Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies

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3 Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy Leigh Sayers was born in 1893 in Oxford to Helen Mary Sayers and Rev. Henry Sayers, who was a director of Christchurch Cathedral Choir School at the time. The family later moved to less prestigious places, where Sayers felt isolated and did not have many friends of her own age. As Williams points out, “her most intense relationships were with books, not people” (80). She studied languages quite easily, even at a young age; mostly learning Latin and French under the supervision of her father and governess. She said that the knowledge of Latin could be very useful for her and would place her in a superior position compared to her mother and aunt (Hitchman 9). This displays her early pro-feminist views which she developed in later years and reflected in some of her works.

3.1 Education, Jobs, Relationships

Sayers started her official education at a boarding school in Salisbury, where she excelled in the academic part of her life, and was appointed a house prefect, but was not very popular among other students for not having enough social skills. Her incredible talent for languages was appreciated when she started studying medieval literature and modern languages at the Oxford women’s college in Sommerville after winning a scholarship in 1912. There had extraordinary academic results, graduating “as first woman with first class honours in modern languages” in 1915 (Göpffarth 4). Only a year after that she got her first poetry volume, called OP I (1916), published. In 1920, Sayers also became one of the first women to be granted an M.A. degree. McGregor and Lewis comment on her abilities with language:

At Oxford, Sayers received an unparalleled education in language and never betrayed its dictums. She loved to play with language and to experiment with idiom, with point of view, and with the problem of revealing a character’s thoughts in contrast to his or her expressed words. (7)

After her studies she became a teacher in Hull, but this work was not satisfying for her, so she continued writing poetry, mostly influenced by her religious upbringing. She was raised in the traditionally Anglican church with emphasis on doctrine. In her adolescence, though still a member of the Church of England, she adopted “her own unconventional way” of religion; she saw Christianity as “a dramatic, exciting world-view, but not a tame and pious one” (Williams 81).

After teaching she joined Blackwell’s, a publishing company in Oxford, and later tried out copywriting in an advertising agency, Benson's, in London, providing her with useful experience of advertising, which she used in one of her most famous mysteries, Murder Must Advertise
. She stayed at the agency for seven years and enjoyed the job, however according to Williams, a character most resembling herself in Murder Must Advertise does not present the job as something she would consider appropriate: “My sort make nothing. We exploit other people’s folly, take the cash and sneer at the folly. It’s not admirable” (83). During the time working there she published her first novel, Whose Body?, where she introduced her distinguished character of Lord Peter Wimsey.

She had a few relationships with men, one of them being a writer John Cournos, who, however, refused to commit to marriage, so Sayers decided to end it. Afterwards she had a short affair with a motorcyclist, Bill White, even though she was primarily interested in serious commitments. An illegitimate son Anthony was born out of this relationship in 1924, but she kept her pregnancy a secret and let her cousin, Ivy Shrimpton, bring him up, however, Liukkonen indicates that Sayers was very interested in his life and adopted him informally with her husband later. Still, but it was never officially known he was her son; this fact was revealed only sixteen years after her death (Williams 82).

In 1926 Sayers got married to a journalist, Captain Oswald Arthur ‘Mac’ Fleming in a registry office, because of Mac’s previous divorce, restraining herself from her religious principles. After some years, Mac became unable to work properly because of his injuries from the war. Moreover, he grew jealous of his wife’s growing popularity, causing him to drink a lot. She claims none of the men in her life gave her inspiration while creating Wimsey, although readers and scholars tend to find a connection between the fictional character and her close friend from Oxford, Eric Whelpton. In 1957, Sayers died unexpectedly of a heart failure.

3.2 Writing Career and Wimsey Novels

During her life, Dorothy L. Sayers was always very close to literature, both reading and writing. Hitchman points out that “she had read every book in the house, as well as the novelettes and adventure stories borrowed from the servants” (11). When it comes to writing, she started off with poetry even before starting school; however, she became most well-known for her mystery thriller novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. After the first book of the series, Whose Body?, she published 10 more novels and 21 short stories where this exceptional amateur sleuth of aristocratic origin solved a number of the most baffling mysteries. Many literary critics agree that these novels are much more interesting than the short stories, causing them also to be more memorable. “Knowing that the English love lord, she created a titled sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, although she had absolutely no personal experience of aristocrats”, considering that she herself came from a middle-class family (Williams 81). Additionally, as mentioned earlier, she is also considered having early pro-feminist views, which could also have lead her into making Lord Peter such a gentleman, who is generally considerate of women.

