The Mind of a Maker
An Introduction to the Thought of Dorothy L. Sayers Through Her Letters
by Adam Schwartz
C. S. Lewis told Dorothy L. Sayers that “you are one of the great English letter writers,” and he then created a mock eulogy for her: “It is often forgotten that Miss Sayers was known in her day as an Author. We who have been familiar from childhood with the Letters can hardly realize! . . .”1 With the steady publication since 1995 of Sayers’s letters, Lewis’s jest can now be put to the test.
Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957) was the most significant female British Christian intellectual of the twentieth century. As a pioneering detective novelist and mystery theorist, a path-breaking playwright, a piquant translator of and commentator on Dante, an incisive apologist, an underappreciated poet, and a mordant literary and social critic, she made a substantial impact on nearly as many fields as G. K. Chesterton or C. S. Lewis. Sayers discussed all these matters at length in her letters.
Happily, there is no need to choose between her published writings and her epistles. Rather, her letters complement Sayers’s efforts in other genres, and the combination is a weighty body of thought that deserves more widespread and serious critical attention than it commonly receives.2 Her published letters enrich understanding of Sayers’s life and deepen comprehension of her intellectual and creative development.
The publication of Sayers’s letters also provokes reflection on her seminal contribution to twentieth-century British thought and culture. What her letters highlight most clearly is the coherence of her outlook. Certain key themes pervade her letters and undergirded her output in diverse genres: a commitment to Catholic Christianity, a belief in the sanctity of work, a devotion to intellectual integrity and vitality, a disdain of sentiment, and a sturdy Christian realism that made her suspicious of many central tenets of modern culture.
Precocious Child, Troubled Adult
Dorothy L. Sayers was born at Oxford in 1893, the only child of an Anglican clergyman and his wife. Henry Sayers accepted a living in East Anglia four and a half years later, so his daughter grew up within the walls of Bluntisham Rectory. A precocious child, Dorothy received extensive tutoring from her father and governesses, beginning Latin lessons at age six and eventually learning French and German too, while also absorbing much classic European literature.
The transition from this happy and stimulating home to English boarding school life was not smooth. Sayers entered the Godolphin school in January 1909 and, like many intellectuals of her generation, she believed that she was considered a “weird freak” by her classmates (1:46). Her letters to her parents are punctuated by frequent expressions of homesickness and boredom, a general tedium relieved by theatricals, excursions, and visits from relatives. On the whole, she was not sorry to see her tenure at Godolphin end when illness caused her to return home in December 1911.
After a few months of recuperation and private study, Sayers went up to Sommerville College at Oxford (to which she had won a Gilchrist Scholarship) in October 1912. Despite some initial homesickness, by 1913 Sayers was confessing a longing for Oxford during a vacation spent at Bluntisham. Whereas she had felt bored and out of place at Godolphin, Sayers flourished both academically and socially at Oxford, earning a First Class degree and attending a steady stream of parties and outings. Oxford would always have a totemic place in Sayers’s imagination (as revealed most powerfully in her finest novel, Gaudy Night), and she found it hard to leave upon graduation in 1915. She pined for Oxford during an unsatisfactory period of teaching in Hull, and returned to it in 1917 to work as a publisher’s apprentice for Basil Blackwell.
By 1919, though, she was dissatisfied with this post, lonely, and in need of “an absolute change of everything,” which prompted her to spend a year in France assisting at a school (1:153). By 1920 she was back in Britain, and following two years of teaching, tutoring, translating, and beginning work on two detective novels, Sayers joined S. H. Benson’s advertising agency in May 1922. Although grateful for the steady work, Sayers thought of herself as primarily an author by this time and yearned to devote more time to writing. It would nevertheless be seven and a half years before she was able to live by her pen.
Sayers’s frustrations in young adulthood were exacerbated by crises in her personal life. One of the most traumatic incidents was her relationship with writer John Cournos. They met in 1921 and Sayers became deeply committed to him. Cournos claimed to oppose marriage and having children on principle, but was willing to be Sayers’s lover if they used contraception. She refused, ending the affair in 1922 because she desired marriage and despised the anxieties of a clandestine relationship: “One can’t be ecstatic about something which involves telling lies to one’s charwoman!” (1:222) Cournos had also scorned detective stories, even as Sayers was beginning to write them. She was thus wounded deeply to learn in 1924 that he had wed an American detective writer with two children. Her letters to him following this discovery are the most poignant in these volumes, not only because of the specific suffering Cournos had caused Sayers, but also because these missives were one of the rare times that she gave full expression to her emotions.3
But Sayers had good reason to feel emotionally febrile at this time. She was very vulnerable after parting with Cournos and soon became friendly with a car salesman and motor engineer, Bill White, who (perhaps unbeknownst to Sayers) was married. Neither wanted a permanent relationship, and they soon began an affair in which they used contraception. Sayers nonetheless became pregnant in 1923. As Reynolds reveals for the first time, White’s wife came to her aid, helping Sayers to conceal her pregnancy from her family and co-workers and even arranging for her brother to (unwittingly) oversee the delivery. Sayers gave birth to a son, John Anthony, on January 3, 1924, and entrusted him to her cousin, Ivy Shrimpton (who fostered children for a living), swearing her to secrecy and pledging financial support.
