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.’

For the reader who might hesitate before the belief that it was possible to know the mind of God, there are many interesting episodes in the briskly-written Mind of the Maker about the minds of writers. There is ingenuity in the rigid Trinitarianism of her chapter ‘Scalene Trinities’, in which Sayers asserts that only truly ‘orthodox’ figures can be great artists. The ‘heresy’ of over-stressing one person of the Undivided Trinity leads to distortions in Art. Thus, in the Sayers scale of values, William Blake is a lop-sided believer in the Father – ‘wrestling with the huge cloudy cosmogonies and highly personal symbolisms of the Prophetic Books’. James Joyce, apparently, was ‘son-ridden’. Ghost-ridden writers have included Amanda Ross (a C.S. Lewis favourite). There is a sort of bluff, bar-parlour (almost) manner in which Sayers sews up the Trinitarian response to life that might, if one were very drunk, or very young, or very stupid, make one suppose that she was thinking. The mystery of her ‘life and soul’ – since she was quite obviously no fool – is why she thought she was thinking.

In her chapter on Free Will, Sayers allows us to know that

in Murder Must Advertise I undertook (not very successfully) to present a contrast of two ‘cardboard’ worlds, equally fictitious – the world of advertising and the world of the post-war ‘Bright Young People’. (It was not very successful, because I knew and cared much more about advertising than about Bright Youth, but that is by the way.) I mentioned the intention to a reader, who instantly replied: ‘Yes, and Peter Wimsey, who represents reality, never really appears in either world except in disguise.’ It was perfectly true; and I had never noticed it.

Even if we steer away from the implications here of the Lord (in this case Lord Peter) coming to His Own and His Own receiving Him not, one cannot fail to be arrested by the fact that any reader considered Lord Peter Wimsey, in any sense of these words, to ‘represent reality’. Clearly, the reader’s response (if a real one, if such a distinction makes sense in this context) struck Sayers enough to make her include it in a chapter of her theological magnum opus. It certainly makes one realise why she was in her day both a highly successful advertising copywriter and a justly famous and popular novelist. She seems to have been one of those people (who often, as she did, turn themselves into ‘characters’) who have only the dimmest sense of the effect they are having on the outside world. When we read of Sayers – stout, bald, cigar-smoking, pork-pie hat-wearing – we have that cringing sense of embarrassment which ‘characters’ invariably produce. The embarrassment is inspired less by our distaste for any part of the performance than by the disparity between the actual effect produced and the figure which the individual believes herself, or himself, to be cutting. In short, we are embarrassed by the disparity between what we can call reality and ‘the mind of the maker’. Worshippers in the London church where she was the churchwarden (and where she complained that the pews were too small) must have been a little surprised that she chose to read the lessons wearing Oxford sub-fusc. Sayers, one is 100 per cent certain, had no idea that she was making an ass of herself by dressing up like a character in Gaudy Night: after all, she was a character in Gaudy Night – and in all her other books, including The Man Born to be King. Early photographs in this book show the child Dorothy dressed as Athos. This was her period of Dumas-addiction, and her entire household took part in the game: the clergyman father pretended to be Louis XIII and the various aunts, cousins, friends who found themselves staying at the rectory were enlisted as Madame de Bois-Tracy, Porthos and the rest. Another wholly revealing photograph, illustrating the chapter which describes Dorothy’s time as an undergraduate at Somerville College, Oxford – shows her ‘imitating Hugh Allen’. She has her arms outstretched. The shirt and tie cover a form which is not yet obese and the upper lip is adorned with a thick moustache (as in the Athos picture). Her fellow Somervillians roar mirthfully at her side. It is an innocent picture, almost tear-jerkingly so. Returning to Oxford a year or two later to work for Blackwell the publisher, Dorothy passed two dons in the street, writing them down as ‘senile’ because they remarked, as she passed – in the words of Virgil’s description of Polyphemus – monstrum horrendum informe (‘a monster fearful and hideous’).