All her novels are written in the time between the two world wars, and her professional life was influenced by the First World War more than the personal one; after having lost her job in 1919, she decided to write thrillers to make some money, heavily influenced by G.K. Chesterton and his writing. Later in her life, she moved to France after the First World War to work there for a year. McGregor and Lewis see her presence in France as an “escape from the bonds of Victorian gender roles: she was unescorted, working assistant to a young scholar whom she wished to love” (1). Another important writer who served as an example to Sayers was Wilkie Collins; she believed he was able to make the detective novels also novels of manners. As she “was frustrated with the formulaic nature of the detective novel and its detachment from reality” (Connelly 36), she also tried to follow Collins in accomplishing this in her writing, combining the entertaining factor of the stories with creating solid individualities. She was then able to create plots which would “reflect the real world, however romantically she distorted it” (McManis 329), making this her distinguishing writing style. Molander claims, that while writing, she tried to let “real human beings into a detective story”, though it was not a simple task. (41)

Her debut among detective novels, for instance, although being constructed as a standard puzzle, also contains interesting characters, giving the reader a notion of some social issues in England at the time. James comments on these social and economic changes after the First World War: “These included the growth of circulating libraries”, also “greater leisure, particularly for women, a larger educated reading public which demanded books which were exciting and entertaining, and an increase in general prosperity” which made the “affordable forms of escapist literature” very popular among people at the time (6). The structure of Sayers’s typical novel then also contains lengthy speculations and challenges the reader, as both of the novels explored testify. Sometimes the “attention to the nuances of behavior” would be so strong that the reader of Sayers’s novels wasalmost glancing over the fact that a violent crime is the reason for its plot” (Dale 147), which also helped promoting the genre among more people. While renovating the genre, however, she was rather conflicted: By joining the Detection Club in 1930, “Sayers had sworn to remain within the established boundaries of her chosen genre” (Connelly 35). Among these boundaries, which are demonstrated by Symons, was a norm in which the characters were not supposed to be described in any depth, no kind of emotion was advised as this would take the interest away from the plot itself (108). Still, she managed to become special among other writers of murder mystery novels, where the plot used to be the crucial part and characters were often shallow, without any deep portrayal. Sayers managed to create an exception to this in Wimsey. Comparing her to another influential writer of the Golden Age, McManis observes:

Sayers shared many characteristics of the mystery genre with Dame Agatha but had a different prose style. Sayers was more concerned with how a crime was committed than why it was committed. She created a master detective, ingenious in his solutions of baffling mysteries, be they violent crimes or lesser illegal happenings. (329)

The readers of Sayers’s writing either appreciated it or disregarded it, and the people who supported her usually split into either loving her religious writing or the detective writing; many of the fans of her theological books claimed she only wrote mystery novels to earn money. Nevertheless, as Hitchman outlines, Sayers only tried to promote the genre with the ambition “to make the mystery story a thing of literary art, something which no don, philosopher or bishop would be ashamed to be found reading”, and quoted Sayers herself, who enjoyed writing about the detective: “There is not only a trick but a ‘craft’ of writing mystery stories. It does give just that curious satisfaction which the exercise of cunning craftsmanship always gives to the worker. It is almost as satisfying as working with one’s hands” (Hitchman 65-6).

Despite being generally very popular with the reading audience, Lord Peter Wimsey started to annoy his creator after a while, and Sayers intended to remove him from the mystery fiction world by marriage for some time before actually doing it in Busman’s Honeymoon in 1937. This meant bringing the adventures of the beloved Great Detective to an end, but enabled Sayers to improve in different kinds of writing. First of all, presenting her last Wimsey novel on stage strengthened her interest in playwriting and she eventually wrote eight more plays. The Dorothy L Sayers Society implies that while writing full time she rose to be the doyen of crime writers and in due course president of the Detection Club. By this she remained connected to the world of detective stories writing; cooperating with other members of the Club on some novels, for instance. Furthermore, she wrote a series of short detective stories featuring her other amateur sleuth Montague Egg. She spent all of her free time writing: “She broadcast and wrote about theology, the war, and the position of women; her views ranging from the thoughtful to the simply silly” (Williams 83).

For her religious writing she was also offered an honorary Doctorate of Divinity in 1943, but refused. The most considerable works she created in this area were The Mind of the Maker, which concerns the subject of creativity in the light of Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and The Man Born To Be King, a series of radio plays on Jesus’s life. The Biography Base states that in 1950 she was offered another honorary doctorate in literature from the University of Durham, which she accepted.

In addition to writing, Sayers dedicated a lot of her time and energy into translation. After discovering Dante in 1944, she became fascinated with his writing and taught herself old Italian so that she could translate his epic poem, Divina Commedia. Despite being unable to finish the third volume before her unexpected death, her translation of this piece is considered her best work. Her friend Dr Barbara Reynolds then decided to complete her work. On the other hand, the press criticised her decision to start translating for “turning up from popular fiction to take up a pretentious high-browism”, to which she responded: “I am going on from where I began, after twenty years at the money-making mill of fiction” (Hitchman 159). She also translated the Song of Roland from old French.

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