Sayers hoped to bring John to live with her eventually, and prospects for this seemed to improve when she married journalist Atherton “Mac” Fleming in 1926. Yet their union was shadowed from the outset by the fact that Fleming was divorced, which barred them from marrying in the Anglican Church. (Indeed Sayers condemned the Church’s “rigid view” about divorce as late as 1949 [3:473].) Although she gave her parents only cursory notice of her plans (much as her own son would to her years later), they accepted Fleming and the marriage seemed happy for a time.
Sayers’s letters, though, reveal increased difficulties by 1934, and while they adopted John Anthony in 1935, he never resided with them. Her later letters disclose often trying domestic conditions, compounded by Mac’s poor health (which culminated in his death in 1950), and a distant, if still caring, relationship with her son. These painful episodes and strenuous circumstances may help explain Sayers’s frequently expressed dislike of retrospect and her often vehement insistence on a rigid separation between an author’s life and works.
The Writer & Translator
Sayers’s own works are greatly illuminated by these letters. She is still best known for her detective fiction, particularly the tales of Lord Peter Wimsey. Indeed, an unfinished Wimsey completed by British novelist Jill Paton Walsh was briefly a best-seller in 1998.4 Although Sayers may have originally written such stories chiefly because of their salability, she quickly became interested in the genre’s artistic possibilities. She explored and explicated this potential through her own contributions to, and theoretical considerations of, detective fiction.
Her letters shed light on the conception and gestation of particular novels, especially The Documents in the Case, as well as her reflections on the form itself. Sayers believed that “if I have done anything at all original or important as regards the detective story, it has been in the way of making it a proper novel with a mystery element, and not a mere puzzle” (3:396). She wished to elevate the detective novel to the level of the novel of manners, asserting in 1935 that Peter Wimsey “will do rather less purely police work in the future, and deal more in human drama” (1:361). This ambition was already at work in Gaudy Night (1935), and was also present in Busman’s Honeymoon (1937), which was revealingly subtitled “a love story with detective interruptions.” Yet, despite much public demand, Sayers wrote no more Wimsey novels after this one.
Some scholars have speculated that Sayers had concluded that the genre was impatient of the transformation she desired.5 Yet her letters reveal plans for further Wimsey books, continued interest in this kind of literature, and explicit denials that she had renounced the detective novel. In truth, Sayers simply became absorbed in work in other fields, found her time and energy thus diverted from mystery writing, and felt it impossible to compose under the compulsion of Wimsey fans clamoring for more books.6
One particularly rich vein that she began mining was drama. Sayers had been interested in all aspects of the theater from her youth and even had hopes of becoming an actress. In 1910, however, she reported that a teacher “rather thinks I should probably be a greater success as a dramatist than as an actor” (1:49). This judgment was prescient. In 1936, although Sayers had written only one play as an adult (which was not yet even in rehearsals), Charles Williams persuaded Canterbury Cathedral to ask her to craft one to be performed in the church as part of an annual festival. This was a daunting challenge, as Sayers’s immediate predecessors as Canterbury playwrights were T. S. Eliot and Williams himself. Yet she accepted, authoring The Zeal of Thy House, which was received well, toured briefly, and was revived at Canterbury in 1949.
Sayers would write more such dramas, most importantly The Devil to Pay (1939) and The Just Vengeance (1946), which she deemed “the best thing I’ve done,” and these plays contributed to a renascence of British liturgical drama. She completed twenty plays of various sorts, the best-known of which is an innovative cycle of radio plays telling the life of Christ, The Man Born to Be King (1943), which C. S. Lewis claimed to read every Holy Week. These letters reveal much about Sayers’s careful writing of, and intimate involvement in the production of, these plays, as well as the frequent disputes with her sponsors that this dedication provoked.
Sayers was equally devoted to another project that Charles Williams helped inspire. Like many of her peers, Sayers had not read Dante’s Divine Comedy during her education. It was only after perusing Williams’s commentary on it, The Figure of Beatrice, that Sayers decided to take up and read the medieval poem, which immediately captivated her. Her letters to Williams about Dante (reproduced for the first time in their entirety in volume 3) disclose her initial enthusiasm and insight into the poem. She began translating it by the end of 1944 and was motivated by Williams’s encouragement to proceed even after his unexpected death in 1945.
