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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?)

Dorothy 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.

Wimsey 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.

As a 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 at 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 Barbara 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.

Selected bibliography:

  • Opus I, 1916 (collection of poetry)
  • Catholic Tales and Christian Songs, 1918 (verse)
  • Oxford Poetry 1917, 1918 (ed., with Wilfred R. Childe and Thomas W. Earp)
  • Oxford Poetry 1918, 1918 (ed., with Thomas W. Earp and E.F.A. Geach)
  • Oxford Poetry 1919, 1919 (ed. with Thomas W. Earp and Siegfried Sassoon)
  • Whose Body?, 1923
    - Kuka ja mistä! (suom. Unto Varjonen, 1944) / Kuka ja mistä! (suom. Niilo Lavio, 1944; 1960) / Kuka ja mistä? (suom. Kristiina Rikman, 1986)
  • Clouds of Witness, 1926
    - Kuolema keskiyöllä (suom. Oiva Talvitie, 1948)
    - TV mini-series 1972, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. by Hugh David, starring Ian Carmichael (as Lord Peter Wimsey), Glyn Houston and Mark Eden
  • Tristan in Brittany, 1927 (transator)
  • Unnatural Death, 1927
    - Luonnoton kuolema (suom. Anna Inkeri Relander, 1937) / Kaksi kertaa kuolema (suom. 1990)
  • The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, 1928
    - Kuolema vierailee kerhossa (suom. Helena Luho, 1953)
    - TV mini-series 1972, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. Ronald Wilson, starring Ian Carmichael (as Lord Peter Winsey), John Quentin, Vivien Heilbron, Derek Newark
  • Lord Peter Views the Body, 1928
    - Lordi Peter katsastaa ruumiin (suom. Paavo Lehtonen, 1979)
  • Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror I-III, 1929-34 (ed.; asThe Omnibus of Crime, 1929; The Second Omnibus of Crime, 1932; The Third Omnibus of Crime, 1935)
  • Strong Poison, 1930
    - Myrkkyä (suom. Paavo Lehtonen, 1984)
    - Tv film: Lord Peter Wimsey, 1987, dir. by Christopher Hodson and Michael A. Simpson, starring Harriet Walter, Edward Petherbridge (as Lord Peter Wimsey)
  • The Documents in the Case 1930 (with Robert Eustace)
  • Five Red Herrings, 1931
    - Yksi kuudesta (suom. Hilkka Pekkanen, 1985)
    - TV mini-series 1975, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. by Robert Tronson, starring Ian Carmichael (as Lord Peter Wimsey), Glyn Houston and David Rintoul
  • The Floating Admiral, 1931 (with others)
  • Have His Carcase, 1932
    - Kas tässä teille ruumis (suom. Kersti Juva, 1993)
    - TV film 1987, dir. by Christopher Hodson, starring Harriet Walter (as Harriet Vane), Edward Petherbridge
  • Murder Must Advertise, 1933
    - Mainosmurha (suom. Simo Pakarinen, 1938)
    - TV mini-series 1973, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. by Rodney Bennett, starring Ian Carmichael (as Lord Peter Winsey), Mark Eden and Rachel Herbert
  • Hangman's Holiday, 1933
    - Hirttäjän vapaapäivä (suom. Annika Eräpuro, 1990)
  • Ask a Policeman, 1933 (with others)
  • The Nine Tailors, 1934
    - Kolmesti kuollut (suom. Veikko Vankkoja, 1948) / Kuolema kirkkomaalla (suom. Annika Eräpuro, 1989)
    - TV mini-series 1974, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. by Raymond Menmuir, starring Ian Carmichael (as Lord Peter Winsey), Glyn Houston and Elizabeth Proud
  • The Silent Passenger, 1935 (screenplay, with Basil Mason)
    - Film 1935, dir. Reginald Denham, screenplay Basil Mason, starring Peter Haddon (as Lord Peter Wimsey), John Loder, Lilian Oldland, Austin Trevor
  • Gaudy Night, 1935
    - Juhlailta (suom. Kersti Juva, 1994)
    - TV film 1987, dir. by Michael Simpson, starring Edward Petherbridge (as Lord Peter Wimsey), Harriet Walter (as Harriet Vane) and Richard Morant
  • Six Against the Yard, 1936 (with others; US title: Six Against Scotland Yard)
  • Busman's Honeymoon, 1936 (play, with Muriel St. Clare Byrne)
    - Films: 1940, dir. by Arthur B. Woods, starring Robert Montgomery (as Lord Peter Wimsey), Constance Cummings (as Harriet Vane), Leslie Banks; TV film 1947, starring Harold Warrender (as Lord Peter Wimsey), Ruth Lodge (as Harriet Vane); TV film 1957, dir. by Brandon Acton-Bond, starring Peter Gray (as Lord Peter Wimsey), Sarah Lawson (as Harriet Vane)
