The letters of dorothy l.., p.1
The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers. Vol. 1, p.1Dorothy L. Sayers
THE LETTERS OF DOROTHY L. SAYERS
1937 – 1943
From novelist to playwright
CHOSEN AND EDITED BY
WITH A PREFACE BY
P. D. JAMES
St. Martin’s Press New York
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List of illustrations
THE LETTERS (1937–1943)
1937: Behind the scenes
1938: Response to a new public
1939: The crisis of war
1940: A false start
1941: The mind of a maker
1942: A landmark in broadcasting
1943: Responsibilities of fame
Appendix: Particulars of the birth of John Anthony
P. D. JAMES
For most readers, particularly of crime fiction, the name of Dorothy L. Sayers is primarily associated with the well-crafted traditional detective story, and in particular with her aristocratic detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. It is doubtful whether she herself would be gratified by a posthumous reputation so focused on one aspect – and perhaps in her eyes the least important – of a literary life which is one of the most versatile, controversial and fascinating of her generation; novelist, poet, playwright, translator and Christian apologist. But it was with the publication in 1995 of the first volume of her letters, sensitively edited by her friend, the Italian scholar Dr Barbara Reynolds, that Dorothy L. Sayers became recognised in a new capacity, as one of the most remarkable letter-writers of her time. This second volume, again edited by Dr Reynolds, will enhance that reputation.
It should not surprise us that Dorothy L. Sayers was so remarkable a correspondent. A good letter requires a writer who has wide interests, a lively and original intelligence, humour which is not without an occasional trace of acerbity, honesty, moral courage and good writing. In brief, the writer should be a person with plenty to say and the talent to say it persuasively. Dorothy L. Sayers, as a letter-writer and as a woman, had all these qualities.
The second volume covers the years 1937–1943, and most of the letters are written from Sayers’ home at 24 Newland Street, Witham, Essex, where she was living with her husband, Mac. The year 1937 opened well. Sayers had established herself as a successful novelist and her first play, Busman’s Honeymoon, was a West End success. The worst of her emotional troubles were behind her, in particular her ill-fated and unconsummated love affair with the writer John Cournos and the birth of a son by a man who was to prove unsupportive and rejecting, both emotionally and financially. She had coped with these traumas with characteristic courage and now looked forward to a period of stability. Her son, John Anthony, was still in the care of her cousin, Ivy Shrimpton, when not at school, and was healthy and doing well.
On 6th October 1936 Margaret Babington, organiser of the Festival of the Friends of Canterbury Cathedral, had written a letter which was to change Dorothy L. Sayers’s life, and not only as a playwright. It was an invitation to write a play for the 1937 Festival. This play, later named The Zeal of Thy House on the inspiration of the set designer, Laurence Irving, was to move Sayers into a new field of creativity which was to provide her with intellectual stimulation, controversy and the comradeship of a joint theatrical enterprise which she had already enjoyed when working on Busman’s Honeymoon. Her commitment to any undertaking was always whole-hearted, not surprisingly in a woman who believed in the almost sacramental importance of work and of intellectual integrity. The letters show that she was closely involved in every aspect of The Zeal of Thy House and the subsequent religious plays; production, casting, music, costumes and the design of the set. This was a world in which her exuberant personality could feel naturally at home. And it was in the speech of the Archangel Michael at the end of The Zeal of Thy House that Dorothy L. Sayers first articulated her understanding of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in terms of creativity which she was to develop in The Mind of the Maker, published in July 1941. A work of creation was three-fold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly; the Creative Idea, timeless and passionate, which is the image of the Father; the Creative Energy begotten of the idea and working in time, which is the image of the Word; the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the individual soul, which is the image of the Indwelling Spirit. It is on The Mind of the Maker that Sayers’s reputation as a lay theologian chiefly rests.
In February 1940 Dr James Welch, in charge of religious broadcasting at the BBC, approached Sayers suggesting that she should write a dramatised life of Christ in half-hour episodes to be broadcast on the “Children’s Hour” programme. She had already written a religious radio play, He That Should Come, but this new and more ambitious enterprise had an inauspicious start. Dorothy L. Sayers had from the beginning set out the conditions under which she would begin what would inevitably be a long, challenging and poorly-paid task. She insisted that there must be no writing down to a child audience which, in her view, was capable of responding both to ideas and to elevated language. Unfortunately the assistant to the producer suggested in a tactfully-worded letter that the BBC should discreetly edit a few passages which she felt were “right above the heads of the children” and too difficult for the audience. This suggestion provoked an immediate response from Sayers in some of the most uncompromising and pugnacious letters which the BBC must ever have received from a commissioned writer. Dorothy L. Sayers was always a bonny fighter and here she was on sure ground: the sole responsibility of the creator for her creation. At one point Sayers even cancelled the contract, but Dr Welch was determined that the plays should not be lost, and the BBC capitulated. A producer acceptable to Sayers was appointed and the work continued with the author’s usual energy and enthusiasm. The result, as might be expected at that time, provoked outrage from people and religious bodies who saw the depiction of Christ by an actor as sacrilege. The BBC stood firm in support of its author and the enterprise was fully vindicated by its success.
