Monday, September 3, 2007
Dorothy Leigh Sayers (Oxford, 13 June 1893 – Witham, 17 December 1957) was a renowned British author, translator, student of classical and modern languages, and Christian humanist.
Dorothy L. Sayers is best known for her mysteries, a series of novels and short stories set between World War I and World War II that feature English aristocrat and amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. However, Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante's Divina Commedia to be her best work. She is also known for her plays and essays.
Sayers, who was an only child, was born in Oxford in 1893, where her father, the Rev. Henry Sayers, M.A., was chaplain of Christ Church, Oxford and headmaster of the Choir School (when she was six he started teaching her Latin). In 1912, she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, studying modern languages and medieval literature. She finished with first-class honours in 1916. Although women could not be granted degrees at that time, Sayers was among the first to receive a degree when the situation changed a few years later, and in 1920 she earned an M.A. Her personal experience of Oxford academic life is evident in her novel Gaudy Night.
The United Kingdom in the 1920s was in a time of social change and upheaval. The massive mobilization of able-bodied men in World War I had sent many women into the paid workforce. While the men returning from war expected to return to their old positions, the women who enjoyed self-sufficiency were not ready to leave. In addition, many women had to be self-supporting due to family left disabled or dead by the war. Legally, some women were first able to vote in 1918, although full suffrage was not granted until the Representation of the People Act of 1928. Sayers was a feminist in outlook, expecting to make her own way in the world.
Childhood, youth and education
At age 29, Sayers fell in love with novelist John Cournos, the first intense romance of her life. He wanted her to ignore social mores and live with him without marriage. She wanted to marry and have children. After a year of agony between 1921 and 1922, she learned that Cournos had claimed to be against marriage only to test her devotion, and she broke off with him.
Her heart broken, Sayers rebounded by becoming involved with Bill White, an unemployed motor car salesman. After a brief, intense, and mainly sexual relationship, Sayers discovered that, in spite of contraception, she was pregnant. White reacted badly, storming out "in rage & misery" when Sayers admitted her pregnancy.
Fearing how her pregnancy might affect her parents, then in their 70s, Sayers opted to hide from friends and family. She continued to work until the beginning of her last trimester, at which point she pleaded exhaustion and took an extended leave. She went alone to a "mothers' 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 and caring for him.
Sayers was unable to return to her life or work with a child. Her aunt and cousin, Amy and Ivy Shrimpton, were supporting themselves by fostering children. Sayers' mother had been to visit the Shrimptons and wrote a glowing account to Dorothy of the good job they did with their charges. Sayers wrote to Ivy, relating a sad story about "a friend" and inquiring about boarding fees and whether Ivy had room for an additional baby. After Ivy agreed to take the child, Sayers sent her another letter that began "Strictly Confidential: Particulars about Baby" which revealed the child's parentage and swore her to silence. Neither Sayers' parents nor Aunt Amy were to know.
In 1924-1925, Sayers wrote 11 letters to John Cournos about their unhappy relationship, her relationship with White, and her son. The letters are now housed at Harvard University. Both Sayers and Cournos would eventually fictionalize their experience: Sayers in Strong Poison, published in 1930, and Cournos in The Devil is an English Gentleman, published in 1932.
Two years later, by which time she had published her first two detective novels, Sayers married Oswald Arthur "Mac" Fleming, a Scottish journalist whose professional name was "Atherton Fleming." He was divorced with two children, which in those days meant they could not have a church wedding. Despite this disappointment, her parents welcomed Mac into the fold.
The marriage began very happily, with a strong partnership at home. Both were working a great deal - Mac as an author and journalist, Dorothy as an advertising copywriter and author. Over time, Mac's health worsened (largely due to his World War I service), and he became unable to work. As a result, his income dwindled while Sayers's fame continued to grow, and he began to feel eclipsed.
