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||Dorothy L(eigh) Sayers(1893-1957)|
British novelist, essayist, medieval scholar and anthologist. Sayers is best-known for her stories about the amateur aristocratic detective hero Lord Peter Wimsey, who made his breakthrough in the novel Whose Body? (1923), wearing a top hat like Fred Astaire. After the late 1930s, Sayers wrote no more detective novels, but concentrated on theological dramas, radio plays and verse.
"Lord Peter's library was one of the most delightful bachelor rooms in London. Its scheme was black and primrose; its walls were lined with rare editions, and its chairs and Chesterfield sofa suggested the embraces of the houris. In one corner stood a black baby-grand, and wood fire leaped on a wide old-fashioned hearth, and the Sevres vases on the chimney-piece were filled with ruddy and gold chrysanthemums." (from Whose Body?)
Leigh Sayers was born in Oxford, the daughter of the
Rev. Henry Sayers, the director of the Christchurch Cathedral Choir
School, and Helen Mary (Leigh) Sayers. From the early age Sayers was
very gifted in languages, learning Latin by the age of seven and French
from her governess. In 1912 she won a scholarship to the Oxford women's
college Somerville. There Sayers joined a group of students, who
gathered to read aloud their literary efforts and to receive and
deliver criticism. Let's call ourselves the Mutual Admiration Society,
Sayers suggested, because that's what people will call us anyway.
(The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women by Mo Moulton, 2019, p. 1) Her first book, a verse collection titled OP
I, was published in Basil Blackwell's series for new poets.
Sayers earned her M.A. in 1920, among one of the first group of women to be granted degrees from Oxford University. She then worked in Yorkshire and in France, where she was a secretary to a shell-shocked veteran, and as a reader for an Oxford publishing house. During these years Sayers went through a period she did not advertise much later. She had an illegitimate son, Anthony, who was brought up by her cousin, Ivy Shrimpton, in Westcott Barton. In the village she was known as a very eccentric figure. The father was Bill White, a motorcyclist and car salesman. Sayers rejected contraceptives, which caused a problem with her lover, the Russian born-novelist John Cournos, whom she met in 1921. Sayers wanted to marry him, but Cournos told that he did not believe in marriage. Letters from this unhappy affair are now housed at Harvad University. Although her cousin took care of the child, Sayers followed closely his upbringing and supplied funds for this purpose. Sayers kept the child secret even from her parents. John Anthony Fleming was unofficially adopted by Sayers and her husband when he went to boarding school.
Sayers's seven-year long job at Benson's advertising agency in London began in 1922. Soon after joining the agency she published the novel, Whose Body? in which Wimsey is the major character. In the story Lord Peter solves the puzzle of the body in the bath. Wimsey's prime criteria is to find out how the murder was done. "Once you've got the How, the Why drives it home," says the detective in Busman's Honeymoon (1937). In 1926 Sayers married the journalist, Captain Oswald Arthur Fleming, who was divorced and had two children. "Mac" as he was called, was Scottish. He died in 1950. During the last years of his life, he did little but drink at the local pub. Unnatural Death (1927) was written in the year of Sayers's marriage. Its most interesting character is Miss Climpson, a spinster-sleuth, whom Lord Peter has employed, and who had feared a future without marriage. However, she has found her proper job.
was featured in 11 novels and 21 stories. In the
beginning of the series the young protagonist is a carefree war hero,
whose character still is defined by the intellectual style of the
Edwardian age and Wodehousian wit. Wimsey has money, free time and he
knows the important people. His political views are crystallized in the
contempt for "bosheviks". Wimsey's professional companion is Charler
Parker. When Lord Peter is impulsive, Parker has cautious and solid
character. Agatha Christie said of Wimsey in an article written for
readers in Russia: "Lord Peter remains an example of a good man spoilt." (The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, 2015, p. 278)
Gradually Wimsey developed into a man of conscience and moral responsibility, but humor prevailed throughout the novel series. "The essential Peter," Sayers once wrote, "is seen to be the familiar figure of the interpretative artists, the romantic soul at war with a realistic brain." Lord Peter Wimsey appeared for the first time on the screen in The Silent Passenger (1935). Peter Haddon portrayed the amateur sleuth.
In Busman's Honeymoon the monocled detective marries Harriet Vane, a writer of mystery books, Sayers's own alter ego. Vane was introduced in Strong Poison (1930), in which Lord Peter saves her. She is accused of poisoning the novelist Philip Boyes, her lover with whom she had lived for almost a year. Bournos, like John Cournos, claimed he did not believe in marriage – obviously the novel's satire was a kind of payback. The love interest between Harriet and Lord Peter began to build from Have His Carcase (1932), in which Harriet discovers a dead body on the beach and she is again suspected of the murder. Murder Must Advertise (1933) was full of observations of manner and mocked the superficial world of conspicuous consumption. The critic and awarded mystery writer H.R.F. Keating included The Nine Tailors (1934) in 1987 among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published. The story is famous for its detailed account of the art of bell-ringing.
With such writers as G.K. Chesterton, Christie, and Fr. Ronald Knox, Sayers founded the Detection Club in 1929. She purchased a home at Witham in Essex, and from 1931 Sayers devoted herself entirely to writing and preparing radio plays for the BBC. In 1932 Sayers began to write memoirs of her childhood. She abandoned the project after thirty-six pages but used them later in the novel Cat O'Mary, which was never published.
After the appearance of Busman's Honeymoon Sayers
turned from mystery fiction to other genres. Her only detective novel
without Wimsey was The Documents in
the Case (1930), co-written with Robert Eustace. She published
also 11 short stories in which the commercial traveller Montague Egg
solved crimes, and wrote with members of The Detection Club such
composite novels as The Floating
Admiral (1931), Ask a
Policeman (1933), and Double
Death: a Murder Story
(1939). Gaudy Night (1935), an Oxford novel, has divided opinions.