Translating and commenting on Dante would be Sayers’s central project until her own death a dozen years later. Her letters not only show her continued delight in, and growing mastery of, the text, but also are instructive about the translation process itself. Yet even such an apparently empyreal venture did not distract Sayers from careful observations of her culture. In fact, her translation and commentaries on Dante contained a conscious contemporary subtext, as had The Man Born to Be King and other plays, which complemented frequent probing essays of direct social criticism that she published from the 1940s onward.
A Sacramental Christian
As different as these fields of creativity are, Sayers’s work in them was fertilized by a coherent worldview composed of interconnected core convictions. First, there was her Catholicism. Sayers’s parents were Broad Church, and her early religiosity seems to have been more aesthetic than doctrinal. By 1916, however, she was “trying to find the ‘Highest’ church,” a position she would hold thenceforth (1:120). She opposed literalism from an early age and condemned a crabbed Christianity often, but she also frequently mocked the Higher Criticism.
To Sayers, orthodox Catholicism was preferable to what she considered alternatives of renewed Arianism or Gnosticism because it affirmed her belief in the sacramentality of Being: “Christianity is the only great pagan religion left alive in the West, in the sense that it makes a symbol of the whole of material life, instead of being a merely intellectual philosophy with a system of ethics and physical culture tacked on to it” (3:4). This belief in the goodness of both spirit and matter and in their holy synergy made her favorable to what little she knew of Orthodoxy, but it did not prompt her to follow many like-minded Catholics from Canterbury to Rome.7
Sayers was troubled by Roman Catholic sexual ethics, veneration of Mary, and, perhaps most importantly, claims to authority in doctrinal matters (3:413–414).8 But she did not believe that these differences should cloud Catholic Christians’ common convictions, and she therefore advocated articulation of a “Highest Common Factor of Consent” on dogma that all orthodox Catholics could espouse based on the teachings of the Four Ecumenical Councils. Such ecumenical efforts may recall C. S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity,” but Sayers’s Catholic focus gave them (at least in theory) a slightly narrower scope, as she propounded “an ‘oecumencial and Catholic’ interpretation of the Creeds . . . acceptable to the three ‘Catholic’ branches of the Church: Roman, Greek-Orthodox, and Anglican” (2:298).9
Sayers’s commitment to sacramentality, which gave her a strongly Catholic identity, also decisively shaped her attitudes toward work. Sayers believed that “to have work to do, and know that this work is wanted, is the basic human need” (2:274). But, she asserted, modern culture had improperly equated work with employment, failing to note “the profound gulf between the work to which we are ‘called’ and the work we are forced into as a means of livelihood” (2:248). To Sayers, only the former deserved to be termed “work,” for it alone met her definition of work as “an outward and visible sign of a creative reality,” an axiom she grounded in Catholic theology: “an Incarnate Creator is the fundamental sanction for looking on all man’s work in a sacramental light—the manifestation of his divine creativeness in matter” (2:247–248).
More specifically, Sayers advocated a view of work akin to J. R. R. Tolkien’s idea of “subcreation.” To her, being made in God’s image and likeness meant being a creative creature. Though humans could not create ex nihilo, they could make original things out of what God had made, thereby mirroring divine creativity in human labor. Sayers thought such work was also an imitation of Christ, for it was God the Son, the Word of God, through whom all things were made.
Yet Sayers also claimed that “Man (made a craftsman in the image of the Master-Craftsman) in making a work of art presents also an image of the Triune, because ‘every work of creation’ is three-fold” (2:45). Sayers argued that every creative act has three elements: a complete preexistent Idea that begets an artifact, like a book (“Father”); an Energy that is the physical incarnation of that artwork, but that also exists with the Idea before and after the actual avatar is produced (“Son”); and a Power that proceeds from the Idea and the Energy and represents how the artifact is received by its creator and audience (“Spirit”). Sayers thought these components were co-eternal because of their synergy: “Idea, Energy, Power—it is always the same book . . . and if you were to ask [the author] which of the three was ‘the real Book’ . . . he could only say, ‘each and all of them,’ because you can’t really separate them, even in thought” (2:46). This analogy between the human creative process and the Trinity is Sayers’s profound contribution to Christian aesthetics. She elaborated its tenets in The Mind of the Maker (1941), but they are anticipated and reiterated strikingly in her letters.
The “Christian Writer”?
Given the close connection Sayers asserted between artistic creativity and Christian doctrine, is it appropriate to label her output that of a “Christian writer?” Like Graham Greene, Sayers was troubled by such designations. She contended that if a writer “has a religion, then that religion will color everything he writes, whether the subject is ostensibly ‘religious’ or not” (3:20), but she insisted that Christian authors must respect the distinct demands of each different discourse that they write in.
