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Dorothy L. Sayers: A Christian Humanist for Today

by Mary Brian Durkin

Sister Durkin is associate professor of English at Rosary College, River Forest, Illinois. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 14, 1979, p. 1114. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


During her lifetime, Dorothy L. Sayers was known to many readers as the creator of that debonair, aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, who solved the mysteries in Murder Must Advertise, Gaudy Night and The Nine Tailors. To others, she was the dramatist whose radio serial, The Man Born to Be King, brought the words of Christ into their living rooms. To countless students, she was the scholar and translator who made Dante’s Divine Comedy not only readable but enjoyable, and surprisingly relevant to their own era. At the time of her death in 1957, Sayers’s writings, aside from her best novels and short stories, were not well known outside England, but in the past ten years, particularly in the United States, her reputation as a Christian humanist has grown steadily.

Making Christian Dogma Meaningful

Born in 1893, Dorothy L. Sayers was the only child of Henry Sayers, headmaster of the Cathedral Choir School, Oxford, and Helen Leigh Sayers, great-niece of Percival Leigh, “the Professor” of Punch. Dorothy’s childhood was spent in East Anglia, the fen country described in The Nine Tailors. She won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, where she attained first honors in medieval literature. While employed at Blackwell’s, Oxford, she published two small volumes of verse, Op. I and Catholic Tales. Settling in London, she secured work as a copywriter in an advertising firm, and in her free time finished her first novel, Whose Body? After 12 novels and several collections of short stories, she announced that she intended to stop writing fiction and to turn to more serious subjects.

A devout Anglican, Sayers viewed all life in terms of the incarnation. She lectured and wrote on the imperative need to make Christian dogma meaningful in ordinary life. In Begin Here, a wartime essay on aspects of peace, she defines freedom as it was understood in medieval England: “Freedom . . . not in the sense we are inclined to give the word today -- that is, exemption from all external restrictions -- but in a more philosophical sense: the freedom to be true to man’s real nature, that is, to stand in the right relationship to God.” This relationship, she insists, can be achieved only when one in daily life manifests Christlike love for others, a way of life based not on sentimental chatter about brotherly, sisterly love, but on a disciplined integrity toward oneself and others. In the essay “Creed or Chaos,” she stresses that it is fatal to allow people to “suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling . . . [it is] hopeless to offer Christianity as a vague, idealistic aspiration: it is a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine steeped in drastic and uncompromising realism.”

Right Relationships

Only in recent years have Sayers’s readers become aware that many of the Christian truths and ideals expressed forthrightly in her essays are subtly woven into most of her writings: poetry, drama, Dantean studies and even fiction. The idea of maintaining right relationships with God, one’s neighbor and oneself is an important theme, for instance, in her third novel, Unnatural Death (1927). Miss Climpson, the lovable, eccentric spinster who assists Lord Peter in his sleuthing, expresses her concern that young Vera Findlater is so infatuated with an older woman that she becomes her veritable slave. She urges Vera not to spend all her time with this friend; “I’ve known so many happy friendships spoilt by people seeing too much of each other.” Vera insists that friendships such as theirs make great demands: “It’s got to be everything to one. It’s wonderful the way it seems to colour one’s thoughts. Instead of being centred in one’s self, one’s centred in the other person. That’s what Christian love means -- one’s ready to die for the other person.”

When Miss Climpson is disturbed, her inner turmoil is suggested by the way that she emphasizes every important word: “Well, I don’t know. . . . I once heard a sermon about that from a most splendid priest -- and he said that that kind of love might become idolatry if one wasn’t careful. He said that Milton’s remark about Eve, you know -- ‘he for God only, she for God in him’ -- was not congruous with Catholic doctrine. One must get the proportions right, and it was out of proportion to see everything through the eyes of another fellow-creature.” When Vera argues that she and her friend put God first, of course, but that a mutual love and friendship simply must be good, Miss Climpson answers firmly: Love is always good, when it is the right kind, but I don’t think it ought to be possessive.”

By the end of the novel. Vera Findlater has violated her integrity in an attempt to shield her friend. The pun on the name is obvious: Vera, truth, finds out too late that her relationship was out of proportion.

