BOOK REVIEW / Detecting Dorothy's secrets

The creator of Peter Wimsey turned personal tragedy into intellectual games. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers ed by Barbara Reynolds Hodder, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
These are jolly letters. The ripping letters home of the schoolgirl Dorothy (how exhausting she must have been as a daughter) lead to the bossy letters of the undergraduate and then the argumentative, erudite, no-nonsense letters of the teacher, publisher's assistant and detective author of the last twenty years this volume covers. There were twenty more years of life and writing to come, but 1936 is an appropriate point of departure. As her editor says, Dorothy L. Sayers was by then an extremely successful writer of twelve novels and a West-End comedy, and Lord Peter Wimsey was known, loved and occasionally hated the world over.

In that year, however, the year after T S Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral was performed there, she was somewhat surprisingly asked to write a play for production in Canterbury Cathedral. This marked a change of direction in her career; henceforth she was to devote herself to religious writings and translation, becoming, as Barbara Reynolds says, "one of the outstanding lay theologians of her time.'' That phase of her life remains to be told; what we have here is what many of her readers will consider of sufficient interest: the epistolary autobiography of the writer of such gems of detective fiction as The Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night.

Discovering the autobiographical plot of the letters requires a certain amount of detective work from the reader, not in its facts, which Barbara Reynolds painstakingly charts, but in its feelings. Two, perhaps three, crises of some magnitude were endured by Sayers: the departure of the man she loved, John Cournos, because he wouldn't marry her and have children, and she wouldn't live with him without marriage and children; the birth of an illegitimate son by a man other than Cournos, and the rearing of this son as a secret, often elaborately kept, from her parents, most of her friends, and from the son himself: and third, the mental deterioration of her husband, Atherton Fleming.

These unhappinesses and anxieties were brushed off or silenced. Writing to her parents at 17 about her first communion, she concludes the account of dresses, veils, and other arrangements for a service of great importance to her, with: "P.S: I never can write about my feelings - that's why I haven't," and this sets the pattern of her correspondence. When Cournos left for America, her only comment was: "I'm feeling a bit dull at present - so many people seem to be away - especially all my new friends. John hasn't so much as sent a postcard since he went, though I hear from Dakers that he is alive and well, only very busy." When she wrote to the cousin who was to care for her child, she first pretended to be making arrangements on behalf of a friend, and then, when the truth was told, in a "Strictly Confidential'' sealed letter within a letter, the confession concludes with: "But never mind about me - don't think about it, but just be fond of the little chap.'' The rest of the letter is concerned with practical arrangements, including possible difficulty in feeding the baby, "because he has been breast-fed." Such stoicism sometimes seems almost like indifference or callousness, as when her son's catching scarlet fever elicits the breezy "Dear oh dear! What a beastly nuisance for you ... Of course [he] must go to hospital - it is never right to nurse infectious diseases at home... Anyway, don't worry - children will get these things."

The displacement of feeling into common-sense action is, of course, the substance of detective fiction, at least in the "golden age'' to which Sayers belonged. Horror, violence and grief is cerebralised into an intellectual puzzle and the triumph of reason over chaos provides the reassurance the genre offers its readers. The mind that plotted the successful unravelling, via the rationality of Peter Wimsey, of the mystery of the poison-pen letters of Gaudy Night could plot its own conquest over jealousy and abandonment by force of argument, by making a rhetorical game out of the disaster. When the recently married Cournos returned to England in 1924 ("Both of us did what we swore we'd never do," Sayers pointed out) she argued with and harangued him in a way which energised her. Their past relationship was irrecoverable - he was married, she had a child - and this gave her the distance to anatomise where he had been at fault. The dissection was liberating and produced some of her most outspoken comments, mostly on sex and women's need to be "fruitful'': "When I see men callously and cheerfully denying women the full use of their bodies, while insisting with sobs and howls on the satisfaction of their own, I simply can't find it heroic, or kind, or anything but pretty rotten and feeble''.

Sayers said that her novels were not autobiographical, except in their locations - the East Anglian fen country of her childhood in The Nine Tailors, and the beloved Oxford of her undergraduate days in Gaudy Night - and the occasional inclusion of sayings, events and personages from her life. One of the pleasures of this collection of letters is in seeing chance details from the life turn up as evidence in the novels. Most famously, there was Maurice Ridley, who was seen by Sayers as an undergraduate reading his Newdigate Prize poem in 1913, was forgotten in the flesh but remembered in the fiction as Lord Peter Wimsey, then reincarnated in 1935 as the Chaplain of Balliol College, and was recognised, like a vital clue in the scheme of things, as "the perfect Peter Wimsey. Height, voice, charm, smile, manner, outline of features, everything ..."

Ridley appeared just as the concluding love scenes of Gaudy Night were being written. This was to be almost the last of her detective novels and she thought of it as "not really [one] at all, but a novel with a mild detective interest of an almost entirely psychological kind." She had begun to grow tired of the subterfuge of detective fiction and was ready to move from the imposition of secular order to the revelation of a spiritual order. "I have been talking for twenty years to conceal my thoughts," she imagines Wimsey saying to Harriet Vane, as they seal their courtship, and his words provide a kind of farewell verdict on these 37 years of letters. They too are talking to conceal thought, to avoid confession, but, like Wimsey's talk, they are not thoughtless or without purpose. And they make a deuced good read, don't y'know, quite gas and gaiters, as their author would say.