Dorothy L. Sayers

(1893 – 1957)

Dorothy L. SayersBiographical Sketch

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (Oxford, England, June 13, 1893 – Witham, Essex, England, December 17, 1957) was a renowned English crime writer, poet, playwright, essayist, translator and Christian humanist. She was also a student of classical and modern languages.

Sayers is best known for her mysteries, a series of novels and short stories set between the First and Second World Wars featuring English aristocrat and amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, which remain popular to this day. Even in her mysteries, however, Sayers did not content herself with writing pure detective stories; she explored the difficulties of First World War 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, which is set in a women’s college in Oxford modeled on that attended by Sayers herself, and where one of the teachers writes a book attacking the then still widely held doctrine of “Kinder, Kirche, Küche,” which restricted women’s roles to family activities. The book has therefore been described as the first feminist mystery novel.

Indeed, while Sayers herself shied from being labeled a feminist, the notion that men and women are fundamentally equal, and that individuals should be treated differently (if at all) only to the extent that such differentiation is warrented on the basis of their respective individual strengths and weaknesses – not on the basis of gender or similarly arbitrary group classifications – was central to her thinking and also finds repeated expression in her published work. This is true not only with regard to her novels, particularly the four Wimsey mysteries featuring Lord Peter’s love interest (and later: wife) Harriet Vane, a thinly-veiled alter ego of Sayers herself (i.e., the novels Strong Poison, Must Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon), but also in other writings, perhaps most poignantly the manuscripts of two lectures later collected in a slim volume poignantly entitled Are Women Human? and originally published as part of her collection of Unpopular Opinions (1947).

Her success as a mystery writer notwithstanding, Sayers personally considered her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy to be her best work. The boldly titled first part, Hell, appeared in 1949, as one of the recently introduced series of Penguin Classics. Purgatory followed in 1955. Unfinished at her death, the third volume (Paradise) was completed by Barbara Reynolds in 1962. On a line-by-line basis, Sayers’s translation of Dante’s work can seem idiosyncratic, which is the result of 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.” Sayers’s translation of the Divine Comedy is also notable for extensive notes at the end of each canto, explaining the theological meaning of what, in her introduction to Volume 1 (Hell) she calls “a great Christian allegory.”

Sayers is also known for her plays, literary criticism and essays. Her very influential essay The Lost Tools of Learning 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.

Sayers’s 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.

Read more about Dorothy L. Sayers on Wikipedia.

 

Major Awards and Honors

Dagger Awards
  • 1996: Rusty Dagger – “The Nine Taylors” (1930)

 

Bibliography

The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries
  • Whose Body? (1923)
  • Clouds of Witness (1926)
  • Unnatural Death (1927)
    A/K/A: The Dawson Pedigree
  • The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
  • Lord Peter Views the Body (1929)
    Short stories

    • The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will (1925)
    • The Entertaining Episode of The Article in Question (1925)
    • The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head (1926)
    • The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba (1928)
    • The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste (1929)
  • The Five Red Herrings (1931)
    A/K/A: Suspicious Characters
  • Murder Must Advertise (1933)
  • Hangman’s Holiday (1933)
    Short stories

    • The Poisoned Dow ’08
    • Sleuths on the Scent
    • Murder in the Morning
    • One Too Many
    • Murder at Pentecost
    • Maher-Shalal-Hashbaz
    • The Man Who Knew How (1932)
  • The Nine Tailors (1934)
  • Lord Peter (1938)
    Short stories

    • The Queen’s Square (1932)
    • Absolutely Elsewhere (1933)
    • The Haunted Policeman (1938)
  • In the Teeth of Evidence (1939)
    Short stories

