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Dorothy L. Sayers; An Intellectual Christian

British theologian, playwright, and mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers is an intriguing and complex person. Her writing is widely varied, ranging from whimsical short stories to thoughtful theological expositions. There are several themes that run throughout her life and writing. The first is the importance of work, of having an occupation that can challenge and stimulate the intellect while satisfying one’s moral sense of social duty. The second is a practical and dramatic view of theology and dogma, so that she sees theology and dogma as highly important, providing purpose and inspiration in daily life. She understood the contemporary relevance of Christ and the Christian doctrine, and was able to construct lucid expositions of complex doctrinal claims. Her writings remain readable and relevant today.

Dorothy L. Sayers was an author of detective fiction, a playwright, translator of Dante, and a Christian apologist. She is best known for the creation of Lord Peter Wimsey, though her contemporary rendering of the life of Christ in the radio play The Man Born to be King is still broadcast today. Throughout her lifetime, Sayers wrestled with the tenets of Christianity. Although Sayers was agnostic in her youth, she became a brilliant apologist because of her understanding of the contemporary relevance of Christ and the Christian doctrine.
Dorothy L. Sayers was a child of the vicarage. She was born on June 13, 1893, the only child of the headmaster of the Christ Church Choir School. Her parents had her christened in Christ Church, Oxford (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.35). When Dorothy was four years old, her father accepted a position as pastor at Bluntisham-cum-Earith, a country parish in Cambridgeshire, East Anglia. She spent the rest of her childhood in the stately Bluntisham vicarage in the Fens (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.1), the low-lying marsh country of England’s North Sea coast (Hargan).
Sayers received an excellent educational foundation under tutelage from family members and governesses, and learned early the joy of applying herself to intellectual exercise. In 1912, Sayers, then nineteen years old, went up to Oxford on a Gilchrist scholarship. As one of the first women to attend Oxford as student, she was subject to a certain amount of curiosity and well-meaning advice. In one letter, she wrote “Hear! Hear! I am simply sick of telling people about Oxford…” (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.72). In a letter to her mother, she stated, “I find one must be respectable when one’s the only woman or almost the only woman [in a lecture hall], because one’s so conspicuous (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.74). Women were on probation at Oxford and their behavior was required to be beyond reproach. In June of 1915, Sayers sat for her final examinations and achieved a first class, the equivalent of a 3.8 – 4.0 GPA in the US. At that time, Oxford would only confer a ‘title to a degree’ for women candidates, instead of an official degree. Five years later, in 1920, Sayers was among the first group of women on whom an Oxford degree was conferred (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.107).
In 1915, at the age of twenty-two, Dorothy L. Sayers accepted a position as Modern Language mistress at Hull High School. At this point in her life, Sayers seemed restless and unfulfilled. Although she was in a profession for which her university education had qualified her, she had not found satisfaction in what she was doing (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.119). While at Hull, Sayers continued writing verse, perhaps as an outlet for her frustrated creativity. An Oxford bookseller accepted her first book, a volume of poetry ostentatiously named Op. 1. This success seems to have led to a determination to find a more congenial occupation, for in January of 1917, she wrote that an agreement was established with Blackwell’s Publishing. She was to “enter on a year’s pupilage with Basil Henry Blackwell” (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.128). Her subsequent letters are more relaxed in tone, and it is obvious that she liked the publishing business better than teaching. This job also gave her time to continue writing verse. In October 1918, Basil Blackwell published her volume of poems on the life of Christ as Catholic Tales and Songs (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.138).
In 1919, bored with the work in the publishing house, Sayers went to France and assisted with managing a school. Having been through a change of occupation and two failed romances (with colleague Eric Whelpton and American writer John Cournos), Sayers returned to London in 1920. She struggled with unemployment and depression, although she put on a brave face in letters to her parents (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 pp.154-74). May 1922 was a turning point in Sayers’ life. She had applied for a position as copywriter with the advertising firm of H. S. Benson, and they offered her a trial position at £4 per week. In June, they confirmed the appointment. Sayers was to remain with Benson for nine years (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.190-1). A steady salary minimized her financial worries, and she had more energy to devote to her literary work.
