Dorothy L Sayers, Writer and Theologian
17 December 1957
Dorothy Leigh Sayers was an English writer and scholar, born at Oxford in 1893, the only child of an Anglican clergyman. She studied medieval literature at Oxford (Somerville College), being one of the first women to graduate (1915) from that university. Her first published writings were two volumes of verse,

1916 Op. 1

1919 Catholic Tales

Here is a sample from the former volume:

Christ walks the world again, his lute upon his back, His red robe worn to tatters, his riches gone to rack.
The wind that wakes the morning blows his hair about his face, And his arms and legs are ragged with the thorny briar's embrace,
For the hunt is up behind him, and his sword is at his side. Christ the bonny outlaw walks the whole world wide,
   Singing: "Lady, lady, will you come away with me,
To lie among the bracken, and eat the barley bread?
   We shall see new suns arise, in golden far-off skies,
for the son of God and woman has not where to lay his head."

She worked for several years writing advertising copy, until she was able to support herself by the sale of her books and stories. During these years she joined a motorcycle gang, fell in love with a member, and bore him a son, Anthony. A friend of mine remarks: "What a shame that she did not convert C S Lewis and his friends to motor-cycling. I can see them now, cruising down the road seven abreast, at the sacred speed of 153 miles per hour [a reference to numerological speculations about John 21:11], shrieking their dreaded war-cry of Media Via! They might have permanently altered the history of Anglicanism." [Note: Media Via means "the middle of the road." Via Media means "the middle road." The latter, but occasionally the former, has been used by various writers to describe the Anglican communion, avoiding on the one hand the errors of Roman Catholicism and on the other the opposite errors of radical Protestantism.]

In 1926 she married a divorced man, Capt. Atherton Fleming, a war correspondent and veteran of World War I. He had encountered poison gas in the war, and suffered physical and emotional difficulties for the remainder of his life. He died in 1950.

Detective Fiction:

Miss Sayers' first commercially successful writings were detective fiction, and she eventually rose to the very top of that field. In Howard Haycraft's The Art of the Mystery Story, a collection of every notable essay on the detective story written before 1948, her name is mentioned more frequently than that of anyone except Sherlock Holmes. She wrote mostly about Lord Peter Wimsey, a wealthy gentleman and scholar, lover of rare books and fine wines, who solved detective cases because he enjoyed it, and was good at it, and because it was a job worth doing. Her Wimsey books include:

1923 Whose Body? In this book Sayers is in the process of creating the character of Lord Peter, and accordingly she tells us that he is witty, instead of simply recording his conversation and leaving us to think, "How witty he is!" (The reader will have noticed the same approach in A Study in Scarlet, the first of the Sherlock Holmes stories.) The story begins as a respectable architect walks into his bathroom in the morning and finds there the body of a complete stranger, naked except for a pair of pince-nez.

1926 Clouds of Witness. Lord Peter's brother, the Duke of Denver, is tried for murder in the House of Lords.

1927 Unnatural Death (or The Dawson Pedigree) An elderly cancer patient dies suddenly, her death not explained by her illness. However, no means and no motive suggest themselves. Lord Peter is assisted by the elderly Miss Climpson, a devout Christian.

1928 the Unpleasantness At the Bellona Club. a retired general is found dead in his armchair at his club. The inheritance of a considerable fortune depends on the time of his death. Lord Peter is asked to investigate.

1928 Lord Peter Views the Body. Here we have a collection of twelve short stories. By and large, I prefer the Sayers' novels to her short stories, but some of the stories are good, and I know of none that I begrudge the time reading.

1930 Strong Poison. The poet Philip Boyes is dead of arsenic. Circumstances point to the detective novelist Harriet Vane, his ex-lover, who has just rejected him, since it seems impossible that he could have ingested the arsenic anywhere but at a brief meeting with her. Lord Peter sees her at her trial, falls in love at first sight, is convinced of her innocence, finds the real murderer, and the book ends. Harriet (unlike the fair maiden whom the knight has just rescued from the jaws of the dragon) is not prepared fall into his arms in a frenzy of love and gratitude, and their working out of their personal relationships forms the sub-plot for some subsequent books.

1931 the Five Red Herrings (or Suspicious Characters) Lord Peter is vacationing in Scotland at Kirkcudbright, a haven for fishermen and painters. A painter, the most unpopular man in town, is found murdered, and six other painters are logical suspects. Five are red herrings (i.e. distractions or misleading agencies), and the sixth is guilty. Kirkcudbright is a real locality (a favorite vacation spot of the author), and the story conforms to local geography.

1932 Have His Carcase. Harriet Vane, on holiday, is walking the seacoast, takes a nap on the beach, and wakes to find herself a short distance from a corpse with its throat cut and the blood still fresh, but no murderer in sight. The plot is full of timetables and a cryptogram, as Peter and Harriet work together to find the murderer, and in the process explore their own feelings for one another.

