The woman who introduced me to Dorothy Sayers was a librarian of librarians: white hair bound up into a severe bun, cool blue eyes behind thick glasses, a reserved manner, and best of all, a listening ear and a thoughtful response for the bookish kid with one all-important question. “Um, excuse me. I think I’ve finished all your Agatha Christies. Do you know of anyone like her?”
“Well, have you heard of Dorothy L. Sayers?”
It was a discovery on par with that of the New World. The Lord Peter Wimsey books were both entertaining and sophisticated enough that I felt special having this discovery to myself. Subsequent re-readings as I made my way through high school illuminated what I had been too young, or too dazzled by Lord Peter to see: that behind the allure lay an incredibly well-educated, agile, and thoughtful mind. With how thoroughly she had captivated me, it did not take long for me to spread out into her other works, her correspondence, and her biography.
At that time, I was far more interested in how her mind worked than in the details of her life. One of the first women to graduate from Oxford, she actually had quite a successful stint in an advertising agency in addition to teaching and bookselling and her academic and literary work, and all these dimensions emerged seamlessly from her facile mind.
But for all her many capabilities, personal romance was hard. She was—at least, I think—the smartest person in the room most of the time, and she did not particularly care to abide by feminine social niceties that might suggest downplaying her capacities.
So she got into relationships with men who were rotten scumbags, one of whom told her that he was married after she got pregnant. Sayers had the baby, and gave him to her aunt to raise. Though she and her son John Anthony had a decent relationship, it is unknown if she ever officially confirmed to her son that she was, in fact, his mother. Upon her death, he was announced as both her son and her sole heir. He seemed to avoid the public eye—I haven’t been able to find out much about him or what he thought of his mother.
Reading with Tension
To be honest, it has only been as I grow older that the sadness of this story has impressed itself upon me. As shortcomings in a person’s life go, this is relatively mild: she neither killed anyone nor committed any abuse or crime. She did in fact stay involved with and help financially support her son. But for a woman like Sayers—for the woman I would like to be—what a weight to carry. On the one hand, publicly acknowledging her illegitimate son would have surrounded them both with a cloud of negative publicity which would have damaged her credibility as a thinker and theologian, especially a female one (and from reading her, I know her capacity to work was crucial to her sense of self). On the other hand, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to carry such a heavy secret while still caring about her son’s well-being and navigating all her other spheres of responsibility: her faith, her work, her blunt honesty, her studies.
So when I read Sayers now, it is with this tension in the background. Honestly, I still haven’t quite figured out what to think about it. I only know that as the years have passed and I’m now making my way through grad school, I find myself standing beside her more than ever. Behind the alluring wit that first drew me to her, behind the fascinating mind, there is a woman who shoulders heavy burdens and still enters, fully alert, into the arena of the life of the mind. It is that woman only, I think, who could have learned Medieval Italian for the express purpose of translating The Divine Comedy because of how beautiful it is. It’s also that woman only who could imbue each of Jesus’s disciples in The Man Born to Be King with individual personalities that are so prosaic and familiar. After having been brought to tears by how she humanizes them, the abstract, distant figures of the Gospels are now permanently flesh and blood human beings to me.
I’ll always love Lord Peter, but I admit that my allegiances have shifted a bit now. I find myself identifying with Harriet more than Peter. Poky, intelligent Harriet who feels constricted by gratitude, who fights for her independence, who only wants to be known for doing respectable work. Harriet is sometimes criticized for being a stand-in for Sayers, but I can’t help cheering for her as she comes to negotiate and assent to a happy middle between the life of the mind and the life of the heart. I truly hope Harriet was something of a relief for Sayers—I know Harriet has certainly been that for me.
Dorothy L. Sayers says in Gaudy Night, “If it ever occurs to people to value the honour of the mind equally with the honour of the body, we shall get a social revolution of a quite unparalleled sort.”
Count me in, DLS. I’m here for it.
Sign Up Today
You don’t have to miss anything. We send out weekly notifications when we publish a new issue. We like you—so we won’t sell your info to Google or the NSA or even advertisers, they probably already have it anyway.