Sayers personal affairs at that time were unsettled. She ended a traumatic relationship with American writer John Cournos, and late in 1922, she befriended a “poor blighter” who lived in the flat above her own (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.198). Bill White was an unemployed mechanic and car salesman living with friends while searching for work. Both were lonely, and the relationship culminated in her pregnancy. She hid her condition from friends and family, taking refuge in the excuse that she was too busy writing her second Lord Peter novel.
Having decided to hide the existence of the child, in January 1924, Sayers wrote to her cousin Ivy Shimpton, who fostered children for a living. In this letter, Sayers said only that she knew a child that will need a home because the mother is not able to care for it, but does not reveal that she herself is the mother in question. John Anthony was born on January 3 in Southbourne. Three weeks later, his mother wrote to Ivy Shimpton to say that she would bring the boy down the next week. She enclosed a letter marked “Strictly Confidential—Particulars about Baby”, in which she states, “My dear—everything I told you about the boy is absolutely true—only I didn’t tell you he was my own!” She said that the child was to take his father’s last name, and be known as John Anthony White. For the sake of her parents’ peace of mind, she added that there was to be no word of the child to them (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 pp.201-8). The emotional and spiritual trauma of this experience marked Sayers’ philosophy and worldview from that time on. It was probably this of which she was thinking when she wrote that the only Christian doctrine that she had personal experience with was the conviction of sin (Sayers, Letters, Vol.2).
Dorothy L. Sayers married Oswald Atherton ‘Mac’ Fleming in 1926. He was a Scottish journalist and motoring correspondent, a veteran of WWI (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.243). The early years of their marriage appear to have been relatively happy, despite Sayers disappointment in not being able to have her son come to live with them. In later years, Mac became progressively moody. He had struggled with chronic physical and psychosomatic illnesses since the war, and required intensifying care. Although nursing Mac took increasing amounts of Sayer’s time, she continued writing, maintaining a prodigious correspondence while also writing books, short stories, plays and numerous articles.
Sayers’ best-known writings are her detective stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, in which she explores the artistic possibilities of the crime fiction genre. Her best detective novels deserve to be considered literature, though others are little better than potboilers. In her own lifetime, perhaps the most widely known of her works was a series of radio plays on the life of Christ commissioned for the Children’s Hour on BBC. The network continued to use this popular series, which aired as recently as 2009. (BBC Radio). To Sayers herself, her greatest work came last, the translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy from Italian into English.
Sayers first attempted writing poetry while at Oxford. She wrote a delightful letter to a friend in which she mentions having included a packet of her poems.
…[Y]ou are not to feel bound either to read or to admire them…. The last poem… was written merely for enjoyment. … I thought I’d just revel a bit in the dear old obvious glories of scarlet cloaks and dragons and Otherworld Journeys, and in the clank and gurgle of alliteration and the gorgeousness of proper names. So you are to read it in this spirit, please, if possible by night and by the fire.” (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 pp.114-5)
While teaching at Hull, Sayers continued writing verse. An Oxford bookseller accepted her first book, a volume of poetry ostentatiously named Op. 1 (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.128). Ernest Benn published her translation of the French legend of Tristam as Tristam in Brittany in 1929. In the interim, Sayers worked on a volume of poems about Christ. Basil Blackwell published this in October 1918 as Catholic Tales and Songs. This was Sayer’s first attempt at the lively expression of faith, which would later make her a highly visible and controversial lay theologian. “[I]t is intended…to be the expression of reverent belief—but some people find it hard to allow that faith, if lively, can be reverent—“ (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.138).
