Dorothy L. Sayers

By: Amanda French
June 13, 2011

Dorothy L. Sayers

“Suppose that, in a fit of rage, or through carelessness, you have destroyed a valuable vase belonging to a friend,” writes DOROTHY L. SAYERS (1893-1957) in her introduction to Dante’s Purgatory as she begins to explain medieval doctrine. Or suppose that, in a fit of rage, or through carelessness, you have killed someone, just like one of the murderers in Sayers’ famous Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels. Or suppose that, in a fit of lust, or through carelessness, you have become pregnant out of wedlock, as Sayers herself did in 1923, the year her first Wimsey book came out. What then?

Guilt: that’s the link between Sayers’ lowbrow mystery novels and her highbrow scholarly and theological writings. If you happen to be feeling guilty about something at the moment, you might want to read Sayers’ editorial apparatus for her translations of Dante. There you will find a great deal of Oxford-educated intelligence about Dante, his time, and his poetry; but you will also find a great deal of intelligence about sin, judgment, repentance, forgiveness, and bliss. If you happen to be wondering what you should do about someone else’s guilt, Sayers’ mysteries will entertain you with their ingenious plots and witty characters; but they will also tell you that the guilty must be made to face the consequences of their offenses, always, no matter the extenuating circumstances, although it is nevertheless also necessary to treat the guilty with compassion. Sayers knows what a conscience needs, even when it’s a fantasy about “the repose of very delicate balance” between kindness and judgment. As Lord Peter himself said,

“Dammit, she writes detective stories and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have.”

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: William Butler Yeats and Basil Rathbone.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Modernist (1884-93) and Hardboiled (1894-1903) generations.

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