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Dorothy L Sayers' life and loves
By Jane Curran
Historian

Dorothy L. Sayers
Dorothy L. Sayers 1893 - 1957

The image of Dorothy L. Sayers, the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, the great fictional detective of the 1920s and 30s, is of a moonfaced, heavily built, bespectacled elderly woman in mannish clothes.

Yet she first caused a stir as a tall thin girl, nicknamed Swanny on account of her long and slender neck.

The slightly gawky, enthusiastic young woman had a passion for language.

She also had a zest for friendship, laughter and men.

She would in later life become famous for her advertising slogans ("My Goodness, my Guinness"), for her theatre and radio plays, her religious writings, her translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, and her letters.

Her friend C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series of books, maintained that she was one of the great letter-writers of the 20th century.

Although she had a lively sense of humour, she could be arrogant and dogmatic, especially in middle age, and contradictory, courting publicity in many ways, yet at the same time resenting it, and declaring that no biography of her should be written until at least fifty years after her death - a wish which was not respected, however.

Although she had a lively sense of humour, she could be arrogant and dogmatic, especially in middle age, and contradictory, courting publicity in many ways, yet at the same time resenting it, and declaring that no biography of her should be written until at least fifty years after her death - a wish which was not respected, however.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers, the only child of older parents, was born in 1893 at no.1 Brewer Street, the house of the Headmaster of Christ Church Cathedral School, a post held by her father, who was also Chaplain to the college.

Thus she was christened in the Cathedral, a fact of which she was very proud. Her second name was that of her mother's family; she loved her mother's relatives as much as she disliked most of her father's and early on in her writing career she toyed with calling herself D. Leigh Sayers. It irritated her enormously if the 'L' was left out when she was written or talked about.

Until she was four, the wilful child with a very loud voice (which boomed on for the rest of her life) lived in Oxford, and among her happy memories in later years were walks along the Isis, feeding the deer in Magdalen College, and a set of clacking teeth in the window of a local dentist.

The family then moved to the Fens, where her father became the rector of Bluntisham, an isolated village where there were few children of suitable social standing for Dorothy to play with, so her friends were her toy monkeys and characters from the books she devoured.

She was an early reader, and was educated at home with governesses, a German Fraulein, and a Mademoiselle from whom she learnt to speak perfect French. She was indulged and precocious, did not take kindly to reprimands or criticism, and when she went to boarding school in Salisbury at the age of sixteen found it very hard to fit in.

She also nearly died after suffering complications when a measles epidemic struck the school, and a side-effect of this was to trouble her throughout her life: most of her hair fell out, and although it re-grew, it was always thin and patchy, with the result that she frequently wore a wig or colourful scarves to conceal her alopecia.

In 1912, Dorothy went up to Somerville College to read French and German. Her fellow students were much more her intellectual equals, and she settled down well, making friends, taking part in plays, singing with the Bach Choir, falling in love.

She wore dramatic clothes and eye-catching earrings, and was to be seen striding down the High, smoking a cigar, with her cloak flowing out behind her. A number of her parents' friends as well as various aunts and uncles lived in Oxford, so she would visit them for tea or dinner, and was very pleased when her cousin Ivy Shrimpton moved here after the outbreak of war in 1914.

On finishing her studies at Somerville in 1915, she returned to Bluntisham where she had little to do, and then briefly became a teacher in Hull, before coming back to Oxford to work for Basil Blackwell as a publishing assistant.

She worked in a little room above the bookshop overlooking the Sheldonian Theatre, and lived in Longwall and Bath Place, where she began writing in earnest, mainly religious poems at first.

After an unhappy love affair and a period working in France, she moved to Bloomsbury in London, and in 1921 began copywriting for Benson's Advertising Agency; by this time she had begun work on the first of her Wimsey detective novels, 'Whose Body?'.

Another unfortunate love affair followed, and then yet another liaison, but one with devastating consequences: in January 1924, Dorothy gave birth to a son, whom she named John Anthony, and whom she asked her cousin Ivy to foster.

Ivy at that time lived in Cowley and, unmarried herself, was fostering two young children. She was the only person in whom Dorothy then confided - it seems that when Dorothy died, almost nobody knew that she had had a child in her early thirties.

She frequently visited Ivy and John Anthony, first in Oxford and then in Westcott Barton, near Enstone, but she was not at ease with young children, and when she did get married (not to the boy's father) she seemed to hope that her husband would agree to John Anthony moving in with them.

However, she did not press for this, and it never happened, although later she arranged for John Anthony to use his stepfather's surname, Fleming.

She married Captain Oswald Fleming, a divorced journalist, quite suddenly in April 1926 - a letter to her parents simply said, after this and that, " In the meantime, I am getting married on Tuesday (weather permitting!) to a man named Fleming… I didn't mention it before, because it's our business and I don't want a flood of interrogation from all sorts of people."

It was not a particularly happy marriage: Mac, as he was known, had recurrent bouts of ill health from a war wound, he became jealous of her increasing fame and the amount of time she spent away from their house in Witham, Essex; he drank too much and did little work, but he was a very good cook, for a time at least, and this suited Dorothy admirably, as she enjoyed her food.

In 1929 she left Benson's and concentrated on her writing, still producing Wimsey novels including 'Gaudy Night', based on her knowledge of Oxford, and 'The Nine Tailors', set in the Fenlands she knew so well.

Later she wrote plays for the theatre and radio, secular at first, and then religious drama such as 'The Zeal of Thy House', and 'The Man Born to be King'. She spent some of her happiest days with theatre people, and felt that the community spirit of theatre life was what churches ought to provide, but often failed to do.

She became famous as a lecturer on religious subjects, wrote many articles and letters, and in the 1940's began to translate Dante, for which she had to teach herself Italian. She wanted above all to get across the liveliness and humour of the 'Divine Comedy', to make it poetry that people would enjoy reading. However, she was never to finish this great project.

On December 17th 1957 she had just returned home from a day spent Christmas shopping in London when she died of a massive heart attack. She was cremated a few days later, and her ashes were interred in St. Anne's Church, Soho, where she had been churchwarden. Her estate passed to the son whom she had never publicly acknowledged.




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