The oddity of her appearance – it did not merely become odder, she made it odder – must have been another contributory factor in her choice of mates. She only seems to have had three lovers in her life and the first – John Cournos (a journalist of Russian Jewish origin) – does not seem to have done much more than undress and lie beside her. One reason he might have been unwilling to go further with her was her strong Christian belief in the wickedness of contraception. When she had got Cournos out of her system, he was replaced by the man on the motorbike, Bill White. The quarrels about ‘rubbers’ on this occasion did not prevent the birth of her son John Anthony. You might have supposed that Nature’s Time Clock was urging her to have this baby and that she wanted him ‘really’. Her obsessive desire to keep the child’s existence from her straitlaced parents explains in part the fact that she farmed him out. But it was only two years later that she married the News of the World motoring correspondent, Mac Fleming – when you would have thought she could have ‘adopted’ her own son, who was being looked after by a friend. It would be unreasonable in any reader to ‘play God’ and expect this devout Christian to have lived up to her principles, but it is perhaps allowable to ask what those principles were. They forbade her to use contraceptives before she was married, but after she had married Fleming, she was fitted with a Dutch cap. And they never prompted her to see much of her child, though she did send him the proofs of The Mind of the Maker when he was 16. As Barbara Reynolds makes clear, there were other men in Dorothy’s life who were much more important than lovers, husband and son. Of these, the two most important were Lord Peter Wimsey and Jesus.

For the purposes of writing this essay, I have reread Gaudy Night, Have his Carcase and The Nine Tailors, setting myself the sole and compulsorily generous criterion that I should attempt, during this rereading, to recapture what I enjoyed about these books when I was in my teens. There seems absolutely no point in making a catalogue of their faults. I can only note that Dr Reynolds believes that the scene where Lord Peter dines at Shrewsbury College ‘is a tour de force in intellectual elegance which can scarcely have been surpassed in modern fiction’. Coming from so widely-read and intelligent a commentator as Dr Reynolds this judgment is something of a surprise. Is she really telling us that the ‘intellectual elegance’ of Lord Peter Wimsey outshines, say, the discourses of Signor Settembrini in Mann’s Magic Mountain, or the topsy-turvy metaphysics of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, or Canetti’s Auto Da Fe, or even the monologues in Sartre’s La Nausée? Is the maligned Joyce really being placed lower in the hierarchy than Dorothy L. Sayers? I strongly suspect the answer to these questions is yes, for Reynolds does not seem to be a careless writer. Much better, as the biographer of Dorothy L. Sayers, that she should not be made to squirm by Lord Peter, as I was when I reacquainted myself with his lordship. But that she can make a judgment of this kind gives the reader some idea of the claims which are made for Sayers – and their scale.

Presumably, for those who like that sort of thing, one of the highest moments in modern fiction occurs when Lord Peter, wearing academic costume, proposes to Harriet Vane, standing in the moonlight in New College Lane.

    ‘Peter!’

    She stood still; and he stopped perforce and turned towards her. She laid both hands upon the fronts of his gown, looking into his face while she searched for the word that should carry her over the last difficult breach.

    It was he who found it for her. With a grave gesture of submission he bared his head and stood gravely, the square cap dangling in his hand.

    ‘Placetne, magistra?

    ‘Placet.’

In an essay published in 1936 – ‘How I came to invent the character of Lord Peter’ – Sayers told her readers that she was thinking of writing a detective story and he walked in ‘complete with spats’ and applied for the job. Reynolds rightly reminds us that many of Lord Peter’s mannerisms are copied straight from Bertie Wooster, but Sayers’s snobbish fantasies lack any of the sunniness of P.G. Wodehouse. The prurience and violence which must be a large part of their appeal grew from a darker cranny in the mind of this particular maker. Her first tale – Whose Body? – concerns the discovery in the bath of a naked corpse, supposed, until the arrival of the aristocratic sleuth who knows about such things, to be a Jewish financier, Sir Reuben Levy. The publisher made her tone the story down, but the story depends on Lord Peter being clever enough to spot that the body, uncircumcised, is not that of a Jew. Reynolds asks why Dorothy made her first murder victim into a Jew, and reminds us that the story dates from when she herself was lying beside a (live) naked Jewish body from time to time – that of John Cournos – and suffering from the rage and anguish of sexual frustration. Dr Reynolds is not in the least heavy-handed in her sketching of links between Sayers’s life and books; but she leaves us in no doubt about the rough general workings of the maker’s mind. Lord Peter, with his insufferable know-all attitude to incunabula, wines, food, men’s clothes and great European literature and his fondness for wearing academicals, is Dorothy in the dressing-up box. The corpses are the ‘real’ men in her life.

