Whenever we play the game of “Which character in history would you most like to meet?” my answer inevitably is Dorothy L. Sayers. Born in 1893, Sayers attended Somerville College, an all-womans college part of Oxford University, finishing her studies in modern languages and medieval literature with first class honors. The problem? This was before the famous institution allowed women to receive a degree. They were allowed to do the work, but they couldn’t receive recognition for that work. All that changed in 1920, and women who had previously done the work were invited to apply for degrees, making Sayers one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford, an M.A. no less.
Soon Sayers turned her hand to writing, creating one of the most famous detectives of the Golden Age of Detection, Lord Peter Wimsy, who came into the world stage in 1923. Being the younger son of a duke, he gets to play while his older brother, Gerald, Duke of Denver, manages the estate. His favorite pastimes? Collecting old, valuable manuscripts and solving mysteries. He also is very athletic, having been one of the best cricket players Oxford ever saw, and loves to play Bach on his harpsichord.
Since all good detectives must have a sidekick, he has his manservant, Mervyn Bunter, who had served him as batman, a kind of soldier- servant to the officers, during the war. But Sayers breaks from the traditions of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot in not having Bunter narrate the books. Despite being a servant, Bunter is truly Lord Peter’s best friend and comrade and is an expert at all the latest forensic techniques and photography. The character of Bunter, while upright and formal, is very endearing, and we are forced to smile when Lord Peter says, “We’ll ask Bunter. He knows everything.”
In addition to Bunter, we see Charles Parker, Lord Peter’s friend and collaborator from Scotland Yard, with whom he teams up to solve his mysteries. Scandalously to the society of the day, Charles eventually marries Lady Mary, Lord Peter’s younger sister despite their wide differences in stations of life.
When discussing the characters in the Lord Peter Wimsy books, we must not neglect the women in Lord Peter’s life, for they are as well- rounded as the men. The Dowager Duchess of Denver, one of the best old ladies in literature. She supports Lord Peter wholeheartedly and actually introduces to him his first case that we see, in Whose Body? where a timid little man finds the body of a naked man in his bathtub, wearing nothing but pince nez, which are glasses without the arms to go around the ears.
The other significant woman is Harriet Vane, whom we meet in Strong Poison. Lord Peter immediately falls in love with her and saves her life when she is charged with murdering her former lover. We come to see her as a true equal to Lord Peter, a woman who can hold her own both intellectually and personally. She is generally considered to be the alter-ero of Sayers herself, as she writes mystery novels to support herself, and, unbeknownst to the world until after her death, Sayers herself had a lover andf an illegitimate child, whom she later legally adopted to keep up her pretense.
The First World War had a significant impact on the lives and social structure of everyone in England, and we see this in the case of Lord Peter, who served as a major during the war and came back so shell-shocked (their term then for PTSD) that he couldn’t function at all. Only with the help of Bunter did he recover, but we sé relapses in Whose Body? and Busman’s Honeymoon, the first and last books in the series respectively.
Sayers broke from tradition of the era to address social issues of the day, each book taking on a new concern, whether the fate of former soldiers in the war, truth in advertising (Sayers herself worked in advertising for years and is credited with coining the phrase, “It pays to advertise!”), the dangers of drug smugglers, women in education, or the evils of the Nazi creed.
Sayers did not limit herself to mystery fiction, though. One of my favorite stories about her is the way she wrote a series of radio dramas about the life of Christ called The Man Born to Be King. Since she was writing in Britain, where speech conveyed enormous indications of one’s class at the time, Sayers made use of the speech system to indicate the classes of the people with whom Jesus interacted. But when this played on the BBC in 1943, there was great outrage, first that Sayers didn’t use the language of the King James Bible (after all, if it was good enough for Jesus, then it must be good enough for us!). But even worse was her choice to use a cockney accent and even more common terminology for the lowest class of society. The upper crust of society would never have met a Cockney, and because some of the cockney terms migrated to America and made it into movies, the BBC got many complaints that Sayers had dared to use Americanisms on the British Broadcasting Channel!
But though Sayers lived in 1957, she wrote her last Lord Peter Wimsy book, Busman’s Honeymoon, in 1937. The rest of her life she devoted to writing works of theology (I have a nice little booklet titled Are Women Human?, which is one of her only forays into openly addressing the question of feminism, which she preferred to address sideways by showing rather than telling). Then, in 1949, she published part one of her magnum opus, a translation from the ancient Italian into modern English of Dante’s Divine Comedy. After Hell, which most people think of as Inferno, Sayers published Purgatory in 1955, and had Paradise published posthumously in 1962 after being completed upon Sayers’s death by Barbara Reynolds.
So just why do I consider Dorothy L. Sayers to be so remarkable? In a day when women were expected to follow rigid social norms despite the break-up of the social structure after the war, Sayers found her own way to subvert that and support herself for years before she married Mac Fleming in 1926. Then, despite having had her own love affair that resulted in an illegitimate child, one of the greatest sins a Christian woman might commit in society’s eyes even now, she went on with her life and even became a respected theologian, with a number of Christian works to her name. Her mystery books are meticulously plotted, using real science time and again to solve the mystery without turning her books into scientific mysteries. She did that by creating such well- rounded characters that we come to know them well and love them (or hate them, as the caee may be!).
So join me for the next three months as we finish our journey studying the three grand dames of mystery with my favorite of the bunch: Dorothy L. Sayers!