Sayers thought of herself as a poet, not a writer of prose. She began her first Lord Peter novel as a way to occupy her mind while searching for work after returning from France in 1920. The first reference occurs in January, when she mentions having ideas for a detective story beginning with a fat lady found dead in a bath, wearing nothing but a pince-nez. With several changes—the corpse is male—this became Whose Body? in which her readers are introduced to a successful amateur sleuth, the well-heeled and rather eccentric Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, whose hobbies were cricket, old books, music and criminology; the last taken up as a way to divert a mind damaged in the Great War. She wrote her first book to beguile long hours of unemployment. The author did not have much confidence in her own work, saying, “I really haven’t the least confidence in the stuff, which is a pity, because I really enjoyed turning it out.” Her lack of confidence in the “stuff” did not keep her from continuing to write, for she was working on the next novel long before the first was accepted for publication in July 1920 (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.180).
For casual readers of Sayers’ detective fiction, Lord Peter is a superbly crafted character to be appreciated on his own merits. She stated “It’s the merry high-brows who like my books, those who feel, like Phillip Gueddalla, that “the detective story is the normal recreation of noble minds”” (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p. 229). Sayers approaches detective fiction as artistic craftsmanship, carefully weaving characters and plot in a narrative that is aesthetically and intellectually pleasing. Commenting on G.K. Chesterton’s ‘How to Write a Detective Story’, she wrote,
There is ‘meat’ too, in his calling it not only a trick but a ‘craft’ of writing mystery stories. It does give one just that curious satisfaction which the exercise of cunning craftsmanship always gives to the worker. It is almost as satisfying as working with one’s hands. It is rather like laying a mosaic—putting each piece apparently meaningless and detached—into its place, until one suddenly sees the thing as a consistent picture.
In keeping with her view of the story as a consistent picture, Sayers was emphatic that “There should never be any clue in the hands of the detective which is not also in the hands of the reader” (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.240-1). Her own Lord Peter stories follow this dictum, and the reader has the satisfaction of knowing that all clues that Lord Peter has are in their own hands also. The solutions of the mysteries are not usually obvious, but the clues are part of consistent narrative mosaics.
While at Oxford in 1913, Sayers mentioned attending the Encaenia degree ceremony at the Sheldonian Theatre. She was enamored with Maurice Roy Ridley, the winner of the Newdigate Prize awarded for an original poem (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.79). Twenty-two years later she wrote, “I have seen the perfect Peter Wimsey. Height, voice, charm, smile, manner, outline of features, everything-…” He was Maurice Roy Ridley, now a chaplain at Balliol. Sayers had forgotten that she saw him so many years before. However, in her subconscious, it had contributed to her mental image of Lord Peter Wimsey (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 pp.345-6). Sayers created a fluid mosaic from a combination of her own experiences and her imagination.
The creation of Peter Wimsey gave Sayers whimsical pleasure. In some ways, his lavish surroundings were a way for her to escape her own poverty. She stated:
Lord Peter’s large income…I deliberately gave him. After all it cost me nothing and at that time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. (Sayers, How)
Lord Peter, though whimsical, is ultimately a master logician. He never uses intuition or gut feelings to unravel a crime, though there are times when the mysterious workings of the unconscious take a part in his brilliant deductions. This trait accords with his creator’s belief in rationalism and logic over intuition and otherworldly intervention.
Sayers most lasting contribution to literature was the elevation of detective fiction to the literary genre. In that, she succeeded brilliantly. Lord Peter is a memorable character, well rounded and believable. Her other short stories suffer from a lack of convincing characterization, and do not fulfill the promise of her ability. The characters are mechanical and flat, and the plots are sometimes contrived. For example, The Poisoned Dow ’08 is a short story featuring wine merchant and detective Montague Egg, whose actions are guided by pithy dictums form the Salesman’s Handbook (Sayers, The Complete Short Stories). The plot is similar to those in the Lord Peter novels, but Monty Egg is a simplistic, bubbling character that hides his wits behind a silly facade without Lord Peter’s redeeming intelligence and suavity. Lord Peter is the pinnacle of her fiction; everything else lies on a lower plane. Sayers as detective storywriter remains at the top of her class, which she elevated from cheap novel to the canon of literature.
