BOOK REVIEW / Unsolved crimes of the heart: 'Dorothy L Sayers: Her Life and Soul' - Barbara Reynolds: Hodder, 25 pounds

Jenny Uglow
Sunday 21 March 1993 00:02

DOROTHY L SAYERS insisted on the 'L'. It stood for Leigh, her mother's family name; more important, she believed it prevented her surname being spoken 'as an ugly spondee (ie Say- ers, instead of Sairs). My old headmistress always pronounced it so, and gave me a distaste for the form that I cannot get over.' The 'L' further distinguished her from a variety singer, Dorothy Sayers, whose fan mail she sometimes received. She hoped the other Dorothy would die first: 'Everybody would think it was me, and I'd be able to read my own obituaries.'

It's all there: the tasty, scholarly correctness; the relish of fame; the long- held grudges; the self-mocking certainty that she was the one who counted. In middle age the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey (a chap of steely intellect beneath his Woosterish pose) was formidable indeed. Stout and square in mannish suits and pork-pie hat, she lauded Churchillian virtues, harangued archbishops, and charged a radio producer who dared to suggest some mild editing of The Man Born to be King with 'impertinence, tactlessness and literary ignorance' (an envelope containing the torn-up contract followed). Pugnaciously independent herself, she eschewed feminism and disliked the very notion of women priests.

Barbara Reynolds's achievement is to make us not only admire but like this astonishing woman. This is not a dispassionate biography: it was Reynolds who completed the Penguin Classics translation of Dante's Divine Comedy which Sayers hadn't finished by her death in 1957; she is now editing the letters and is chairman of the Dorothy L Sayers Society. Occasionally this closeness intrudes: we are assumed to know the work backwards; special pleading abounds; there are over-urgent interventions in arguments which seethe among Sayers fans (was she happy at school? did she ever lose her faith?). But Reynolds is excellent on the breezily intricate art of the detective fiction, and admirably clear on the Anglo-Catholic theology of the later religious dramas and the philosophical study, The Mind of the Maker, highlighting the originality of Sayers's doctrinal readings.

The woman she depicts is impressive and disconcerting, her ferocity allied to a playful wit and burning energy. Sayers had a deep capacity for friendship and often laughed until the tears ran down her cheeks, but her jollity, as well as her brusqueness, masked a vulnerable, passionate soul. She was born in Oxford in 1893, but her parents soon moved to an elegant Norfolk parsonage. She was educated at home until she was 14: the fenland skies, floods and ark-like churches, as well as her gentle clergyman father, are lovingly recalled in her best novel, The Nine Tailors. Her greatest thrills included discovering the corners of the overgrown tennis court by applying Euclid, and concocting lavish fantasies (which involved the whole household, aunts, maids, gardeners and all) based on The Three Musketeers.

After Godolphin school in Salisbury, where she shone at drama and music, Sayers won a scholarship to Somerville. As Gaudy Night suggests, her time at Oxford, in the golden years before the First World War, reigned supreme in her memory. Spells of teaching, work for Basil Blackwell (who published her early poetry), and a period in France were followed by a 'proper job', for the advertising agency S H Benson, the background to Murder Must Advertise.

There were crushes, flirtations and an unhappy unrequited love, but her heart was not permanently bruised until she was 28, when she met the Russian-Jewish novelist John Cournos. Cournos preached free love; Sayers wanted marriage and children. She refused to use contraceptives because they smacked of 'the taint of rubber shop', and the upshot was a bizarre unconsummated relationship in which they regularly lay naked on the sofa in miserably frustrated desire. When Cournos, to her intense agony, married someone else, Sayers had a swift affair with a motorcyclist, Will White. Ironically, despite finally accepting the rubber shop, she became pregnant. Her son, Anthony, brought up by her cousin Ivy, was supported and cherished but never openly acknowledged, even to her parents and closest friends.

Sayers did enjoy brief happiness after marrying the journalist 'Mac' Fleming in 1926, until he sank morosely into unemployment and illness, the result of shattered war nerves and, perhaps, of marriage to a more famous wife. Her private sadness, buried beneath public triumphs, is touchingly depicted by Reynolds. Her wariness was like a spiky palisade: she abhorred 'sentiment' and smouldered if she scented any over-solicitude. Her lasting loves, like the passion for Dante which consumed her later years, were of the mind as much as the heart. It is her scholarly integrity and joyous urge to create - qualities she gave to her heroine Harriet Vane - that this centenary biography finally celebrates.

(Photograph omitted)

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in