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Books: Inspired Wimsey

5 minute read
Annalyn Swan

DOROTHY L. SAYERS, A LITERARY BIOGRAPHY by Ralph E. Hone Kent State University; 217 pages; $15

AS HER WHIMSEY TOOK HER Edited by Margaret P. Hannay Kent State University; 301 pages; $15

“I had often heard people say that Dorothy Sayers wrote well,” remarked Edmund Wilson in “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” “But, really, she does not write very well: it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective story writers . . .” Despite Wilson’s judgment, Sayers and Lord Peter Wimsey, her witty sleuth, have become two of the most beloved figures in detective fiction. An engaging mix of upper-class sang-froid and Sherlockian intellect, Wimsey set new standards in highbrow snooping. As viewers of the PBS series can testify, only Wimsey would drive a Daimler to the scene of the crime, sport a monocle, and dine out with marquesses and murderers.

But while Sayers (1893-1957) is famous primarily for her detective stories, Lord Peter was only one of her literary products. A medievalist (“I am a scholar gone wrong,” she once remarked), she translated Dante and several early French epics. She wrote feisty essays on the decline of the detective novel, the proper use of English, and, in Are Women Human?, male arrogance: “I am occasionally desired by congenital imbeciles and the editors of magazines to say something about the writing of detective fiction ‘from the woman’s point of view.’ You might as well ask what is the female angle on an equilateral triangle.” Like T.S. Eliot and her friend C.S. Lewis, she was also a tough-minded apologist for Christianity.

As Ralph Hone reveals in his biography of Sayers, she was eccentric, private and opinionated (“Everything she said was a statement, almost an edict,” a friend testified). Her minister father began to teach her Latin when Dorothy was barely seven. Her talent for languages lingered: in 1915 she took first-class honors at Somerville College, Oxford, in modern and medieval French. There followed a period in which, as Hone prudishly puts it, she “realized the promises of physical sensuality.” After two failed love affairs and an illegitimate son (whom she placed with a country cousin), Sayers married Atherton Fleming, a badly wounded war veteran. She wrote detective novels to supplement her income from an advertising job, but quickly determined to make the genre “become once more a novel of manners instead of a pure crossword puzzle.”

Unlike C.S. Lewis, Sayers did not come late to religion. It was “no accident,” she later wrote, that Gaudy Night, her penultimate detective work, and The Zeal of Thy House, her first religious drama, were “variations upon a hymn to the Master Maker.” During her later years, religion became increasingly important in her life. Hone follows Sayers as, dressed in mannish suits, she made her public rounds of BBC talks and academic lectures. But her private life remains largely a mystery—as does Hone’s reason for calling this a “literary biography,” since it fails to analyze the books or the career. Instead, he splices together bits of Sayers’ life and pieces of her work so that the whole resembles an unfinished puzzle rather than a portrait.

As Her Whimsey Took Her fares better, largely because it addresses the most fascinating aspect of Sayers’ career: how the same sensibility could embrace low crime and high church. “Part of her peculiar genius was to see connections and similarities between situations and concepts that to ordinary people might appear widely different,” Alzina Stone Dale notes in one canny essay. The pieces devoted to Sayers’ detective fiction show her increasing concern with questions of guilt and punishment, and Lord Peter’s corresponding change from a Bertie Wooster type to a man whose conscience is as well-developed as his charm. Similarly, the essays on Sayers’ religious dramas show her unique amalgam of piety and earthy wit. “Artists who paint pictures of our Lord in the likeness of a dismal-look ing, die-away person, with his hair parted in the middle, ought to be excommunicated for blasphemy,” she once argued.

This collection is only a “first critical study,” as Editor Margaret Hannay points out. Even so, it works too hard and omits too much. There is no analysis of Sayers’ political and social ideas and no assessment of her literary value.

There is only one example of her great breadth of knowledge. She once noted that she had ten quotations in mind while describing the church roof in The Nine Tailors: “Incredibly aloof, flinging back the light in a dusky shimmer of bright hair and gilded outspread wings, soared the ranked angels . . .” The allusions ranged from the Bible, Milton and Donne to Keats and T.S. Eliot.

A pity Lord Peter could not write Sayers’ biography. He would carefully assemble the clues and evidence, including a previously undiscovered manuscript or two exhumed from a country library. Then, over a bottle of Cockburn ’80 port, with Purcell playing softly in the background, he would construct the ideal manuscript: analytic to a fault, but with a touch of inspired whimsey. As it is, Sayers must wait to be rescued from the sort of “unmitigated Grimth” that she deplored among Dante scholars. —Annalyn Swan

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