Although Lord Peter is her most popular and financially successful creation, Sayers’ greatest and best work came later, when she turned to theatrical art. In her childhood and throughout her school years, Sayers had enjoyed acting and attended many performances. In the latter half of the 1930’s, she returned to this early love. The first play she wrote was Busman’s Honeymoon, which introduced Lord Peter to the stage. The story was rewritten and later issued as a novel by the same name. Having proved that she was capable of working in this medium, Sayers received an invitation to write a play for presentation at the 1937 Canterbury Festival. The result is a masterpiece of the playwright’s art, detailing the work of architect William of Sens in building the Canterbury Cathedral (Sayers, Four Sacred Plays). Having found her niche, Sayers set out to fill it with characteristic energy. Lord Peter was now providing her with a substantial income and she had time and resources to devote to more scholarly and controversial writing. Plays followed each other in rapid succession. The Devil to Pay appeared in 1939, The Man Born to be King in 1943, and The Just Vengeance in 1946 (Sayers, Four Sacred Plays). Sayers’ plays are well written, with expert stage directions that demonstrate her intimate knowledge of the practical realities of theater. There is a simultaneous awareness of the viewpoints of the actors and the audience, addressing the needs of both.
Sayers’ opinion was in demand as a well-known and notoriously forthright writer. She was invited to speak on a variety of subjects. She wrote one of her most famous essays as a speech for the Oxford University’s summer session in 1947. The Lost Tools of Learning came from her experience as a teacher of modern languages. She wrote, “the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain” (Sayers, Lost Tools). This statement mirrors an observation she had made many years earlier when just beginning her duties at the Hull High School.
These unhappy children have never been encouraged—encouraged?—never been allowed to use their brains. They can say a few things by rote, but as for giving the reasons for a rule, or translating a word more ways than one according to circumstances—nay, even for conceiving that there could be a reason for a rule, or more ways than one of translating a word—their poor dear minds are a blank (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 pp.120-1).
She outlined an entire system of teaching and learning, based on the classical Greek and Roman educational system and closely paralleling her own early education. Remarkably, although Sayers taught for only two years, her essay has been the basis for successful classical education programs around the world (Wilson).
In her later writings, Sayers explored Christian theology. Having grown up in a vicarage, Sayers was familiar with the tenets and practices of orthodox Christianity. While at Godolphin school in 1910, Dorothy received confirmation in the Salisbury Cathedral. Her account of the service enthusiastically describes the proceedings, with an aside praising the appropriateness of the simple veils they wore for the occasion. She ends with a telling little postscript, “I never can write about my feelings, that’s why I haven’t” (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 pp.40,41). She seems to have been uncomfortable with the emotional implications of her confirmation.
In 1913, apparently responding to a request for assistance or support for the Christian Union, Sayers wrote:
Speaking as a baptized and more or less educated member of the Catholic Church of Christ as in England by law established, certainly not! The [Christian Union] is no more a necessary corollary of Christianity than the Inquisition. The only necessary products of Christianity are those which Christ appointed. ….Yes—you must aggressively save souls, but you will never do it by unprofitable argument. (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.72)
Throughout her writings, Sayers always tried to stay away from unprofitable argument. Her theological writings are characterized by a simplicity and directness that appeals to both the intellectual and the uneducated. In March 1914, Dorothy wrote to her parents after a contretemps with her Aunt Annie:
I do not at all mind discussing my soul—I do it every day—but I do not like doing it with very earnest people of narrow experience. They are so apt to be hurt or shocked or surprised or worried. I let her down as gently as possible, but it’s difficult to make people see that what you have been taught counts for nothing, and the only things worth having are the things you find out for yourself.… It isn’t a case of ‘Here is the Christian religion, the one authoritative and respectable rule of life. Take it or leave it.’ It’s ‘Here’s a muddling kind of affair called Life, and here are nineteen or twenty different explanations of it, all supported by people whose opinions are not to be sneezed at. Among them is the Christian religion in which you happen to have been brought up. Your friend so-and-so has been brought up in quite a different way of thinking; is a perfectly splendid person and thoroughly happy. What are you going to do about it?’ —I’m worrying it out quietly, and whatever I get hold of will be valuable because I’ve got it for myself; but really, you know, the whole question in not as simple as it looks (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1 p.85).
