Dorothy L Sayers was a renowned English crime writer, poet, playwright, essayist, translator, and Christian humanist. She was born 13 Jun 1893 in Oxford to Rev Henry Sayers and Helen Mary Leigh. She was their only child.
Her father was a chaplain of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, and headmaster of its school for choristers, when she was born. She was christened at the Cathedral, and very proud of the fact. However, he was made rector of Bluntisham-cum-Earith in Huntingdonshire when Dorothy was four. It's only to be expected that the graveyard next to her new home would make a deep impression on an imaginative child, and some surnames from it feature in her fiction.
Her father was teaching her Latin by the time she was six, and her gift for languages was also developed by importing native speakers of German and French into the home. Although she had no brothers and sisters, and there were few children in the village of her social class who she could play with, in 1901 she & her parents were sharing their home with her father's elderly mother Anna, who was from Northern Ireland; her mother's sister, who was 48 and single; a 29-year-old governess boarder, presumably Dorothy's governess; and four servants - a cook, a parlourmaid, a housemaid and a kitchenmaid. Her grandmother may not have lived with them all the time - she died in St Ives, Cornwall in 1907. However her aunt Mabel was still with them for the 1911 census, by which time they had cut back to two servants, one cook and one housemaid/parlourmaid.
Dorothy had been at boarding school in Salisbury since 1909, but was home for the 1911 census. She had found it very difficult to fit in at boarding school after a childhood so isolated from her peers and after being indulged as an only child in a household of adults; she was also very intelligent, and accustomed to learning at her own pace, and it isn't surprising that she found her peers frustratingly unintellectual. She also contracted measles at school, and almost died from complications; it left her with thin hair which she hid with scarves and wigs.
From 1912 to 1915 Dorothy studied modern languages - French and German - at Somerville College, Oxford, which was much more socially congenial for her, and she achieved a First in French. She was very happy there, and she made some lifelong friendships. Women were not given degrees at this time, even though they could do all the work for one including the final exams and their work was assessed like that of the male students. After leaving Somerville, she began to publish her poetry - two volumes in 1916 and 1918 - and also spent time working for Blackwells, who were publishing her poetry, teaching in Hull, and teaching at L'École des Roches in France. In 1920, the Oxford rules were changed to allow female graduates, and women who had previously earned a degree but not been given one were allowed to return and claim it. Dorothy received both a BA and an MA in 1920.
From 1922 to 1931 Dorothy worked as a copywriter for a London advertising agency, S.H. Benson's. In 1923 she published her first novel, which was also the first of her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels. These have retained an enduring popularity and remain in print today. Meanwhile her advertising work was also very successful; she was credited with coining the slogan "It pays to advertise!", and variations of some of her advertising work are said to be still in use. She didn't publish any original poetry apart from advertising jingles for many years after 1920 - her interests seem to have turned in other directions. She published her first translation in 1929 - of an Old French poem called Tristan. Although her degree had been in modern languages, the older forms of French and Italian is what seems to have interested her most professionally.
Her personal life also developed in new directions after leaving college. She fell in love with a Russian emigré poet, John Cournos, but it didn't go well for her - he wouldn't agree to marry her as she wanted, claiming to disdain monogamy and crime fiction, and in 1922 she gave him up. On the rebound from the failed relationship with John, she had a primarily sexual relationship with an unemployed car salesman called Bill White, which ended abruptly when she became pregnant in 1923 - like John, Bill wasn't interested in having a family with her.
Dorothy's parents were approximately 62 and 69 at this time, not in their 70s as some sources say - but still, well advanced in years, very respectable, and very Christian. Learning that their only daughter was pregnant without being married could have been devastating for them, and she did her best to prevent them finding out. She worked up till her final trimester, then took extended sick leave and went to a mothers' hospital called Tuckton Lodge in Iford Lane, Southbourne, Hampshire (now Dorset). She used a false name there. Her son, John Anthony, was born there on January 3, 1924; his birth was registered as John A Sayers. Dorothy stayed for 3 weeks in the hospital caring for her son, then gave him to her cousin Ivy Amy Shrimpton to be brought up by herself and her mother Amy Shrimpton, Dorothy's aunt. Ivy and Amy were already supporting themselves by caring for other foster children, so this was one more client for them, and aunt Amy was not told who John's mother was. The story was that John was the son of an unfortunate friend of Sayers, which allowed Dorothy to treat John like an adopted nephew and keep in touch with him without causing embarrassment.
In 1924 John Cournos rubbed salt in Dorothy's wounds by marrying someone else who was, like Dorothy, a crime writer. Dorothy must have been still processing her experience with him, as she wrote John a series of 11 letters from 1924-5, primarily concerning their love affair. She also bought her own motorbike during this period, and mentions it in the letters.
