What We Believe
i

The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers: Selections from Her Novels, Plays, Letters, and Essays, Edited by Carole Vanderhoof. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2018, xx + 241 pages, $18.00, paper.

“The variety of Dorothy Sayers’s work makes it almost impossible to find anyone who can deal properly with it all” (226). So says C. S. Lewis in his Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers (226–31).[1] These days the danger seems to be that we neglect the great variety of Sayers’s work. Sayers is most well-known for the creation of the memorable gentleman-detective Lord Peter Wimsey, but it would be a mistake to suppose that that is all she wrote worth reading.

From the very beginning of her life it seemed that the word-loving Sayers was meant to be a writer, an idea that she doggedly held onto and that helps to explain the diversity of her work. Words and writing were always at the center of Sayers’s life. Even one of her earliest jobs as an advertising copywriter produced the well-known Guinness tagline “My goodness, My Guinness!” The time between the world wars was a golden age of detective fiction in Great Britain, and her detective novels met with quick success, which would allow her the financial security to pursue writing for the rest of her life. Detective novels, however, were only the beginning of Sayers’s career, and not surprisingly she left off writing them early in her career and never returned, moving onto what many would consider more rigorous literary endeavors. It is here that Sayers began to delve into more theological themes in her work. The daughter of an Anglican rector, Sayers was, as were so many well-known writers of the day, a high church Anglican. Her popular essays on Christianity also met with success and opened even more doors for her to pursue writing.

Early in her life she had born a child out of wedlock, which fact she kept secret for most of her life, and possibly the fear of this being exposed caused her to shy away from the public eye to a surprising degree. Sayers died of a heart attack in 1957 as she was beginning work on the second volume of her well-regarded translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Sayers’s lifelong fascination with Dante pervades her work and sparked a love of all things medieval, taking shape in a lecture that became one of the major beginnings of the Classical Education movement, another accomplishment for which she is noted today.

The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers is the first in Plough Publishing’s Gospel in Great Writers series that brings together selections from the detective stories, plays, cultural criticism, and other genres Sayers worked in. The structure is simple: the editor Carole Vanderhoof opens the book with a brief introduction and biographical sketch; the book then moves into topical chapters, which deal with specific themes, usually opened by a section from one of her mysteries then moving deeper into her other works; the book concludes with Lewis’s panegyric.

The book offers a wealth of memorable quotations. For instance, in speaking of covetousness:

It was left to the present age to endow covetousness with glamor on a big scale, and to give it a title which it could carry like a flag. It occurred to somebody to call it enterprise. From the moment of that happy inspiration, covetousness has gone forward and never looked back. It has become a swaggering, swashbuckling, piratical sin, going about with pistols tucked into the tops of its jackboots. (27)

Or concerning work the book includes “Work is not primarily a thing one does to live, but the thing one does to do” (146).

There is also a particularly vicious attack on advertising that is as accurate as it is incisive (84),[2] not to mention an excellent essay on feminism, “Are Women Human?”[3] which is worth the price of the book. Considering these topics, you might get the feeling that titling the book The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers is a bit of a misnomer, and you would be correct. While there are chapters in the book on Gospel themes such as “Sin and Grace” and “The Cross,” the topics wander far and wide, taking on ethics as well as social issues. While the selections from articles and nonfiction works are very much worth reading, the novels are still the stars, a fact reflected by the editor in the pride of place they are given in each chapter.

The mystery story is a genre that we all too quickly dismiss today as mere “commercial fiction.” There is often a truth to that, but at the same time the mystery story gives a latitude to explore themes that might not otherwise present themselves in other genres, a point that Sayers’s work seems to prove. One of the strong points of this book is that these are highlighted. An example would be the very first selection in the book taken from Sayers’s first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, “Whose Body?”[4] In this brief section, amateur detective Peter Wimsey, in a conversation with his professional detective friend Inspector Parker, discusses whether or not it is right to enjoy the work of the detective as it is so intrinsically bound up with the world’s evil (1). This is an excellent example of Sayers’s integration of theological themes into a very entertaining story.

There are strengths and weaknesses connected with any anthology, and they are all present here. As a rule, I find literary anthologies leave much to be desired. The strength of good writing lies as much in context and a well-constructed story or essay as it does in a good turn of phrase or clear thought. Anthologies naturally, by cutting up an author’s work, focus on the latter at the expense of the former. That being said, this particular book offers an excellent introduction to the breadth and scope of Sayers’s work and very much whets the appetite for more.

However, it is especially in the area of Sayers’s novels where this book is at its weakest. As one who has read these novels in their entirety, I can readily say that the sections chosen by the editor are not the only parts of these novels that take on major literary and theological themes, nor are they always the best. For instance, in her novel Clouds of Witness, there is a major undercurrent on the self-isolation of people even within their own families that would be entirely missed if only an individual chapter is used.[5] Furthermore, as most detective novelists do, Sayers is constantly taking on themes of justice and how it is administered, which are both searching and poignant, such as in the conclusion of her Busman’s Honeymoon.[6] This most famous passage of her detective stories is rightly included in this anthology, but disconnected from the story it seemed almost robbed of its power.

The key is to realize that this book is meant to be an introduction to Sayers and her work, and keeping that in mind, a reader can say it does that job admirably. It is to be hoped that the book serves to introduce contemporary readers to the wealth that Sayers’s writings still have to offer.

Endnotes

[1] C. S. Lewis, “A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers,” in “On Stories” and Other Essays on Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966), 91–95.

[2] “Murder Must Advertise,” 83–93.

[3] 153–64.

[4] 1–14.

[5] Dorothy L. Sayers, Clouds of Witness (New York: Avon, 1927).

[6] 217–25.

David J. Koenig is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as pastor of Pilgrim Presbyterian Church, Dover, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, December 2020.

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Ordained Servant: December 2020

A Faithful Elder

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