That she had brutal rages and a strong vein of suppressed violence in her nature is evidenced by her dealings with employers. When some tactless BBC producer proposed a few tiny changes to the first of the Man Born to be King plays, Sayers wrote to this woman’s superiors attacking her ‘blazing impertinence’. She also returned her contract torn up into dozens of tiny pieces of paper. Reynolds suggests that two things contributed to the eventual success of the series: one was the patience of Dr James Welch, who was Director of Religious Broadcasting at the time, and was able to see that Sayers was uniquely well-qualified to write a series of dramas telling the life of Christ for Children’s Hour. The other factor, according to Dr Reynolds, was the renewal of intelligent energy in Sayers herself at this date in her life. ‘Not enough is made in biographies written about women of the dynamic effects of the menopause. It often happens that the change in hormonal balance and the realignment of psychic forces result in a clarification of purpose and a redirection of heightened energy.’

Sayers’s religious plays had an enormous impact on the radio audiences of wartime England. Her insistence that Jesus was a real person who must not ‘talk Bible’ caused some initial shock-waves, and there were predictable howls about ‘blasphemy’. But there cannot have lived a more orthodox Christian than Sayers and it needed someone whose idea of ‘reality’ was represented by the figure of Lord Peter Wimsey to make plausible, in a modern sense, such scenes as Jesus walking on the water or reappearing from the grave after three days. It is no inconsiderable feat that, for many listeners, she achieved this. The plays can still be read with pleasure. Does the entire series survive in the BBC Sound Archive? We heard extracts (with Robert Speaight as Jesus) on the day Dr Reynolds’s book was published. A complete repetition of the plays would be a welcome change from most of what passes for religious broadcasting today and, come to that, from most of what passes for drama. In these plays, the ‘embarrassing’ side of Sayers’s nature – the show-off little girl who wants to be Athos in a moustache, the posturing ‘prophet’ of The Mind of the Maker – is undoubtedly there; so is the advertising copywriter and the composer of improbable mystery stories. But whereas these qualities can appear in a wholly uncongenial light in other expressions of her genius, in the Man Born to be King plays, they are harnessed. The plays are extraordinarily innocent and childish; but they are also strong and uncompromising – as drama and as theology.

After the war, Sayers devoted herself chiefly – in the literary line – to her enchantment with Dante. Dr Reynolds is one of the most distinguished medievalists and Italian scholars of this century, so her praise of Sayers the Dantean is not to be disregarded. Of the Penguin Divine Comedy (Sayers only lived to complete Hell and Purgatory, leaving Dr Reynolds to translate Paradise), Reynolds writes: ‘her translation, like many others, has met with criticism. Unlike all the others, it has made Dante come alive to millions of English-speaking readers.’ This is true, but a just assessment of the Penguin Dante would have acknowledged the ropiness of Sayers’s attempts at verse – compare and contrast Reynolds’s brilliant Orlando Furioso.

To one of her correspondents who had written praising her theology, Sayers once admitted:

I’m like the Old Man of Thermopylae
  Who never did anything properly.

On reflection, this seems to be true; but one ends this fascinatingly sympathetic study with a strange sense of gratitude to Sayers. The fact that her novels are not to my taste does not blind me to the fact that they have increased the sum of human happiness. Her biographer sometimes takes her too seriously. (I felt this especially in the wartime chapter, where we read: ‘Her own sense of responsibility was titanic ... she formed a group for knitting socks and sweaters for trawlermen.’) The prurient will object that Dr Reynolds evidently shares the belief which inspired Sayers’s most famous ditty –

As years come in and years go out
I totter towards the tomb,
Still caring less and less about
Who goes to bed with whom.

Nonetheless, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book. Perhaps – with our modern mania for biography – we shall return more often to this volume by Reynolds than to the introductions to the Penguin Dante and to The Man Born to be King when we want to be reminded of what was remarkable about Dorothy L. Sayers. To Lord Peter’s question – placetne, magistra? – not every reader could give such an affirmative response as Harriet Vane’s.