Although he never lived with them, John Anthony was told "Cousin Dorothy" and Fleming had adopted him when he was ten. (As the legal parent, Dorothy had no need to adopt him. Fleming had agreed to adopt her son when they married, but it was never officially done.) Sayers continued to provide for his upbringing, although she never publicly acknowledged him as her biological son.
Sayers was a good friend of C. S. Lewis and several of the other Inklings. On some occasions, Sayers 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 but scorned the later ones, such as Gaudy Night.
Mac Fleming died in 1950, John Anthony Fleming died in 1984 at age 60, and Sayers herself died suddenly of a stroke in 1957 at the age of 64.
Dorothy Sayers' first book, of poetry, was published in 1916 as Op. I by Blackwell Publishing in Oxford. Later Sayers worked for Blackwell's and then as a teacher in several locations including Normandy, France, just before World War I began.
Sayers' longest employment was from 1922-1931 as a copywriter at S. H. Benson's advertising agency in London. Sayers was quite successful as an advertiser. Her collaboration with artist John Gilroy resulted in "The Mustard Club" for Colman's Mustard and the Guinness "Zoo" advertisements, variations of which still appear today. One famous example was the Toucan, his bill arching under a glass of Guinness, with Sayers' jingle:
Guinness is good for you
How grand to be a Toucan
Just think what Toucan do
Sayers is also credited with coining the phrase "It pays to advertise." She used the advertising industry as the setting of Murder Must Advertise.
Poetry, Teaching, and Advertisements
Sayers began working out the plot of her first novel sometime in 1920 – 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 "Oh, damn!" and continued to engage readers in ten novels and two sets of short stories; the final novel ended with a very different "Oh, damn!". 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 Sayers' mind as a living, breathing, fully human entity. Sayers introduced detective novelist Harriet Vane in Strong Poison. Sayers remarked more than once 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 did not content herself with writing pure detective stories; she explored the toll on World War I veterans in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and advocated for women's education (a then-controversial subject) in Gaudy Night.
Sayers also wrote a number of short stories about Montague Egg, a wine salesman who solves mysteries.
Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante's Divina Commedia to be her best work. Unfinished at her death, it was completed by Barbara Reynolds. On a line-by-line basis, this translation can seem idiosyncratic. For example, the famous line usually rendered "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here" turns, in the Sayers translation, into "Lay down all hope, you who go in by me." As the Italian reads "Lasciate ogni speranza, o voi ch'intrate", both the traditional and Sayers' translation add to the source text in an effort to preserve the original length: "here" is added in the first case, and "by me" in the second. It can be argued that Sayers' translation is actually more accurate, in that the original intimates to "abandon all hope". Also, the addition of "by me" draws from the previous lines of the canto: "Per me si va ne la città dolente;/ per me si va ne l'etterno dolore;/ per me si va tra la perduta gente." (Longfellow: "Through me the way is to the city dolent;/ through me the way is to the eternal dole;/ through me the way is to the people lost.")
Sayers also wrote three volumes of commentaries about Dante, religious essays and plays, of which The Man Born to be King may be the best known.
In the introduction to her translation of The Song of Roland, Sayers expressed an outspoken feeling of attraction and love for "(...) that new-washed world of clear sun and glittering colour which we call the Middle Age (as though it were middle-aged) but which has perhaps a better right than the blown rose of the Renaissance to be called the Age of Re-birth". She praised "Roland" for being a purely Christian myth, in contrast to such epics as Beowulf in which she found a strong Pagan content.
Her religious works did so well at presenting the orthodox Anglican position that in 1943 the Archbishop of Canterbury offered her a Lambeth doctorate in divinity, which she declined. In 1950, however, she accepted an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Durham.
Her most notable religious book is probably The Mind of the Maker (1941) which explores at length the analogy between a human Creator (especially a writer of novels and plays) and the doctrine of The Trinity in creation. She suggests that any human creation of significance involves the Idea, the Energy (roughly: the process of writing and that actual 'incarnation' as a material object) and the Power (roughly: the process of reading/hearing and the effect it has on the audience) and that this "trinity" has useful analogies with the theological Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In addition to the ingenious thinking in working out this analogy, the book contains striking examples drawn from her own experiences as a writer and elegant criticisms of writers when the balance between Idea, Energy and Power is not, in her view, adequate.
