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Dorothy L. Sayers: the woman born to be a theologian

02 June 2023

Perhaps it is time to commemorate Dorothy L. Sayers in the Church’s calendar, Rachel Mann suggests


Dorothy Sayers at a press conference in December 1941 before the broadcasting of The Man Born to be King. With her, from left to right, are: J. A. Kensit of the Protestant Truth Society; Dr J. W. Welch, Director of Religious Broadcasts at the BBC; and Derek McCulloch, presenter and producer of the BBC’s Children’s Hour

Dorothy Sayers at a press conference in December 1941 before the broadcasting of The Man Born to be King. With her, from left to right, are: J. A. Ken...

IN 2022, a new name was added officially to the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church in the United States: Dorothy L. Sayers. Her citation calls her an “Apologist and Spiritual Writer”.

Her addition may come as something of a surprise. One might not unreasonably say, “Sayers? The thriller-writer?” Certainly, in so far as she continues to find a readership today, it is for her ingenious detective novels featuring her aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, and her cast of wonderful characters, such as Harriet Vane and Miss Climpson. It is not for her spiritual writings or her translations of Dante.

The year 2023 is something of an “anniversary-fest” for Sayers. It is 100 years since the first publication of her debut novel Whose Body. It is also the 130th anniversary of her birth, and the 80th anniversary of the publication of her classic sequence of radio plays, The Man Born to be King. These anniversaries invite a re-examination of her legacy.

I, for one, think that there is a case to be made for Sayers’s addition to the Common Worship calendar. I have loved her novels since youth; I have also become convinced, however, that her intellectual gifts and deep faith, allied to her often messy personal life, produced religious writings that deserve continued attention.

Those aspects of her Golden Age detective fiction which have ensured their resilience — the clarity, wit, and Sayers’s desire to find humanity in the world’s grubbiness — are those things that flow through into The Man Born to be King. It is as if she needed to become a novelist in order to become a writer on religion; as a religious writer, she depended on the skills of a novelist.


DOROTHY LEIGH SAYERS was born on 13 June 1893, in Oxford. She was the only child of Helen Mary Leigh and the Revd Henry Sayers. Her father was headmaster of Christ Church Cathedral School. Dorothy showed intellectual curiosity from an early age. When she was six, her father started teaching her Latin.

She grew up in the fenland village of Bluntisham, after her father became its rector — a location that featured in fictional form in The Nine Tailors. In 1912, she went up to Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied modern languages and medieval literature, taking first-class honours in 1915. Her experience of Oxford academia inspired her penultimate Wimsey novel, Gaudy Night.

Sayers’s intellectual gifts are beyond peradventure. After university, however, she needed to earn a living — and wanted a good living, at that. In London, she worked as an advertising copywriter (she is credited with writing some enduring campaigns, including the Guinness toucan ad), an experience which was central to Murder Must Advertise. As the detective-novel craze took hold, Sayers recognised that there was money to be made. Ultimately, her success gave her financial and personal independence.

Part of the joy and fascination of Sayers lies in her being clearly no arid intellectual. She was passionate, human, and fleshly. She felt no need to be pious about wanting a good standard of living. She also embraced the mess of human desire. In the early 1920s, she cohabited with the poet John Cournos, but refused to consummate the relationship on the grounds that she did not believe in contraception.

When that relationship failed, she became involved with a married man with whom she had a child. Her son, John Anthony, was raised by a cousin and treated as Sayers’s nephew. She never publicly acknowledged him, although she quietly supported him.

She loved food, drink, smoking, and her motorbike, and cut a striking figure in the world of letters. A founding member of the Detection Club, reputedly she was responsible for their initiation ritual, involving an oath sworn over a skull. This is not exactly the image that one might associate with a woman who served as a churchwarden for many years.

Sayers, then, remains a fascinating — perhaps even, perplexing figure. The scholar-priest Canon Jessica Martin suggests that the “complex juxtaposition of deliberate rigour with a (sometimes deliberate, often delighted) liberation from the bondage of the will is at the heart of Sayers's enduring power as a writer.” Canon Martin’s assessment of Lord Peter might also be said to apply to Sayers: “He dances around his audience, affable, proverbial, colloquial, declarative, dominant. He promises to be frivolous but conceals a serious intention. . . the messy problems of human behaviour are to be solved in orderly deductions from minutiae.”

