Dorothy Leigh Sayers ( 13 June 1893 – 17 December 1957) was a renowned English crime writer, poet, playwright, essayist, translator and Christian humanist. She was also a student of classical and modern languages. She 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, that remain popular to this day. However, Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante's Divine Comedy to be her best work. She is also known for her plays, literary criticism and essays.
Childhood, youth and educationChrist Church Cathedral, Oxford, her father, the Rev. Henry Sayers, M.A., being a chaplain of Christ Church and headmaster of the Choir School. (When she was six he started teaching her Latin.)She grew up in the tiny village of Bluntisham-cum-Earith in Huntingdonshire, after her father was given the living there as rector. The Regency rectory is an elegant building, while the church graveyard features the surnames of several characters from her mystery The Nine Tailors. The proximity of the River Great Ouse and the Fens invites comparison with the book's vivid description of a massive flood around the village.
From 1909 she was educated at the Godolphin School, a boarding school in Salisbury. Her father later moved to the less luxurious living of Christchurch, also in Cambridgeshire.
In 1912, she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, and studied modern languages and medieval literature. She finished with first-class honours in 1915.Although women could not be awarded degrees at that time, Sayers was among the first to receive a degree when the position changed a few years later, and in 1920 she graduated as a MA. Her experience of Oxford academic life eventually inspired her penultimate Peter Wimsey novel, Gaudy Night.
Her father was from a line of Sayerses from Littlehampton, West Sussex, and her mother (Helen Mary Leigh – whence Sayers' second name) was born at "The Chestnuts", Millbrook, Hampshire to Frederick Leigh, a solicitor, whose family roots were in the Isle of Wight. Dorothy's aunt Amy, her mother's sister, married Henry Richard Shrimpton.
Poetry, teaching, and advertisementsDorothy 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 to 1931 as a copywriter at S.H. Benson's advertising agency in London. This was located at International Buildings, Kingsway, 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's jingle:
If he can say as you canSayers is also credited with coining the slogan "It pays to advertise!" She used the advertising industry as the setting of Murder Must Advertise, where she describes the role of truth in advertising:
Guinness is good for you
How grand to be a Toucan
Just think what Toucan do
Guinness is good for you
How grand to be a Toucan
Just think what Toucan do
. . . the firm of Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., Advertising Agents . . . “Now, Mr. Pym is a man of rigid morality—except, of course, as regards his profession, whose essence is to tell plausible lies for money—“
“How about truth in advertising?”
“Of course, there is some truth in advertising. There’s yeast in bread, but you can’t make bread with yeast alone. Truth in advertising . . . is like leaven, which a woman hid in three measures of meal. It provides a suitable quantity of gas, with which to blow out a mass of crude misrepresentation into a form that the public can swallow.”
Detective fictionWhose Body? can be seen in a letter Sayers wrote on 22 January 1921:
Lord Peter Wimsey burst upon the world of detective fiction with an explosive "Oh, damn!" and continued to engage readers in eleven 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 rounded character that he existed in Sayers's mind as a living, breathing, fully human being. 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, as she put it, to "see Lord Peter exit the stage".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)
Sayers did not content herself with writing pure detective stories; she explored the difficulties of World War I veterans in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, discussed the ethics of advertising in Murder Must Advertise, and advocated women's education (then a controversial subject) and role in society in Gaudy Night. In Gaudy Night, Miss Barton writes a book attacking the Nazi doctrine of Kinder, Kirche, Küche, which restricted women's roles to family activities, and in many ways the whole of Gaudy Night can be read as an attack on Nazi social doctrine. The book has been described as "the first feminist mystery novel."
Sayers's Christian and academic interests are also apparent in her detective series. In The Nine Tailors, one of her most well-known detective novels, the plot unfolds largely in and around an old church dating back to the Middle Ages. Change ringing of bells also forms an important part of the novel. In Have His Carcase, the Playfair cipher and the principles of cryptanalysis are explained. Her short story Absolutely Elsewhere refers to the fact that (in the language of modern physics) the only perfect alibi for a crime is to be outside its light cone, while The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager's Will contains a literary crossword puzzle.
