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Sayers, Dorothy L.


SAYERS, DOROTHY L. (18931957) was a writer whose theology found expression through many literary genres. Sayers began her education in languages at the age of seven when her father, a Church of England clergyman, began teaching her Latin. She gained first-class honors at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1915, and in 1920 was among the first group of women allowed to take their B.A. and M.A. degrees from Oxford. She earned her living as an advertising copywriter while establishing herself as a poet and as a writer of detective fiction, inventing her character Lord Peter Wimsey. Her novel Gaudy Night, published in 1935, is both a detective story and an unabashed defense of academic and intellectual work as undertaken by women, for whom she was a provocative advocate throughout her life. In her detective fiction she explored the emotional cost to Wimsey and others of establishing the truth about the circumstances of the various deaths of her fictional characters, and she also explored the mediation of impartial divine justice through the relatively imperfect procedures of the rule of law in the society of her day.

Thoroughly familiar with the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorized Version of the Bible, and with her beliefs formed and framed by the demanding theology of the Church of England's matins and evensong, Sayers made outstanding contributions to the development of religious drama, from works written for radio broadcast to plays written for performance in cathedrals. Outstanding were her twelve radio playsthe first broadcast on December 21, 1941collectively titled The Man Born to Be King. These broke new ground in having the portrayed voice of Jesus of Nazareth "on the air," and Sayers thus helped to open the door to depicting the Gospel in various ways on stage and screen.

In 1941 Sayers published a significant (and unjustly neglected) work on Trinitarian theology, The Mind of the Maker, elaborating her conviction that human creativity provides clues to divine creativity, and exploring the analogy of human and divine creativity via the concepts of "Creative Idea," "Creative Energy," and "Creative Power." Sayers also gave valuable stimulus to thinking again about the integrity of the arts and about their neglect in her day, despite their roots in Christian tradition. Her work was of considerable interest to authors as different as T. S. Eliot (18881965), C. S. Lewis (18981963), and Charles Williams (18861945).

Sayers owed a particular debt of gratitude to Williams, himself a writer and editor of poetry, novels, essays, and theology. In 1943 he published The Figure of Beatrice, which plunged Sayers back into reading Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy in its original Italian. She and Williams exchanged an ecstatic series of letters during what turned out to be the last nine months of Williams's life. Sayers found in Dante someone whose love for and recollection of a living human person, Beatrice, enabled him to symbolize the full humanity of women, for Dante's Beatrice was a mistress of philosophy and science as well as of theology. He represented her as the perfect integration of the intellectual, the emotional, and the bodily in her own great beauty, supremely well fitted for teaching Dante whatever he needed to know, as well as being for him the sacramental mediator of grace and salvation.

The reading and appreciation of Dante reinvigorated Sayers's own theology, and through her lectures and publications on Dante she brought theology to a wide audience. Her translation and commentary in 1949 of Cantica I: Hell, the first section of The Divine Comedy, led to the only academic honor she accepted after her first degrees: a doctorate of letters given to her in 1950 by England's University of Durham. After Sayers's unexpected death in 1957, Barbara Reynolds completed Sayers's translation of Cantica III: Paradise a tribute to years of collaboration with her.


Dante Alighieri. The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine. Cantica I: Hell; Cantica II: Purgatory; Cantica III: Paradise. Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1949, 1955, 1962. The first two volumes include Sayers's theological introduction, notes, and commentary on her translation; the third volume required completion of the translation by Barbara Reynolds, and appropriate notes and commentary.

Loades, Ann. "The Sacramentalist's Agenda: Dorothy L. Sayers." In Feminist Theology: Voices from the Past by Ann Loades, pp. 167192. Oxford and Malden, Mass., 2001. This chapter assesses Sayers's critique of the deficiencies of Christian anthropology so far as women are concerned, and the resources she found for her critique in the work of Dante.

Reynolds, Barbara. The Passionate Intellect: Dorothy L. Sayers' Encounter with Dante. Kent, Ohio, 1989.

Reynolds, Barbara. Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul. London, 1993. Major biography by Sayers's collaborator, who also edited the letters of Sayers, published in four volumes between 1995 and 2000.

Sayers, Dorothy L. The Mind of the Maker. London, 1941.

Sayers, Dorothy L. Introductory Papers on Dante. London, 1954.

Sayers, Dorothy L. Further Papers on Dante. London, 1957.

Sayers, Dorothy L. Spiritual Writings. Selected and introduced by Ann Loades. London, 1993. A selection, with introductions to each section, of Dorothy L. Sayers's theological work in a variety of literary genres.

Ann Loades (2005)

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