Sayers, Dorothy L. (1893–1957)

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Sayers, Dorothy L. (1893–1957)

English translator of Dante's Inferno, Christian moralist, and detective story writer who created the characters of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Born Dorothy Leigh Sayers in Oxford, England, on June 13, 1893; died in Witham, Essex, on December 17, 1957; daughter of Reverend Henry Sayers (headmaster of Christ Church Choir School, Oxford) and Helen (Leigh) Sayers; educated at Godolphin School, Salisbury; graduated with first class honors in modern languages from Somerville College, Oxford, 1915; married Oswald Atherton Fleming (a journalist), in 1926 (died 1950); children: (illegitimate) son, John Anthony (b. 1924).

Began work at Benson's advertising agency, London (1922); published first novel Whose Body? (1923); gave birth to her son John Anthony in Bournemouth (1924); co-founded the Detection Club (1929); left advertising to become full-time writer-lecturer (1931); published Gaudy Night (1935); had first stage success with Busman's Honeymoon (1937); had Christian radio play "The Man Born to be King" on BBC (1941); published Dante translation, Cantica I, Hell (1949); published Dante, Cantica II, Purgatory (1955).

Selected writings:

Whose Body? (1923); Clouds of Witness (1926); Unnatural Death (1927); The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928); Strong Poison (1930); The Five Red Herrings (1931); Murder Must Advertise (1933); The Nine Tailors (1934); Gaudy Night (1935); Busman's Honeymoon (1937); (ed.) Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror (1928, 1931, 1934); (ed.) Tales of Detection (1936); (play) The Zeal of Thy House (1937); (play) The Devil to Pay (1939); (cycle of radio plays) "The Man Born to be King" (1941–42); (translation) Dante's Divine Comedy, the Inferno (1949) and Purgatorio (1955).

Dorothy L. Sayers is best remembered for a fine series of detective novels, with suave Lord Peter Wimsey and his beloved Harriet Vane leading the fight against crime. But Sayers was also an outstanding scholar and linguist, one of the first women to be awarded a degree by Oxford University. When mystery writing had freed her of financial anxiety, she turned increasingly to the study of medieval literature and to writing in defense of her ardent Christian faith. She also wrote extensively for the British press, and became a familiar figure on BBC radio during the Second World War, a popular moralist and a gifted lecturer.

Sayers was born in 1893 in Oxford, where her father was head of the choir-school at Christ Church. The family moved to the fen country of Huntingdonshire when he became a parish vicar, and she spent a lonely childhood dedicated to hard study and avid reading. Boarding at the Godolphin School in Salisbury, she had a severe attack of measles which caused most of her hair to fall out. She returned wearing a wig, but suffered a nervous breakdown a few months later. Despite acute health problems, Sayers had a distinguished school career and was back in Oxford in 1912, this time as a student in modern languages. After her first two years, the outbreak of the First World War emptied Oxford of nearly all its male students, many of them never to return. Sayers gained first class honors, the highest possible degree, in her final exams in 1915, but was not able to have the degree formally conferred until 1920, owing to Oxford's slowness to reform its rules on women's education.

In her first years after college, Sayers worked briefly at several different jobs: teaching languages to schoolgirls in Hull, working at Blackwell's, Oxford's publishing and bookselling company, and helping a friend, war veteran Eric Whelpton, to run a private school in Normandy. Though she was in love with Whelpton, he kept their relationship intellectual rather than physical, and, at the end of the year, she returned to England, seeing him rarely thereafter. Sayers was high-spirited, daring, and independent, in some ways an example of the "new woman" of the era. Though she was always politically conservative. she smoked and rode a motorcycle in Oxford and London. She became a devoted fan of detective fiction, reading all the prominent English works in the genre, though many of her literary friends looked down on such works as beneath them. Sayers considered Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, one of the first English mystery novels, a masterpiece. Later essays and introductions to crime story anthologies demonstrated that in addition to becoming a detective story writer herself she was thoroughly acquainted with the whole history and aesthetics of the form.

In 1922, Sayers moved to London as an advertising copywriter where her quick wit and plays on words enabled her to enjoy the work. She lived in a Bloomsbury flat among a humbler group of bohemians than the famous Bloomsbury group, then in its heyday. The work, its amorality, and its perpetual appeal to lust and gluttony, offended her Christian convictions, but she had to admit that she was good at it. She would later put her advertising talent to use in World War II as a propaganda writer.

