Mystery writer and apologist
“Man is never truly himself except when he is actively creating something.”
She was summarizing a story others had criticized as dull: “So that is the outline of the official story—the talk of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when he submitted to the conditions he had laid down and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him.”
As if she hadn’t already made the point, Dorothy Sayers continued: “This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.”
You can almost hear the pause after the period; then she concludes, “If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting?”
Sayers never found Christianity, nor life itself, dull. This type of passionate argument, usually accompanied by pointed humor, was typical for Sayers, as was passionate living. It seemed no matter what she put her hand to, it became a success; we can be thankful that Christian apologetics was one of her many passions.
Author of mysteries
She was born at Oxford, the only child of the Rev. Henry Sayers. She won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, and in 1915 graduated with first class honors in modern languages.
The routine and isolation of academia hardly appealed to her, so she joined Blackwell’s, the Oxford publishers, and then became a copywriter at Bensons, a London advertising firm. She struck gold right way, being largely responsible for a successful national campaign for Colman’s mustard; she held the public’s interest in the product by telling stories about the members of the imaginary Mustard Club (like Lord Bacon and Cookham, and Lady Hearty).
While at Bensons, Whose Body?, the first of her world-famous “Lord Peter Wimsey” detective novels, was published. Wimsey, with his signature monocle and “foppish” air, worked with his friend Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard to solve cases usually involving relatives or close friends. Sayers became known for using the techniques of fine novels in the popular genre of detective writing (at least one scholar has compared her fiction writing to that of Jane Austen). All told, Sayers published 12 detective novels between 1923 and 1937, several of which have become international classics.
And this all happened in an era before the writing of mysteries was considered a woman’s domain. Sayers, however, did it because, frankly, she was broke and she found the genre fascinating—not because she was trying to prove anything: “It is ridiculous to take on a man’s job in order to be able to say that ‘a woman had done it—yah!'” she once wrote. “The only decent reason for tackling a job is that it is your job, and you want to do it.”
The religious writer
Unfortunately, her private life was not always as successful as her public one. She fell in love with a young intellectual, who rejected her when she refused to sleep with him. On the rebound, she became sexually involved with a car salesman and got pregnant. The birth and upbringing of the boy (by a relative at first) remained a secret until 1975. Two years after her son’s birth, she married the divorced Oswald Antony Fleming, who eventually adopted the boy.
Ironically, it was after a moral failure that her life as a religious writer blossomed. In 1937 she was asked to write a play for the Canterbury Festival. This play, The Zeal of Thy House, was followed by a series of BBC radio plays titled The Man Born to Be King. Then followed a series of essays and books on specifically Christian themes, including Begin Here, The Mind of the Maker, and Creed or Chaos?, which quickly established her as one of the foremost Christian apologists of her generation.
She wrote in terms that were at once uncompromising, learned, and humorous. Concerning the problem of evil, one of the thorniest theological dilemmas, for example, she refused to get swallowed up in vague abstractions:
‘”Why doesn’t God smite this dictator dead?’ is a question a little remote from us,” says one of the characters in The Man Born to Be King. “Why, madam, did he not strike you dumb and imbecile before you uttered that baseless and unkind slander the day before yesterday? Or me, before I behaved with such cruel lack of consideration to that well-meaning friend? And why, sir, did he not cause your hand to rot off at the wrist before you signed your name to that dirty little bit of financial trickery?”
Though she ardently defended the church, she was not blind to its shortcomings nor afraid to poke fun at it when it became merely moralistic or institutional: “The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter,” she wrote in Creed or Chaos?, “is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”
Mesmerized with Dante
“Man is never truly himself except when he is actively creating something,” she once wrote, and all her life she was driven to create. At age 51, she picked up Dante’s Divine Comedy for the first time, and she became mesmerized: “I bolted my meals, neglected my sleep, work, and correspondence, drove my friends crazy…,” she wrote “until I had panted my way through the Three Realms of the Dead from top to bottom and from bottom to top.”
What she discovered, she said, was that Dante “was not grim and austere, but sweet and companionable… an affable archangel… [and] that he was a very great comic writer—which is quite the last thing one would ever have inferred from the things people say in their books.”
She decided that one of her last efforts would be a fresh translation of Dante to help more readers delight in his great work. Her translation was immediately criticized by scholars who felt Sayers was dabbling in areas beyond her expertise, but the translation remains in print and is, according to one 1992 biography, “the most influential and popular translation on the market.”
In her lifetime, she counted among her friends T.S. Eliot, Charles Williams, and C.S. Lewis, and after her death, she still holds the devotion of millions of mystery fans, as well as Christians who want the faith explained with energy, reason, and a twinkle in the eye.
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