in the Wimsey novels as the talk of characters who do not represent the authorial voice. The case is made less clear by the fact that the author's own voice tends to be patronizing at best toward any persons who are not the right sort of Christian English people - Jews and Americans receive particular disdain - and her own inconsistencies towards Judaism and Jews. For instance, in the 1920s she referred negatively to G. K. Chesterton and his brother as anti-Semitic. In 1943-44, however, she wrote an essay for inclusion in a book The Future of the Jews by J. J. Lynx, in which it is definitely the authorial voice that asserts, for instance, that Jews are bad citizens with little or no loyalty to the country they live in. Critical discussion of this piece has been limited, as the essay was withdrawn from the collection at the last minute due to the demand of the other contributors, and was never published.


Sayers in work by other authors

Sayers's work was frequently parodied by her contemporaries (and sometimes by herself). A particularly interesting example is "Greedy Night" (1938) by E. C. Bentley, the author of the early modern detective novel Trent's Last Case, a work which Sayers admired.

Sayers appears, with Agatha Christie, as a title character in Dorothy and Agatha [ISBN 0-451-40314-2], a fictional murder mystery by Gaylord Larsen, in which a man is murdered in her dining room, and Sayers has to solve the crime.

Jill Paton Walsh has completed and published two additional novels about Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane: Thrones, Dominations, based on an unfinished novel; and A Presumption of Death, based on the "Wimsey Papers", letters ostensibly written by various Wimseys and published in the Spectator during World War II.


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