Dorothy L. Sayers

Thursday Oct 29 2009
by J. M. Bumsted

Dorothy L. (the L. stands for Leigh, and Dorothy insisted on its inclusion in her name) Sayers was born on 13 June 1893 in Oxford, England.  Her father the Reverend Henry Sayers ,a fine classical scholar and a superb musician, was Headmaster of Christ Church Cathedral Choir School at the time of Dorothy’s birth.  Like all the Queens of Crime (the first generation of female writers of crime fiction in England), she was much more influenced by her father than by her mother.  When Dorothy was four, the family moved to the Fen Country in the east of England.  The Reverend Sayers became vicar of a very rich living at Bluntisham, with a huge vicarage that housed his extended family.   Henry Sayers was accustomed to dealing with boys, and he dealt with Dorothy as if she were one as well.  Since she was extremely prodigious, she prospered under her father’s tutelage.  By the time she was fifteen, she spoke flawless French and Latin, as well as German and, of course, English.  She was a voracious and omnivorous reader and an accomplished musician (on the violin) as well.  Her parents proved unable to control her as she reached adolescence, and sent her to boarding school at the age of fifteen, where she prepared for university, entering Somerville College at Oxford in 1912. Somerville was a lady’s college, administered like every other Oxford College, although without degree granting privileges until 1920.  Dorothy apparently flourished at Somerville, despite being unusually tall and having to wear a wig (measles had taken all her hair) and very strong glasses.  She was in residence at Oxford during the first years of the Great War, when most of the university’s young men went off to the trenches.  Dorothy taught school for several years after finishing her studies, while her family moved deeper into the Fens at Christchurch, which provided the background for The Nine Tailors.  She published several books of poetry, worked for Basil Blackwell in Oxford, spent some time in France as secretary to a school there, and sometime at home with her parents, before in 1921 joining Benson’s advertising agency in London as a copywriter.  This job would provide the background for her novel, Murder Must Advertise.  

Dorothy L. Sayers in 1921 was nearly thirty years of age, physically very large, awkward and plain and rather tall.  She was not totally inexperienced with the opposite sex, but she had enjoyed few triumphs.  Before joining Benson’s Dorothy had completed the draft of a crime novel , which she called Whose Body?  It starred as detective a young and somewhat supercilious nobleman, the younger brother of the Duke of Denver.   Like others of his generation, Lord Peter Wimsey had been physically and emotionally scarred on the battlefields of Europe, but underneath he was a typical Clubland Hero of the sort created by Dornford Yates and John Buchan.  Wimsey came with a pretty fully articulated entourage: a manservant named Bunter who was paid L200 a year, a friend who was a Scotland Yard detective (and who would marry Wimsey’s sister), a Dowager Duchess mother, and a brother with little sensitivity.  The only accoutrement missing was a girlfriend, and she would not arrive for a number of years.  Dorothy successfully published Whose Body? and a far superior follow up, Clouds of Witness, in which Wimsey’s elder brother is accused of murder and is tried by a jury of his peers in the House of Lords, and then took leave-of-absence from Benson’s to have a baby.  Early in 1924 she gave birth to a child, whom she passed over to a cousin to raise while assuming full financial responsibility.  Only later would she acknowledge her parentage.  Such an arrangement was not uncommon at the time.

In 1926 Dorothy married Captain Oswald Atherton “Mac” Fleming, a war veteran who worked as a journalist and soon suffered il health because of his military service.  Sayers wrote a number of highly successful but undistinguished Wimsey novels in the later 1920s.  In 1930, she experimented with a crime novel consisting entirely of documents, and she introduced in Strong Poison a female love interest in novelist Harriet Vane, who is accused of murdering her lover and is gotten off by Wimsey while falling in love with her.  Vane is probably Sayers' alter ego, and their relationship features in several later novels, although not in her most ambitious ones, Murder Must Advertise, The Nine Tailors, and Gaudy Night.  (Wimsey makes an appearance in the last, but is not very important).  By the late 1930s Sayers was at the top of her form, but clearly tired of crime fiction.  She began moving in other directions, chiefly religious drama, radio scripting, and poetry translations, especially of Dante.

Sayers has been heavily criticized on a number of grounds, including anti-semitism, and idealization of her characters, as well as for a literary ambition that some critics found unseemly in crime fiction.  But her most ambitious crime novels have stood the test of time much better than the reputations of those who have criticized her.  In recent years there has been a great deal of interest in both her life and works by the academic establishment.



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