To her, piety could not excuse poor craftsmanship, as “for any work of art to be acceptable to God it must first be right with itself . . . the artist must serve God in the technique of his craft” (2:261). Because reason and matter are intrinsically good gifts of God, works of human minds and hands that are made well according to the conventions of their genres have a holiness apart from any specifically sacred purpose; and, conversely, if “work is not true to itself it cannot be true to God or anything else . . . bad art is bad Christianity” (2:308). As Sayers concluded in one of her most important essays, “The only Christian work is good work well done.”10
This belief in “the autonomy of technique” was crucial to another central Sayersian principle: intellectual integrity. Believing that creative work has inherent validity, Sayers considered it imperative to treat each genre with dignity and never to compromise their muses’ demands: “If you admit at all that gifts and talents have any sanctity in themselves . . . you have to deal honestly with them and respect their proper truth” (3:252). Sayers claimed to have begun learning this “reverence for the working mind” at Oxford (2:223), and she summarized this ethic’s implications well in 1946: “If I have no truth asking to be communicated, then neither the money, nor the hope of influencing people, or of giving pleasure, or fulfilling a demand, or anything else ought to weigh with me” (3:256). Such a commitment to single-mindedness stimulated the concomitant belief that “whatever ‘vocation’ is, it is imperative . . . the writer is about his Father’s business, and it does not matter who is inconvenienced or how much he has to hate his father and mother. To be false to the work is to be false to the truth” (2:249, 218).
Adherence to these norms was a hallmark of her own creative practice. As her letters demonstrate abundantly, Sayers paid punctilious attention to the composition and public presentations of her fiction, drama, translations, and essays, and she accepted only those writing and speaking offers that seemed the proper forums for expressing some already deeply felt conviction. But her strained relationships with her husband and son show that there were personal costs to this uncompromising emphasis on the worth of the work, and her dedication also precipitated occasional outbursts of pride and petulance. She recognized this temptation in her letters, and made the often fine distinction between commitment to craftsmanship and celebration of egotism the key theme of The Zeal of Thy House.
Harmony of Head & Heart
Sayers’s belief in intellectual integrity also helped harmonize her head and heart. Sayers found it difficult to express emotion from early on, but her reticence was exacerbated by the aftershocks of her relationship with Cournos and her crisis pregnancy. In religious matters, she claimed to have “no great gift of faith . . . Nor am I able to approach Christianity by way of what is called ‘religious emotion’ . . . To me, Christian dogma seems to offer the only explanation of the universe that is intellectually satisfactory” (2:401). She even wondered whether she was a genuine Christian or “whether I have only fallen in love with an intellectual pattern” (2:429).
Yet Sayers realized that exclusive reliance on the intellect could become a dangerous form of Gnosticism. To her, the principle of intellectual integrity allowed the mind to govern the emotions while ensuring that reason would itself be regulated by scrupulous respect for concrete, external reality: “No relation can ever be sound that is not founded in faith to the fact. So that, unless the heart and mind are brought into this true relation, they must be kept apart or produce nothing but discord . . . see that the mind is honest, first; the rest may follow or not as God wills” (1:353–354).
Additionally, Sayers rejected what she regarded as the modern divorce between thought and feeling. Instead, she upheld the “passionate intellect”: “Not the same thing as an intellectual passion, nor altogether what I fancy Wordsworth meant by ‘feeling intellect’ . . . but something more intense and fiercer” (3:92). To Sayers, intellectual activity was not solemn and dull, but vibrant and vital. She was drawn to Dante because his work seemed to embody this sensibility, and she thought Christian doctrine especially suited to presentation as plays for the same reason:
Yet Sayers thought such misunderstandings of Christian doctrine were rife in her day, and this concern fostered her efforts in apologetics.
The Reluctant Apologist
Sayers was a reluctant evangelist. She feared that apologetic work would dissipate her energies and produce mediocrity in both evangelism and in what she regarded as her proper sphere of creative writing. She also seemed discomfited explaining and defending the reasonability of certain beliefs that she was not necessarily convinced of personally. But her belief in intellectual integrity was offended by what she deemed popular distortions of Christian dogma, and she insisted that people should have an accurate understanding of these doctrines even if they rejected them ultimately:
Unlike C. S. Lewis, then, Sayers’s apologetics were driven primarily by a passion for ordering minds rather than for saving souls. As she told Lewis, “You like souls. I don’t. God is simply taking advantage of the fact that I can’t stand intellectual chaos, and it isn’t fair” (2:413).
However unfair this burden may have seemed to Sayers, she was as conscientious in this field as in any other as she pondered how to convey Christian truths in a resonant idiom. Sayers believed that what she considered the dramatic vitality of dogma had become deadened to many people through familiarity and stale presentations that made doctrine seem remote from contemporary realities. She thought this apparent irrelevance of the Church’s convictions to modern concerns contributed greatly to the emergence of a post-Christian culture in Britain by helping to alienate both intellectuals and common people from the faith: the “prevalent impression [is] that the Christian religion is unreal, depressing, and fit only for very stupid people” (2:116–117).
