Lovers of a juicy whodunit consider the 1920s and 1930s the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction, thanks in no small part to the three queens of crime, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers. Each was interesting in her own right, but perhaps Sayers was the most intriguing.
Born in Oxford University (her father was the chaplain at Christ Church), it’s no surprise that she followed an academic and literary path, with one notable exception. As a young woman, Sayers worked at an advertising agency. She devised the well-known series of Guinness advertisements that feature the toucan with a glass of Guinness on its bill, still seen on billboards today.
However she is best known for her detective novels, featuring the aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. One of these novels, Gaudy Night, maintains pace and humour while putting forward the case for women’s education – a hot topic at the time.
Classics of the genre, her novels attracted the admiration of critics for their attention to detail. Sayers depth of background research is legendary, exemplified in The Nine Tailors, where she displays expert knowledge of the study of bellringing.
Unlike Agatha Christie however, Dorothy Sayers wrote only a dozen novels and a couple of volumes of short stories in the crime fiction category. Her work was more diversified, and she also devoted her time to academic essays, especially on the topics of theology and feminism. One of her most notable essays “Are Women Human?” (1938) shows her conciliatory approach to feminism. She points to the similarities between men and women rather than highlighting the differences.
She was one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford University. Although when she initially passed her studies with first class honours, Oxford was not awarding degrees to women. She needed to wait years until the university reversed its decision to officially receive her degree.
She published numerous translations of classic literary works. Her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy is considered by many as the best English translation, because Sayers went to some trouble to retain the original meter and rhyme structure of the verses.
When she died of a sudden heart attack in 1957 (aged 64), her Will revealed that she had, in secret at the age of 30, given birth to a son, whom she had treated as a nephew for 34 years and to whom she left her entire estate.
Dorothy Sayers gave the world some of the best-loved detective fiction, highly-regarded literary translations and academic contributions to the study of spirituality and feminism.
You may also like