Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Worthy of Imitation 10

Sayers.jpgWhat a wonderful person to choose to finish Patron Saints for Postmoderns: Ten from the Past Who Speak to Our Future. Chris Armstrong chooses, from the 20th Century, Dorothy Sayers and I love how he describes her: “Unorthodox in her personality, but passionately orthodox in her faith Dorothy Sayers would find herself (almost by accident) blessing a generation sunk in the spiritual doldrums” (182).

Who is fan of Sayers? What’s your favorite of her books? How do you describe her?
Ever since I read Barbara Reynolds’ exceptional biography of Sayers (Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul
), I’ve known of her quirks and her genius — and the genius can be found in any number of her writings. To choose her as a patron saint for postmoderns is a wise choice.
Daughter of an Anglican priest, Dorothy Sayers was engulfed by romanticism and by English class sensibilities. She was an Oxford student in modern languages, where she formed the Modern Admiration Society — a group of a dozen or so women friends who gathered in rooms to talk.

She did well, taking a First. Then she became a teacher at a girls school. She soured on teaching and moved home. She published some poetry and began working for Blackwell in Oxford. She then began to publish mysteries … for which many to this day know her (I tried one and I put it down after a few unsuccessful attempts). A couple of bad relationships. One resulted in pregnancy and she all but gave the child up to her cousin Ivy, even though she cared for him and provided for him always. Most agree that she dealt with this poorly but found some peace with God over her sin.

Her career as a writer took off; her husband (Mac) became more addicted to alcohol.
“Fame leads one to odd — and sometimes providential — places” (195). She wrote a play for the Canterbury Cathedral Festival and this event led her into the church and into theology and the rest is history! “Dogma is the drama” was her famous line, and she increasingly wrote essays and gave speeches and talks on Christian subjects. Her most famous book is The Mind of the Maker
And she translated Dante.
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posted September 28, 2009 at 6:31 am

Dorothy Sayers is a fascinating person.
I’ve read all of her mysteries and the better ones several times. Her characters move from typical 1-d mystery format to much more deeply developed. The plots also become much more interesting. I’ve read Mind of the Maker, or at least parts of it – but perhaps I should again. In addition to Dante she translated “The Song of Roland” and I have a copy of this in the book case to my side.
She also wrote a short book – more of an essay Are Women Human?
I have long found her both fascinating and … I can’t find the right word – hero or inspiring are not quite right … I have long found her approach worthy of imitation in many respects.
She was in a tough situation – as a woman, scholar, thinker – she belonged, yet never really fit in.
Try one of her mysteries again Scot – and read it not for the “story” but for the insight.

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Anette Ejsing

posted September 28, 2009 at 8:25 am

I love thinking of this pair of books coming from her hand: “Creed or Chaos” and “Are Women Human.” She was beautifully aware of the need for both the rational and the intuitive, the masculine and the feminine, in theological thinking. And by that I don’t mean to say that women are intuitive and men are rational. In fact, my point is precisely that she is an excellent argument AGAINST that idea.

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Scot McKnight

posted September 28, 2009 at 8:28 am

RJS and Anette,
I, too, liked “Are Women Human?” And her “Creed or Chaos” was a powerful piece on the excitement of theology, hard thinking about the Bible and Church, as well as the formative importance of the creed. That piece was an early influence on my shifting to seeing more significance to the creeds.
I found Gaudy Night on my shelf the other day.

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Linda Gilmore

posted September 28, 2009 at 9:12 am

Scot, Gaudy Night is one of my favorites, though the relationship between Lord Peter and Harriet is more understandable if you’ve read Strong Poison first. The book between the two — Have His Carcase — is not as good, but it does move the relationship along. I’d also recommend The Nine Tailors — it gets a little convoluted but it’s a good story (and outside the Harriet and Peter arc).
One thing I’ve noticed in my reading of her mysteries is that some of the issues confronting women in the 1930s seem rather quaint today (the question still arose of whether or not it was even appropriate for a women to get a university education and work when her rightful place was in the home). Most women now assume they’ll be able to have a family and work at a fulfilling career — though it’s still a struggle to find balance and in that regard Sayers’ exposition of the conflict in her novels is quite relevant.
She doesn’t write the way current mystery-novelists write, but I think the way she develops a story and her characters is worth the time it takes to get into the stoy. And her experience as a playwright shows in her ability to set a scene — hers are quite vivid.
The BBC did a good series on the novels Strong Poison, Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night — I think from the mid-80s, starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter — and they’re on Netflix. You might enjoy those.

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Chris Armstrong

posted September 28, 2009 at 10:53 am

[4] I agree that Strong Poison may be the best place to begin, as it does set up the relationship between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. Several of my friends who are Sayers aficionados agree that Nine Tailors is her best, but I find it too clotted with details about campanology (bell-ringing). Not surprisingly, it netted Sayers a lifelong honorary membership in the campanological society (yes there is such a group).
Nine Tailors, Strong Poison, and her other novels do have what RJS talks about [1]: insight. But the stories are fine, too. G. K. Chesterton’s “Detection Club,” which Sayers helmed after Chesterton left this earth, insisted on Sayers’s “fairness principle”: that all the clues the fictional detective had to work with must also be made available to the reader, so that the final solution would not arrive out of left field, to the annoyance of said reader.
Also, in the Strong Poison-Have His Carcase-Gaudy Night-Busman’s Honeymoon quartet, Sayers added that third dimension of character complexity and development that most mysteries even today lack. Some hard-core mystery readers objected to this, complaining especially that she developed the romance between Lord Peter and Harriet to the point where it interfered with the stories. I don’t think so–but then again, I am not a mystery-novel purist.
BEST book on Sayers is not even Reynolds’s bio of her (that’s the second-best). Rather, it is Reynolds’s account of Sayers’s “encounter” with Dante, titled The Passionate Intellect. One of the best works of intellectual biography I’ve ever read. Reynolds is herself a prominent and respected Dantist, as well as having been a close friend of Sayers’s, who completed Sayers’s translation of the Paradiso after her untimely death in the ’50s.
Scot: thank you so much for opening up my book to folks. And thank you to all who have posted your reflections.

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posted September 28, 2009 at 11:05 am

I would add a recommendation for “Murder must Advertise” which has some weaknesses – but is an interesting take on the advertising business among other things.

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posted September 28, 2009 at 1:04 pm

This is awesome. I have read quotes from her and opinions about her but now I realize I need to get personally acquainted with her work.

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posted September 28, 2009 at 1:23 pm

I love mysteries–and fiction– but I will say I had a hard time with Gaudy Night, the only Sayers I’ve read. Maybe I’ll try Strong Poison.
I do want to say I think Sayers did not “sin” with the way she raised her son. My understanding is that she did OK by him, given the times and how “illegitimacy” was regarded. She didn’t acknowledge he was her biological son, but she did “adopt” him publicly. She did everything for the child but actually raise him which, were she a man, would not be considered so terrible, I don’t think.

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Chris Armstrong

posted September 28, 2009 at 4:53 pm

The sin, which she acknowledged, was the premarital sex. The extreme (and unreasonable) social sanctions against unwed mothers put her in a very difficult situation. She handled things as well as she could, and not, I think in a particularly sinful way. The sin she handled in the traditional way: she went to confession. Until then, she did not feel she could go to church and partake in the Lord’s Supper. After confession, she resumed churchgoing and, it seems, a lively high-Anglican piety.

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