On 8 April 1926, Dorothy married Captain Oswald Atherton Fleming, a journalist, known as Mac. He was divorced with two children, and his divorce meant they couldn't marry in a church, only in a registry office, which was disappointing for Dorothy's parents. However they liked Mac. Mac agreed to adopt Dorothy's son John, who was known as Tony as he preferred his middle name. Although Tony was told he had been adopted at the age of 10, and used the surname Fleming, the adoption was never legally carried out - perhaps it was feared that his true parentage would come out during the process - and he never went to live with Dorothy and Mac. Dorothy and Mac lived in a flat at 24 Great James Street, Bloomsbury, London, which according to the English Heritage plaque on it, she had lived in since 1921.
Two years later in 1928, Dorothy's father died at Christchurch, Cambridgeshire, his last parish. This meant her mother needed a new place to live since her husband's home had been provided by the Church while he was serving as clergyman. Dorothy bought her mother a home - Sunnyside Cottage, Witham, Essex, which is now 24 Newland Street. However her mother only outlived her father by a year, and died herself in 1929. This left the cottage unoccuped, and Dorothy bought number 22 next door, knocked the two properties into one, and occupied it herself with Mac. She is said to have also kept the flat in Bloomsbury, presumably so they had a place to stay when they needed to be in London, but the English Heritage plaque for it states she lived there 1921-1929, so clearly it wasn't her main residence after 1929, and conceivably she may not have kept it at all.
At this point her parents were no longer a reason to keep her son Tony's origins a secret, but Dorothy must have still felt unable to face the social consequences of acknowledging the truth. Tony was only five in 1929; but having lived all his life with Ivy, Amy and their other foster children, perhaps it would have been more psychologically disruptive for him to have been suddenly taken from his stable home with them and brought to live with Dorothy and Mac than it was to remain there.
Dorothy was friends with several well-known authors, including C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams of the Inklings, but she wasn't an Inklings member herself, they were all men. She was, however, a member of another group of writers - the Detection Club, founded in 1930, which had Agatha Christie among its members, and still exists today.
In 1935, Dorothy was elected Chairman of the Association of Senior Members of Somerville College, and her first play was produced.
In total, Dorothy published 16 novels, the last in 1939. Her detective novels enjoy an enduring popularity, and she sometimes addressed social issues in them; the fact that they might be considered to have pretensions in the direction of enduring literature rather than ephemeral entertainment seems to have attracted criticism from some quarters; perhaps this should be taken as tribute, since it's unlikely critics would have wasted their time on truly and self-evidently ephemeral works.
After the 1939 publication, Dorothy said there would be no more Peter Wimsey novels, but one more unfinished one was found among her effects after she died. She does seem to have largely lost interest in writing more novels at that point however, and turned to plays and translations instead. This coincided with a change in public tastes for fiction, perhaps because of the war - it's been suggested that the type of crime fiction Dorothy wrote provided the sort of escapism people needed to help them recover from the traumas of the First World War, and with the outbreak of a new terrible war their needs would have changed.
Dorothy continued producing plays for most of the rest of her life. After the war, she taught herself Old Italian. Her translation of four poems by Dante was published in 1946, and from 1949 till her death, Dorothy worked on translating Dante's Divine Comedy from Italian to English. She thought this her finest work. In 1950 she accepted a Doctor of Letters degree from the University of Durham.
In 1945, Dorothy produced The Mind of the Maker, in which she compares God, as creator of everything, to a writer, and explores the Christian concept of the Trinity - one God being simultaneously the separate parts Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, comparing the three parts of the Trinity to different parts of the process of creating a piece of writing. She also wrote two Christian plays, and a number of religious essays and books, all from a traditional Anglican perspective.
Mac died 9 June 1950, at the couple's home, Sunnyside Cottage, Witham, Essex. His health had been deteriorating for some years, mainly as a result of his service in the First World War, and had left him eventually unable to work. Sadly, he is said to have felt eclipsed by Dorothy in later life, since her career had continued to flourish. Dorothy died there seven years later as well on 17 Dec 1957, of a stroke. She was 64 years old. She was cremated and her ashes were buried under the tower of St Anne's Church in Soho, London, where she had been a churchwarden. In her will she left everything to her son Tony. Despite the ups and downs of her personal life, she was described in her obituary as a "cheerful, friendly person who was at ease with all sorts of people". A memorial service was held for her on 15th January 1958 at St Margaret's, Westminster, which C. S. Lewis wrote the panegyric for though it was read by someone else.
For genealogical purposes, it may be worth noting that a long list of names of people who attended the memorial service, is given in The Times death notice - the only obvious relatives in it are Mr & Mrs J A Fleming, son & daughter-in-law; Mr. Gerald Sayers; and Miss Galen Sayers, who are all named together in the first paragraph. It's curious that though Dorothy is said to have been fond of the relatives on her mother's side and not fond of most of her father's relations, there are Sayers but no Leighs in the list; but possibly some of her mother's relations may be lurking in later paragraphs (under other surnames). Her cousin Ivy, who she was probably closest to, had died herself already.
The following sources of information were also used in researching this biography:
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