Sayers also wrote a number of short stories about Montague Egg, a wine salesman who solves mysteries.
Translationstranslation of Dante's Divine Comedy to be her best work. The boldly titled Hell appeared in 1949, as one of the recently introduced series of Penguin Classics. Purgatory followed in 1955. Unfinished at her death, the third volume (Paradise) was completed by Barbara Reynolds in 1962.
On a line-by-line basis, Sayers's translation can seem idiosyncratic. For example, the famous line usually rendered "Abandon all hope, 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 ogne speranza, 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.")
The idiosyncratic character of Sayers's translation results from her decision to preserve the original Italian terza rima rhyme scheme, so that her "go in by me" rhymes with "made to be" two lines earlier, and "unsearchably" two lines before that. Umberto Eco in his book Mouse or Rat? suggests that, of the various English translations, Sayers "does the best in at least partially preserving the hendecasyllables and the rhyme."
Sayers's translation of the Divine Comedy is also notable for extensive notes at the end of each canto, explaining the theological meaning of what she calls "a great Christian allegory." Her translation has remained popular: in spite of publishing new translations by Mark Musa and Robin Kirkpatrick, as of 2009 Penguin Books was still publishing the Sayers edition.
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.
Other Christian and academic workThe 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.She defends strongly the view that literary creatures have a nature of their own, vehemently replying to a well-wisher who wanted Lord Peter to "end up a convinced Christian". "From what I know of him, nothing is more unlikely... Peter is not the Ideal Man".
Creed or Chaos? is a restatement of basic historical Christian Doctrine, based on the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, similar to but somewhat more densely written than C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity; both sought clearly and concisely to explain the central doctrines of Christianity to those who had encountered them in distorted or watered-down forms, on the grounds that if you are going to criticize something you had best know what it is first.
Her very influential essay The Lost Tools of Learning has been used by many schools in the US as a basis for the classical education movement, reviving the medieval trivium subjects (grammar, logic and rhetoric) as tools to enable the analysis and mastery of every other subject. Sayers also wrote three volumes of commentaries about Dante, religious essays, and several plays, of which The Man Born to be King may be the best known.
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.
Although she never describes herself as such, her economic and political ideas, rooted as they are in the classical Christian doctrines of Creation and Incarnation, are very close to the Chesterton-Belloc theory of Distributism.
Criticism of Sayers
Criticism of background material in her novelsThe literary and academic themes in Sayers's novels have appealed to a great many readers, but by no means to all. Poet W. H. Auden and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein were critics of her novels, for example. A savage attack on Sayers's 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..." Wilson continues "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."
The academic critic Q.D. Leavis, in a review of Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon published in the critical journal Scrutiny, criticises Sayers in more specific terms. The basis of Leavis' criticism is that Sayers' fiction is "popular and romantic while pretending to realism." Leavis argues that Sayers presents academic life as "sound and sincere because it is scholarly", a place of "invulnerable standards of taste charging the charmed atmosphere". But, Leavis says, this is unrealistic: "If such a world ever existed, and I should be surprised to hear as much, it does no longer, and to give substance to a lie or to perpetrate a dead myth is to do no one any service really." Leavis suggests that "people in the academic world who earn their livings by scholarly specialities are not as a general thing wiser, better, finer, decenter or in any way more estimable than those of the same social class outside", but that Sayers is popular among educated readers because "the accepted pretence is that things are as Miss Sayers relates". Leavis comments that "only best-seller novelists could have such illusions about human nature".
Critic Sean Latham has defended Sayers, arguing that Wilson "chooses arrogant condescension over serious critical consideration" and suggests that both he and Leavis, rather than seriously assessing Sayers' writing, simply objected to a detective-story writer having pretensions beyond what they saw as her role of popular-culture "hack". Latham claims that, in their eyes, "Sayers's primary crime lay in her attempt to transform the detective novel into something other than an ephemeral bit of popular culture". All writers of hugely popular detective fiction have been roundly criticized at various times and for various reasons; what makes Sayers' case perhaps unusual are the sources of many of the criticisms: literary and academic figures. But in fact there is nothing remarkable in this: Sayers' fiction touches on a number of controversial topics relating to academia and the literary community, so vociferous criticism of her work must be expected.