    • A Shot at Goal
    • Dirt Cheap (1936)
    • Bitter Almonds (1939)
    • False Weight
    • The Professor’s Manuscript (1939)
    • The Inspiration of Mr. Budd (1926)
    • The Leopard Lady (1928)
    • Scrawns
    • The Milk Bottles (1932)
    • The Cyprian Cat (1933)
    • Dilemma (1934)
    • An Arrow O’er the House (1934)
    • Blood Sacrifice (1936)
The Lord Peter Wimsey / Harriet Vane Mysteries
Nonseries Fiction
  • The Documents in the Case (1930)
    – With Robert Eustace.
  • The Floating Admiral (1931)
    – With other members of the Detective Club.
  • Ask a Policeman (1933)
    – With other members of the Detective Club.
  • Six Against the Yard (1936)
    A/K/A: Six Against Scotland Yard
    – With other members of the Detective Club.
  • Double Death (1939)
    – With others.
  • Striding Folly (1973)
    – Short stories.
  • The Scoop, and Behind the Screen (1983)
    – With others.
  • Crime on the Coast, and No Flowers by Request (1984)
    – With others.
Anthologies
  • Catholic Tales and Christian Songs (1918)
  • Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror 1 (1928)
    – Editor.
  • Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror 2 (1929)
    – Editor.
  • Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror 3 (1934)
    – Editor.
Plays
  • Busman’s Honeymoon (1936)
    – With Muriel St. Clare Byrne.
  • The Zeal of Thy House (1937)
  • The Devil To Pay (1939)
  • Love All (1940)
  • He That Should Come (1940)
  • The Man Born To Be King (1942)
  • The Just Vengeance (1946)
  • Where Do We Go From Here? (1948)
  • The Emperor Constantine (1951)
Poetry
  • Opus I (1916)
  • The Poetry of Dorothy L. Sayers (1996)
Nonfiction
  • Begin Here (1940)
  • The Mind of the Maker (1941)
  • Even the Parrot (1944)
  • Unpopular Opinions (1946)
  • Creed Or Chaos (1947)
  • The Lost Tools of Learning (1948)
  • Introductory Papers On Dante (1954)
  • Further Papers On Dante (1957)
  • The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement (1963)
  • Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World (1969)
  • Are Women Human? (1971)
  • A Matter of Eternity (1973)
  • The Whimsical Christian (1987)
  • Dorothy L. Sayers: Spiritual Writings (1993)
  • The Letters of Dorothy L Sayers:
    • 1899 – 1936: The Making of a Detective Novelist (1996)
    • 1937 – 1943: From Novelist to Playwright (1997)
    • 1944 – 1950: A Noble Daring (1999)
    • 1951 – 1957: In the Midst of Life (2000)
Translations
  • Tristan in Brittany (1930)
    – From Medieval French.
  • The Song of Roland
    – From Medieval French.
  • The Divine Comedy (1949, 1955)
    – From Dante Alighieri.
    Left unfinished at Sayers’s death; last 13 cantos and notes and commentary to the Paradiso supplied by Barbara Reynolds (1962).
Wimsey / Vane Sequels by Jill Paton Walsh

– in part based on fragments left at Sayers’s death.

  • Thrones, Dominations (1998)
  • A Presumption of Death (2002)
  • The Attenbury Emeralds (2010)
  • The Late Scholar (2013)

 

A Selection of Quotes

Are Women Human?

“In reaction against the age-old slogan, “woman is the weaker vessel,” or the still more offensive, “woman is a divine creature,” we have, I think, allowed ourselves to drift into asserting that “a woman is as good as a man,” without always pausing to think what exactly we mean by that. What, I feel, we ought to mean is something so obvious that it is apt to escape attention altogether, viz: (…) that a woman is just as much an ordinary human being as a man, with the same individual preferences, and with just as much right to the tastes and preferences of an individual. What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.”

“What we ask is to be human individuals, however peculiar and unexpected. It is no good saying: “You are a little girl and therefore you ought to like dolls”; if the answer is, “But I don’t,” there is no more to be said.”

“It is extraordinarily entertaining to watch the historians of the past … entangling themselves in what they were pleased to call the “problem” of Queen Elizabeth. They invented the most complicated and astonishing reasons both for her success as a sovereign and for her tortuous matrimonial policy. She was the tool of Burleigh, she was the tool of Leicester, she was the fool of Essex; she was diseased, she was deformed, she was a man in disguise. She was a mystery, and must have some extraordinary solution. Only recently has it occrurred to a few enlightened people that the solution might be quite simple after all. She might be one of the rare people were born into the right job and put that job first.”

“A man once asked me … how I managed in my books to write such natural conversation between men when they were by themselves. Was I, by any chance, a member of a large, mixed family with a lot of male friends? I replied that, on the contrary, I was an only child and had practically never seen or spoken to any men of my own age till I was about twenty-five. “Well,” said the man, “I shouldn’t have expected a woman (meaning me) to have been able to make it so convincing.” I replied that I had coped with this difficult problem by making my men talk, as far as possible, like ordinary human beings. This aspect of the matter seemed to surprise the other speaker; he said no more, but took it away to chew it over. One of these days it may quite likely occur to him that women, as well as men, when left to themselves, talk very much like human beings also.”

“Now, it is frequently asserted that, with women, the job does not come first. What (people cry) are women doing with this liberty of theirs? What woman really prefers a job to a home and family? Very few, I admit. It is unfortunate that they should so often have to make the choice. A man does not, as a rule, have to choose. He gets both. Nevertheless, there have been women … who had the choice, and chose the job and made a success of it. And there have been and are many men who have sacrificed their careers for women … When it comes to a choice, then every man or woman has to choose as an individual human being, and, like a human being, take the consequences.”

