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Dorothy L Sayers

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, January 8, 2020


Illustration of Dorothy L Sayers by Jim GodfreyDorothy L Sayers was a celebrated crime writer and poet, best known for a series of novels featuring the aristocrat and amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. She also wrote a number of religious essays and plays


Early life

Dorothy Leigh Sayers was born in Oxford on 13 June 1893, the only child of the Reverend Henry Sayers and Helen Mary (née Leigh) at the Headmaster’s House, Christ Church Cathedral School, No 1 Brewer Street. Her father was one of eight Cathedral Chaplains, each of whom had a particular area of responsibility. She was baptised by her father in the Cathedral on 15 July 1893. (The service took place in the Lucy Chapel in a newly installed font which was subsequently moved to the North Transept and then removed completely).

She was brought up at Bluntisham Rectory, Cambridgeshire, and attended the Godolphin School, Salisbury, winning a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford. She graduated in 1915 (one of the first women in the university to do so) with first class honours in modern languages, though women were still not formally awarded degrees at this time. Indeed, it was only in 1920 that a new statute was passed allowing women to receive their degrees.

Sayers had not wholly enjoyed academic life, and after graduating she joined Blackwell’s, the Oxford publishers. Then, for several years, she worked at the London advertising firm of Bensons (she came up with the slogan ‘Guinness is good for you’), until 1929 when she was able to support herself by her writing.


Sayers the novelist

Her first major work was ‘Whose Body’, written in 1923, and which featured the detective Lord Peter Wimsey, a witty gentleman scholar who would feature in fourteen volumes of novels or short stories. In ‘How I Came to invent the Character of Lord Peter Wimsey’, Sayers wrote; ‘Lord Peter’s large income … I deliberately gave him … After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him …. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence’.

Sayers quickly rose to become a leading light in the world of crime fiction, and was, from 1949 to 1957, President of the Detection Club (other presidents included G. K. Chesterton and Agatha Christie). She wrote the last, and perhaps most famous of her crime novels, Gaudy Night, in 1935, in which Harriet Vane (a figure based on Sayers herself), falls in love with Lord Peter.


Sayers in the world

With her financial situation now secure her interests turned to religious writing. She had been asked to write a play for the Canterbury Festival, an international celebration of the arts initiated in 1920 by George Bell during his time as Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. The result was ‘Zeal for Thy House’, a play about William of Sens, who rebuilt the chancel of Canterbury Cathedral in 1174 after it was destroyed by fire. This was followed by a number of religious plays, the most important of which was ‘The Man Born to be King’ a radio drama based on the life of Jesus broadcast by the BBC in 1941. Her portrayal of Christ speaking in modern English provoked a storm of protest but revolutionised religious play-writing.

Sayers’ personal life was complicated. In 1923 she entered into a relationship with a married man with whom she had an illegitimate child. The child was cared for by her aunt and passed off as her nephew to friends and family. In 1935 Sayers officially adopted him but still did not reveal her identity as his mother. (He was only to discover the truth when he obtained his birth certificate when applying for a passport). In 1926 Sayers married a divorced man, Captain Atherton Fleming (known as Mac). He was a Fleet Street journalist, who had suffered from poison gas in the First World War, which caused physical and emotional problems until his death in 1950.

Sayers herself died suddenly of a coronary thrombosis on 17 December 1957. Her remains were cremated and her ashes buried beneath the tower of St Anne’s Church, Soho, where she had been a churchwarden for many years.


At Christ Church, Dorothy L Sayers appears in the Baptismal Register kept in the College Archive. She is also commemorated by a blue plaque on the wall of No 1 Brewer Street (the building now contains classrooms for the school).