Dorothy Sayers – Jacques Barzun

August 16, 2012

Dorothy Leigh Sayers, 1928

Dorothy Leigh Sayers 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. It has been said that with her creation of Lord Peter Wimsey that Dorothy Sayers, in the first half of the 20th century, rightly occupies a place of honor alongside Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes as one of the finest detectives in the murder mystery genre, in the traditional British mould. However, Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy to be her best work. She is also known for her plays and essays.


Dorothy Sayers manifested early a gift and a passion for words. Born in Oxford, she was the only child of a clergyman and musician and of a woman of modest education but energetic, highly intelligent, and proud of an ancestress who was a cousin of Hazlitt’s. Unfortunately for mother and daughter; four years after the child’s birth the family moved to a vicarage in Cambridgeshire, remote but handsomely endowed.

There the wife grew increasingly bored with her husband, and the child was reared with hardly any young friends or other society. Dorothy amused herself by voracious reading, writing stories and poems, imagining what the outer world was like, and pondering the details of the Christian faith, which she read as a story. At the same time, she was a tomboy, full of life like mother and practical in everyday matters. These traits shaped her subsequent career: innocence, energy, a down-to-earth attitude that did not limit imagination, and a peculiarly intimate feeling for what has been called the Christian epic.

She went to Somerville College at Oxford, where she became a fine scholar (read her next-to-last tale, ‘Gaudy Night), and was one of the first batch of women to receive a full Oxford degree instead of a certificate — or rather, two degrees in one ceremony: Bachelor and Master of Arts. So far, her life had been smooth and pleasant; now she must earn a living. She served as secretary to a man who ran a service associated with a school in France. They had a sort of love affair  — in words — that was the first of her misfortunes in that domain. After two more episodes, which left her with an illegitimate son who turned out handsome and intelligent, she found late in life a congenial husband, though his latter days darkened hers by his becoming ill, alcoholic, and of uncharacteristic bad temper.

So much for the unedifying yet anguishing odyssey that Sayers had to endure while developing her literary gifts. A job as copywriter in the largest London advertising agency proved useful (read Murder Must Advertise) and enjoyable too: there was good writing even in ads. In all that she wrote she aimed at the simple and direct.

Like Henry James, who gave a full-blown theory of the novel, Sayers laid down that of the detective tale, using her; scholarship by turns seriously and with humor. Interviewed on the subject, she manifested her forthright ways of speech: “Imbeciles and magazine editors” would ask her to discuss crime fiction “from the woman’s point of view.” To such demands one can only say ‘Go away and don’t be silly.’ You might as well ask what is the female angle on the equilateral triangle.”

On aesthetics at large she wrote an extraordinary little book, The Mind of the Maker. Its thesis is that the ordinary experience of making anything — creating art or applying workmanship to any object — corresponds to the meaning symbolized by the Trinity.

  1. First comes the creative Idea which, foresees the whole work as finished; this is the Father.
  2. Next comes the creative Energy, which engages in a vigorous struggle with matter and overcomes one obstacle after another; this is the Son.
  3. Third is the creative Power of the work, its influence on the world through its effect on the soul of the user-beholder; this is the Holy Spirit.

All three are indispensable to completeness as they unite in the work. The demonstration had a double purpose, critical and religious. While analyzing human creation it showed that God’s work as revealed in Christian theology followed the same pattern and man is indeed made in God’s image.

Before writing this highly original book, Sayers had lectured and written plays on religious themes for festivals held in Canterbury cathedral and other churches. For these she did’ research in medieval history, literature, and language and her activity brought her national attention as an intellectual evangelist. When the BBC commissioned her to present in dramatic form six programs depicting the life, and death of Jesus, she wrote a script that combined simplicity in word and idea with emotion free of sentimentality.

And like naturally religious persons in the Catholic tradition, she enjoyed being humorous about the objects of her faith. In Pantheon Papers for instance: “St. Supercilia’s unworthy father brutally cornmanded her to accept the hand of a man who, though virtuous, sensible, and of good estate, knew only six languages and was, weak in mathematics. At this the outraged saint raised her eyebrows so high that they lifted her off her feet and out through a top-storey window, whence she was seen floating away in a northerly direction.”

Sayers continued without letup what .she considered her missionn to show the role and validity of belief, using reason and example in the manner that makes The Mind of the Maker a work of permanent interest, comparable to C. S. Lewis’s works. But Sayers was not an absolutist. Belief in God she thought indispensable to answering unavoidable cosmic questions and as a fixed point by which to settle earthly ones, but to demand or enforce a particular conception of the Deity would ensure only division and oppression. She was explicitly a pragmatic relativist. More than once, in various contexts, she writes: “The first thing a principle does is to kill somebody.”

The research she had done in the history and literature of the Middle Ages had persuaded her that she could translate Dante. Competent in Greek, Latin, and French, she now learned Italian and rendered Dante in the terza rima verse scheme of the original. Her youthful scribblings had trained her to think metrically and she chose the simplest, briefest language to give due place to Dante’s wit, sarcasm, and humor — little or none of which had appeared in previous efforts; all were solemn in deference to the theme.

She died suddenly at the age of sixty-four before quite finishing. But a friend supplied the lack and the translation appeared in the Penguin Classics, to mixed reviews, some enthusiastic. Much praise came from C. S. Lewis. Her version has two merits: it makes for an easily readable and dramatically effective work, like Samuel Butler’s prose translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey; and her interpretation of Dante is tenable if one remembers that he wrote a pamphleteering poem in which, as a wandering exile, he damned his political and personal enemies, extolled friends, and put forth dogmas by no means all orthodox.

What will remain of her work as a whole is a matter for conjecture. The attitudes and prose style of crime fiction have changed, though several of her tales keep being reprinted. The Mind of the Maker [a payingattentiontothesky reading selection here] has the survival value of an original idea perfectly developed and expressed. In the rest of her writings Sayers was ahead of time. The present preoccupation with the Bible, Jesus, and Creation should lead back to her views. If the colloquial Dante finds no lasting favor, the scholarly introduction and notes must remain important for students.

Sayers’s conclusion that principle kills had been borne in upon her by the onset and the conduct of the Great War. National honor, naval supremacy, colonies for show rather than benefit, regions that must be conquered to redeem “people of our race,” and “No peace, no surrender” had been goals pursued so stubbornly that Europe had turned itself into a vast burnt offering without seeing that the two sides were cooperating to that end on identical principles.

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One comment

  1. [...] Dorothy Sayers – Jacques Barzun « Paying Attention To The Sky [...]

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