This theme of integrity in personal relationships is important in the novels that develop the romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. Strong Poison (1930) opens with Harriet on trial for the murder of her former lover. When circumstantial evidence fails to convince one jury member of Harriet’s guilt, the trial ends with a hung jury; a new trial is scheduled. Having fallen in love with Harriet, Lord Peter is determined to prove her innocence; he clears her name but fails to win her love.

Aware that Harriet is suffering from feelings of rejection and betrayal, and that she resents being under obligation to him for saving her life, Lord Peter decides that the only way to win her is to submerge his own feelings, giving her time to regain her self-confidence and personal esteem. Here Sayers reveals her own philosophy of integrity in human relationships: education, wealth and social position are not the factors that establish equality and mutuality. Harriet must recognize her merits and failings, accept them, and respect her own uniqueness; only then can she achieve a satisfying relationship with another.

In the essay “Gaudy Night” (not to be confused with the novel of that name) Sayers tells how her ideas of integrity influenced her writing: “Let me confess that when I wrote Strong Poison, it was with the infanticidal intention of doing away with Peter; that is, of marrying him off and getting rid of him.” But: “I could find no form of words in which she could accept him without loss of self-respect. . . . She must come to him as a free agent, if she came at all, and must realize that she was independent of him before she could bring her dependence.”

Valuing Integrity

In the novel Gaudy Night (1935) the theme of integrity is doubly significant, affecting the Wimsey-Vane romance and the plot. An alumna of Shrewsbury, a women’s college at Oxford University, Harriet is invited by the dean to help discover the identity of an intruder who is disturbing the scholastic calm; after much wanton destruction, Lord Peter’s help is enlisted. In the senior common room one evening, when the topic of intellectual honesty comes up, a don recounts how a graduate student from another university deliberately suppressed evidence because it would invalidate his research and destroy the main argument of his dissertation. Someone suggests that perhaps the student felt he had to sacrifice his professional integrity so that he could secure his degree, desperately needed if he were to support a wife and family. Another don questions: If a wife knew that her home and financial security were purchased at the cost of her husband’s integrity, would her reaction be one of dismay and guilt? Over the dean’s protests that most wives would not give a pin about the loss of their husband’s professional honor, Miss Chilperic shyly suggests that if a wife did accept such dishonesty, it would be tantamount to living on immoral earnings. This comment delights Lord Peter, who declares that if people ever come around to accepting this standard of honesty -- that is, if they ever learn to value the integrity of the mind equally with that of the body -- a social revolution will take place.

Asked to give a toast at her own alma mater, Somerville College, Oxford, Sayers pondered much about why one should be grateful for a university education, and came to the conclusion that such an education gives “that habit of intellectual integrity which is at once the foundation and the result of scholarship.” Later, this idea offered a way to place Harriet in a position where she could accept Wimsey’s love:

On the intellectual platform . . . Harriet could stand free and equal with Peter, since in that sphere she had never been false to her own standards. By choosing a plot that should exhibit intellectual integrity as the one great permanent value in an emotionally unstable world I should be saying the thing that, in a confused way, I had been wanting to say all my life, Finally, I should have found a universal theme which could be made integral both to the detective plot and to the “love-interest” which I had, somehow or other, to unite with it.

The Ethics of Advertising

The integrity of work is a prominent theme in many of Sayers’s writings. In the essay “Why Work?” she speaks out against wastefulness and against “advertisements imploring and exhorting and cajoling and menacing and bullying us to glut ourselves with things we do not want, in the name of snobbery and idleness and sex-appeal.” Again she stresses the need of proportion and right relationships. Work, she says, is not what one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. “It is, or should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental, and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.” She continues:

We should ask of an enterprise, not “will it pay?” but “is it good?”; of a man, not “what does he make?’ but “what is his work worth?”; of goods, not “can we induce people to buy them?” but “are they useful things well made?”; of employment, not “how much a week?” but “will it exercise my faculties to the utmost?”

In the novel Murder Must Advertise (1933), set in an advertising agency where reams of copy are written daily to lure customers to buy shoddy goods -- or worse, written to create false needs, convincing the public that it must purchase certain commodities or be hopelessly out of fashion -- Sayers highlights ethical problems involved in the production, promotion and consumption of manufactured goods. She understood the advertising milieu well, for in the ‘20s and ‘30s, while writing her novels, she had been employed as a copywriter in just such an advertising agency, Benson’s in London. In this novel, Lord Peter dashes off clever copy that delights his colleagues at Pym’s advertising agency without letting his unsuspecting associates know that he is actually hired to discover who is carrying on some nefarious scheme under cover of the agency.