1933 Hangman's Holiday. Here we have another collection of short stories: four with Lord Peter Wimsey; six with another detective, Montague Egg, a traveling salesman for a company selling wines and spirits; and two other stories.

1933 Murder Must Advertise. a copy-writer dies under curious circumstances, and Lord Peter takes his job under an assumed name in order to investigate. He is thrust into the unreal world of the drug culture, and the differently but equally unreal world of advertising, but manages to keep his head in both.

1934 the Nine Tailors. Lord Peter's auto breaks down in the fen country of East Anglia, and he is offered the hospitality of the local parsonage. He ends up helping to ring in the New Year with a full peal on the 8 tower bells of the parish church, Fenchurch St Paul's. Each bell was rung about 15000 times -- nine hours of continuous ringing! (Change ringing, an old English tradition, involves ringing bells in a mathematical pattern. See "change ringing" in an encyclopedia.)

The year is that of the influenza epidemic, and the parish is hit hard. At the death of anyone in the parish, the lowest (tenor) bell tolls his passing. (The words "toll," "tail", and "tell" come from the same root and have related meanings, referring either to a narrative or to the numbering of something. Compare the similarly ambiguous meanings of "count", "account", "recount", "number", "score", etc.) First, nine strokes for a man or six for a woman (hence the expression "Nine tailors make a man," which is often misunderstood to mean something like "the apparel oft proclaims the man"), then N rapid strokes for the age of the dead person, and then single strokes at half-minute intervals for half an hour.

The corpse of a stranger is found hastily buried in the churchyard, and Lord Peter is asked to identify the victim, and the murderer. The background of the novel includes bellringing and parish life in the fen country of East Anglia, where the author herself spent her childhood as the daughter of a clergyman. This is one of my favorites.

1935 Gaudy Night. The background for this novel is Oxford. Harriet Vane returns to her old college for a reunion, and finds that someone in the college is writing anonymous hate mail to various residents, and committing acts of vandalism on a minor but steadily escalating level. Harriet is asked to help identify the perpetrator. The novel reflects Sayers' love of Oxford, and her commitment to scholarship and the life of the intellect. Lord Peter joins her part way through, and their presence in a place where intellectual honesty is honored and valued helps Harriet to an honest and unflinching look at herself and at Peter.

1937 Busman's Honeymoon. In this novel, Peter and Harriet are married, go off to spend their honeymoon in a quiet cottage, and find there the corpse of the previous occupant. The author celebrates the glory of love between husband and wife, and explores the notion of commitment to another person and what it implies. This is the last of the Peter Wimsey novels, although a few short stories follow.

1939 in the Teeth of the Evidence. This is a collection of short stories. My favorite is "Dilemma", which does not involve Wimsey or Egg, and is not exactly a detective story.

1930 the Documents in the Case (with Robert Eustace). This novel, not involving Peter Wimsey) is presented in the form of letters and other documents written by members of a troubled family and a few persons close to them. The novel explores personal relationships, and the question of whether the phenonomenon of life is reducible to chemical terms.

1931 the Floating Admiral (with others). This is a stunt. Members of the Detective Club wrote a novel in collaboration. Each in turn wrote a chapter and passed the manuscript on to the next to continue the story. Not one of my favorites, but tastes differ.

1933 Ask a Policeman. I know nothing about this.

1928 Edited Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror 1;

1929 Edited Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror 2;

1934 Edited Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror 3; these are anthologies of stories, all or most by other writers.


1936 Busman's Honeymoon (with Muriel St. Clare Byrne). This was the original form of the novel of the same name described above. It became a film starring Robert Montgomery and Constance Cummings. Co-writing it seems to have interested Miss Sayers in the challenge of writing plays.

1937 the Zeal of Thy House. Canterbury Cathedral commissioned a play each year to be performed at the cathedral. (T S Eliot's Murder In the Cathedral, a play about the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket, had been a play in this series.) Miss Sayers wrote two plays for Canterbury. The Zeal of Thy House deals with the architect who rebuilt the central portion (the choir) of Canterbury Cathedral after the fire of 1176. The play deals with pride of workmanship, pride of possession, the creative imagination, the nature of the creative act, the doctrine of the Incarnation, and the doctrine of the Trinity. For a non-fictional discussion of the Trinity, see her book The Mind of the Maker, listed below.

1939 the Devil To Pay is Miss Sayer's second Canterbury play. It retells the story of Doctor Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil, and how God dealt with him at the last. The moral is: evil cannot be undone, but only purged and redeemed.