Certainly, Sayers takes the detective-fiction formula to its edge and beyond. Lord Peter is scarred by inner war-wounds. He is tormented by what he calls “the old responsibility dream”: the fact that, in pursuing his vocation — bringing murderers to justice — he is also an agent of their execution. Ultimately, the pursuit of justice does not liberate him (or, by implication, Sayers herself), but hems him in.


IT IS as if, come the late 1930s, Sayers had to slip off the limits of the detective novel and find something new. The final 20 years of her life centred on plays, apologetics, and translation. If her early career reflects an interest in justice and control, it is in her post-novel career that Sayers amplifies the field of grace and mercy. Her classic 12-radio-play sequence, The Man Born to be King, brings mercy centre stage.

The play sequence was specially written for the BBC Home Service. When it was broadcast in 1941-42, its depiction of Jesus caused controversy, besides earning much praise. Sayers had already written The Zeal of Thy House for the Canterbury Festival, as well as a one-act drama for radio, among other plays. The sheer shock of The Man Born to be King, however, lay in how Sayers presented Jesus as caught up in the midst of a human drama; she shaped the drama around the use of contemporary speech instead of the rhythms of the Authorised Version.

Eighty years on, it is hard to capture the impact of Sayers's drama. Her pioneering work made naturalistic approaches to the Gospels the default. In 1941, however, there were complaints. The Lord’s Day Observance Society wrote this to the BBC: “Christian people have been shocked at the announcement of the proposed impersonation of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . It is the first time a radio impersonation of Christ has been attempted anywhere in the world. Christian people feel deeply that to impersonate the Divine Son of God in this way is an act of irreverence bordering on the blasphemous.”

A full-page advert taken out in several newspapers now reads as absurdist comedy: “The man chosen to impersonate the Eternal Son of God — attributing to him some words our divine saviour never uttered — is a professional actor. Could anything be more distressful to reverent minded Christians?”

Sayers had her own wrangles with the BBC. In November 1940, she wrote to a friend: “I’ve been having the usual struggle with the play at the BBC. What happens is that the producer goes away and a yammering kind of letter is sent to me by some female he has left in charge who thinks it her duty to tell me how to write English and how to write for the stage.”

She further accused the BBC of “amateurishness . . . which results in interference by everybody in everybody else’s job and that I cannot put up with. What goes into a play and the language in which it is written is the author’s business.”

The Man Born to be King may well have been “event radio”, but what stands out now is its confidence and quiet beauty. Its opening scene takes place in a back room, as two of Herod’s powerbrokers play dice and chew over rumours of angels seen near Bethlehem. The language is salty and real. It might have been lifted from (an admittedly bowdlerised) episode of Game of Thrones. The dialogue will strike modern listeners as quite ordinary. That’s part of Sayers's achievement. She showed the human horizons of the “greatest story ever told”, decades before modern film and TV adaptations normalised expectations.

In humanising Jesus, however, Sayers never avoids his divinity. She captures the scandal of Christ. She has trust in how literature can reveal a person in three dimensions, whether that be Lord Peter or Christ. Sayers has no need to be a liberal and explain away miracles. She leaves that for a later generation. Her presentation of Jesus as one of us, however, is beyond moving. Christ’s humanity does not denude him of strangeness, but enables him to speak to a modern audience.

Such was the impact and deep orthodoxy of The Man Born to be King (as well as of her apologetic writings) that Archbishop Temple offered Sayers a Lambeth doctorate in 1943. She declined, saying: “I have only served Divinity, as it were, accidentally, coming to it as a writer rather than as a Christian person.”


WHEN combined with her love of life, Sayers's fierceness, rigour, and orthodox faith are, I find, immensely appealing. Church and God were simply part of her everyday reality. Her sadly incomplete translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy is beautiful, and preserves the rhythms and mood of the original terza rima. She was a communicator who brought Christ’s story alive in a subtle, compelling, and faithful way for a mass audience.

Her bacon-slicer mind served up both entertainment and wisdom. She was a public theologian who never lost a novelist’s eye for story. Perhaps it is time for Sayers to be commemorated in the Church of England’s calendar. Certainly, I wish more of us would take her words more seriously: “It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology.

“It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism.”

Canon Rachel Mann is Area Dean of Bury and Rossendale, and Assistant Curate of St Mary’s, Bury, in Manchester diocese, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.

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