Dorothy Leigh Sayers (IPA: usually pronounced /ˈseɪɜrz/, although Sayers herself preferred /ˈsɛːz/ and encouraged the use of her middle initial to facilitate this pronunciation) (Oxford, 13 June 1893–Witham, 17 December 1957) was a renowned British author, 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. 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 at the Head Master's House, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, on 13 June 1893, where her father, the Rev. Henry Sayers, M.A., was 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, Cambridgeshire, after her father was given the living there as clergyman. The elegance of the Regency Rectory she called home is worthy of her description of Duke's Denver, Lord Wimsey's family seat, while the church graveyard features the surnames of several characters in what many regard as her best mystery, The Nine Tailors, and the proximity of the River Great Ouse explains her vivid description of a massive flood around the village described in her Fenchurch mystery. She was educated at the Godolphin School, a boarding school at Salisbury. Her father later moved to the less luxurious living of Christ Church, also in Cambridgeshire.
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 awarded 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 graduated MA. Her personal experience of Oxford academic life is evident in her novel Gaudy Night.
Dorothy's father was from a line of Sayers from Littlehampton, West Sussex, and her mother (Helen Mary Leigh - whence Dorothy's second name) was born at "The Chestnuts", Millbrook, Southamptonshire, 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, a fact that was to become important later in Dorothy's life.
The 1920s in Britain was a time of social 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 in view of family members disabled or lost in 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.
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 she was pregnant. White reacted badly, storming out "in rage & misery" when Sayers announced her pregnancy.
Sayers hid from her friends and family in fear of how her pregnancy might affect her parents, who were then in their seventies. She continued to work until the beginning of her last trimester, at which point she pleaded exhaustion and took extended leave. She went alone to a "mothers' hospital", Tuckton Lodge, Iford Lane, Southbourne, Hampshire (now in Dorset, following boundary changes) under an assumed name and gave birth to John Anthony on January 3, 1924. She remained with John for three weeks, nursing and caring for him.
The sole responsibility for a child prevented Sayers's return to her life and work. She investigated a family connection. Her aunt and cousin, Amy and Ivy Amy Shrimpton, were supporting themselves by fostering children. Sayers's mother had visited the Shrimptons and had written 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 in an envelope marked "Strictly Confidential: Particulars about Baby which revealed the child's parentage and swore her to silence. Neither Sayers's parents nor Aunt Amy were to know. Sayers's friends learned of John Anthony's existence only after her death in 1957 as the only beneficiary under his mother's will. However, Sayers communicated regularly with her son by mail. Shortly before he died in 1984 John Anthony said that his mother "did the very best she could.
Ivy continued to raise 'John' to adulthood at her house, "The Sidelings", Wooton Barton, Oxfordshire, but he became known by his second forename, thus abandoning the use of 'John' except for legal purposes. He preferred to be known as 'Tony' to friends and family. He assumed the surname of 'Fleming' after his mother married, although nothing formal was ever attempted to register that change. Tony regarded Ivy as his mother for all practical purposes. When she died on 29 March 1951 at Horton General Hospital, Banbury, he arranged the funeral.
In 1924-1925, Sayers wrote eleven letters to John Cournos about their unhappy relationship, her relationship with White, and that with 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.
The marriage began happily with a strong partnership at home. Both were working a great deal, Mac as an author and journalist and Dorothy as an advertising copywriter and author. Over time, Mac's health worsened largely due to his World War I service and as a result he became unable to work. His income dwindled while Sayers's fame continued to grow and he began to feel eclipsed.
Although he never lived with them, Tony was told that "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 June 9 1950, at Sunnyside Cottage, Witham, Essex. Dorothy died suddenly of a stroke on 17 December 1957 at the same place. She had purchased numbers 20-24 Newland Street Witham (subsequently known as Sunnyside) in 1925 as a home for her mother following the death of her father, but on the death of her mother on 27 July 1929 at The County Hospital, Colchester, she occupied it herself.
Mac was buried in Ipswich, whilst Dorothy was cremated and her ashes buried beneath the tower of St Anne's Church, Soho, where she had been a churchwarden for many years. Tony died 26 November 1984 at age 60, in St. Francis's Hospital, Miami Beach, Dade, Florida.
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. This was located on the Victoria Embankment overlooking the Thames; Benson's subsequently became Ogilvy & Mather. 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:
If he can say as you can
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.
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, discussed the ethics of advertising in Murder Must Advertise, and advocated women's education (a then-controversial subject) in Gaudy Night.
Sayers' Christian and academic interests also shine through in her detective stories. In The Nine Tailors, one of her most well-known detective novels, the plot takes place largely in and around an old church dating back to the Middle Ages, and the writer's familiarity with and affection for such a milieu is very evident. 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.
Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante's Divina Commedia to be her best work. The baldly 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' 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.")
The idiosyncratic character of Sayer'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' translation of the Divina Commedia 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 2008 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.
Sayers' 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. 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"
Her very influential essay The Lost Tools of Learning ISBN 978-1-60051-025-0 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.
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.
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's 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".
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 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 rejects his proposals of marriage. She eventually accepts (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).
Many of the themes and settings of Sayers' novels, particularly those involving Harriet Vane, seem to reflect Sayers' own concerns and experiences. However, 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.
Characters in Unnatural Death also display racist attitudes. For instance, a maid who refused to serve a person of colour voices many racist sentiments, but the overall story upholds the person of colour as a paragon of virtue (a minister, no less). Within the story, Miss Climpson, a sympathetic character, roundly condemns the maid's racism, although her own choice of language implies that she has (consciously or unconsciously) adopted what would now be felt to be racist assumptions herself. Later in the book, the murderer tries to blame the crimes upon a non-existent gang composed of Blacks and Jews, and the book shows how some policemen initially take up the racist canard and how it is eagerly picked up by the popular press; in her essay The Other Six Deadly Sins, Sayers comments that to "foment grievance and to set men at variance is the trade by which agitators thrive and journalists make money. In the end, the alleged plot is shown to have been a red herring fabricated by the real culprit.
The 1923 novel Whose Body? involves several Jewish characters, notably the murder victim, Levy. Several other characters express anti-Semitic attitudes towards these Jews. The victim's butler, for example, states "I don’t hold with Hebrews as a rule." The medical students who dissect the victim's body refer to him by the highly racist term Sheeny. However, once again such views should be taken as a reflection of contemporary English society, and not as the author's own view. A more positive attitude is taken by one of Sayers's recurring (and sympathetic) characters, the Hon. Frederick Arbuthnot, who falls in love with the victim's daughter, to the cheerful acceptance of best man Lord Peter Wimsey. Both Arbuthnot and Wimsey are also shown to have positive contacts with Jews on a professional level.
Sayers herself had a number of personal and professional associations with Jewish people. Her original publisher was Jewish, and the Chief Rabbi was a frequent visitor at her salons. She had had an unsuccessful relationship with a Jewish man (novelist John Cournos), and Barbara Reynolds, her friend and biographer, suggests that Whose Body? was influenced by thoughts of how society would have treated her as the wife of a Jew.
Other biographers 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 refuted 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. Anti-Semitism was common in Sayers' social class before the Second World War, and Sayers may not have regarded herself as anti-Semitic. 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 favorable light were the Jews!
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.