Detection & Orthodoxy
ON DOROTHY L. SAYERS
An English schoolboy is alleged to have written an essay containing this striking pronouncement: “Then there was Miss Dorothy L. Sayers, who turned from a life of crime to join the Church of England.”
The schoolboy’s remark does have the virtue of recognizing that the period of Dorothy L. Sayers’s creative life in which she produced the 11 Peter Wimsey detective novels (roughly 1923-1937) precedes and does not to any extent overlap the period (1937-1957) devoted to religious drama, theological essays, and the translation of Dante. On the other hand, it also implies that this life falls neatly into two compartments, and that Sayers’s abandonment of crime was the result of some species of Christian conversion. What I wish to argue here is that the work of Dorothy L. Sayers is very much all of a piece. She was a thinking and believing Anglican throughout her literary career, and the majority of her detective novels show this as definitely as the later works that may be more formally classified as “religious.”
In adducing evidence for this thesis, I am not, I hope, confusing mere “churchiness” with thinking and believing Anglicanism. Dorothy L. Sayers was an English vicarage daughter to whom the Bible, the Church, and the Book of Common Prayer were integral parts of life. When she writes about members of the British aristocracy, she recognizes, as the novelist of manners she has sometimes been called, that the culture of the time required their presence in church. So for instance, near the end of Busman’s Honeymoon, Peter puts it to his newly married wife that it would meet with local approval if they were to “turn up in the family pew.” It even devolves upon Peter to read the Lessons for the day. One of these, from the fifth chapter of the prophet Jeremiah, moves both Peter and Harriet to reflection on recent murderous events. Neither, however, is in any sense a practicing Christian. With respect to Peter, Sayers records a perhaps not altogether imaginary conversation with a Wimsey reader who was sure that “Lord Peter [would] end up as a convinced Christian.” To this she reports herself as replying, “From what I know of him, nothing is more unlikely.” The fact that Lord Peter “stepped round to hear Evensong,” when, in Whose Body?, he happened to have some spare time in the Cathedral city of Salisbury, has nothing to do with the state of his soul, nor with that of his creator. It shows merely that she has recorded quite correctly the church manners of her major character.
We may, I think, learn rather more about the Anglican orthodoxy of Dorothy L. Sayers from the behavior of an admittedly very “churchy” character. Miss Katherine Climpson. Miss Climpson, when we meet her first in Unnatural Death, is a middle-aged spinster of slender means employed by Lord Peter as a private investigator. A lady of copious style who cannot speak or write without the constant use of italics and exclamation points, Miss Climpson is the possessor of something rather unusual in detective fiction, an informed conscience. It is not just that she makes quite certain of the sound Anglo-Catholic views of the vicar, Mr. Tredgold, in the town to which she has been sent by Peter on a detective mission; we come to know Miss Climpson’s conscience from within. So, for instance, she wrestles with the question whether it is strictly right to use her church connection to pursue her acquaintance with the presumed murderess, Mary Whittaker, also a churchgoer. In a subsequent novel, Strong Poison, Miss Climpson gives her conscience another hard struggle before deciding to place her extensive knowledge of spiritualism, a subject forbidden by the Church, at the service of detection. A much more serious struggle takes place when, in Unnatural Death, Miss Climpson accidentally comes upon a paper which she quickly recognizes as a memorandum to be used by a penitent in the confessional. Everything in her religious training tells her that the paper should be destroyed unread. But the one sentence on which her eye has fallen makes shatteringly clear to a person trained “in this kind of devotional shorthand,” that the paper holds the key to the death of Agatha Dawson. The whole chapter is a fascinating study which, it seems to me, could have been written only by one who understood the twists and turns of conscience at first hand.
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