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Dorothy L. Sayers
Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (/sɛərz/;[1] 13 June 1893 – 17 December 1957) was an English crime writer and poet. 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 the First and Second World Wars that feature English aristocrat and amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, which 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.


Sayers, an only child, was born on 13 June 1893, at the Headmaster's House, Brewer Street, Oxford, the daughter of Helen Mary Leigh and her husband, the Rev. Henry Sayers. Her mother was a daughter of Frederick Leigh, a solicitor whose family roots were an old landed gentry family in the Isle of Wight, and had herself been born at "The Chestnuts", Millbrook, Hampshire. Her father, originally from Littlehampton, West Sussex, was a chaplain of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford and headmaster of the Cathedral Choir School.[2]

When Sayers was six, her father started teaching her Latin.[3] She grew up in the tiny village of Bluntisham-cum-Earith in Huntingdonshire after her father was given the living (benefice) there as rector. The church graveyard next to the elegant Regency-style rectory features the surnames of several characters from her mystery The Nine Tailors. She was inspired by her father's restoration of the Bluntisham church bells in 1910.[4]The nearby River Great Ouse and the Fens invite comparison with the book's vivid description of a massive flood around the village.[5]

From 1909 Sayers was educated at the Godolphin School,[6] a boarding school in Salisbury. Her father later moved to the simpler living of Christchurch, in Cambridgeshire.

In 1912, Sayers won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford[7] where she studied modern languages and medieval literature and was taught by Mildred Pope. She graduated with first-class honours in 1915.[8] Women were not awarded degrees at that time, but Sayers was among the first to receive a degree when the position changed a few years later;[9] in 1920 she graduated as an MA. Her experience of Oxford academic life eventually inspired her penultimate Peter Wimsey novel, Gaudy Night.


Sayers's first book of poetry was published in 1916 as OP. I [10] by Blackwell Publishing in Oxford. Her second book of poems, "Catholic Tales and Christian Songs", was published in 1918, also by Blackwell. Later, Sayers worked for Blackwell's and then as a teacher in several locations, including Normandy, France. She also published a number of poems in the Oxford Magazine.[11]

Sayers's longest employment was from 1922 to 1931 as a copywriter at S.H. Benson's advertising agency, located at International Buildings, Kingsway, London. A colleague of hers at the agency was Albert Henry Ross (1881–1950) who is better known by his literary pseudonym Frank Morison. He wrote the best-selling Christian apologetics book Who Moved the Stone? which explored the historicity of the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Sayers later relied on his book when she composed the trial scene of Jesus in her play The Man Born to Be King.[12]

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:[13]

Sayers is also credited with coining the slogan "It pays to advertise!"[14][15] She used the advertising industry as the setting of Murder Must Advertise, where she describes the role of truth in advertising:

Sayers began working out the plot of her first novel some time in 1920–21. The seeds of the plot for Whose Body? can be seen in a letter that Sayers wrote on 22 January 1921:

Lord Peter Wimsey featured in eleven novels and two sets of short stories. Sayers once commented that Lord Peter was a mixture of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster. Sayers introduced the character of detective novelist Harriet Vane in Strong Poison. She 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".

Sayers' detective stories explored the trauma 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, Küche, Kirche, which restricted women's roles to family activities, and in many ways the novel can be read as an attack on Nazi social doctrine. It has been described as "the first feminist mystery novel."[16] Sayers's Christian and academic experiences are themes in her detective series.

Sayers also wrote a number of short stories about Montague Egg, a wine salesman who solves mysteries.

Sayers’ obituarist, writing in The New York Times in 1957, noted that many critics regarded The Nine Tailors as her finest literary achievement.[17]

Sayers herself considered her translation 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. The third volume (Paradise) was unfinished at her death, and 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." The Italian reads "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate", and both the traditional rendering and Sayers' translation add to the source text in an effort to preserve the original length: "here" is added in the traditional, and "by me" in Sayers. 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."[18]

Sayers's translation of the Divine Comedy is also notable for extensive notes at the end of each canto,[19][20][21] explaining the theological meaning of what she calls "a great Christian allegory."[22] 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.[23][24][25]

In the introduction to her translation of The Song of Roland, Sayers expressed an outspoken feeling of attraction and love for:

She praised "Roland" for being a purely Christian myth, in contrast to such epics as Beowulf in which she found a strong pagan content.

