There are several ways in which “The Lost Tools of Learning” – a paper she gave in 1947 – is typical of Dorothy L Sayers: there is the bracing intellectual vigour, the combative willingness to take on received wisdom (consider her explanation of the angels dancing on a pinhead), and the defiant defence of religion, especially medieval religion. She was a non-conformist in her orthodoxy.
Dorothy L Sayers’ upbringing could have been designed to form a strongly individual character. She was the only child of the chaplain of Christ Church, Oxford, Henry Sayers, and his wife Mary Leigh, and her early childhood was spent in Oxford before her father moved to be vicar of a remote village in the Fens. She was educated at home until she was almost 16, when she was sent to school in Salisbury where she was miserable. But until then, she was the precocious only child in a household of affectionate adults. She had none of the inhibitions about a love of learning that might have resulted from being educated at a conventional school.
This was just the environment to nurture individuality, but she was also an unusual girl in being self-consciously unemotional – keener on the life of the mind than on feminine displays of feeling. Her later distrust of feminism and of sexism was grounded in precisely the sense that it is the individual who counts and that our common humanity trumps any sub-category, including gender.
At Oxford, she attended Somerville College, where she studied French. While there, she enjoyed the company of other intellectual women – evoked in her detective story, Gaudy Night – especially those in the group of friends known as the Mutual Admiration Society.
After graduating, she became a schoolteacher in Hull (where she was scandalised to find children learning by rote), a publisher’s assistant, a successful copywriter in an advertising agency (the Guinness ads featuring a toucan were by her) and, of course, a detective story writer. Lord Peter Wimsey, she observed, walked into her life unannounced as she was wrestling with the genre. If he first resembled PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, he became by the end a Scarlet Pimpernel substitute for the absence of a soulmate in her own life.
Her affairs with men were unsatisfactory (she was conscious she wasn’t especially pretty) – with John Cournos, a Jewish-Russian poet, who believed in free love; with a mechanic called Bill White, who turned out to be married after she became pregnant by him; and finally with Captain Oswald Atherton “Mac” Fleming, a divorcee whom she married in a registry office. He was in poor health for much of their marriage and bad tempered with it.
For Sayers, the life of the mind was where she found fulfilment, and her most interesting ideas are expressed as lectures to colleges and societies; the “Lost Tools of Learning” was such an address. But it was her work as translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy that gave her most pride. Her preoccupation was with what makes us most fully human: a theological question. It’s striking that it is Catholics who have put her ideas about education into practice. Though she was always an Anglican, she was fundamentally in sympathy with the Catholic Church. It shows.
Melanie McDonagh is chief leader writer for the Catholic Herald.
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.