Dorothy Leigh Sayers (Oxford, 13 June 1893 - Witham, 17 December 1957) was a British author, translator, student of classical and modern languages, and Christian humanist.
Dorothy L. Sayers (and she always insisted on that "L.") is perhaps best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, a series of novels and short stories featuring an English aristocrat who is an amateur sleuth. Four of those novels also feature Harriet Vane, a detective novelist and amateur detective. Sayers also wrote a number of short stories about Montague Egg, a wine salesman who also solves mysteries.
Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante's Divina Commedia to be her best work. She also wrote religious essays and plays, of which The Man Born to be King may be the best known.
Her religious works did so well at presenting an orthodox Anglican position that in 1943 the Archbishop of Canterbury offered her an honorary doctorate in divinity, which she declined. In 1950, however, she accepted an honorary doctorate in literature from the University of Durham.
The subject of anti-Semitism in her works has been much debated. Many have found in the novels an unblushing anti-Semitism which was marked even for the time and place of their writing; others cite the most offensive passages in the Wimsey novels as the talk of characters who do not represent the authorial voice. The case is made less clear by the fact that the author's own voice tends to be patronizing at best toward any persons who are not the right sort of Christian English people - Jews and Americans receive particular disdain - and her own inconsistencies towards Judaism and Jews. For instance, in the 1920s she referred negatively to G. K. Chesterton and his brother as anti-Semitic. In 1943-44, however, she wrote an essay for inclusion in a book The Future of the Jews by J. J. Lynx, in which it is definitely the authorial voice that asserts, for instance, that Jews are bad citizens with little or no loyalty to the country they live in. Critical discussion of this piece has been limited, as the essay was withdrawn from the collection at the last minute due to the demand of the other contributors, and was never published.
Her essay "The Lost Tools of Learning" has been used by several schools in the US as a basis for a revival of classical education.
Sayers was born in Oxford, where her father the Rev. Henry Sayers, M.A., was chaplain (and headmaster of the Choir School) of Christ Church College, Oxford. She was educated at Somerville College, Oxford, where she took first-class honours in modern languages, although women could not be granted degrees at that time; she was among the first women to receive a degree when they were allowed a few years later. She worked as a teacher and later as a copywriter in an advertising agency, Benson's, in London. This was to give her a useful insight into the advertising industry which she used in one of her mysteries, Murder Must Advertise.
She gave birth to a child in 1924 whilst unmarried and arranged for it to be raised by a cousin. Two years later, by which time she was already writing her detective novels, she married Oswald Arthur "Mac" Fleming (a journalist whose professional name was "Atherton Fleming") and they later adopted her son; but he never lived in the Sayers household.
She was acquainted with C. S. Lewis and his circle, and on some occasions joined Lewis at meetings of the Socratic Club. Lewis said he read The Man Born to Be King every Easter, but he claimed to be unable to appreciate detective stories. J. R. R. Tolkien, however, read some of the Wimsey novels and scorned the later ones, such as Gaudy Night.
Sayers in work by other authors
Sayers's work was frequently parodied by her contemporaries (and sometimes by herself). A particularly interesting example is "Greedy Night" (1938) by E. C. Bentley, the author of the early modern detective novel Trent's Last Case, a work which Sayers admired.
Sayers appears, with Agatha Christie, as a title character in Dorothy and Agatha [ISBN 0-451-40314-2], a fictional murder mystery by Gaylord Larsen, in which a man is murdered in her dining room, and Sayers has to solve the crime.
Jill Paton Walsh has completed and published two additional novels about Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane: Thrones, Dominations, based on an unfinished novel; and A Presumption of Death, based on the "Wimsey Papers", letters ostensibly written by various Wimseys and published in the Spectator during World War II.