The religious plays and the broadcast of The Man Born to be King established Dorothy L. Sayers’s reputation as a Christian apologist, and one senses from some of the letters that this was a role in which she was not altogether at ease, and one that involved her in an immense volume of correspondence. Some of the most fascinating and the longest letters in this volume are those in which she expounds her theological theories in replies to a wide range of correspondents seeking her views and advice on moral and ethical questions, particularly those relating to the war.
These letters will be interesting to more than amateur theologians or practising Christians. Dr Reynolds’ judicious footnotes are helpful in explaining the doctrine which the non-theologian might otherwise find obscure. Sayers’s own religion was devoid of emotion, religious enthusiasm or the outward signs of devotional life. Christianity, for her, was a passionate intellectual commitment to the formal creeds of the Church. In a long letter on 7th October 1941 to Cound Michael de la Bedoyère of the Catholic Herald, a letter which must have taken the best part of a day to write, she states: “I haven’t got a pastoral mind or a passion to convert people; but I hate having my intellect outraged by imbecile ignorance and by the monstrous distortions of fact which the average
She was certainly over-working, trying to reconcile this increasing public commitment with the need to earn a living and the daily problems of running a house in wartime. She was coping with, and fully supporting, an increasingly difficult husband. This overwork cannot have made relations with her son any easier. Without his side of the correspondence we cannot guess how far he resented his exclusion from much of his mother’s life, but in a letter dated 17th March 1937 she writes that she is “nearly dead with tiredness every night”. Most of her letters to him mention how busy she is. She never acknowledged him as her natural son but she was a generous, responsible and supportive parent. School fees were met and money for extras and occasional treats was found from a tight budget. The letters to her son are at their most interesting when they deal with intellectual questions he occasionally raised. She discusses the value of a university education, his ideas for his career and the nature of scientific creativity in letters which any son would have been proud and happy to have received. She couldn’t give him maternal love in its fullest sense; a mother does not bond with a baby if she relinquishes him to another woman within days of his birth. But what she could give Dorothy L. Sayers gave, and one suspects that, as a parent, her reputation deserves better than it has received.
Although for many readers the most interesting letters will be those dealing with her theological theories and her career as a playwright, the range of her interests as a correspondent was wide. She wrote to the Editor of the New Statesman to disagree with the critic Desmond MacCarthy’s views on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya; she corresponded about Lord Peter Wimsey’s history and the purchase of his shirts; she wrote to the Editor of the Daily Telegraph in support of P. G. Wodehouse who had attracted odium by a broadcast while held in occupied France; she gave freely of her time in responding to queries from amateurs or professionals about the staging of her plays. The variety of her correspondents is as wide as her subject matter, ranging from statesmen, university professors and archbishops to fellow-writers and members of the public seeking her advice or her opinions. Always the voice is uniquely her own. In reading we feel ourselves in touch with a courageous, original and remarkable woman who, despite great difficulties, lived life with exuberant enthusiasm and has left a legacy of work which will endure.
P. D. JAMES
List of illustrations
Frontispiece: Photograph of Dorothy L. Sayers (Howard Coster)
Dennis Arundell and Veronica Turleigh as Lord and Lady Peter Wimsey in Busman’s Honeymoon (courtesy of David G. Humphreys)
Pickpocket and Cast of Busman’s Honeymoon (courtesy of David G. Humphreys)
Clerihew and Caricature of Dorothy L. Sayers by E. C. and Nicolas Bentley (courtesy of Constable and Co., Ltd)
William of Sens and Archangels in The Zeal of Thy House (B. and W. Fisk-Moore)
Portrait of the Tenth Duke of Denver by Mrs Wilfrid Scott-Giles (courtesy of Wimsey Family and Fleming estate)
Lord Peter Wimsey (alias Maurice Roy Ridley, courtesy of Balliol College)
Marie Ney, who played the Lady Ursula in The Zeal of Thy House (courtesy of Victoria and Albert Picture Library)
Portrait of Val Gielgud by Atherton Fleming (courtesy of Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College)
Costume of Faustus in The Devil to Pay, designed by Elizabeth Haffenden
Harcourt Williams (courtesy of Victoria and Albert Picture Library)
Costume of Mephistopheles in The Devil to Pay, designed by Elizabeth Haffenden
Dorothy L. Sayers and Stickly-Prickly (photograph by Suschitzky, courtesy of Ralph E. Hone)
The Rev. Dr James Welch (courtesy of Mrs Simon Phipps)
Robert Speaight, later to play Christ in The Man Born to be King (courtesy of Victoria and Albert Picture Library)
Dorothy L. Sayers, Robert Speaight and Val Gielgud rehearsing The Man Born to be King (courtesy of Ralph E. Hone)
The Devil’s Telephone Number (courtesy of C. S. Lewis estate)
The Hound of Heaven (courtesy of C. S. Lewis estate)
This second volume of The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers brings to light an unknown dimension of her personality and writings. As she grew older and became established, her sense of involvement in society increased. This new focus was sharpened and strengthened by the Second World War. By 1943, the year with which this volume closes, Dorothy L. Sayers had come to be a figure of national influence and importance. The creative medium in which this development took shape was no longer fiction but drama.