She shared an enthusiasm for Dante's work with the novelist, poet, playwright and lay-theologian Charles Williams (1886-1945) and she contributed an essay about The Divine Comedy to the memorial volume Essays Presented to Charles Williams.[26]

Sayers's religious book The Mind of the Maker (1941) 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 and hearing and the effect that it has on the audience). She draws analogies between this "trinity" and the theological Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The book contains examples drawn from her own experiences as a writer, as well as criticisms of writers who exhibit, in her view, an inadequate balance of Idea, Energy, and Power.[27] She strongly defends the view that literary creatures have a nature of their own, vehemently replying to a well-wisher who wanted Wimsey to "end up a convinced Christian". "From what I know of him, nothing is more unlikely ... Peter is not the Ideal Man".[28]

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 to explain the central doctrines of Christianity, clearly and concisely, to those who had encountered them in distorted or watered-down forms, on the grounds that, if you are going to criticise something, you had best know what it is first.

Her influential essay "The Lost Tools of Learning"[29] 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.

Her economic and political ideas are rooted in the classical Christian doctrines of Creation and Incarnation, and are close to the Chesterton–Belloc theory of Distributism[30]—although she never describes herself as a Distributist.


The poet W. H. Auden and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein were notable critics of her novels.[31][32] A savage attack on Sayers's writing ability came from the American critic Edmund Wilson, in a well-known 1945 article in The New Yorker called "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?"[33] He briefly writes about her novel The Nine Tailors, saying "I declare that it seems to me one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field." 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 criticises Sayers in more specific terms in a review of Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon, published in the critical journal Scrutiny, saying her fiction is "popular and romantic while pretending to realism."[34] 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".[35] 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 perpetuate a dead myth is to do no one any service really."[36] Leavis comments that "only best-seller novelists could have such illusions about human nature".[36]

The critic Sean Latham has defended Sayers, arguing that Wilson and Leavis simply objected to a detective story writer having pretensions beyond what they saw as her role of popular culture "hack".[31] Latham says 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".[31]

Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers' heroic detective, has been criticised for being too perfect; over time, the various talents that he displays grow too numerous for some readers to swallow. Edmund Wilson expressed his distaste for Wimsey 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."[33]

The character Harriet Vane, featured in four novels, has been criticised for being a mere stand-in for the author. Many of the themes and settings of Sayers's novels, particularly those involving Vane, seem to reflect Sayers's own concerns and experiences.[37] 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).

Biographers of Sayers have disagreed as to whether Sayers was anti-Semitic. In Sayers: A Biography,[38] James Brabazon argues that she was. This conclusion is supported by Carolyn G. Heilbrun in Dorothy L. Sayers: Biography Between the Lines,[39] who agrees with his assessment of anti-Semitism, but dissents from the excuses that he made for it. 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!"[40]

The Jewish poet John Cournos was one of the loves of Sayers' life.

Personal life

In 1920 Sayers entered into a passionate affair with Jewish Russian emigre and Imagist poet John Cournos, who moved in London literary circles with Ezra Pound and his contemporaries. Cournos disdained monogamy and marriage and was dedicated to free love. Within two years the relationship had broken up. He then went on to marry a crime writer, which left Sayers embittered that he had not held to his own principles, feeling that he had been testing her, pushing her to sacrifice her own beliefs in submission to his own. He later confessed that he would have happily married Sayers if she had submitted to his sexual demands. Her experiences with Cournos formed the basis for her character of Harriet Vane. Cournos is fictionalised as Philip Boyes in the novel Strong Poison, though she didn't add in intimate details from their affair. Cournos reflected the relationship in his novel The Devil is an English Gentleman (1932) and included many private details from the affair, adding whole sections from Sayers' private letters.[41]