Criticism of major charactersLord Peter Wimsey, Sayers' heroic detective, has been criticized for being too perfect; over time the various talents he displays grow too numerous for some readers to swallow. 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."On the other hand, this characterization of Wilson's omits some of the complexities of Lord Peter's character, and these same complexities are what have endeared him to readers fond of protagonists who transcend the standards of the genre.
Wimsey is rich, well-educated, charming, and brave, as well as an accomplished musician, an exceptional athlete, and a notable lover. He does, however, have serious flaws: the habit of over-engaging in 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 fear of responsibility turns out to be a serious obstacle to his maturation into full adulthood (a fact not lost on the character himself).
The character Harriet Vane, featured in four novels, has been criticized for being a mere stand-in for the author. Many of the themes and settings of Sayers's novels, particularly those involving Harriet Vane, seem to reflect Sayers's own concerns and experiences. 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 defence 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 rejects his proposals of marriage. She eventually accepts (Gaudy Night) and marries him (Busman's Honeymoon).
Alleged racism and anti-Semitism in Sayers's writingBiographers of Sayers have disagreed as to whether Sayers was anti-Semitic. In Sayers: A Biography,James Brabazon argues that Sayers was anti-Semitic. This is rebutted by Carolyn G. Heilbrun in Dorothy L. Sayers: Biography Between the Lines. McGregor and Lewis argue in Conundrums for the Long Week-End that Sayers was not anti-Semitic but used popular British stereotypes of class and ethnicity. In 1936, a translator wanted "to soften the thrusts against the Jews" in Whose Body?; Sayers, surprised, replied that the only characters "treated in a favourable light were the Jews!"
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 read some of the Wimsey novels but scorned the later ones, such as Gaudy Night.
Fleming died on 9 June 1950, at Sunnyside Cottage, Witham, Essex. Sayers died suddenly of a coronary thrombosis on 17 December 1957 at the same place, aged 60. Fleming was buried in Ipswich, while Dorothy's remains were cremated and her ashes buried beneath the tower of St Anne's Church, Soho, London, where she had been a churchwarden for many years. Upon her death it was revealed that her nephew, John Anthony, was her son; he was the sole beneficiary under his mother's will. He died on 26 November 1984 at age 60, in St. Francis's Hospital, Miami Beach, Florida.
LegacySome of the character Harriet Vane's observations reveal Sayers poking fun at the mystery genre, even while adhering to various conventions.
Sayers' work was frequently parodied by her contemporaries. E. C. Bentley, the author of the early modern detective novel Trent's Last Case, wrote a parody entitled "Greedy Night" (1938).
Her characters, and Sayers herself, have been placed in some other works, including:
- Jill Paton Walsh has published three novels about Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane: Thrones, Dominations (1998), a completion of Sayers' manuscript left unfinished at her death; A Presumption of Death (2002), based on the "Wimsey Papers", letters ostensibly written by various Wimseys and published in The Spectator during World War II; and The Attenbury Emeralds (2010), based on Lord Peter's "first case", briefly referred to in a number of Sayers' novels.
- Wimsey appears (together with Hercule Poirot and Father Brown) in C. Northcote Parkinson's comic novel Jeeves (after Jeeves, the gentleman's gentleman of the P.G. Wodehouse canon).
- 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.
- Sayers appears, with Agatha Christie, as a title character in Dorothy and Agatha [ISBN 0-451-40314-2], a murder mystery by Gaylord Larsen, in which a man is murdered in Sayers' dining room and she has to solve the crime.
- Wimsey is mentioned by Walter Pidgeon's character in the 1945 film Week-End at the Waldorf as one of three possible detectives waiting for him in the hall, outside the apartment of the character played by Ginger Rogers.