Friday, July 11, 2008

Being Dorothy L. Sayers

"The only Christian work is good work, well done."
Dorothy L. Sayers

Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey. To mystery fans, he, alongside Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes, is one of the great creations of the golden age of British mystery fiction.

His creator, Dorothy L. Sayers, is known primarily for her stylish detective and his lover and fellow detective, Harriet Vane, but her body of work is vast and varied, and crosses out of the mystery genre into poetry, drama and translation of classical fiction. In fact, she was a classical scholar and respected translator and considered her translation of The Divine Comedy her favorite work, work she undertook after teaching herself Italian for the task.

Born in Oxford on June 13, 1893, Sayers grew up the daughter of the Rev. Henry Sayers and Christianity played a vital and consuming role in her life. (Sayers was later to write numerous books on various topics of Christianity including "Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine".)

She won a scholarship in 1912 to study at Somerville College, Oxford. Despite the fact that women were not at the time eligible to receive degrees, she later was the first woman to receive a degree when this changed in 1920. She studying modern languages and medieval literature (translating "The Song of Roland" as well as Dante).

A supremely intelligent woman, Sayers also was a woman outside of her time. Amid the tumult of post-World War I England she fell in love with, and became pregnant by, novelist John Cournos. When the romance failed, she gave birth to her son (under an assumed name) and turned him over to be raised by her aunt and cousin, Amy and Ivy Shrimpton, who were fostering children as a way of supporting themselves. Only Ivy was apprised of the child's parentage and Sayers family learned of it only following her death. Her son, John Anthony, was her sole heir upon her death.

Subsequent disagreement between Sayers and Cournos provided her with material that became "Strong Poison", published in 1930.

Sayers later married Captain Oswald Atherton Fleming, a Scottish journalist on April
8, 1926. Due to Fleming's previous divorce, no church wedding was permissable, a disappointment to Sayers' family, but he became a welcome part of the family. Despite a strong marriage, Fleming's health began to decline at the same time that Sayers was enjoying literary success.

Beyond her poetry, translations, and non-fiction writings (both on the plight of women as well as Christian subjects), Sayers created a masterful detective, and series, with Peter Wimsey.

She began her first novel, which became "Whose Body?" sometime in 1920-21.

A letter she wrote on Jan. 22, 1921 (Wikipedia): "My detective story begins brightly, with a fat lady found dead in her bath with nothing on but her pince-nez. Now why did she wear pince-nez in her bath? If you can guess, you'll be in a position to lay hands upon the murderer, but he's a very cool and cunning fellow." (p. 101, Ryenolds)

Throughout ten novels Peter Wimsey entertained and amused. Sayers once commented that he was a mixture of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster. As wonderful as he was as a solo detective, when Sayers introduced Harriet Vane in "Strong Poison", a suspect in the poisoning death of her lover, the pair became an even more intriguing and complex team. With the novel, "Gaudy Night" and the subsequent marriage of Peter and Harriet, Sayers anticipated retiring her detective. Her affection for him, however, dissuaded her and the novels with the pair continued. Praised also for the inventive methods of dispatching her victims and diverse secondary characters, the mysteris are well worth reading both for enjoyment, as well as a look at consummately plotted mysteries and deep, complicated characters whose emotions are as important to the stories as are their detecting skills. Complex and human, the novels explore as well the romance between two very different people.

Her Wimsey mysteries were not fluff or cozies, but rather explored the darker side of life, among the wealthy and the working class alike ("Murder Must Advertise" finds Wimsey employed as an advertising copyrighter, to his amusement)and addressed various social issues, including World War I, religion and women's rights. She advocated education for women in "Gaudy Night" (at a time when the subject was quite controversial - in fact it was considered by some to be a first feminist mystery), a long and complex tale that allows Vane to take center stage as she returns to her alma mater and becomes embroiled in murders while contemplating her deepening relationship with Wimsey and her lingering guilt over the death of her lover.

Despite criticism of her beloved pair, such as Edmund Wlson's comment: "There was also a dreadful stock English nobleman of the casual and debonair kind, with the embarrassing name of Lord Peter Wimsey", the books have remained constantly in print and continue to garner fans for the author. Wimsey is such an iconoclastic figure that he was given a cameo appearance in Laurie R. King's "A Letter of Mary".

Sayers' work was a product of her times and her characters reflect the wide-ranging views and opinions prevelant in England, including racism and anti-semitism. But as any author knows, we create characters that reflect the worst of society as well as the best. Biographer and literary critic Caroline Heilbrun (who wrote her own marvelous mysteries under the pseudonym Amanda Cross)defended Sayers and refuted claims that she was anti-semitic in her biography, "Dorothy L. Sayers: Biography Between the Lines".

Numerous biographies have, in fact, been written about this fascinating author. Additional background information is available at the Dorothy Sayers Society, a link for which can be found on this blog.

Sayers continued to write throughout her life, and was friends with fellow theological thinker C. S. Lewis, and T.S. Eliot. An intelligent woman she was also a lecturer on many subjects known for her wit and logic.

Sayers' husband Mac Fleming died on June 9, 1950. Dorothy died of a stroke on December 17, 1957 while at work on her translation of the third volume of Dante's work, "Paradiso". She was cremated and her ashes were buried beneath the tower of St. Anne's Church, where she had been churchwarden since 1952. Her only child, Tony, died November 26, 1960, in Florida.

Today's mystery writers can learn a wealth about writing novels with wonderfully complicated protagonists by studying Sayers' Wimsey works. But more importantly, they can enjoy the mastery of a superlative author and the company of two amazing people in Harriet and Peter.

In addition to her wealth of non-fiction writings, translations, poetry, plays, and other mystery and detective fiction, Sayers' inventive Wimsey novels are:

Whose Body? (1923)
Clouds of Witness (1926)
Unnatural Death (1927)
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
Lord Peter Views the Body (a 1928 collection of 12 stories)
Strong Poison (1930)
Five Red Herrings (1931)
Have His Carase (1932)
Hangman's Holiday (a 1933 collection of stories that include 4 Wimsey tales)
Murder Must Advertise (1933)
The Nine Tailors (1934)
Gaudy Night (1935)
Busman's Holeymoon (1937)
In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939 collection of stories that include 4 Wimsey tales)
Thrones, Dominations (1998 - begun by Sayers in 1936, it was completed by Jill Paton Walsh).

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