Her very influential essay The Lost Tools of Learning has been used by many schools in the US as a basis for a revival of classical education, using the medieval trivium subjects, grammar, logic and rhetoric, as tools to enable the analysis and mastery of every other subject.
Christian and academic work
Criticism of Sayers
The most savage attack on Sayers' writing ability came from the prominent American critic and man of letters Edmund Wilson in a well-known 1945 article in The New Yorker called Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? He briefly writes about her famous novel The Nine Tailors, saying "I set out to read [it] in the hope of tasting some novel excitement, and I declare that it seems to me one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field. The first part is all about bell-ringing as it is practised in English churches and contains a lot of information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopedia article on campanology. I skipped a good deal of this, and found myself skipping, also, a large section of the conversations between conventional English village characters...." After a mention of the "awful whimsical patter of Lord Peter", Wilson then attacks Sayers' apparent strength: "I had often heard people say that Dorothy Sayers wrote well... but, really, she does not write very well: it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective-story writers and that she thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level."
Wimsey has been criticized for being too perfect; over time the various talents he displays grow too numerous to be believed. Edmund Wilson also expressed his distaste for Lord Peter in his criticism of The Nine Tailors: "There was also a dreadful stock English nobleman of the casual and debonair kind, with the embarrassing name of Lord Peter Wimsey, and, although he was the focal character in the novel... I had to skip a good deal of him, too."
Wimsey is rich, well-educated, charming, and brave, as well as an accomplished musician, an exceptional athlete, and a notable lover. His only flaws are his lack of good looks, what other characters regard as silly prattling, a nervous disorder (shell-shock) and a fear of responsibility. The latter two both originate from his service in World War I.
The character Harriet Vane, featured in four novels, has been criticized for being a mere stand-in for the author. Vane, like Sayers, was educated at Oxford (unusual for a woman at the time) and is a mystery writer. Vane initially meets Wimsey when she is tried for poisoning her lover (Strong Poison); he insists on participating in the defense preparations for her re-trial, where he falls for her but she rejects him. In Have his Carcase she collaborates with Wimsey to solve a murder but still finds Wimsey overbearing and superficial. She eventually returns his love (Gaudy Night) and marries him (Busman's Honeymoon). After Sayers' affairs with Cournos and White were revealed, the comparisons between Sayers and Vane became more emphatic. (Neither Sayers' affairs with Cournos or White were publicly known during her lifetime.)
In contrast, McGregor and Lewis suggest that Vane and Wimsey's discussions about mystery in story versus real life — within the context of a mystery story — merely reflect Sayers' sense of fun.
Criticism of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane
The portrayal of Jews in Sayers' fictional work has been criticized for being stereotypical and some of Sayers' characters express explicitly anti-semitic views. The characters expressing such views were often employed to demonstrate the existence of anti-semitism within the context of the work or were otherwise integral to the story. In similar fashion, a maid who refused to serve a person of colour in Unnatural Death voiced many racist sentiments, but the overall story upholds the person of colour as a paragon of virtue (a minister, no less); Miss Climpson, a sympathetic character, roundly condemns the maid's racism, although the way she phrases it implies that she has (consciously or unconsciously) adapted some racist tendencies herself. Many critics consider Sayers to be subtly criticizing anti-semitism and racism in her novels. One of Sayers's recurring (and sympathetic) characters, the Hon. Frederick Arbuthnot, marries a Jew, the daughter of the murder victim in Whose Body?, to the cheerful acceptance of best man Lord Peter Wimsey.
Sayers' biographers disagree as to whether Sayers was consciously anti-Semitic.