Sayers contended that these misconceptions could be countered convincingly by presenting Christianity in current language and literary forms (like plays), thereby stripping hidebound associations from doctrines and spurring people to view their content afresh. The end result of such rhetorical immediacy, she hoped, would be renewed appreciation of Christianity’s present and permanent significance: “It is by the use of modern idiom that I have from time to time been able to galvanize the public into the realization that events in the Bible took place in times very like our own, and were concerned with real people” (2:207).12
Sayers cautioned against abuses in making these translations to the vernacular, and she emphasized frequently that, however personal her expression of these doctrines, their content was solely and completely that of the Church.13 But she still did not escape censure from other Christians who found her attempts to give Christianity “nowness” irreverent (particularly The Man Born to Be King), much as some Dante critics thought her translations of The Divine Comedy sacrificed respect for the poem in a kindred quest for liveliness and contemporary pertinence.
A Pernicious Sentimentality
Some of these objections arose from one of Sayers’s principal bête noirs, sentimentality. As early as 1929, she declared that “nothing is so tedious as sentiment” (1:292), and this conviction only intensified thenceforth, for she thought sentimentality affronted her belief in integrity and was particularly dangerous in her time. To Sayers, “the cultivation of religious emotion without philosophic basis is thoroughly pernicious,” for it downplays, and hence distorts, the centrality of doctrine and thus encourages the sense that religion is unintellectual (1:306).
She condemned alike saccharine spirituality and what she regarded as a false equation of reverence with staid solemnity (a criticism she also applied to Danteans who “insist on being noble and they end up being prim” [3:132]). She thought that such misperceptions not only bred a false and muddled portrait of Christianity, but also cultivated a mindset hostile to the autonomy of technique. To her, it is “a flabby and sentimental theology which necessarily produces flabby and sentimental religious art” (2:261). She thought that the Church had mostly ignored the independent integrity of secular vocations and hence was willing to sanction poorly made works if they had acceptable religious themes. In turn, Sayers believed, genuine artists were estranged from official religion, identifying Christianity with “artistic frivolity and intellectual dishonesty” (2:383).
Although sentimentality was always noxious to Sayers on these grounds, her opposition became more urgent with the mid-century rise of all-encompassing political systems grounded in coherent doctrines of their own:
Indeed, Sayers feared sentimentality in politics as much as in theology and aesthetics: “It is useless to go on saying that general uplift and nice religious feeling plus science will draw the world together in concord—we’ve tried that for a couple of centuries and just look at the world!” (2:299).
As this passage implies, Sayers’s condemnation of sentimentality was intertwined with an unblinking awareness of human weakness that made her wary of her age’s norms. Sayers had an acute sense of Original Sin that infused her work. A similar awareness of the Fall was an attraction of Dante to her, and her tragic sensibility led her to place a conscious moratorium on publishing detective stories for the duration of World War II: “It was getting bad for people; encouraging them in the delusion that there was a nice, complete, simple, one-and-only solution to everything. There isn’t” (2:211). Belief in the universality of the human capacity for evil was also a central theme of The Just Vengeance: “The solidarity of mankind is a solidarity of guilt.”
Finally, belief in Original Sin underpinned Sayers’s social criticism. She asserted that the core difference between orthodox Christianity and modernity was anthropological, a contrast she crystallized in 1943:
War, Wealth & Labor
This Christian realism also shaped more particular dimensions of Sayers’s social and cultural criticism, the area of her thought that has been treated least systematically by scholars, but the trenchancy of which these letters testify to abundantly. For instance, Sayers’s strong sense of sin affected her attitude toward her century’s conflagrations, particularly World War II. Her distrust of belief in human benevolence made her skeptical of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policies, and (like Graham Greene and Christopher Dawson) she regarded the war as a culmination of cultural decay spawned by denial of the Fall. More generally, Sayers considered war a natural part of life in a fallen world, and hence regarded even sincere pacifism and conscientious objection as naive, irresponsible, and dangerous. She thought peace was best preserved by preparation for war, and she hence believed that Britain should not renounce atomic arms unilaterally, but should instead practice deterrence.
These weapons also raised other questions connected to her core convictions, as she deemed their development a species of modern abuses of nature arising from incorrect ideas of work. To Sayers, atomic weapons were inextricably linked with “the exploitation of the earth and the dehumanizing of man, as other sorts of mechanical power have done and are doing” (3:163).
Sayers contended that “there are only two sources of real wealth—labor and the earth,” but she considered both devalued in modern thought (3:411). She judged that it was a “loss of ‘the sense of a Divine vocation in Man’s daily work’ which lies at the root of our social and economic corruptions” (2:251). Like David Jones, Sayers believed that modern notions of work stressed its utilitarian aspects: instead of being a self-directed, delight-filled opportunity for imitation of divine creativity, she reasoned, industrialized work was usually an efficiency driven task at the behest of an employer, and its reward was a wage rather than a product embodying the worker’s creative vision. Also like Jones, Sayers found this “employment” ethic inhuman: “This may be usual, but it is not the normal, in the sense of the natural, function of an artist, or of a craftsman—or indeed of a human being at all; it is the function of machine; and we cannot subdue either art or man to the rhythm of the machine without destroying their proper nature as man and art” (3:21).