“In fact, there is perhaps only one human being in a thousand who is passionately interested in his job for the job’s sake. The difference is that if that one person in a thousand is a man, we say, simply, that he is passionately keen on his job; if she is a woman, we say she is a freak.”

“Once lay down the rule that the job comes first and you throw that job open to every individual, man or woman, fat or thin, tall or short, ugly or beautiful, who is able to do that job better than the rest of the world.”

“We are much too much inclined in these days to divide people into permanent categories, forgetting that a category only exists for its special purpose and must be forgotten as soon as that purpose is served.”

Whose Body?

“You’re thinking that people don’t keep up old jealousies for twenty years or so. Perhaps not. Not just primitive, brute jealousy. That means a word and a blow. But the thing that rankles is hurt vanity. That sticks. Humiliation. And we’ve all got a sore spot we don’t like to have touched.”

Strong Poison

“Do you know how to pick a lock?”
“Not in the least, I’m afraid.”
“I often wonder what we go to school for,” said Wimsey.”

“There is something about wills which brings out the worst side of human nature. People who under ordinary circumstances are perfectly upright and amiable, go as curly as corkscrews and foam at the mouth, whenever they hear the words ‘I devise and bequeath.”

“There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.”

“Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be.”

[One character on another:]
“Don’t you know that I passionately dote on every chin on his face?”

“Salcombe Hardy groaned: “How long, O Lord, how long shall we have to listen to all this tripe about commercial arsenic? Murderers learn it now at their mother’s knee.”

“Parker looked distressed. He had confidence in Wimsey’s judgment, and, in spite of his own interior certainty, he felt shaken.
“My dear man, where’s the flaw in [this case]?”
“There isn’t one … There’s nothing wrong about it at all, except that the girl’s innocent.”

Have His Carcase

“Listen, Harriet. I do unterstand. I know you don’t want either to give or to take … You don’t want ever again to have to depend for happiness on another person.”
“That’s true. That’s the truest thing you ever said.”
“All right. I can respect that. Only you’ve got to play the game. Don’t force an emotional situation and then blame me for it.”
“But I don’t want any situation. I want to be left in peace.”

“Peter! Were you looking for a horse-shoe?”
“No; I was expecting the horse, but the shoe is a piece of pure, gorgeous luck.”
“And observation. I found it.”
“You did. And I could kiss you for it. You need not shrink and tremble. I am not going to do it. When I kiss you, it will be an important event – one of those things which stand out among their surroundings like the first time you tasted li-chee. It will not be an unimportant sideshow attached to a detective investigation.”

“Harriet was silent. She suddenly saw Wimsey in a new light. She knew him to be intelligent, clean, courteous, wealthy, well-read, amusing and enamoured, but he had not so far produced in her that crushing sense of utter inferiority which leads to prostration and hero-worship. But she now realised that there was, after all, something god-like about him. He could control a horse.”

Gaudy Night

“Wherever you find a great man, you will find a great mother or a great wife standing behind him – or so they used to say. It would be interesting to know how many great women have had great fathers and husbands behind them.”

“The rule seemed to be that a great woman must either die unwed … or find a still greater man to marry her. … The great man, on the other hand, could marry where he liked, not being restricted to great women; indeed, it was often found sweet and commendable in him to choose a woman of no sort of greatness at all.”

“A marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences seems to me reckless to the point of insanity.”

“What’ll Geoffrey do when you pull off your First, my child?” demanded Miss Haydock.
“Well, Eve – it will be awkward if I do that. Poor lamb! I shall have to make him believe I only did it by looking fragile and pathetic at the viva.”

“I imagine you come across a number of people who are disconcerted by the difference between what you do feel and what they fancy you ought to feel. It is fatal to pay the smallest attention to them.”

“He was being about as protective as a can-opener.”

“The only ethical principle which has made science possible is that the truth shall be told all the time. If we do not penalize false statements made in error, we open up the way for false statements by intention. And a false statement of fact, made deliberately, is the most serious crime a scientist can commit.”

“If it ever occurs to people to value the honour of the mind equally with the honour of the body, we shall get a social revolution of a quite unparalleled sort.”

“You’d think (losing his job and degree for having made false claims as a researcher) would be a lesson to him,” said Miss Hillyard. “It didn’t pay, did it? Say he sacrificed his professional honour for the women and children we hear so much about – but in the end it left him worse of.”
But that,” said Peter, “was only because he committed the extra sin of being found out.”

“Some people’s blameless lives are to blame for a good deal.”

