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Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (1993)

de Barbara Reynolds

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This biography reveals new information about Dorothy L. Sayers' life and loves, and includes several never-before-seen photographs of Sayers - detective novelist, scholar and Christian apologist. By the author of The Passionate Intellect: Dorothy L. Sayers' Encounter with Dante.
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Barbara Reynolds taught Italian at LSE, Cambridge and then Nottingham, and was chief editor of the Cambridge Italian Dictionary. Shortly after World War II, she invited Sayers to Cambridge to give a lecture on her work on Dante: the two women soon became close friends, to the extent that Sayers stood as Reynolds's godmother when she was received into the (Anglo-Catholic branch of) the church, and it was Reynolds who completed Sayers's translation of the Divine Comedy after her untimely death.

Reynolds wrote about Sayers and her encounter with Dante in The passionate intellect (1989) before embarking on this more general biography; she later edited Sayers's letters and unpublished manuscripts, and ran the Dorothy L. Sayers Society for many years.

Much as I love the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, I've never really been able to visualise their author as someone I would find especially likeable - clever, knowledgeable and witty, yes, but also the sort of conservative, Anglo-Catholic intellectual who is happy to discuss the doctrine of the Trinity for hours on end but is rather inclined to believe that poverty can be blamed on the idleness of the poor.

Reynolds's account helps a bit - it's nice to see the young Dorothy acting out stories from Dumas in the rectory garden (she always got to be Athos, the rector played Louis XIII...), and it does make her seem rather more attractive when you know that she rode a motorcycle for a long time in the 1920s (shocking her father's parishioners by roaring up to the rectory in her dusty, oily, leathers) and that her time as an advertising copywriter was not just a temporary office job, as I'd always imagined, but something she worked at seriously for over nine years, enjoying the creativity and teamwork. Also fun to see how much she enjoyed literary games like the invention of the Wimsey family's back-story, contrived over a lengthy correspondence with various friends interested in heraldry and medieval history.

On the other hand, it's a bit chilling to see the efficiency with which Sayers dealt with her unplanned "out of wedlock" pregnancy and farmed her baby out to a convenient cousin. To be fair, it's difficult to know what else she could have done in the conditions of the time without destroying her own reputation and causing major embarrassment to her parents. And she does seem to have done her best to see that her son had as normal a life as possible, without actually going as far as to admit to anyone that he was her son.

Reynolds seems to be too close to Sayers in her political and religious convictions to comment critically on the period in the late thirties and forties when she found herself projected into the role of a Christian apologist (rather like T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and other prominent conservative intellectuals of the time). And I have to admit that I've never really made the effort to look into her writings from this period, so I can't really comment either... Perhaps it is something we should write off as an aberration of the peculiar conditions of the time, when intelligent people who could not stomach fascism or Stalinism found some kind of intellectual foothold in the historical continuity of Christian dogma and the opportunities for philosophical gymnastics it offered?

A good, solid biography if you want to know the background against which the Wimsey stories were written, and an important one when it was written because of the extent to which it could draw on unpublished material, but perhaps not the best place to look for an independent, critical view of Sayers. ( )
  thorold | Mar 2, 2019 |
I read this in preparation for a course focussing mainly on the Peter Wimsey novels, so I more or less stopped reading after that section. Very interesting and very detailed, with lots of quotations from letters written to or by the author. The question of money and the lack thereof at times was surprising to me: I had somehow assumed that she moved in Wimseyesque circles (and her early childhood does sound pretty pampered) but by adulthood, she was definitely more like Harriet Vane and earning her living. Tragic that her parents never even knew she had a son. I note that the biography is written by a friend of hers and therefore inherently sympathetic; I was curious about Mac's first wife and children whom he "stopped supporting" and seem to have vanished entirely from his life. Dorothy seems not to have been able to find a husband deserving of her, or maybe she just chose badly. She did better for Harriet. ( )
  pgchuis | Aug 19, 2015 |
Dorothy L Sayers was a poet, novelist, playwright, philosopher and translator and she makes a fine subject for a biography. Barbara Reynolds knew Sayers well, edited collections of her letters and completed her translation of Dante's [b:The Divine Comedy|6656|The Divine Comedy|Dante Alighieri||809248] and she makes a most suitable biographer.

The biography relies heavily on Sayers' letters. This is a good thing, because the letters are marvellous: she wrote them from childhood till the end of her life and they are clever, witty and full of insight into Sayers the woman and Sayers the writer. I read the first volume of the letters - [b:The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: 1899-1936: The Making of a Detective Novelist|351568|The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers 1899-1936 The Making of a Detective Novelist|Dorothy L. Sayers||341799]- shortly before commencing this book, so the letters of that period of Sayers' life were still fresh in my mind. For this reason I learned less from the early part of the biography than I otherwise would have. I prefer the letters to the biography - no one could write about Sayers' life quite as well as she did herself! However, I learned more about Sayers' life after 1936 and in particular about her religious-themed plays and other writings. That part of the biography has instilled in me the desire to read the second volume of Sayers' letters - [b:The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: 1937-1943, From Novelist to Playwright|782055|The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers 1937-1943, From Novelist to Playwright (Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, 1937-1943)|Dorothy L. Sayers||768071]- and some of her other works, notably [b:The Mind of the Maker|782050|The Mind of the Maker|Dorothy L. Sayers||768066].

If I have any criticism of Reynolds' work, it is that I wish that she had a wider range of sources at her disposal. I particularly wish that she had related more about Sayers' son and his attitude towards his mother. But that's a relatively minor criticism in the scheme of things. Reynolds' biography of Sayers is well-written, well-organised and interesting. It confirms for my long-held view that Dorothy L Sayers is someone I would invite to one of those dinner parties I sometimes imagine: a dinner party to which I invite my favourite writers throughout the ages, just so that I could ask questions and listen to them talk. And it's pretty clear from Sayers' own writings and from this biography that Sayers would have plenty to say for herself. I, on the other and, would probably be too intimidated by her intellect and force of personality to say anything at all!

If you love Sayers' novels, then you will certainly find this biography worth reading. ( )
  KimMR | Apr 2, 2013 |
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Foreword: No definitive biography of Dorothy L. Sayers can be written until her letters are published.
Chapter 1: Dorothy Leigh Sayers was born in Oxford in 1893, on 13 June, the day consecrated in the calendar of saints to St. Anthony of Padua.
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This biography reveals new information about Dorothy L. Sayers' life and loves, and includes several never-before-seen photographs of Sayers - detective novelist, scholar and Christian apologist. By the author of The Passionate Intellect: Dorothy L. Sayers' Encounter with Dante.

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