  • Papers Related to the Family of Wimsey, 1936 (with C.W. Scott-Giles writing as Matthew Wimsey)
  • Tales of Detection, 1936 (ed.)
  • Busman's Honeymoon, 1937
    - Kuolema häämatkalla (suom. Kersti Juva, 1995)
  • The Zeal Of Thy House, 1937 (play)
  • An account of Lord Mortimer Wimsey, the Hermit of the Wash, 1937
  • The Greatest Drama Ever Staged, 1938
  • He That Should Come, 1938 (radio play)
  • The Devil to Pay, Being the Famous History of John Faustus, 1939 (play)
  • In the Teeth of the Evidence and Other Stories 1939
  • He That Should Come: A Nativity Play, 1939
  • Strong Meat, 1939
  • Double Death: a Murder Story, 1939 (with others)
  • Begin Here: A Wartime Essay, 1940
  • Love All, 1940 (play)
  • Creed or Chaos?, 1940 (address)
  • The Golden Cockerel, 1941 (radio play, from a story by Pushkin)
  • The Mind of the Maker, 1941
  • The Mysterious English, 1941 (a speech delivered in London in 1940)
  • Man Born to Be King: A Play-Cycle on the Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, 1941-42 (radio play, broadcast; publ. 1943)
  • Why Work?, 1942 (a lecture in Eastbourne, April 1942)
  • Lord, I Thank Thee –, 1943 (verse)
  • The Other Six Deadly Sins, 1943 (an address given to the Public Morality Council. at Caxton Hall, Westminster. October 23rd, 1941)
  • Even The Parrot. Exemplary Conversations for Enlightened Children, 1944
  • Unpopular Opinions, 1946
  • The Heart of Stone, Being the Four Canzoni of the "Pietra" Group by Dante, 1946 (translator)
  • Making Sense of the Universe, 1946 (an address given at the Kingsway Hall on Ash Wednesday,March 6th 1946)
  • The Just Vengeance, 1946 (play)
  • Creed or Chaos? and other Essays in popular Theology, 1947
  • Where Do We Go From Here?, 1948 (radio play, with others)
  • The Lost Tools of Learning, 1948 (address)
  • The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, 1949-62 (translator, with Barbara Reynolds)
  • The Emperor Constantine: A Chronicle, 1951 (play; rev. version Christ's Emperor, 1952)
  • The Days of Christ's Coming, 1953 (rev. ed. 1960)
  • Introductory Papers on Dante, 1954
  • The Story of Easter, 1955
  • The Story of Adam and Christ, 1955 (verse)
  • The Story of Noah's Ark, 1956
  • Further Papers on Dante, 1957
  • The Song of Roland, 1957 (translator)
  • A Treasury of Sayers Stories, 1958
  • The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement, 1963
  • Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World, 1969 (ed. Roderick Jellema)
  • Matter of Eternity, 1969 (ed. Rosamond Kent Sprague)
  • Are Women Human?, 1971
  • Lord Peter: A Collection of All the Lord Peter Wimsey Stories, 1971 (ed. James Sandoe)
  • Striding Folly, 1972
  • The Collected Edition of Detective Stories by Dorothy L. Sayers, 1969-1975 (15 vols.)
  • Wilkie Collins: A Critical and Biographical Study, 1977 (ed. by E.R. Gregory)
  • The Scoop and Behind the Screen, 1983 (with others)
    - Murha yksinoikeudella (suom. 1987)
  • Crime on the Coast & No Flowers by Request, 1984 (with others)
  • Love All, 1985 (with M. St. C. Byrne)
  • Spiritual Writings, 1993 (selected by Ann Loades)
  • The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, 1996-2002 (5 vols., edited by Barbara Reynolds)
  • Thrones, Dominations, 1998 (completed by Jill Paton Walsh)
  • Dorothy L. Sayers: The Complete Stories, 2002
  • Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine, 2004
  • Introductiory Papers on Dante: The Poety Alive In His Writings, Volume 1, 2006 (with a new series foreword by Barbara Reynolds)
  • The Christ of the Creeds: & Other Broadcast Messages to the British People During World War II, 2008 (introduction & notes, Suzanne Bray; preface, Ann Loades)
  • The Gospel in Dorothy Sayers: Selections from Her Novels, Plays, Letters, and Essays, 2018 (edited by Carole Vanderhoof, with an appreciation by C. S. Lewis)
  • Man Born to be King, 2022 (edited by Kathryn Wehr)

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