Monday, July 6, 2009

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957)

She is known to the public (if known by name at all) as the creator of a fictional detective, Lord Peter Whimsey. Most people of my generation encountered Whimsey on public TV in a series that featured several of Sayers’ novels. Whimsey was a member of the British nobility—and rich, Sayers once said, because she was so poor; so why not indulge herself and enjoy his wealth vicariously? Some of us went on to discover Sayers the writer curious what the original of those fun TV series sounded like in print. And a much smaller number, I assume, went beyond that and also discovered what might be called her contributions to the higher ranges of twentieth century culture. She contributed a new, true translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy; she was a leader in educational reform; she was a feminist but from a traditional perspective; an original thinker and able defender of traditional Anglicanism; Sayers, in short was a notable person. She is one of the people I value and admire. It is through the creative efforts of people like Dorothy Sayers that we shall sail through the storms of modernism into a new era of expanding hope with our values still intact.

Sayers was long a favorite of ours—and I’d read most of her novels—when I discovered the author’s higher registers, as it were, by an indirect route. Brigitte gave me Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence for Christmas in 2000. (“To my favorite historian with love, B”). This book, which I also highly recommend as a valuable orientation to modern life, covers cultural history from 1500 to 2000. Barzun’s approach is to tell the history and then to punctuate it with brief profiles of notable figures examined in some detail. The first three such figures are Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin (whose 500th anniversary is just four days away); others are not well known, like John Lilburne (a Puritan politician) and Joseph Glanvill (an early philosopher of science); many, of course, like Oliver Cromwell, Madame de Staël, and Oliver Wendell Holmes are readily recognized. I was thus surprised and delighted to encounter Dorothy Sayers’ name in a chapter entitled “The Artist Prophet and Jester” on page 741. Here I learned, for the first time, of Sayers’ book The Mind of the Maker and almost immediately bought it. Here is Barzun’s summary:

Its thesis is that ordinary experience of making anything—creating art or applying workmanship to any object—corresponds to the meanings symbolized by the Trinity. First comes the creative Idea, which foresees the whole work as finished. This is the Father. Next the creative Energy, which engages in a vigorous struggle with matter and overcomes one obstacle after another. This is the Son. Third is the creative Power of the work, its influence on the world through its effect on the soul of the user-beholder. This is the Holy Spirit. All three are indispensable to completeness as they unite in the work. [Barzun,p. 742]

Sayers was also a scholar of note, in possession of Latin, Greek, and French acquired during her education at Oxford. Her research suggested to her that she might be able to translate Dante. She set about learning Italian next and then tackled the job. She intended to reproduce Dante’s verse scheme, known as terza rima. This is a three-line form in which the first and third lines rhyme; the next tercet’s first line rhymes with the last one’s middle line. And so on it flows. Sayers translation attempts to stay true to the original. I’ll return to this in another post. She also tried to capture Dante’s humor and sarcasm. As Barzun points out, part of Dante’s purpose was to scourge his enemies and praise his friends.

Sayers completed Inferno, Purgatorio, and almost finished the last book too. But a woman’s work is never done. She died abruptly at age 64 and finished her labor, I assume, in Paradisio.


  1. Dorothy Sayers really does have some beautiful books; The Mind of the Maker is one of my favorites, and I like the humor of the essays in Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World. And her mystery stories often show a real inventiveness. One of my favorites is her short story, "The Inspiration of Mr Budd," in which the protagonist is just a very timid and ordinary hairdresser who manages to outsmart a brilliant criminal, and which avoids all the usual cliches of the mystery story.

    Her plays are excellent, too; The Zeal of Thy House has probably the best summary of the argument in The Mind of the Maker ever written, in the concluding speech by the Archangel Michael. And I love the characterization of Judas Iscariot in The Man Born to be King.

  2. Enjoyed your post on Sayers' views of Judas, something new for me. Thanks. Hope others will follow the link too. You commented recently on blogs with longevity, which Siris certainly has. You hide quite a few treasures, hidden by an absence of an index--which folks like us, from the reference publishing tribe, observe with head-shaking regret...

  3. "The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club" and "Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor".

    Two "unpleasantnesses" do indeed make a pleasure.

  4. Delighted to discover another reader of Stephanie Barron's fine books. That British understatement, with tongue in cheek, has always amused me--and here used by an American author who thoroughly grasps Austen's world.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.