Not Wimsical

Dorothy L. Sayers did more in her life than just create the aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey. In addition to writing the Wimsey novels and short stories, she was one of the first female graduates of Oxford, a translator of Dante, a poet and a Christian apologist whose reputation at the time rivaled that of C.S. Lewis.

sayersmugHer longtime friend, Barbara Reynolds, draws on her memories of the woman as well as her voluminous correspondence and has written a lively account of Sayers’ life.

Those who admire the Wimsey novels will find their enjoyment heightened after reading this book. As I found in researching the “Annotating Wimsey” section of my Web site, Sayers flooded her work with literary, historical and social references that represented the best of her education as well as her interests in the murderous and the macabre: Shakespeare, John Donne, Greek mythology, contemporary English music-hall acts, Gilbert & Sullivan, notorious 19th-century murders and snippets of classical Greek and Latin. To write “The Nine Tailors,” which featured a church and its bell-ringers, Sayers spent two years studying campanology, and had to endure, she wrote, “incalculable hours spent in writing out sheets and sheets of changes, until I could do any method accurately in my head. Also, I had to visualize, from the pages of instructions to ringers, both what it looked like and what it felt like to handle a bell and to acquire ‘rope-sight.'” After the novel was published, she thought she had been caught out on only three small technical errors, but did well enough to be asked to serve as vice-president of the Campanological Society of Great Britain.

But the books also contain much of Sayers herself. Obviously, Sayers’ alter ego was expressed in the character of Harriet Vane, the mystery writer she put on trial for murder in “Strong Poison,” who was romanced by Peter in “Gaudy Night,” and who married him in “Busman’s Honeymoon.” But Sayers also drew on her life experiences and her interests. “Gaudy Night” reflected her experiences at Oxford, her desire to live the scholarly life and the importance of intellectual achievement, while the parsonage she vividly recreated in “The Nine Tailors” was drawn from her childhood memories, and the gentle churchly Rev. Thomas Venables was modeled on her parson father.

Christianity played a great role in Sayers’ life from the start, and the success of the Wimsey novels enabled her to shelve the detective and turn to writing plays and books that expounded the doctrine of the Church of England in laymen’s terms. In this, she was enormously successful, and even sparked a ruckus when one of her plays featured the disciples talking in modern slang, predating the uproar over “Jesus Christ Superstar” by three decades.

Reynolds also tells the story of the illegitimate child Sayers bore. While it would be easy to condemn her for turning the boy over to a cousin to raise, Reynolds also made clear that Sayers did it to protect her parents, who she thought would be terribly hurt by her misjudgment. Considering that she visited and paid for his upkeep and education, and told him the whole story when he was an adult, it seems to have been the best of all possible choices.

The pleasure of meeting Miss Sayers can only be increased by looking into her letters, which have been published in several volumes. From the first, Sayers seems to have been bright, precocious and determined to make her own way, and it’s a pleasure to see in Reynolds’ biography that she did so splendidly.