Throughout her lifetime, Sayers had an uneasy relationship with the “earnest people of narrow experience” that made up the more traditional areas of the Christian religion. She was unable simply to accept the teachings of religious authorities, but needed a rational reason to accept a belief as truth. She was unquestionably brilliant in explaining Christianity to others; but it is less certain that she was ever able to believe anything unless she had a rational explanation. Sayers was an eloquent apologist and lay theologian, but she was not sure that she deserved to be considered a true Christian. In her best-known theological work, she approached doctrine as an intellectual exercise, and paradoxically created a powerful personal statement of faith. The Mind of The Maker is both a reflection on the creative process and a meditation on the nature of the Creator. She compared the Creation of the earth by God and His continuing work of redemption for mankind to the writing and production of a play. It is a none-traditional approach to theology, lively and relevant to daily life.
Sayers’ contribution to Christianity lies in her writings. Her life, as one commentator viciously points out (Michael), was not exactly that of a model Christian. In her own analysis, she questions whether she is worthy of being counted a true Christian or whether she has “only fallen in love with an intellectual pattern” (Sayers, Letters, Vol. 1). Failure or shortcomings in actions do not mean that Sayers is unworthy of consideration as a trustworthy thinker. It is in thinking that she excelled, and we remember her for her thoughts. As a theologian, she excels in drawing parallels between theological concepts and her own experiences. Throughout her lifetime, Sayers wrestled with the practical implications of the tenets of Christianity. She became a brilliant apologist in later life because of her understanding of the contemporary relevance of Christ and the Christian doctrine.
As she thought and wrote about Christian theology, Dante’s Divine Comedy intrigued Sayers. His imaginative depiction of the afterlife appealed to her love of theology, drama and ancient literature. She taught herself Old Italian in order to read the work in the original language and produced a lively translation of the first two books in terza rima form. Her death in 1957 interrupted the translation of the third and final volume, which was then completed by her friend and colleague, Dr. Barbara Reynolds. Sayers’ final work was thus a continuation of all that was central to her life and writing.
“Neither a mystic nor a saint, Dorothy L. Sayers was an original craftswoman, a gifted scholar and translator, and an outspoken Christian humanist. Her works merit the esteem and close reading accorded to them, for they speak to the troubled times of today” (Durkin).
BBC Radio 4 Extra The Man Born to be King.March 2013. Webpage. 8 March 2013.
Durkin, Mary B. Dorothy L. Sayers: A Christian Humanist for Today. Religion Online. November 14, 1979. Webpage. April 13, 2013
Hargan, Jim. “The Fens: England Below Sea Level.” 05 April 2007. History Net Website. Web. 02 March 2013.
Michael, William. “Against the Dorothy Sayers Movement.” January 2011. Classical Liberal Arts. Web. 30 March 2013.
Sayers, Dorothy Leigh. Four Sacred Plays. London: Victor Gollancz. 1948. Print.
—. “How I Came to Invent the Character of Lord Peter Wimsey”. Harcourt Brace News. 15 July 1936: 1-2.
—.The Complete Short Stories. New York: HarperCollins. 2002. Print.
—. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers 1899 to 1936 The Making of a Detective Novelist. Ed. Barbara Reynolds. Vol. 1. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Print.
—. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers 1937 to 1943 From Novelist to Playwright. Ed. Barbara Reynolds. Vol. 2. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Print.
—. The Lost Tools of Learning. Oxford, 1947. Web.
Wilson, Douglas. Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1991. Print.


2 thoughts on “Dorothy L. Sayers; An Intellectual Christian

  1. this was such an interesting post! I’ve read Dorothy Sayers (principally the Peter Wimsey mysteries) for years and years and loved them. But the woman behind them always remained shadowy to me. You have turned a spotlight on her, and she bears it very well.

    • Thanks for the encouragement! I first came to Sayers via Lord Peter,and became intrigued by the fascinating woman who wrote in so many genres–crime fiction, theater, short stories, essays and theology. I felt that this essay does not really do her credit… so glad to know that you found it illuminating.

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