In 1923 began a relationship with Denstone College graduate and part-time car salesman William "Bill" White [42] whom she presented to her parents. She had met him when he moved into the flat above hers in 24 Great James Street in December 1922.[43] Only when she discovered her pregnancy in June 1923, White admitted to already being married.[44][45] What happened next could have been from one of Sayers' fictional works[46]: White told his wife Beatrice about the pregnancy the following morning and asked her for help with the birth. Mrs White agreed to meet Sayers in London. Together they went to White's flat (he was then living off Theobalds Road) and found him with another woman. Sayers: "He's like a child in a power house, starting off machinery regardless of results. No woman on earth could hold him". In exchange for the promise never to see White again, Mrs White invited Sayers to a guest house in her hometown of Southbourne during the last stages of pregnancy and arranged for her own brother, Dr Murray Wilson, to attend the birth at Tuckton Lodge, a nursing-home in Ilford Lane, Southbourne.[47] On 3 January 1924, at the age of 30, Sayers secretly gave birth to an illegitimate son, John Anthony (later surnamed Fleming)[48]. John Anthony, "Tony", was given into care with her aunt and cousin, Amy and Ivy Amy Shrimpton, and passed off as her nephew to family and friends.[49][50][51] Details of these circumstances were revealed in a letter from Mrs White to her daughter Valeria, Tony's half-sister, in 1958 after Sayers' death.[52]

Tony was raised by Amy and Ivy Amy Shrimpton and later was sent to a good boarding school. In 1935 he was legally adopted by Sayers and her then husband "Mac" Fleming. While still not revealing her identity as his mother, Sayers was constantly in contact with her son, provided him with good education and they maintained a close relationship.[53] John Anthony probably suspected Sayers' maternity since his youth but had proof only when he obtained his birth certificate applying for a passport. It is not known if he ever spoke to Sayers about the fact.[54] Much to Sayers's pride, Tony won a scholarship to Balliol College – the same Oxford college Sayers had chosen for Wimsey.

After publishing her first two detective novels, Sayers married Captain Oswald Atherton "Mac" Fleming, a Scottish journalist whose professional name was "Atherton Fleming".[55] The wedding took place on 8 April 1926 at Holborn Register Office, London. Fleming was divorced with two daughters.

Sayers and Fleming lived in the small flat at 24 Great James Street in Bloomsbury[56] that Sayers maintained for the rest of her life. Fleming worked as an author and journalist and Sayers as an advertising copywriter and author. Over time, Fleming's health worsened, largely due to his First World War service, and as a result he became unable to work.

Sayers was a 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 said he was unable to appreciate detective stories. J. R. R. Tolkien read some of the Wimsey novels but scorned the later ones, such as Gaudy Night.[57]

Fleming died on 9 June 1950, at Sunnyside Cottage (now 24 Newland Street), Witham, Essex, after a decade of severe illnesses. Sayers died suddenly of a coronary thrombosis[58] on 17 December 1957 at the same place, aged 64. Fleming's ashes were scattered in the churchyard at Biggar in Lanarkshire, centre of the Fleming ancestral lands.[59] Sayers'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 publicly revealed that her nephew, John Anthony, was her son; he was the sole beneficiary under his mother's will.

Anthony died on 26 November 1984 at age 60, in St. Francis's Hospital, Miami Beach, Florida. In 1991 his half-sister Valerie White tried to get to know Anthony and wrote him a letter about his parents' story, but was told by his publishers that he had already died.[60]


Some of the dialogue spoken by character Harriet Vane reveals Sayers poking fun at the mystery genre, even while adhering to various conventions.

Sayers's 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).

Sayers was a founder and early president of the Detection Club, an eclectic group of practitioners of the art of the detective novel in the so-called golden age, for whom she constructed an idiosyncratic induction ritual. The Club still exists and, according to P. D. James who was a long-standing member, still uses the ritual. In Sayers's day it was the custom of the members to publish collaborative detective novels, usually writing one chapter each without prior consultation. These works have not held the market, and have only rarely been in print since their first publication.

Her characters, and Sayers herself, have been placed in some other works, including:

Sayers Classical Academy in Louisville, Kentucky, is named after her.

Minor planet 3627 Sayers is named after her. The asteroid was discovered by Luboš Kohoutek, but the name suggested by Brian G. Marsden with whom Sayers consulted extensively during the last year of her life in her attempt to rehabilitate the Roman poet Lucan.[61]

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