She had an unsuccessful relationship with a Jewish man which may have influenced her writing. (B. Reynolds biography of Sayers)
It should also be mentioned that Sayers' original publisher was himself a Jew, and that the Chief Rabbi was a frequent visitor at her salons.
Anti-Semitism in Sayers' Writing
Sayers' work was frequently parodied by her contemporaries (and sometimes by herself). McGregor and Lewis suggest that some of the character Harriet Vane's observations reveal Sayers poking fun at the mystery genre - even while adhering to various conventions herself.
A particularly interesting example of parody 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.
Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife, has claimed in interviews that her main characters, Henry and Clare, are loosely based on Sayers' Peter and Harriet.
Lord Peter Wimsey makes a cameo appearance in Laurie R. King's A Letter of Mary, one of a series of books relating the further adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and his equally talented partner and spouse, Mary Russell.
Sayers in work by other authors
See also Plays of Dorothy L. Sayers
Whose Body? (1923)
Clouds of Witness (1926)
Unnatural Death (1927). From the papers held by the Marion Wade Centre, it is clear that Sayers' original title was The Singular Case of the Three Spinsters
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
Lord Peter Views the Body (1928) (12 Short stories)
Strong Poison (1930)
Five Red Herrings (1931)
Have His Carcase (1932)
Hangman's Holiday (1933) (12 short stories, 4 including Lord Peter)
Murder Must Advertise (1933)
The Nine Tailors (1934)
Gaudy Night (1935)
Busman's Honeymoon (1937)
In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939) (18 short stories, 4 including Lord Peter) (editions published after 1942 usually adds Talboys, the last story she wrote with Lord Peter) Lord Peter Wimsey novels and short stories
The Documents in the Case (1930) written with Robert Eustace
The Floating Admiral (1931) (Written with members of The Detection Club, a chapter each)
Ask a Policeman (1933) (Written with members of The Detection Club)
The Sultry Tiger (1936) (Originally written under a pseudonym, republished in 1965)
Double Death: a Murder Story (1939) (Written with members of The Detection Club)
The Scoop and Behind the screen (1983) (Originally published in The Listener (1931) and (1930), both written by members of The Detection Club)
Crime on the Coast and No Flowers by Request (1984) (Written by members of The Detection Club, Sayers takes part in the second, originally published in Daily Sketch (1953) Other crime fiction
The Divine Comedy: Hell ISBN 0-14-044006-2
The Divine Comedy, Part 2: Purgatory ISBN 0-14-044046-1
The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: The Florentine/Cantica III: Paradise (completed by Barbara Reynolds) ISBN 0-14-044105-0
Introductory Papers on Dante: Volume 1: The Poet Alive in His Writings
Further Papers on Dante Volume 2: His Heirs and His Ancestors
The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement Volume 3: On Dante and Other Writers Dante Translations and Commentaries
Mind Of The Maker (1941) ISBN 0-8371-3372-6
Unpopular Opinions (1947)
Are Women Human? (two essays reprinted from Unpopular Opinions) ISBN 0-8028-2996-1
Creed or Chaos?:Why Christians Must Choose Either Dogma or Disaster (Or, Why It Really Does Matter What You Believe) ISBN 0-918477-31-X
The Man Born to be King, a cycle of 12 plays on the life of Jesus (1941)
Sayers on Holmes ISBN 1-887726-08-X
The Whimsical Christian ISBN 0-02-096430-7
Les Origines du Roman Policier: A Wartime Wireless Talk to the French: The Original French Text with an English Translation (ed. and trans. Suzanne Bray, Hurstpierpoint: Dorothy L. Sayers Society, 2003) ISBN 0-9545636-0-3 Essays and non-fiction
Smith & Smith Removals: I Letters
Dorothy L. Sayers at the Internet Movie Database
The Dorothy L. Sayers Society
Dorothy L Sayers in Galloway — the scene of her novel Five Red Herrings (1931)
Posted by iamyrfans at 10:30 AM