“A facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought.”

“He had the appeal of a very young dog of a very large breed – a kind of amiable absurdity.”

Busman’s Honeymoon

“He remembered having said to his uncle (with a solemn dogmatism better befitting a much younger man): “Surely it is possible to love with the head as well as the heart.” Mr. Delagardie had replied, somewhat drily: “No doubt; so long as you do not end by thinking with your entrails instead of your brain.”

“For God’s sake, let’s take the word ‘possess’ and put a brick round its neck and drown it … We can’t possess one another. We can only give and hazard all we have.”

“My husband would do anything for me …’ It’s degrading. No human being ought to have such power over another.”
“It’s a very real power, Harriet.”
“Then … we won’t use it. If we disagree, we’ll fight it out like gentlemen. We won’t stand for matrimonial blackmail.”

“But that’s men all over … Poor dears, they can’t help it. They haven’t got logical minds.”

“Experience has taught me,” said Peter (…) “that no situation finds Bunter unprepared. That he should have procured The Times this morning by the simple expedient of asking the milkman to request the postmistress to telephone to Broxford and have it handed to the ‘bus-conductor to be dropped at the post-office and brought up by the little girl who delivers the telegrams is a trifling example of his resourceful energy.”

“Heaven deliver us, what’s a poet? Something that can’t go to bed without making a song about it.”

The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: 1899 – 1936: The Making of a Detective Novelist

“People who prefer to believe the worst of others will breed war and religious persecutions while the world lasts.”

“[I]t’s difficult to make people see that what you have been taught counts for nothing, and that the only things worth having are the things you find out for yourself. Also, that when so many brands of what Chesterton calls ‘fancy souls’ and theories of life are offered you, there is no sense in not looking pretty carefully to see what you are going in for. […] It isn’t a case of ‘Here is the Christian religion, the one authoritative and respectable rule of life. Take it or leave it’. It’s ‘Here’s a muddling kind of affair called Life, and here are nineteen or twenty different explanations of it, all supported by people whose opinions are not to be sneezed at. Among them is the Christian religion in which you happpen to have been brought up. Your friend so-and-so has been brought up in quite a different way of thinking; is a perfectly splendid person and thoroughly happy. What are you going to do about it?’ – I’m worrying it out quietly, and whatever I get hold of will be valuable, because I’ve got it for myself; but really, you know, the whole question is not as simple as it looks.”

“[W]hen I see men callously and cheerfully denying women the full use of their bodies, while insisting with sobs and howls on the satisfaction of their own, I simply can’t find it heroic, or kind, or anything but pretty rotten and feeble.”

[On marriage and permanent attachment:]
“Well, well – the prizes all go to the women who ‘play their cards well’ – but if they can only be won in that way, I would rather lose the game … [C]lever [women] bide their time – make themselves indispensable first, and then se font prier [=play hard to get]. Clever – but I can’t do it.”

“But – my dear, my heart is BROKEN! I have seen the perfect Peter Wimsey. Height, voice, charm, smile, manner, outline of features, everything – and he is – THE CHAPLAIN OF BALLIOL!! What is the use of anything? …
I am absolutely shattered by this Balliol business. Such waste – why couldn’t he have been an actor?”

“To make a deliberate falsification for personal gain is the last, worst depth to which either scholar or artist can descend in work or life.”
[Letter to Muriel St. Clare Byrne (8 September 1935).]

“[O]ne can scarcely be frightened off writing what one wants to write for fear an obscure reviewer should patronise one on that account.”

“See that the mind is honest, first; the rest may follow or not as God wills. [That] the fundamental treason to the mind … is the one fundamental treason which the scholar’s mind must not allow is the bond uniting all the Oxford people in the last resort.”

“The one thing which seems to me quite impossible is to take into consideration the kind of book one is expected to write; surely one can only write the book that is there to be written.”
[Letter to Muriel St. Clare Byrne (8 September 1935).]

“[N]othing about a book is so unmistakable and so irreplaceable as the stamp of the cultured mind. I don’t care what the story is about or what may be the momentary craze for books that appear to have been hammered out by the village blacksmith in a state of intoxication; the minute you get the easy touch of the real craftsman with centuries of civilisation behind him, you get literature.”

“[T]he more clamour we make about ‘the women’s point of view’, the more we rub it into people that the women’s point of view is different, and frankly I do not think it is – at least in my job. The line I always want to take is, that there is the ‘point of view’ of the reasonably enlightened human brain, and that this is the aspect of the matter which I am best fitted to uphold.”

Find more quotes by Dorothy L. Sayers on Wikiquote and Goodreads.

 

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