Her development of this critique echoes G. K. Chesterton’s distributism. Sayers suggested, for instance, that decentralized, widespread, small-scale property ownership would be a safeguard against tyranny (3:312), and she considered communism as hostile to the ethics of vocation as industrial capitalism.14 A radical break with industrialism and its mechanistic metaphysic was thus necessary, and Sayers hypothesized in 1943 that “after the aristocracy of managers, the next thing will be an aristocracy of technicians . . . after which, perhaps, we shall be ruled by the Land again, if we have not destroyed it first” (2:395).
As this concern suggests, Sayers had a precocious sensitivity to environmental degradation. To her, despoliation of the natural world was of a piece with the development of atomic weapons and the abuse of human labor: in each case a sacramental view of nature and matter had been replaced with an exploitative, utilitarian attitude. In the case of the natural environment, Sayers thought that “to make ourselves greedy and grasping tyrants of the earth—ravishing and not serving it . . . is to make nature, our fellow-creature, into our slave—and not much better, perhaps, than making slaves of our fellow-men” (2:385).15
Egalitarianism & Feminism
Sayers’s belief in the dignity of labor and her Chestertonian dissent from prevailing socioeconomic systems makes it unsurprising to note a populist streak in her thought. Like Chesterton, Sayers frequently celebrated what she considered the virtues of the common people and scorned what she regarded as the unreality of many of her fellow intellectuals’ outlooks. But she did not share Chesterton’s almost mystical faith in the common man’s inherent rectitude. Hers was a more pragmatic populism, premised on the belief that, since universal suffrage had given the common people the majority of political power in Britain, intellectuals must help guide them in their use of it so that they would actively defend liberty rather than passively succumb to totalitarian blandishments.16 As Sayers made clear in 1942, her distaste for sentimentality tempered her confidence in the common man: “The workers of this country are damned good stuff, take them all in all, though it is an error to suppose that, merely by being a worker, a man becomes endowed with infallible virtue and wisdom . . . they are merely human beings, with their own virtues and vices” (2:358).17
Similarly, Sayers esteemed equality but eschewed egalitarianism. Sayers had a deeply ingrained independent streak, disdaining solicitude and patronage, and she claimed more generally that no human relationship is wholesome “if it involves a permanent inferiority or subjection of one party to the other” (3:57). Although Sayers translated this demand for equality in personal relationships into approval of political and legal equality, she (like C. S. Lewis) simultaneously condemned what seemed corresponding efforts at cultural leveling:
This Tocquevillean distrust of democratic culture also manifested itself in Sayers’s ardent opposition to philistinism. She called the “current contempt of learning and reason” (2:154) a sin against reverence for the working mind that attempts to “crucify the Logos afresh and put Him to open shame” (2:220).
Sayers’s belief that human relationships must be founded on equality also profoundly shaped her perception of sex roles. Unlike Lewis, Sayers believed that gender was an accidental, rather than an essential, trait. She thus asserted that the distinct features each sex possesses are less important than the common human characteristics they both share: “When we have dealt specifically with vir and femina, there is still homo—even homo sapiens. It is not good for women to be everlastingly forced to think of themselves in terms of sex” (3:29).
Sayers consequently rejected conventional gender stereotypes, maintaining that people should be viewed primarily as persons rather than as men and women: “It is a mistake to talk about ‘replacing’ the masculine conception of this and that by a feminine one . . . What is wanted is a merely ‘human’ approach to every question . . .” (2:368–369). It was on these grounds that she declined the feminist moniker:
Sayers claimed the sanction of Christ (if not Christianity) for her outlook, asserting that “you could read the whole Gospel from end to end without learning from it that there was anything peculiar about women, or that mankind was divided into sections” (3:29), and insisting that Jesus treated women “as human beings with minds and souls of their own” (2:402).20 Sayers was thus uncommon for her day, if provocative, in combining belief in orthodox Christianity with insistence on gender equality.
The Devil’s Chief Business
The belief in each individual’s autonomy and dignity underlying Sayers’s views on sex combined with her personally independent bent and her commitment to intellectual integrity to foster a libertarian streak in her politics. Sayers believed that artists and thinkers could have only their muse as master and thus were always potential subversives: “This is why dictators have to put artists in concentration camps” (2:209).