After writing advertisements for just one week, Lord Peter voices his concern about the ethics, or lack of them, in this business. Is it ethical, he ponders, to concoct enticing copy that will lure some poorly paid typist to spend her pennies on Muggins’ Magnolia Cream in the hopes that her complexion will capture the attention of some Prince Charming? Sayers’s attitude is evident in the copywriter’s response to Lord Peter’s queries:

How should anything be sacred to an advertiser? We spend our whole time asking intimate questions of perfect strangers: “Mother, Has Your Child Learnt Regular Habits?”; “Are You Troubled with Fulness After Eating?”; “Do You Suffer from Superfluous Hair?” . . . Upon my soul, I sometimes wonder why the long-suffering public doesn’t rise up and slay us.

Sayers criticizes advertisers who tempt the gullible and invade areas that should be private, but she also censures consumers who, indifferent to blatantly offensive advertisements and shoddy, unnecessary products that flood the market, nevertheless continue to spend foolishly. She also concedes that advertisers know how to use the English language, choosing the right, the “telling” word, a trait infrequently practiced by many who carelessly misuse “the richest, noblest, most flexible and sensitive language ever written or spoken.”

The Dantean Studies

That integrity in communication was a vital concern to Sayers is evident in her essays “Plain English,” “The English Language” and “How Free Is the Press?” -- all published in Unpopular Opinions (1947), a collection of 21 lectures and essays. Even in her Dantean studies, she brings out the need for honesty in all forms of communication. She asserts that in Dante’s description of the Eighth Circle of Hell, he shows not only the punishments suffered by those who on earth committed malicious fraud, but also that their place of punishment is an image “of the City in corruptions” where every social relationship, personal and public, has disintegrated. In this Circle of Fraud, flatterers who on earth abused and corrupted the language now wallow in the filth which they once spewed out upon the world. “Dante,” she says, “did not live to see the full development of political propaganda, commercial advertisement, and sensational journalism, but he has a place prepared for them.”

Also punished in the Circle of Fraud are panderers and seducers; Sayers reminds readers that although the image is a sexual one, allegorically one may interpret these offenders as including all who are guilty of stimulating and exploiting any kind of passion, such as rage and greed, thereby making tools of other people.

Throughout her commentaries on the Divine Comedy, Sayers stresses that the subject of the poem is not the story of a journey through hell, purgatory and paradise, but is one concerning the relationship between humanity and God. Dante insisted that although the poem is literally concerned with souls after death, it is allegorically concerned with the behavior of humankind in this life, for it is by one’s freely willed actions on earth that one becomes liable to “punishing or rewarding justice.” One must, she says, accept Dante’s idea that heaven, hell and purgatory are within the soul. But if one prefers, she adds, one may think of the corruption not as sins of individuals but as the evils which undermine nations, cities and communities today. This idea, borrowed from the writings of her friend Charles Williams, appeals to many readers who admit that Dante’s underworld makes more sense to them when they think of it as a portrayal of a modern city plagued by every type of moral corruption,

In Canto XIX of the Inferno, Dante describes the punishment of those guilty of simony; in a note, she reminds readers that the buying and selling of holy things is not confined to medieval folk: “A mercenary marriage, for example, is also the sale of a sacrament.” She asserts that gluttony is not always the sin of overeating or overdrinking; it can be over fastidiousness in matters of food, or too great a concern to secure a higher standard of living. Sloth in its modern form is not necessarily idleness of mind and laziness of body; under the guise of tolerance, it is often passive acquiescence to evil or error, or “escapism,” withdrawal from situations which are difficult.

The Church’s Failures

Each of the essays in Creed or Chaos (1949) suggests the need for integrity in the living of Christian ideals in all facets of life. Even the church, Sayers suggests, has failed in this aim at times. In “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” she declares that though the church officially recognizes seven capital sins, nevertheless it has seemed more concerned in the past to condemn lust than it has the other capital offenses; quicker to condemn sexual immorality than financial chicanery; more vigilant to condemn sexually suggestive books or dramas than to suppress works suggesting that wealth and position are the worthwhile goals of life; more harsh on excessive drinkers than on those who charge excessive rates of interest Commenting that in these matters the church’s record is not as perfect as it should be, she adds that by the church she does not mean Rome, Westminster, or bishops, vicars or church wardens: “The Church is you and I. And are you and I in the least sincere in our pretense that we disapprove of Covetousness?”

