Complete with spats

A.N. Wilson

  • Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul by Barbara Reynolds
    Hodder, 398 pp, £25.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 340 58151 4

I have been reading again The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers. Barbara Reynolds says that this book – together with her famous series of radio dramas The Man Born to be King – is her greatest work. And Barbara Reynolds should know. She is the goddaughter of Sayers; she is a distinguished Italian scholar and collaborated with Sayers on her translation of The Divine Comedy (a collaboration fascinatingly written up in her book The Passionate Intellect: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Encounter with Dante) and she has an encyclopedic knowledge of, and evident affection for, Sayers’s fiction – the detective stories about Lord Peter Wimsey especially. And now, she comes forward with what will surely rank as the definitive biography of Sayers. It is not a book which contains any surprises for those of us who have read the previous biographies. Indeed, Dr Reynolds gives us rather less, in the way of personal detail, than the recent study by David Coombes. There is far less about Sayers’s marriage, for example; but we do not feel – at any rate, I did not feel – that this is a case of suppressio veri. More an exercise in getting things in perspective. Yes, Sayers was a vicar’s daughter who gave birth to an illegitimate child (a consequence of her fondness for motorcycling ‘rough trade’); yes, in spite of being a very publicly self-confessed Christian, she was married to a divorced alcoholic who worked on the News of the World, but, Barbara Reynolds genuinely makes us feel – so what? This is not really the heart of Sayers or – to use Reynolds’s title – her ‘life and soul’. Indeed, reading this book, one feels that one of the reasons she had such an ‘odd’ sexual life is that, in all probability, she thought about it much less than she did about Dante, the Chanson de Roland and her own creations. The only child of elderly parents, she was precocious in her delight in European literature and languages, and early learnt that what goes on inside your own head is of far more interest than what passes for reality outside it. In this respect, she greatly resembles her friend and ally-against-the-pagans, C.S. Lewis, who, like her, was a lonely, intelligent child who preferred reading to life; like her, had a pretty ‘rum’ domestic ménage – which was completely contrary to the strictest rules of the Christian confession; like her, came before the public as a bluff, no-nonsense apologist for the faith. They even had certain physical qualities in common – fatness, baldness, an addiction to alcohol and tobacco on a heroic scale.

But – The Mind of the Maker – the greatest book? ‘Maker’ (makar), like the word ‘poet’ itself, means one who fashions things, both physically and imaginatively. Sayers draws on this etymological fact in her theology, and reproduces, more or less (despite her distrust of the Romantic period and affection for the philosophers of the Middle Ages, above all Aquinas), the Kantian, Coleridgean view of artistic creation – that it is ‘the repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation of the Infinite I AM’. What lends vigour and distinction to Sayers’s theology is her confidence in asserting the corollary of this. While Coleridge, following Kant, could believe that poets and writers, at their best, partake of the Divine Nature, Sayers, never afraid of stomping in with an opinion, asserts that by looking at the minds of writers, we can discern the very nature of God. In this, she was probably right, but not quite in the sense she intended. ‘In the metaphors used by the Christian creeds about the mind of the maker, the creative artist can recognise a true relation to his own experience; and it is his business to record the fact of that recognition in any further metaphor that the reader may understand and apply.’

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