June 13

1893 Birth of Dorothy Sayers

Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force. – Dorothy Sayers

Dorothy Sayers loved to provoke. Born the daughter of an Anglican clergyman in 1893, she learned Latin at age 6, entered Oxford before women were granted degrees, and began writing poetry to shock traditional Christian pieties. She scorned popularity to the extent that she asked a friend to set off a scandal by writing a letter to the Church Times denouncing her new book. In her collection of essays entitled Unpopular Opinions, she included pieces such as “Are Women Human?” Speaking to an audience of British Christian leaders, she described her fellow believers as “tiresome, stupid, selfish, quarrelsome, pig-headed, and infuriating.”

Sayers’ unorthodoxy carried over into her private life. She conducted an affair with a Russian poet but dumped him when he proposed marriage. She then moved on to a relationship with a married car salesman who got her, at age 30, pregnant. Sayers gave birth secretly to a son whom she gave up to some relatives to raise – though she later adopted the boy he never lived with her and never learned her secret until after her death. Two years later she entered into a troubled marriage to a shell-shocked war veteran .

It was in these tumultuous years that Sayers fashioned herself into a very successful writer of mysteries during the Golden Age of that genre. Her detective stories featuring the effete English nobleman/sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey and the unassuming travelling wine salesman Montague Egg were best-sellers, making her comfortably well off. But equal to her fame as an author of middle-brow fiction was her place as a defender of Christianity. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) her feisty character and challenging life circumstances, she was also a bold and effective expositor of religious truth.

Sayers believed that Christianity in the twentieth century had grown soft, undemanding and compromised. People had come to believe they were practising their religion when they were merely conforming to local social traditions and being nice. “The people who hanged Christ,” she said, “never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore – on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him ‘meek and mild’ and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.” The solution, Sayers thought, was to shock them into reconsidering their position.

She did this first through the medium of radio. In her 1938 play about the Nativity of Jesus entitled He That Should Come, and The Man Born to be King, a cycle of 12 other BBC productions about the life of Christ, Sayers challenged a 300-year-old law that banned the portrayal of God in staged drama. Other shocks included actors speaking contemporary English, instead of King James Version-era Biblical speech, and characters whose daily concerns mirrored those of the vast audience the plays reached. Sayers was unmoved by the uproar she had created, saying, “Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much worse for the pious—others will pass into the kingdom of heaven before them. If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of their being offended at something that is not Christ and is nothing like him? We do him singularly little honour by watering down his personality till it could not offend a fly. Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.” The plays were enormously successful, often translated into other languages and frequently restaged.

Sayers continued her attack on religious complacency in books such as The Mind of the Maker and Creed or Chaos?, a book often compared to C.S. Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity. She continued to insist that real faith must be grounded in more than emotion and sentiment; it must rest on a knowledge of, and acceptance of, the fundamental truths defined by the early church. She stated “It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and incompromising realism. “

Dorothy Sayers died on December 17, 1957. Every year on that date she is commemorated by the Episcopal Church with this prayer: Almighty God, who strengthened your servant Dorothy Sayers with eloquence to defend Christian teaching: Keep us, we pray, steadfast in your true religion, that in constancy and peace we may always teach right doctrine, and teach doctrine rightly; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The great advantage about telling the truth is that nobody ever believes it. 

As I grow older and older,/ And totter toward the tomb,/ I find that I care less and less,/ Who goes to bed with whom.

None of us feels the true love of God till we realize how wicked we are. But you can’t teach people that – they have to learn by experience.

The worst sin – perhaps the only sin – passion can commit, is to be joyless.

One thought on “June 13”

  1. Wow. Much that I didn’t know, and I’ve been reading her detective fiction since high school (back when dinosaurs ruled the earth).

    Curious that one so focused on Christianity could live a life that seems so (to use an unfashionable word)… sinful. I doubt she was very likeable.

    Why is detective fiction middlebrow? That’s not a challenge, just a question when much of it is certainly better that some self-styled “literary fiction.”

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