Sayers does blame the church of the past several centuries for attempting to uphold a particular standard of ethical values which derive from Christian dogma while gradually dispensing with the very dogmas which are the sole rational foundation for these values. The root cause of the Christian church’s failure to influence the lives of many today is, she insists, not that too much stress has been placed on dogma but that it has been neglected or watered down. Scorning a Christianity that fosters a mild “gentle Jesus sentimentality” with vaguely humanistic ethics, she asserts boldly: “We cannot blink the fact that gentle Jesus, meek and mild, was so stiff in His opinions and so inflammatory in His language, that He was thrown out of church, stoned, hunted from place to place, and finally gibbetted as a firebrand and a public danger.” Later generations muffled up that challenging personality: “We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah,” turning Jesus “into a household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”

The Sin of Pride

The root of every sin against integrity -- that is, every sin against humanity, against nature and against God -- is pride, the destroyer of right, balanced relationships. Sayers’s first drama, The Zeal of Thy House, written for the Canterbury Festival, 1937, is an exploration of the theme of pride. In the two previous years, the festival plays had concerned well-known figures: Thomas Becket in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and Thomas Cranmer in Charles Williams’s Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury. But Sayers chose the obscure French architect William of Sens, commissioned in 1147 to rebuild the burnt-out choir of the cathedral. He is so proud of this honor and so confident of his artistry that he asserts: “This Church is mine, And none but I, not even God, can build it.” Later he boasts:

We are the master craftsmen, God and I --
We understand each other. . . .
He knows that I am indispensable
To His work here; and for the work’s sake, He,
Cherishing, as good masons do, His tools,
Will keep me safer

 

But just as William places the keystone of the great arch in its place, he slips from the high scaffold and, like Ibsen’s master builder, plummets to earth.

During months of painful recuperation, William attempts to continue overseeing the building operations, enduring physical pain with equanimity but complaining vehemently when his orders are imperfectly executed or changed by subordinates. He vows that he will never give up his creation for others to finish, until in a dream, Michael the Archangel convinces him that his sufferings and those of Christ are similar; Christ made the supreme sacrifice: he left his work for others to finish. In his final submission, William acknowledges:

O, I have sinned. The eldest sin of all,
Pride, that struck down the morning star from Heaven
Hath struck down me from where I sat and shone
Smiling on my new world.

 

He begs that his work remain unspoiled:

But let my work, all that was good in me,
All that was God, stand up and live and grow.
The work is sound, Lord God, no rottenness there –

Only in me.

 

The final speech in The Zeal of Thy House states a fundamental belief frequently found in Sayers’s writings: human handiwork reflects the creativity of the Holy Trinity. Michael the Archangel addresses the audience:

Children of men, lift up your hearts. . . .
Praise Him that He hath made man in His own image,
               a maker
And craftsman like Himself, a little mirror of His
Triune Majesty.
For every work of creation is threefold, an earthly
Trinity
to match the heavenly.

The Playwright as Theologian

Although Sayers played a significant role in the Christian drama movement that flourished in England in the ‘30s, she scorned plays written to edify or to evangelize. In “Playwrights Are Not Evangelists,” she warns the writer: “If he writes with his eye on the spiritual box-office, he will at once cease to be a dramatist, and decline into a manufacturer of propagandist tracts. . . . He will lose his professional integrity, and with it all his power, including his power to preach the Gospel.” In the introduction to The Man Born to Be King, she states: “A loose and sentimental theology begets loose and sentimental art-forms; an illogical theology lands one in illogical situations; an ill-balanced theology issues in false emphasis and absurdity. Conversely: there is no more searching test of a theology than to submit it to dramatic handling.”

