Profile Of Dorothy L. Sayers
By Lois Schroff
Remember the 80’s Lord Peter Wimsey TV series? These BBC productions were based on Dorothy L. Sayers’ 14 mysteries about the fictitious “Lord Peter” who was the epitome of early 20th Century aristocracy. His family, manor home, servants and life style prompted something of a cult in England with autos he would drive, clothes he would wear and spirits he would drink. Dorothy might have been the J. K. Rowling of that era. However, her fiction writing stopped in 1942 when England entered the war. Living in London, she experienced the poverty and misery resulting from the bombings.
Dorothy Sayers was born at Oxford in 1893, the only child of Rev. Henry Sayers, headmaster of Christ Church Cathedral School, and in 1915 she became one of the first women to graduate from Oxford. Miss Sayers, a passionate Anglican, novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, translator and Christian humanist would never compromise where her art was concerned and enjoyed many a fight that she conducted with wit and humor. Her formidable presence, magnificent brain, and logical presentations kept her in great demand as a lecturer.
Disliking the seclusion of academic life, Dorothy worked many years for the London publicist S. H. Benson’s where her slogan was: “It pays to advertise.” She created ads, jingles and the toucan slogan for the popular Pimm’s “digestive cup” (liqueur). The often caustic Sayers commented: “Now Mr. Pimm is a man of rigid morality—except, of course as regards his profession, whose essence is to tell plausible lies for money. When asked: “How about truth in advertising?” Dorothy responded: “Of course there is some truth in advertising. There’s yeast in bread, but you can’t make bread with yeast alone. Truth in advertising…is like leaven—It provides a suitable quantity of gas with which to blow out a mass of crude misrepresentation into a form that the public can swallow.”
Even before the war, Miss Sayers wrote extensive theological essays, books, and seven plays, causing a stir in 1940 with the play The Man Born to be King, in which Jesus speaks modern English. Fluent in English, French and German, she taught herself old Italian in order to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy, considered one of the finest and still in print. After recently reading C. S. Lewis’ Miracles, where he refers to Sayer’s The Mind of the Maker as “that indispensable book,” I decided to read it.
Critics write: “Dorothy L Sayers’ great lay contemporaries in the Church of England were T. S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, but none of them wrote a book quite like The Mind of the Maker. In this crisp, elegant exercise in theology, Sayers illuminates the doctrine of the Trinity by relating it to the process of writing fiction, a process about which she could speak with complete authority…This is one of the greatest theological works I have had the privilege of reading…The central point of the book is to identify the creative artist as someone exercising their identity in the image of God…This is a beautiful vision of how and why we write and why that is important.”
The Mind of the Maker examines metaphors about God, laws of nature and laws of opinion. Miss Sayers recalls words in the Christian creed such as “God the Creator,” and emphasizes that we humans are also creators. In Chapter Three, Sayers refers to her play The Seal of Thy House, where she has the Archangel Michael speak about the Trinity. He compares it to our human acts of writing a book, producing a painting, composing music and poetry, or any other original creations. First comes the Idea (Father), second is Energy (Son), and third is Power (Holy Spirit). Countering that habits of thought may find this thinking outmoded, she argues that while a new scientific theory supersedes a previous one, we cannot say that “Hamlet” supersedes “Agamemnon.” Genius is not subject to the scientific “Law of Progress.”
Although never reaching the stature of Lewis or Elliot, she nevertheless gained their respect. Equally at home with playful or serious subjects, to the end Dorothy L. Sayers drove herself hard, living the philosophy expressed in her words: “The only Christian work is good work, well done.” She died at age 64 of a heart attack.