Saturday, March 24, 2018

125 years!

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957)
Novelist, playwright, translator, Christian apologist

Dorothy Sayers grew up the daughter of a well-connected Anglican priest who was head of the choir school at Christ Church, Oxford, then moved through a series of comfortable preferments until Dorothy returned to Oxford to read at Somerville College. She excelled in her studies, finishing in 1915 without a degree, as the University- though allowing new women’s colleges to exist on the perimeters of the town- did not grant their graduates degrees until 1920. When the change came, Sayers was granted the MA.

She published the first of her eighty-plus works- a book of poems- in 1916, and in the interwar period moved in the Ezra Pound and Bloomsbury sets while working for a London advertising agency (among her ideas: the catch-phrase, “It pays to advertise!”). Around 1921 she started toying around with the idea for the first of eleven novels, and five collections of stories, featuring the aristocratic Lord Peter Wimsey and his antagonist-Watson-wife, the feminist novelist Harriet Vane.

The Wimsey saga gave Sayers a good living for twenty years. She landed square in the golden age of British detective fiction, gently satirizing the class system while playing up its potential for character development and marketing appeal with a highborn amateur detective. The younger son of the 15th Duke of Denver, Peter Wimsey was an impossible collection of superlatives: educated at Eton; a First at Balliol College, Oxford; star cricketer whose exploits for the Blues were remembered for decades; soldier, intelligence officer; expert on incunabula, food and wine, the Bach keyboard repertoire, men’s fashion, classical music, fancy cars, and the arts of poisoning. He was a well-publicized Lothario, despite a tendency to break down in bouts of PTSD and gabble like Bertie Wooster.

He fell for the cerebral, and rather offputting, murder mystery novelist Harriet Vane, while freelancing an investigation that produced her acquittal of murder (arriving from New York, with the key evidence, by the new and exciting possibility of transatlantic flight). Vane turned down his proposal, thinking indebtedness for one’s life a poor start for matrimony; it took a number of novels, and fifteen years, before they finally wed- in 1936. They went on to have three children before the last Wimsey story was published in 1942.

The Wimsey stories reflected Sayers’ interests and the issues of the day: the plight of World War I veterans; the ethics of the new advertising industry (Wimsey, going undercover in a London ad shop, comes up with an amazingly successful cigarette campaign); and women’s higher education, among others. She was a stickler for research and earned hailstorms of criticism from the likes of Edmund Wilson and Q.D. Leavis; indeed her works can leave one weary of the bales of information she shovels in about subjects ranging from codebreaking to church bell-ringing to the works of Sheridan Le Fanu to railway timetables to plein air painting to the advertising trade to how to put a man on trial in the House of Lords (Wimsey’s brother, the Duke of Denver, was accused of murdering their sister’s fiance). Oh, and the outlandish murder weapons- a dagger made of ice, the poisoning of dental fillings, to name but two. 

Offsetting this, Sayers offered clinically detailed murder victims, picturesque settings, and well-crafted plots and those won her the day. The Wimsey stories have been the grist for radio dramatizations, television series, and movies, all with poorly-cast leads (Ian Carmichael’s Wimsey was all Bertie Wooster; Edward Petherbridge’s a languid, Stracheyan- if straight- aesthete).

Wimsey was, for good and ill, a creature of the interwar period, and Sayers pretty much gave him up with the advent of the decade of crisis and atrocity in the late 1930s and early ‘40s. She turned to plays, translations (her Dante is still in print) and religious commentaries; C.S.Lewis admired her work. Hers was an Anglican orthodoxy skirting the religious views of Chesterton and Belloc. She died of a stroke at 64, leaving a son she had passed off as her nephew since his birth in 1924.

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