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The Inkling Who Wasn’t There: Dorothy L. Sayers

The Inkling Who Wasn’t There: Dorothy L. Sayers

Let us sprinkle a little laudation over Dorothy L. Sayers.

A thorough thinker, and a careful writer, she is now mostly remembered for her detective novels, and as a satellite to the Inklings, that group of Oxford writers that included  J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and others.

This seems a little unfair: Tolkien has had five movies generated from his work. C.S. Lewis has had three (the last one very bad) and two biopics. Sayers shows up on Mystery Theater. But perhaps she would not have minded.

Born in 1893, the only child of an Anglican clergyman, Dorothy Leigh Sayers studied Medieval literature at Oxford (on a scholarship), taught school, and, from 1922 to 1931, worked at S.H. Benson’s advertising agency as copywriter where, according to all reports, she was a great success.

In 1923 she published her first mystery, introducing Lord Peter Wimsey. After 1931, she supported herself, and her husband, with her writing.

Aside from her mysteries, three titles stand out: The Mind of the Maker, a book; “The Lost Tools of Learning”, an essay; and a translation of the Divine Comedy. She died in 1957.

Along the way, in 1924, at age thirty, she had an son out-of-wedlock. She acted with characteristic purpose: the child was given into the charge of an aunt, and raised as her nephew.

Thus much the facts. She knew the members of the Inklings circle, and they knew her, but clearly Sayers was an outsider. She was a woman, an educated woman, and a married woman. And she was in no way diffident.

More than that, however, Sayers–unlike Lewis and Tolkien–lived by her pen. Tolkien and Lewis held academic positions and wrote on the side. Williams worked for the Oxford Press. But Sayers, as a copywriter and as a free-lance writer, had to please the crowd or starve. It was the same terms-of-contract under which Shakespeare operated.

About the Wimsey novels opinion is divided. Those who like “Downton Abbey” like Peter Wimsey (the country houses! the antique cars! the servants! Caucasian servants!! ) On the other hand many people find Lord Peter a pain, and his girlfriend, Harriet Vane (modelled clearly on Sayers herself) insufferable. The stories do deserve good marks, however, for a serious moral tone and for psychological and social acuteness. There is a real sense of hurt; it is not a play of cardboard figures butchering other cardboard figures and isn’t it all very jolly.

No, no, they do but jest, poison in jest, no offence i’ th’ world.

Ethics and consequences were central to Sayers. Equally, the novels are still in print, and producing income and that would have pleased her even more.

The three works we mentioned earlier each rise out of Sayer’s character and experience.

She took pride in applying her creativity with craftsmanship. The thesis of The Mind of the Maker is that an analogy can be drawn between the Persons of the Trinity and phases of the creative process. To wit, The Father corresponds to the idea, The Son to the implementation, and The Spirit to the communication between the idea and its realization.

Mention that in your next creative writing workshop!

Sayers develops this theme in considerable detail and with a wealth of examples, from literature and from her own experience. Whether or not the reader accepts the thesis, the author deserves high marks for trying to relate a deep theological dogma to practical consequences in the day to day work of composition. Augustine illustrated the Trinity as reflected in homo intelligens. Sayers sees the Trinity instanced in homo faber. It is a bold achievement.

In “The Lost Tools of Learning,” from 1948, Sayers proposes that the educational schema for young people be reformed to bring it into line with . . . the 12th century.


Sayers posits in a child’s growth a memory stage, from age 8 to 11, an argumentative state from 12 to 14, and a period of first self expression from about 15 to 16.

Let the memory stage, which Sayers calls the Grammar stage, be dedicated to filling the child with a basic store of information about the world; in the argumentative stage we should train the child in logic and dialectic; in the third stage, information and reasoning ability should be brought together in rhetoric.

What about science and mathematics? Sayers does not go into this a lot, but presumably the facts of science would be taught in the memory stage and scientific method in parallel to grammar. Mathematics might follow the same road.

The idea of educating a child by the methods of the eleven hundreds has a certain piquancy. How the local school board would react is of course another question. The plan might work, but do we really want a class of 13 year olds well armed with facts and able to reason effectively? Not a few people do like the notion, however; the essay has been widely read and there is now something called the Classical Christian Education movement.

The third work we would like to touch on is the translation of the Divine Comedy (actually the first two parts–the translation was completed by Barbara Reynolds) with a detailed and lively commentary. This appeared originally in Penguin Classics.

There have been many many translations of the Divine Comedy, and not a few learned commentaries. But as first meeting with Dante, we cannot think of any translation more pleasurable nor any commentary more edifying, and more pointed. If we wanted to convince a teenager to try Dante, this is what we would give her (or him). Here are the opening lines:

Midway this way of life we’re bound upon

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

Ay me! how hard to speak of it–that rude

And rough and stubborn forest! the mere breath

Of memory stirs the old fear in the blood;

It is so bitter, it goes nigh to death . . .

Everything in Sayers comes together in this translation: her ability as a poet (which was modest) and her experience as a practical entertainer (which was considerable), her education in matters Medieval, and long meditation on morality and its foundation, religion. In general, the commentary is better than the translation itself. That’s all right. Dante didn’t much care for translations himself. But the commentary rocks. Here is part of her note on the famous passage in Hell, on Paolo and Francesca di Rimini:

“As the lovers drifted into self-indulgence and were carried away by their passion, so now they drift for ever. The bright, voluptuous sin is now seen as it is  a howling darkness of helpless discomfort . . .”

Tender and beautiful as Dante’s handling of Francesca is, he has sketched her with a deadly accuracy. All the good is there; the charm, the courtesy, the instant response to affection, the graceful eagerness to please; but also all the evil; the easy yielding, the inability to say No, the intense self-pity.

This sort of thing comes of not only taking Dante seriously, but taking his message seriously as well. This does not always happen in the literary criticism business. Your columnist met this translation and commentary as a young man, and we still take volume two, Purgatory, with us on trips to remind us of what a really difficult trip would be like.

So there is Dorothy Leigh Sayers in brief. Honor to her memory. But what is to be our working policy on this author? How do we file her in memory for reference and use?

She represents a unique overlap in the Venn diagrams of the era, the only writer of that period who was a Christian and a woman and a mother and a scholar of broad experience and a popular writer and an independent operator. A person like that is bound to notice things and Sayers saw a lot that the other Inklings missed and knew it.

We wouldn’t be surprised if Lewis and company found her a little alarming.

Max ArnottMax Arnott

Max Arnott

Max Arnott is an independent scholar living in Toronto and has been a reader of Voegelin for many years.

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