In 1923, Sayers published her first Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body? It was an immediate success, and from then on she worked steadily for the next 14 years at enlarging the character of Wimsey, giving him a complete family history, and elaborating meticulously researched plots to expand his skills, his character, and his circle of friends. The durable quality of these novels depends partly on Sayers' skill in creating a distinctive atmosphere for each book, usually in a well-drawn area of the English provinces. The Nine Tailors (1934), for example, is set in the fen country of her youth. She had a sure gift for regional accents and mores, and made certain that such details as the effects of poisons, the vagaries of the British railway timetable, and the patterns of English church bellringing, were all rendered accurately. It is tempting to see the central figure, Wimsey, as an alter ego for Sayers. He had the money, leisure, and social position she lacked, and moved in a world of erudite wits, exchanging just the kind of learned banter of which her advertising colleagues knew nothing. Biographer Nancy Tischler writes of the characters:

Each is an extension of Sayers' own double personality…. Sayers was always as middle class as Parker [the policeman] but her tastes were as elitist as Lord Peter's. She lived in small flats, often on back streets, but she loved the lavish country homes of the aristocracy. She might sit alone at a cluttered kitchen table eating orange marmalade out of a tin while she made notes for her books, but she cherished the protocol and respected the cultivated palate of the epicure.

Sayers was skilled in setting up moral ambiguities and tensions in her plots. Wimsey takes a schoolboy's "sporting" pleasure in the hunt for the culprit in each of the mysteries, but when the evidence points unmistakably to the guilty party he loses all relish for the game and regrets having to apprehend and visit retribution on the culprit. Sayers heightened the moral drama in Five Red Herrings (1931) by making the victim a horrible character and the murderer a likeable, friendly man whom Wimsey admires.

There can be few plainer women on earth than Dorothy L. Sayers, and the adjective is an extremely kind one…. She was large, raw-boned, and awkward. Just as I have never seen a less attractive woman to look upon, I have never come across one so magnetic to listen to.

—Mary Ellen Chase

In her Bloomsbury period, Sayers had a succession of unsuccessful, usually unrequited, love affairs. In 1923, however, she became pregnant by one of her motorcycling friends but managed to hide the fact from her family and colleagues after he refused to take responsibility for the child. She took a six-months' leave from her job and then moved alone to a private nursing home in Bournemouth to give birth to a boy whom she named John Anthony. She would never say who his father was, and carefully covered her tracks, so that as little as possible could be learned about the entire episode. James Brabazon revealed the facts in his 1981 biography of Sayers. She arranged for John to be raised by a distant relative, Ivy Shrimpton , who took in orphans. Sayers paid for his schooling and later "adopted" him informally, though they rarely lived together, and he only found out she was his real mother after World War II, when he applied for a passport and needed a copy of his birth certificate.

In 1926, Sayers married Oswald Fleming, a World War I veteran and minor author, who had written about his war experiences in How to See the Battlefields and now worked for the News of the World as a motor-racing and crime correspondent. He was the divorced father of two daughters, with whom he was no longer in contact, and seems to have been psychologically damaged by his experiences in the war. Sayers had far more energy than did Fleming, and he became embittered by her greater success, deteriorating into an angry drunkard. As she became more involved in the theater during the 1930s, and then as a lecturer and broadcaster with the BBC, she spent long periods away from their home at Witham, Essex. When he was invited to London parties or dinners with her, he often became drunk and abusive. In true British fashion, however, Sayers never had a harsh word to say about him in public, and if the marriage was a disaster, as seems likely from the remaining evidence, she was certainly not going to admit it. As with the truth about her son, she practiced an extreme reticence about her private life.

In 1929, she and G.K. Chesterton, creator of the detective-priest Father Brown, and like her a spirited defender of Christianity, collaborated in founding the Detection Club, whose members promised to rely on wit and deduction rather than melodrama and coincidence in solving the mysteries they put before their readers. Other members included Agatha Christie , E.C. Bentley, and Anthony Berkeley. On induction to the club, new members would go through an initiation ritual replete with darkness, torches, a skull on a black pillow, and ceremonial robes, and would have to answer the solemn question: "Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics, and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?" The members financed their club by writing a succession of plays and novels, contributing a chapter each and then passing the work on to the next writer. Sayers contributed to The Floating Admiral (1929), Ask a Policeman (1933), and Double Death (1939), among others.

By 1930, the Peter Wimsey novels had established her reputation, but Sayers felt they had literary weaknesses. She aimed now to write more literary novels of manners, and planned the first of these, Strong Poison, as a vehicle for marrying off Wimsey and bringing his career to an end. However, she found Wimsey so popular that she kept the character going. Strong Poison was also the novel in which she introduced Harriet Vane, an ex-Oxford woman and detective-story writer accused of murdering her former lover. Wimsey falls in love with her and helps exonerate her, but she refuses to marry him when she feels a debt of gratitude which makes her, she believes, unequal to him. Only when she has clearly established her own sense of worth with him, and has revealed Lord Peter's own insecurities, in Gaudy Night (1936), does Harriet agree to marry him. Gaudy Night, which many Sayers fans regard as her masterpiece, was also an exploration of the need for absolute intellectual integrity, and clearly echoed Sayers' own scholarly interests and moral preoccupations.