She was therefore a foe of the totalitarian ideologies and countries of her day, and she also grew increasingly alarmed at what she considered the steady erosion of freedom in Britain due to growing centralization of state power during wartime and further concentrations of that power in the postwar welfare state. In all these cases, Sayers detected a dehumanizing escape from freedom and responsibility that promoted tyranny masked as utopia. If people are free (and thus accountable) actors, any order that devalues that agency, even with benign intentions, is an affront to human dignity.
This apprehension was a leading theme of The Devil to Pay, for she thought that the Devil’s “chief business today is the offering of short-cuts to perfection, without responsibility, and in defiance of the universal nature of things . . . [but] there is no short-cut and no way out, except by destroying your humanity” (2:269).
Sayers further postulated that advocates of “the planned state and the planned citizen” paid insufficient attention to the Fall’s implications: “I do seem to detect in nearly all the plans for a New Order the doctrinaire passion for over-simplification which refuses to take account of the complexities of human nature or of the paradox that causes all human absolutes to issue in their own opposites” (2:291–292). Similarly, she feared that the more power was concentrated in any polity the more likely it was to be abused, and she discerned disturbing parallels between Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and welfare-state Britain (3:311–312). Like many of her peers (such as Greene, Dawson, and Lewis), then, Sayers regarded all modern political systems as potentially totalitarian.
She thought Western countries faced this risk because they misunderstood freedom. Whereas the liberal tradition had accented absence of restraint, Sayers (anticipating John Paul II) insisted that freedom must be teleological:
Sayers feared that if that course was not set by the claims of Christian doctrine, people would bind their wills to rigid ideologies: “If boys and girls grow up imagining that Christianity has no dogma to give them, they’ll give themselves over to political dogma or economic dogma in its crudest and most intransigent form” (2:291).21
Yet she also insisted that Christians must wield the sword of the spirit rather than the lance of power.22 Sayers claimed that “it is very important that Christianity shouldn’t make the mistake of identifying itself with any political or economic panacea. That is fatal—and incidentally, a thing that Christ was far too shrewd to do” (2:133). She made this Christian renunciation of the political kingdom a central theme of The Man Born to Be King. Sayers’s efforts at promoting a revival of Christianity, then, focused on changing the cultural mores that mold public policy, what T. S. Eliot called the “pre-political” sphere. She hoped that renewed religious doctrines would set more appealing lines of excellence along which moderns could exercise their vital powers than menacing secular “false phantoms of the good.”
Credible to a Hostile Age
In criticizing her own age, Sayers drew inspiration from past eras. In particular, she often used the Middle Ages as a counterpoint to modernity. Sayers shunned the sentimental medievalism voiced by many Catholics and Romantics, but her belief in intellectual integrity also led her to condemn common misunderstandings and inaccurate malignings of this period. Sayers posited numerous parallels between medieval and modern times (especially in her work on Dante), while judging the medieval worldview superior to modernity’s in significant ways. In education, for instance, Sayers thought modern systems were animated by the utilitarianism that shaped modern ideas of work, and were thus inclined to regard education as a commodity and to emphasize passing examinations.
Medieval education, conversely, was more reverent toward the working mind, as it stressed teaching people how to think about anything (through its Trivium of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Dialectic) before imparting specific subjects. Sayers thought that it “would be entertaining to devise a modern curriculum based on the medieval practice” (3:248), and her attempt to do so in “The Lost Tools of Learning” has spawned numerous practical initiatives.
Sayers also found more general tenets of the medieval outlook more congenial. As her remarks on equality suggest, Sayers did not share the modern aversion to hierarchy. Although she believed the medieval notion of hierarchy was “deplorable in the carrying out,” she still found it “magnificent in conception.” To her, imagining society as an organic network of interlocking actors, rights and responsibilities offered a more coherent outlook and order than modernity’s stress on atomic individuals and compartmentalized activities, which fostered a rigid specialization of labor and fragmentation of culture that she often lamented.
To Sayers, this medieval variety was grounded in “the unity of its theological assumptions” (3:319), making this cultural integration an approximation of what she judged the Church’s mission, “the synthesizing of truths to make up the Truth” (2:389). And it was precisely modernity’s lack of unifying religious presuppositions that Sayers deemed the chief contrast between medieval ages of faith and her post-Christian era.
Sayers confessed that “the High Middle Ages would have suited me very well” (3:318). But if she often was at odds with her epoch, she did not retreat from it. Instead, she sought to make her unpopular opinions about orthodox Catholicism, meaningful and honest work, and unsentimental views of God and man credible to a hostile age.
If she did not always succeed, her letters display clearly the nobility of both her daring and of the principles that shaped her moral imagination. In the midst of a dark wood where the straight way had been lost, Dorothy L. Sayers brought lively enlightenment by helping to make the permanent things new to a generation often ignorant or skeptical of them. If honored insufficiently then (and now), her assiduous attempt to redeem the time will nonetheless endure. As C. S. Lewis put it in a genuine elegy of Sayers, “She aspired to be, and was, at once a popular entertainer and a conscientious craftsman: like (in her degree) Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, or Moliere . . . it is only such writers who matter much in the long run.”23
The author wishes to thank the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois for its assistance in the preparation of this article.
