Dorothy L. Sayers: A Biography

Duriez, Colin.  Dorothy L. Sayers: A Biography: Death, Dante, and Lord Peter Wimsey. Lion Books, 2021.

Alas, she was unlucky in love. Colin Duriez praises his subject’s obvious talent, yet he does not shy away from the troubling parts of her life. Dorothy Sayers was one of the first women to get a degree from Oxford.  She then demonstrated skill in advertising and later found herself alongside Agatha Christie as one of the leading lights of detective fiction. That’s higher praise than one might realize at first.  This was the golden age of detective fiction, and Agatha Christie herself considered Sayers to be the top of the game (and one of the last moments of good English prose before the horror of postmodernism).  If one wants to model good, yet current prose style, then Dorothy Sayers is worth reading.

She had a relatively stable Christian upbringing. One questions how seriously to take her claims of teenage agnosticism.  They could be true, but that also seems to be a trope in Christian biography.  She wanted to be loved, not unlike the fundamentalist girl going to Bible college. Her first was with a Jewish agnostic, yet she broke it off when he said he didn’t believe in the institution of marriage or children.  That was a good move on her part, but it never should have gotten there.

The next love interest, Bill White, the man with whom she would be with child, is more of Sayers’ fault. It’s not simply that she had a child out of wedlock with him. She didn’t realize he was already married.  Don’t counselors say that communication is the basis of a relationship?  

She did get married to a WWI veteran. I don’t see how it was a happy marriage with his declining health and PTSD. No doubt they had some happy moments. Duriez doesn’t actually report any of them.  She was able to adopt her son and by all accounts had a good relationship with him, something not always possible when bringing a pre-teen into one’s household.

It is during Sayers’ early years that Duriez comments on her approach to knowledge.  Knowledge should be sought as an integrated unity.  This allowed Sayers to later perfect her so-called “classical model.”  (In terms of historical facts, it is no such thing.  It should be called a “Neo-Medieval” model.  There is much to commend it.  My only issue is that its practitioners act like they’ve discovered Atlantis.) Her comments on foreign languages and Latin merit repeated study.

Sayers’s most notable creation is the amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey.  In many ways, Sayers created an entity she couldn’t control. The queen of detective fiction, Agatha Christie, absolutely praised the Lord Wimsey novels.  Sayers, however, had introduced a love interest into the story.  This alienated her fans.  It’s an interesting phenomenon.  On one hand, none of her later novels have the “punch” of the early Wimsey novels.  On the other hand, some later novels like Gaudy Night are technically near-perfect. I like Gaudy Night, but I don’t enjoy it.

I think the problem is that Wimsey is a force of nature (and this force is multiplied if you listen to the Ian Carmichael audio narrations).  With Wimsey comes his manservant, Bunter.  Bunter is like Wodehouse’s Jeeves.  And in some novels we meet Wimsey’s mother, the Duchess, who is an absolute delight.  By the time that Sayers introduced Harriet Vane into the world, Bunter and the Duchess, and in some respects Wimsey himself, take a back seat.  That’s a high price to pay for literary perfection.

My only criticism of the biography is that I wish Duriez had spent more time on Dante and less on Sayers’s plays. 

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