This radio serial was also to be a test of her own integrity. Aiming to present the life of Christ as an actual historical event in first century Palestine, she portrayed him as a human being who spoke in the vernacular, as did the other biblical figures. If he did not use colloquial language, he would be “a stained-glass, unreal figure.” A storm of controversy and censure broke. Vehement protests were directed against the use of the vernacular and the representation of the voice of Christ. At that time and up to 1968, the stage impersonation of any divine person was legally forbidden in England except in the case of dramas presented in church. Although the prohibition did not apply to radio presentations, some church groups took full-page ads in newspapers to register their protests. One such protest read:

A sinful man presuming to impersonate the Sinless One! It detracts from the honour due to the Divine Majesty. In the present instance the man chosen to impersonate the Eternal Son of God -- attributing to Him some words our Divine Saviour never uttered -- is a professional actor. Could anything be more distressful to reverent-minded Christians?

Criticism was so virulent and widespread that questions concerning the propriety of continuing the broadcasts were brought before the House of Commons; but the BBC, supported by leading clergy of various denominations, reaffirmed its decision to broadcast the remaining 11 plays. Sayers continued to write in the style in which she had begun, taking the liberties which she deemed necessary to make the plays dramatically effective.

Frequent transmissions. of The Man Born to Be King attest to the worth of the work. Broadcasts during the ‘40s were so popular that in 1947 the entire series was redone with a new cast. This version was heard frequently until 1975, when a new production, in stereophonic sound with a score for full orchestra, was broadcast as a weekly Sunday feature.

A New Audience

In England, Dorothy L. Sayers, along with the other members of a group termed the “Oxford Christians” -- notably C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams and J. R. R. Tolkien -- has had a steady following; but in the United States her works today are attracting a wider audience than those of some of her male colleagues, despite the fact that her fiction, unlike theirs, is not in any explicit sense religious. Lord Peter Wimsey is not a Christian, yet within the structure of the detective novel, Sayers has found many opportunities to suggest Christian values. Undoubtedly the BBC television productions of her major novels introduced her sophisticated sleuth to a younger audience; the availability of all her novels in inexpensive editions and the recent volume containing all the Wimsey short stories have stimulated interest in her fiction. Janet Hitchman’s Such a Strange Lady, the first Sayers biography, has piqued interest in her private life, in which there are mysteries greater than any found in her novels.

Most likely the factor most responsible for the renewed interest in Sayers’s writings is that her best nonfiction prose and her verse dramas are now available in numerous editions, many of which focus on particular themes -- a notable improvement over the haphazard grouping that marred the two collections of essays published in her lifetime.

Christian Letters in a Post-Christian World (1969), edited by Roderick Jellema, contains four essays from Unpopular Opinions, her first anthology of lectures. “What Do We Believe?,” “Towards a Christian Aesthetic,” “Creative Mind” and “Christian Morality” stress her conviction that Christian truths must be stated dramatically and lived courageously. From her second collection -- Creed or Chaos? -- Jellema selected the essay of the same name, as well as “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” “Strong. Meat,” “The Dogma Is the Drama,” and “The Other Six Deadly Sins.” These suggest ways in which Christianity has failed to appeal to postwar generations and offer some bold remedies to change the situation. Are Women Human? (1971), a slim work containing the essay of that name and “The Human-Not-Quite Human,” introduces Sayers’s views on the subject of women’s rights and women’s role in a male-oriented society.

A Matter of Eternity (1973), edited by Rosemary Kent Sprague, has only two full-length essays, “Christian Morality” and “The Lost Tools of Learning,” in which Sayers states boldly that the great defect in modern teaching is this: “Though we have succeeded in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything except the art of learning.” The remainder of A Matter of Eternity is a collection of provocative passages, ranging from pithy sentences, such as “To pray when one ought to be working is as much a sin as to work when one ought to be praying,” and “Evil can never be undone, but only purged and redeemed,” to longer quotations running a full page, grouped under such headings as “Time and History,” “Evil,” “Sin,” “Forgiveness” and “Work.”

Throughout these new editions, there emerges an astonishing thematic consistency: the importance of the incarnation, the need for the church to enunciate forthrightly the dogmas of the Christian religion and for believers to live as witnesses to these truths, and the necessity of maintaining integrity in one’s relationships with God, one’s neighbor, and oneself. These and other truths run like a Pentecostal flame through her writings. Neither a mystic nor a saint, Dorothy L. Sayers was an original craftswoman, a gifted scholar and translator, and an outspoken Christian humanist. Her works merit the esteem and close reading accorded to them, for they speak to the troubled times of today.


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