About Dorothy L Sayers

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Dorothy Leigh Sayers was born at Oxford on 13th June 1893, the only child of the Rev. Henry Sayers, of Anglo-Irish descent. Her father was at the time headmaster of Christ Church Cathedral School, and she was born in the headmaster's house. She was brought up at Bluntisham Rectory, Cambridgeshire, and went to the Godolphin School, Salisbury, where she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford. In 1915 she graduated with first class honours in modern languages. Disliking the routine and seclusion of academic life she joined Blackwell's, the Oxford publishers, worked with her Oxford friend Eric Whelpton at L'École des Roches in Normandy, and from 1922 until 1929 served as copywriter at the London advertising firm of Bensons.

In 1923 she published her first novel, Whose Body, which introduced Lord Peter Wimsey, her hero for fourteen volumes of novels and short stories. She also wrote four other novels in collaboration and two serial stories for broadcasting. Writing full time she rose to be the doyen of crime writers and in due course president of the Detection Club. Her work, carefully researched and widely varied, included poetry, the editing of collections with her erudite introductions on the genre, and the translating of the Tristan of Thomas from mediaeval French. She admired E C Bentley and G K Chesterton and numbered among her friends T S Eliot, Charles Williams and C S Lewis.

 Sayers' house in Newland St, Witham, 1980

Sayers' house in Newland St, Witham, 1980

She married Arthur Fleming in 1926. In 1928 her father died at Christchurch in the Fens, his last parish, and she bought a cottage at Witham, Essex, to accommodate her mother. On the latter's death a year later she moved in herself and bought the house next door, No 22 Newland Street, to throw the two houses into one. There she worked until her death in 1957.

Gaudy Night was to be the culmination of the Wimsey saga, but her friend Muriel St Clare Byrne persuaded her to collaborate in putting Lord Peter on the stage in Busman's Honeymoon. The play was successfully launched in December 1936, and she gave up crime writing except for the book of the play and three short stories. With her new financial security she turned thankfully to the work for which she had been trained.

The stage fascinated her. She had already been asked to write a play, The Zeal of Thy House, for the Canterbury Festival. She followed this with six more, up to the Colchester Festival play, The Emperor Constantine in 1951. The most momentous was The Man Born to be King, written for broadcasting in children's hour at the request of the BBC. Her presentation of Christ's voice speaking modern English raised a storm of protest and revolutionised religious play-writing. Opposition stimulated her. She would never compromise where her art was concerned.

Her theology was traditionally Anglican with emphasis on doctrine. Every available moment of her time was spent writing, to the small hours of the morning. Letters, articles and essays streamed from her pen. The war led her to write Begin Here, followed by The Mind of the Maker, in which she compares the human with the Divine creator. She explored by-ways of knowledge, delighted in puzzles and enjoyed many a fight which she conducted with wit and good humour. Her formidable presence, magnificent brain and logical presentation put her in great demand as a lecturer. She worked with the Rev. Patrick McLaughlin at the St Anne's centre for Christian discourse and became in 1952 churchwarden of her London parish, St Thomas-cum-St Annes.

She found her culminating role after the war. Dante's writings had long intrigued her. Now she taught herself old Italian and made a translation in terza rima of The Divine Comedy unmatched for its popularity and the clarity of its notes. She also found time to finish her translation of the Song of Roland from the old French. But she unexpectedly died from heart failure on 17 December 1957 while engaged on Dante's third volume, Paradiso, and her friend Dr Barbara Reynolds completed her work.

To the end she drove herself hard, living the philosophy she expressed in these words:

"The only Christian work is good work, well done"

  Her Life and Soul  by Barbara Reynolds

Her Life and Soul by Barbara Reynolds

If you would like to read more about Dorothy L. Sayers, there is a number of biographies published, some of which focus on her life while others are literary biographies dealing with her work. Some of these are now out of print but secondhand copies can be found on the internet.

Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul by Barbara Reynolds

The Passionate Intellect: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Encounter with Dante by Barbara Reynolds

The Remarkable Case of Dorothy L. Sayers by Catherine Kenney

Dorothy L. Sayers: A Biography by James Brabazon

Such a Strange Lady: A Biography of Dorothy L. Sayers  by Janet Hitchman

Maker and Craftsman: The Story of Dorothy L. Sayers by Alzina Stone Dale

Dorothy L. Sayers: The Centenary Celebration edited by Alzina Stone Dale

Dorothy L. Sayers: A Careless Rage for Life by David Coomes

Dorothy L. Sayers: A Literary Biography by Ralph E. Hone

The Artist and the Trinity: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Theology of Work by Christine M. Fletcher

Dorothy L. Sayers: Solving the Mystery of Wickedness by Mitzi M Brunsdale

Writing Performances: The Stages of Dorothy L. Sayers by Crystal Downing

Dorothy L. Sayers: More than a Crime Fiction Writer by Sandra Percy