There is no murder, but poison pen letters and vicious pranks. The
events, narrated most byHarriet Vane, the take place in the
fictional women's college of Shrewbury.
A devout Anglo-Catholic, Sayers was for many years a friend of
the Oxford writers known as the Inklings. In The Mind of the Maker Sayers tried
to explain the Trinitarian nature of God, the Divine Creator, by
analogy with the three-fold activity of the creative artist—involving
idea, energy, and power. With few exceptions her plays were religious
dramas, among them The Zeal of Thy
House (1937), set in the twelfth century and based on an
incident that had occurred during the burning and rebuilding of the
choir at Canterbury, and The Devil
to Pay (1939). The play-cycle The
Man Born to be King (1942) was about the life of Christ.
religious writer Sayers aimed for high literary quality, but she
occasionally suffered hair loss when she got under stress. During WWII,
shortly after the fall of France, Sayers wrote the poem 'The English
War' (The Times Literary Supplement, 7th September 1940).
This work, which captured feelings isolation, when the nation stood alone against Germany, was widely cited.
"When no allies are left, no help / To count upon from alien hands, /
No waverers remain too woo, / No more advice to listen to, / And only
England stands." The radio play Man Born to Be King
(1941-42) was a part of BBC's propaganda campaign that sought to
"influence hearts and minds" and "foster [...] the British people's
innate will to win." (Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics During World War II by Melissa Dinsman, 2015, p. 68) Following the British bombing of Frankfurt in 1944,
she expressed her attitude of resistance to the hatred of the enemy in
'Target Area,' addressed to her old German piano piano teacher Fräulein
Fehmer: "The solidarity of mankind is a solidarity in guilt, / and all
our virtues stand in need of forgiveness, / being deadly."
In 1950 Sayers was awarded a Litt.D. by the University of
Durham. Her last major accomplishment was translation of Dante's Divine
Comedy. Sayers came to know Dante rather late in life, but she
lectured on the Commedia
Cambridge University in 1947 and 1948. Sayers's Penguin
Classics version, which received mostly favourable reviews at the time
of its publication, has been widely used and is still well-known. Her
fast-paced text, in Victorian style verse, took
many liberties with the original. "Dante is a difficult poet, in the
sense that he deals with a great subject which is not to be mastered
without thought," Sayers said in a lecture, "but he is not a wilfully
obscure poet. When once we have grasped the assumptions from which he
starts and the technical vocabulary which he uses, he is for the most
part lucid as the day." (Introductory Papers on Dante: The Poet Alive in His Writings by Dorothy L. Sayers, 2006, pp. xiv-xv) Sayers's "Paradiso" was finished by
Reynolds after her death on December 17, 1957 from a heart
failure. In Clive James' recent translation of Dante's Divine Comedy the work was
dismissed as being loaded with cliché and pumped full of wind.
Sayers put aside her 13th full-length Lord Peter novel in 1938. The book, which was finished by Jill Paton Walsh, appeared in 1998 under the title Thrones, Dominations. Set in 1936, the story revolves around the murder of two beautiful young women. There's also a subplot involving the new King, Edward VIII, succeeded to the throne on the death of his father, King George V.
Sayers's mystery novels have received serious attention from academic critics, partly because of her other works. Q.D. Leavis attacked as early as in the 1930s this attitude in her article 'The Case of Miss Dorothy Sayers: Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon' in Scrutiny, Vol. VI (1937): "Literature gets heavily drawn upon in Miss Sayers's writings, and her attitude to it is revealing. She displays knowingness about literature without any sensitiveness to it or any feeling for quality—i.e. she has an academic literary taste over and above having no general taste at all."
For further reading: Such a Strange Lady by Janet Hitchman (1975); An Annotated Guide to the Works of Dorothy L. Sayers by Robert B. Harmon and Margaret A. Burger (1977); Dorothy L. Sayers by Robert B. Harmon (1979); As Her Whimsey Took Her, ed. by Margaret Hannay (1979); Dorothy L. Sayers by Trevor H.Hall (1980); Pilgrim Soul by Nancy M. Tischler (1980); Dorothy L. Sayers by Mary Brian Durkin (1980); Dorothy L. Sayers by James Brabazon (1981); Dorothy L. Sayers by Dawson Gaillard (1981); Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating (1987); The Passionate Intellect: Dorothy L. Sayers' Encounter With Dante by B. Reynolds (1989); The Remarkable Case of Dorothy L. Sayers by Catherine Kenedy (1990); Dorothy and Agatha by G.Larsen (1990); Dorothy L. Sayers by David Coomes (1992); Dorothy L. Sayers by Alzina Stone Dale (1993); Kuka ja miksi?, ed. by Leena Lehtolainen et al. (1993); Dorothy L. Sayers by Barbara Reynolds (1993); Dorothy L. Sayers: The Centennary Celebration, ed. by A.S. Dale (1993); Writing Performances: Stages of Dorothy L. Sayers by Chrystal Diwning (2004); The Artist and the Trinity: Dorothy L. Sayers' Theology of Work by Christine M. Fletcher; foreword by Malcolm Brown (2013); Choosing Community: Action, Faith, and Joy in the Works of Dorothy L. Sayers by Christine A. Colón (2019); The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women by Mo Moulton (2019); Dorothy L. Sayers: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction by Eric Sandberg (2022) - Dorothy L. Sayers Society, 10 Market Street, Cambridge CB4 5QG. - See also: The "Great Ladies" of the English mystery's golden age; Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, and Ngaio Marsh.