1940 Love All. This I know nothing about.

1940 He That Should Come. This is a Nativity play, originally for radio production, although it has been adapted for the stage. While most Nativity plays take what may be called a devotional approach, Sayers gives us the story of the birth of Jesus in (except for a prologue and and epilogue) a straightforwardly naturalistic setting, in the bustle of a crowded inn, where most of those present have no idea that anything particularly significant is going on.

1942 the Man Born To Be King. After the success of He That Should Come, the Bbc invited Miss Sayers to write a series of twelve radio plays on the life of Jesus. She did so, and roused some protests from those who thought it irreverent to make Biblical characters speak ordinary (as opposed to King James) English, and in general behave like real people. She replies that her point is precisely that the Incarnation really happened -- that God took human nature upon him, and lived as a real man surrounded by real people who spoke the ordinary language of their day. Each of the twelve plays is preceded by Sayers' comments, often dealing with the historical background of the incidents, and the theological issues raised by them. These are, in my judgement, outstandingly insightful and thought-provoking.

1946 the Just Vengeance: This play was commissioned for the 750th anniversary of Lichfield Cathedral. It is a play about the Atonement, not in the sense of being a Passion Play, but in that it discusses the theology of the Atonement, borrowing heavily from the ideas of Dante.

1948 Where Do We Go From Here? This I know nothing about.

1951 the Emperor Constantine. This pageant was commissioned to celebrate the 2000'th anniversary of the city of Colchester, the presumed birthplace of Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. It covers Constantine's rise to power, his conversion to Christianity, the Council of Nicea, Constantine's family troubles, and the end of his life. It deals in dramatic form with the theological issues of Nicea (whether Jesus was truly God or just a very important agent of God). As a play, with battle scenes, and council scenes, it can, if desired, be performed with "a cast of thousands", and presumably enabled anyone in Colchester who wanted to be in the pageant an opportunity to carry a spear. All in all, it is good history, and good theology, and a thoughtful discussion of the dilemmas facing a Christian in a position of power.


1940 Begin Here: a War-time Essay.

1941 the Mind of the Maker. In this seminal work, Sayers discusses the psychology of the creative mind at work in producing a novel or sculpture or other work, as an aid to understanding the theological doctrine of the Trinity, and the latter as an aid to understanding the former. For a brief, inadequate, summary of her thesis, send the three-word message Get Trinity Analogies to the address LISTSERV@ASU.EDU. But it is better to read the book itself.

1944 Even the Parrot. I do not know this one.

1946 Unpopular Opinions: Twenty-one Essays. Here we have provocative essays on theology, literature, and other subjects. It is now, unfortunately, out of print, but worth searching for. Many of the essays were subsequently reprinted in a collection called The Whimsical Christian (see below).

???? Are Women Human? This is a small book consisting of just two essays, reprinted from the preceding work. The publisher is Eerdmans; I do not know the date. The essays take a very different tack from that of most feminist tracts, and Sayers herself explicitly dissociates herself from "feminism," but I have known several feminists to say, "This is the work that really succeeds in saying what feminism is all about. This puts into words what I have been trying to formulate for years." Sayers begins by quoting a writer's observation that bus seats on the side next the curb are always filled first, "because men find them more comfortable on account of the slant of the roadbed, and women find that they can get a better view of the shop-windows." She notes that men are given a "human" reason for their preference, while women are given a "female" reason for theirs. She argues that every human ought to be accepted first as a person in his/her own right, with sex considered only when relevant. She does not say that it is never relevant, or that there can never be any rational disagreement about when it is relevant. She does deny the frequent assumption that when one is considering a woman it is always relevant.

1947 Creed Or Chaos. a collection of essays.

1948 the Lost Tools of Learning (pamphlet). Here Sayers schools are failing to teach students how to think clearly, and how to go about learning something. She recommends a program, based loosely on the curriculum of the medieval university.

1954 Introductory Papers On Dante. The title explains the contents. I add only that they are marvelous papers, a superb exposition of Dante as poet, theologian, and lover, by a first-rate scholar who knows what she is talking about.

1957 Further Papers On Dante. More of the same.

1963 the Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement. This I had not heard of until a few weeks ago, when I saw a copy in a private library. I had not, alas, the opportunity to do more than glance at it. The title essay concerns poets who ask, "What is the meaning of life?" and poets who proclaim, "This is the meaning of life!" and critics who wish to exclude one class or the other from the ranks of true poets. Another essay concerns the Vision of Glory, the fading of the Vision, and the return of the Vision, as seen in Wordsworth, Dante, and other poets.

1987 the Whimsical Christian. This is a collection (made after her death) of 18 of her essays, mostly reprinted from earlier collections. It was earlier published as Christian Letters To a Post-christian World. The present title marks it as part of a series of books containing short selections from various Christian authors, such as