In the 1930s, she enlarged her reputation with several successful plays. The first, Busman's Honeymoon, was a stage adaptation, written with Muriel St. Clare Byrne , of the last Wimsey novel, in which he and Harriet marry and move to a country cottage, interrupting the bliss of newlyweds to solve another murder mystery. It ran for nine months in London's West End. Her next play, The Zeal of Thy House (1937), was produced in Canterbury Cathedral as part of the annual Canterbury festival, and took on a more frankly religious subject than any of her earlier works. Set in the Middle Ages, it deals with the rebuilding of a cathedral which has been damaged by fire. The monks have to choose between a profligate man who is a true master-builder, or an upright but less talented architect. They choose the rake, and Sayers argues that this is the right choice: whatever one's personal failings, great works of art speak for themselves and live beyond the fallibility of their creator. In his pride, the builder challenges God himself, but pays the price for his hubris. He falls from his scaffolding and is crippled, learning a new humility and love of God in the face of adversity.

The success of this and other religious plays led to an invitation from the BBC to write a radio play about the life of Christ. Sayers worked hard on the project, but just before its first airing the press learned that it was to be presented in contemporary language, which led to protests from the Protestant Truth Society and the Lord's Day Observance Society, who wanted her to stick with the venerable King James version. Despite their complaints, "The Man Born to be King" was well reviewed and received warmly by a large public. In the late 1940s, her Canterbury play was revived, and she wrote two more religious plays, for Lichfield and Colchester Cathedrals.

Sayers was an outspoken Christian apologist, loyal to the Church of England, but impatient at its sleepiness—too many Anglicans, she said, displayed the "Seven Deadly Virtues"—and at its uneven attitude towards sin. She thought it was too censorious about sex and too negligent about sins which had greater public and social consequences. For example, in one speech, she declared:

The Church says Covetousness is a deadly sin—but does she really think so? Is she ready to found Welfare Societies to deal with financial immorality…. Is Dives, like Magdalen, ever refused the sacraments on the grounds that he, like her, is an "open and notorious evil-liver"? Does the Church arrange services with bright congregational singing for Total Abstainers from Usury?

Sayers was also dismayed at the way in which social convention and over-familiarity with the Christian story had made it seem dull and tame. In a Sunday Times article from 1938, she declared that "The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama." Like Chesterton, her detective-story friend, she found her faith exciting. She became a churchwarden of her parish church, and was a moving figure in

the Society of St. Anne, a discussion group begun in 1942, which brought together Christians and agnostics to discuss religion and ethics, and perform plays (including several of her own). Sayers persuaded such Christian luminaries as T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien to give speeches there. Like her, they thought of Christianity as joyful and intellectually compelling. In politics and in general outlook a conservative, she belonged in spirit to old Toryism, that branch of English conservatism which predated the industrial revolution. She could therefore speak against the materialism of both capitalism and communism, and on behalf of economic justice, in a way which suggested Christian socialism.

Her last major project, which absorbed much of her interest in the last decade of her life, was a translation of Dante's Inferno. She had not tackled it until the war years, when she began reading it during a German air-raid on London, and at once was captivated. Working on it was no simple matter, because she was forced to learn medieval Italian. To make matters worse, her husband resented the project, so that she was only able to work at it when she was away from home or when he was asleep. Her translation aimed to clarify the many obscure references in Dante to scholastic theology, ancient cosmology, courtly love, and Italian history, making the work accessible to the modern reader. Sayers worked to preserve in English Dante's rhyming patterns but accompanied the rhyming version with a prose edition. Widely accepted as superior to all earlier translations, it made Dante a popular subject in Britain for the first time.

Her husband died of a stroke in 1950, following one of his many bursts of uncontrolled bad temper. For the last few years, he had done no work and was regularly drunk in the local pub. She did not mourn for him unduly, but wrote: "I shall miss having him to look after, and there will be no one to curse me and keep me up to the mark." Without his presence, "It seems impossible there should be so many uninterrupted hours in the day." She was still working hard on the third section of her Dante translation, Paradise, when she quite suddenly and unexpectedly died of a stroke in 1957. (The translation was completed by Barbara Reynolds .) Sayers was mourned as a great British institution, but remembered primarily for her Wimsey novels. In the 1970s and since, she has become the subject of serious analytical study. The Dorothy L. Sayers Society, based in her Witham home, was founded in 1970, and the Sayers Review, a journal, in 1976. Attractive to mystery buffs, to Christians, and to feminists for such essays as "Are Women Human?," she seems likely to enjoy continuing popularity.


Brabazon, James. Dorothy L. Sayers: The Life of a Courageous Woman. London: Victor Gollancz, 1981.

Coomes, David. Dorothy L. Sayers: A Careless Rage for Life. Oxford: Lion, 1992.

Durkin, Mary B. Dorothy L. Sayers. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Gaillard, Dawson. Dorothy L. Sayers. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1981.

Hannay, Margaret P. As Her Whimsy Took Her: Critical Essays on the Work of Dorothy L. Sayers. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1979.

Kinney, Catherine. The Remarkable Case of Dorothy L. Sayers, 1990.

Reynolds, Barbara. Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul. St. Martin's, 1993.

——. The Passionate Intellect: Dorothy L. Sayers' Encounter with Dante. 1989.

Tischler, Nancy M. Dorothy L. Sayers: A Pilgrim Soul. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1980.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia