Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dorothy Sayers: A Mind of Her Own

Alice C. Linsley

Dorothy Sayers’ writings reveal her to be one of the most politically and religiously unaccommodating women of the 20th century. She distained propaganda, saw through commercial advertizing, resisted trends, defended human dignity and argued for the integrity of the creative process.

Carl Olson writes, “In an age of skepticism, cynicism, and false ‘freedoms,’ Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) was a passionate and occasionally scathing voice of reason. Like her friends C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and Charles Williams, Sayers was a brilliant Christian thinker, an Anglo-Catholic who took doctrine seriously and bristled at the growth of ‘fads, schisms, heresies, and anti-Christ’ within the Church of England.”

Sayers’ writings reveal her opposition to all careless regard for human dignity. Lord Peter is always delicate, even compassionate, in making inquiries of the broken-hearted and the scandalized. He must overcome his lordly pride in order to accept his beloved Harriet Vane on her own dignified terms. On the matter of life and death, Sayers takes the high road, opposing euthanasia on moral and religious grounds.

In those last weeks or hours of pain and unconsciousness, the soul may be undergoing some necessary part of its pilgrimage on earth. It isn’t our business to cut it short. Who are we to take life and death into our hands? ... the wrongness of the thing lies much more in the harm it does the killer than in anything it can do to the person who is killed. Especially, of course, if the killing is to the killer’s own advantage. (Unnatural Death)

Her mysteries, which at places offer rich catholic insight, nonetheless gave offense to both the catholic and the evangelical because she refused to fashion her characters as good High Churchmen or even as born-again Evangelicals.

Well-meaning readers who try to identify the writer with his characters or to excavate the author’s personality and opinions from his books are frequently astonished by the ferocious rudeness with which the author himself salutes these efforts at reabsorbing his work into himself. They are an assault upon the independence of his creatures, which he very properly resents. Painful misunderstandings of this kind may rive the foundations of social intercourse, and produce explosions which seem quite out of proportion to the apparent causes….

“I am sure Lord Peter will end up as a convinced Christian.’

“From what I know of him, nothing is more unlikely.”

“But as a Christian yourself, you must want him to be one.”

“He would be horribly embarrassed by any such suggestion.”

“But he’s far too intelligent and far too nice, not to be a Christian.”

“My dear lady, Peter is not the Ideal Man; he is an eighteenth-century Whig gentleman, born a little out of his time, and doubtful whether any claim to possess a soul is not a rather vulgar piece of presumption.”

“I am disappointed.’

“I’m afraid I can’t help that.”

(No; you shall not impose either your will or mine upon my creature. He is what he is, I will work no irrelevant miracles upon him, either for propaganda, or to curry favour, or to establish the consistency of my own principles. He exists I his own right and not to please you. Hands off.) (The Mind of the Maker)

Sayers was a deeply religion person, but not stuffy. She is well depicted in Mrs. Budge’s description of the affable and astute Miss Climpson, whose high church ways are a mystery to the Chapel-going Mrs. Budge:

“…you might find her up at the church. She often drops in there to say her prayers like. Not a respectful way to approach a place of worship to my mind…Popping in and out on a week-day, the same as if it was a friend’s house. And coming home from Communion as cheerful as anything and ready to laugh and make jokes. I don’t see as how we was meant to make an ordinary thing of religion that way – so disrespectful and nothing uplifting to the ‘art about it. But there! we all ‘as our failings, and Miss Climpson is a nice lady and that I must say, even if she is a Roaming Catholic or next door to one.”

Lord Peter thought that Roaming Catholic was rather an appropriate name for the more ultramontane section of the High Church party.” (Unnatural Death)

Finally, a sketch of Dorothy Sayers would not be complete without mentioning her thoughts on the arts and the necessity of human creativity. She wrote, “Man is never truly himself except when he is actively creating something.” She asserted this because she believed that humans share in the nature of the Creator.

The Church asserts that there is a Mind which made the universe, that He made it because He is the sort of Mind that takes pleasure in creation, and that if we want to know what the Mind of the Creator is, we must look at Christ. In Him, we shall discover a Mind that loved His own creation so completely that He became part of it, suffered with and for it, and made it a sharer in His own glory and a fellow-worker with Himself in the working out of His own design for it. (Creed and Chaos, Chapter 10)

Painters and patrons of the arts take the leading role in two of her novels: Five Red Herring and Thrones and Dominions, a book which Sayers never finished. In the first, a hot-headed and heavy-drinking Scottish painter is murdered and in the second the flirtatious wife of a patron of the arts is murdered.

In Five Red Herrings we read this description of a temperamental artist:

Graham pulled a piece of chalk from his pocket and set to work… The picture came up before their eyes with the conjuring quickness of a lightening sketch at the cinema- the burn, the trees, the bridge and a mass of bulging white cloud, so like the actual canvas Wimsey had seen on the easel that he was thoroughly startled.

You ought to be making a living by impersonations, Jock.”

That’s my trouble. Too versatile. Paint in everybody’s style, except my own. Worries the critics…But It’s fun. Look, here’s Gowan.”

He rubbed out the sketch and substituted a vivid chalk impression of one of Gowan’s characteristic compositions – a grim border-keep, a wide sweep of coast, a boat I the foreground, with muscular fishermen bending over their nets.

“Here’s Ferguson – one tree with decorative roots, one reflection of same in water – dim blue distance; in fact, general blues all over – one heap of stones to hold the composition up. Here’s Farren – view of the roofs of Kirkcudbright complete with Tolbooth, looking like Noah’s Ark built out of nursery bricks – vermilion, Naples yellow, ultramarine – sophisticated naïveté and no cast shadows. Waters – ‘none of these charlatans take the trouble to draw’ – bird’s-eye view of a stone-quarry with every bump identifiable – horse and cart violently foreshortened at the bottom, to show that he can do it. Bless you” – he slopped some beer on the counter and wiped the mess away with a ragged sleeve – “the whole bunch of them have only got one gift between them that I lack, and that’s the single eye, more’s the pity. They’re perfectly sincere, I’m not – that’s what makes the difference. I tell you, Wimsey, half those damned portraits people pay me for are caricatures – only the fools don’t know it.” (Five Red Herrings, Chapter 7)

In Thrones and Dominions, Laurence Harwell backs plays for a hobby while his wife, Rosamund', wants him to back a play by Claude Amery, her "pet poet." This, and Rosamund sitting for the amorous French painter Gaston Chapparelle, strains their marriage. Rosamund turns up murdered in the Harwells’ country estate and Lord Peter solves the mystery.

Sayers seemed to enjoy the demise of undisciplined artists and unfaithful artsy women. They represented people who gave the arts a bad name. Worse, in her thinking they embodied “a loose and sentimental theology” that “begets loose and sentimental art-forms.” (The Man Born to Be King: A Play Cycle on the Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ)

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