She had begun writing plays in her childhood. The earliest recorded, entitled “Such is Fame” and written when she was 13 years old, concerns a young author (herself) who has imprudently based one of her characters on a combined portrait of two of her aunts.1 With the help of her French governess she produced and acted scenes from plays by Moliere. Enthusiastically she made costumes, props and programmes. Her parents enjoyed the theatre and encouraged her interest. She became, as the expresssion was, “stage-struck”, idolizing actors. She acted out roles in her imagination, impersonating Athos, the gallant swordsman in Alexandre Dumas’ novels. Such imaginative play was elaborate and sustained, involving her compliant family and friends for several years. A photograph taken when she was 14 shows her as Athos splendidly apparelled.2
At school, drama continued to play an important part in her life. Performances by a company of French actors are described ecstatically in her letters home. A melodrama of her own was considered good enough to be performed. In a school production of The Merchant of Venice she was cast as Shylock. She sent home continually for costumes, swords, wigs, a false beard, even a false nose. At the age of 17 she announced that she would like to go on the stage. With admirable foresight her Headmistress said she would be more of a success as a playwright than as an actress.
Her enthusiasm continued during her Oxford years but her earliest experience of the professional theatre came only in 1936, at the age of 43, when her play Busman’s Honeymoon, written in collaboration with Muriel St Clare Byrne, was put on first at the Birmingham Theatre Royal, the Theatre Royal, Brighton and then in London at the Comedy. Her enjoyment of the camaraderie of theatrical life is vividly communicated in several of her letters. While this play was still in its early stages, even before it had gone into rehearsal, she received an invitation to write a drama for the 1937 festival of Canterbury Cathedral. This was the turning point in her career: Dorothy L. Sayers the playwright took over from the novelist.
By the end of the seven years covered by this volume she had written seventeen plays,3 all of which were performed on stage, in cathedral or on radio. Two more religious dramas were written and performed in 1946 and 1951.4 A secular play, Where Do We Go From Here?, was broadcast in 1948. Other plays, incomplete, are also to be found among her manuscripts.5
The height of her achievement as a playwright was reached with the twelve plays on the life of Christ, The Man Born to be King, a series which made broadcasting history in Britain. It also marked the apex of her recognition by the Church. The letters which form tire climax of this volume concern an offer made by the Archbishop of Canterbury of a Lambeth doctorate in divinity, an offer which, after careful consideration, she declined. Her reasons for doing so included her wish to remain independent as a secular writer. The label “Doctor of Divinity” attached to her name would, she thought, lessen any influence she had as a commentator on social matters or as an expounder of the Christian faith. It might also, she feared, act as a constraint on the range and nature of her secular writing.
The letters in this volume provide glimpses behind the scenes, not only of the writing and producing of plays but also of the growth of her ideas. It is alread
The exchange of substantial letters, some nearly as long as articles, was a regular, almost a daily, part of her activity. Among the topics discussed are the reconstruction of society after the war, the maintenance of peace, the importance of vocation in work (by which she did not mean vocational training), the position of women, the opportunities missed by the B.B.C., the need for a national theatre, the fallacy of 19th-century liberalism, the collapse of materialism, the limitations of the theory of “economic man”, the ephemeral nature of many scientific concepts, the confusion of Church leaders on social matters and their inadequate preaching on Christian doctrine, the need for the young to be kept in touch with the past, the danger of society’s failure to recognize the importance of creativity. Despite the profound nature of these topics, her lively humour and talent for dialogue make many of the letters as compelling and entertaining as anything she ever wrote.
The range of her correspondents is striking: archbishops, bishops, (not to mention many minor clergy), fellow writers, politicians, members of government departments, directors of the B.B.C., University teachers, students, leading personalities in the world of the theatre, publishing and journalism. There is scarcely an area of public life on which she did not bring some influence to bear. Remarkable too are the generous and time-consuming letters she wrote in reply to strangers who asked for clarification and guidance in matters concerning religion. In this respect she resembled C. S. Lewis, to whom she wrote an amusing letter of wry self-mockery, saying how much she begrudged the time. Yet, although she grumbled, she continued to take trouble, courteously explaining and advising whenever she felt that a correspondent’s enquiries were genuine and sincere. She could be curt with those whom she suspected of being otherwise.
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