1. C. S. Lewis to Dorothy L. Sayers, December 10, 1945; Letters of C. S. Lewis (rev. ed.), ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1993), p. 380.
2. For a particularly unfortunate misunderstanding of Sayers’s thought and misestimation of its significance, see Joyce Carol Oates, “Lord Peter’s Last Case,” The New York Times Book Review, March 15, 1998, pp. 16–17.
3. Sayers fictionalized elements of this relationship and its impact on her in Strong Poison (1930). Interestingly, she called this book “about the worst” of her novels in 1948 (3:352).
4. Dorothy L. Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh, Thrones, Dominations (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).
5. See, e.g., Mary Durkin, Dorothy L. Sayers (Boston: Twayne, 1980), pp. 83, 100; and Oates, op. cit.
6. “As for Lord Peter, I always meant to take him up again; but I was so badgered with requests for detective stories at times when I was busy with other, and much more exciting jobs, that I ended by taking a dislike to the whole thing” (3:518).
7. Conversely, Sayers referred to “the Puritan, Barthian, not to say Manichee, fear of the secular again—a natural revolt from humanism, but surely quite unsacramental” (2:308).
8. She was also personally irritated by publicly expressed hopes for her conversion to Roman Catholicism: “I do dislike being made to feel like a rabbit exposed to the slow fascination of a waiting serpent” (2:306).
9. Sayers did not wish this approach to antagonize Protestants, believing that “no Protestant need be offended” by her proposal (3:413), and asserting that “in practice, I find that this substantial body of doctrine also commands the assent of a great number of Free Church theologians” (2:309).
10. Dorothy L. Sayers, “Why Work?” in Creed or Chaos (1949; reprint, Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, n.d.), p. 78.
11. See also Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Dogma Is the Drama,” in The Whimsical Christian (New York: Collier Books, 1987), pp. 23–28.
12. Although Sayers employed this approach in her apologetic writings, she believed it was more effective in other media, which had more cultural credibility in a post-Christian society. Similarly, she thought those cultural circumstances required lay evangelists to have no official ties to the Church. This was one reason why she refused a Lambeth Doctorate in Divinity: “In the present peculiar state of public opinion, it is the ‘outsider’ with neither dog-collar nor professional standing in the Church who can sometimes carry the exterior defensive positions by the mere shock of a surprise assault; but the power to do this depends largely on remaining a free-lance” (2:431).
13. “All I propose to do is to explain, to the best of my ability, what the Church thinks about those subjects, and that I am not bringing any ‘new’ lights of my own to bear upon them. I am not a prophet, but only a sort of painstaking explainer of official dogma” (2:171).
14. “Capitalist or Communist, I cannot believe that salvation is to be found in any system which subordinates Man to Economics” (2:160).
15. Sayers also connected her concerns about nuclear weapons and environmental decay explicitly, in a 1945 letter to C. S. Lewis: “What with all this atomic stuff, we seem to be coming alarmingly close to that prospect so much desired by—which one of them was it?—when there won’t be a green thing left on the earth’s surface” (3:177). For a brilliant sense of how other twentieth-century British critics of modernity (including Lewis) dealt with these issues, see Meredith Veldman, Fantasy, the Bomb, and the Greening of Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
16. “What they chiefly need is to learn to think, and to be made to understand their own power . . . unless they are made to understand what they want and stimulated to go out and get it, they will remain a passive nation, ready to fall for the next Hitler or Quisling who comes along” (2:161). See also 2:285–287.
17. Sayers attributed what she considered this unrealistic view of workers to Socialists, and thus found another ground for rejecting Socialism. She rebuked “the pure mystagogues, who assume that as soon as the control of the means of production passes into the hands of the workers, the whole of society will automatically become, not only selfless and virtuous but endowed with intellectual discrimination and impeccable artistic taste. . . . What they expect is the automatic emergence of Sinless Man” (2:253).
18. For a current echo of this position, see Russell Jacoby, The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy (New York: Basic Books, 1999).
19. See also Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971).
20. On the related question of women’s ordination, Sayers was an opponent, but for chiefly pragmatic reasons. She found no logical or strictly theological bar to such a practice, but believed that Anglican adoption of it would be a grave break with tradition and would inhibit ecumenical efforts with other Catholic churches. She thus differed from Lewis, who deemed the priesthood an inherently male office whereas Sayers thought it was only circumstantially so (3:386–388).
21. Sayers also condemned the “totally false notion that an ideology is a more liberal thing than a dogma” (2:157).
22. I have adapted this metaphor from Ralph Wood.
23. C. S. Lewis, “A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers,” in On Stories, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1982), p. 92.
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