Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul

I finished Barbara Reynold’s biography of Dorothy Sayers this evening feeling as if I know a lot more about both Sayers’s life and her personality. I already knew a little bit of the biographical outline–Somerville, a child “out of wedlock,” a turn to religious writing, translations of Dante–but because in my life she has always mattered because of her Peter Wimsey novels, I never really focused on anything else about her. I knew (and know better now) that she would not have wanted it that way, and yet that even in her lifetime she had to live with the frustration of other people’s preoccupation with her famous detective. She wrote to a friend that one reason she didn’t write more Wimsey novels was precisely that people kept importuning her to do it: “I have been so much put off by being badgered to do it when I was wrapped up in other things that the mere thought now gives me a kind of nausea. . . . the thought of being pushed and halloooed into the old routine fills me with distaste.” Fair enough–but except for now feeling I really ought to, and would actually quite like to, read Dante in her translation (confession: I haven’t read Dante in any translation so far), I’m still with those badgerers and halloooers.

I think one reason I can’t move forward with her is that I don’t share her religious convictions and so I can’t really enter into the mental world or the enthusiasms of her later career. In some ways Sayers is a more easily likeable person than Vera Brittain, or even than Winifred Holtby–it turns out she was rather a bon vivante, much more playful and frisky than the other two, and more tough and racy as well. But their passionate sincerity and dedication to social and political causes are easier for me to care about than Sayers’s radio plays about the life of Christ. It’s clear from the material Reynolds includes, though, that Sayers embraces a kind of practical or tough-minded Christianity, and also that she does see it as important to integrate religious with political thought and action. In one of her letters, she emphasizes that her faith is not instinctive or (she thought) irrational:

Since I cannot come through God through intuition, or through my emotions, or through my ‘inner light’ (except in the unendearing form of judgment and conviction of sin) there is only the intellect left. And that is a very different matter. . . Where the intellect is dominant it becomes the channel of all the other feelings. The ‘passionate intellect’ is really passionate. It is the only point at which ecstasy can enter. I do not know whether we can be saved by the intellect, but I do know that I can be saved by nothing else.

Reynolds goes on to say that Sayers found this “combination of intellectual light and spiritual ardour” in Dante; I would add that it seems the right way also to describe the love of Harriet and Peter, not just in the resolution of Gaudy Night but in the ecstatic passages of Busman’s Honeymoon–which I was glad Reynolds did not apologize for, as many have:

The love-scenes in Busman’s Honeymoon are exultant. The surprising, and original, thing about them, for a novel, is that they are love-scenes between a husband and a wife. Despite the deterioration of her own marriage, Dorothy L. Sayers the writer has allowed herself to visualize Hymen as a god of joy. Romantic sentiment, which she had so long distrusted, here comes triumphantly into its own.

I always thought so too.

One last quotation I liked, this time not from Sayers but about Sayers, from a letter from Professor R. D. Waller of the University of Manchester thanking Sayers for her lecture there on Dante. It had “heart,” he said, explaining further

that it was about something humanly interesting and that you were humanly interested in it . . . I don’t see why professors and lecturers shouldn’t try to give lectures like yours and so put a bit of heart into their universities . . . I think you do a good thing giving lectures like that when you can in universities . . . University people have grown shy of committing themselves to anything, especially in the presence of their colleagues, for fear of being proved wrong, or perhaps of being thought naïve for having any beliefs or enthusiasms.

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