Dorothy Leigh Sayers 13 June 1893 -1957



'Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in here coped and poisèd powers...'

From 'Duns Scotus Oxford' by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) as quoted in 'Gaudy Night'

I’m a big Dorothy Sayers fan – actually I’m a big Lord Peter Wimsey fan. Sayers created the aristocratic detective as her beau ideal – he was handsome, intelligent, sensitive and courageous, what more could a woman want? And he was a Lord as well – albeit a younger son. Eventually she couldn’t resist his charms and put herself in her own novels as Lord Peter’s great love, the mystery writer Harriet Vane. The Lord Peter novels, as well as giving us a delicious portrait of the thinking-woman’s-crumpet-detective, do however tackle some of the major social issues of Britain in the years immediately after World War One.

In ‘Whose Body’ published a year before Lindberg’s record-breaking flight, Lord Peter flies as a passenger across the Atlantic with vital information to save his elder brother from being hanged for murder. Other novels tackle the plight of men shell-shocked in the war, the role of advertising in the modern world and most importantly the education of women and their place in society. Harriet refuses to marry Lord Peter because she owes him her life, she's scrupulously moral and she’s an independent woman. She's loth to abandon that status even for the man she loves and a title. It is only in ‘Gaudy Night’ – my favourite of the novels that they eventually get engaged. Dorothy Sayers manages to tease us with the sexual tension between the two of them for several of the books.

Sayers herself was a pioneer in a number of respects. She was one of the first women to be educated to degree level at Oxford – although she couldn’t collect her degree until five years after graduating. She was an exact contemporary of Vera Brittain and bears some resemblance to Sarah Burton the independent minded heroine of the novel 'South Riding' by her other contemporary Winifred Holtby. When Sayers worked for Blackwell’s in Oxford, her boss likened her to ‘a race horse drawing a cart’ meaning her talents were wasted there, although it's an unfortunate comparison. Certainly her intellect was formidable and she didn't hide it.

Somewhat unusually for a vicar’s daughter from Hertfordshire, Sayers had a number of lovers before she was married. In 1924 she gave birth to an illegitimate baby and arranged for him to be brought up by a cousin who did genteel fostering. The existence of her son John was the big secret of her life and although she told her husband when she later married she never revealed the truth to her parents.

She had a formidable appetite for work both in her writing – detective stories, translations, plays, journalism and poetry, and at the time she was in paid employment - with the advertising agency S. H Benson, where she was responsible for the famous toucan in the early Guinness advertisements.

I can’t resist the final scene in ‘Gaudy Night’

‘Peter!’

She stood still: and he stopped perforce and turned towards her. She laid both hands upon the fronts of his gown, looking into his face while she searched for the word that should carry her over the last difficult breach.

It was he who found it for her. With a gesture of submission he bared his head and stood gravely, the square cap dangling in his hand.

‘Placet magistra?’

‘Placet’

I know it's not to everyone's taste but that makes my toes curl (in a good way).

I’ve made a sweet omelette, something deeply, deeply unfashionable these days. It was the means by which Harriet’s lover was poisoned in ‘Strong Poison’ but Lord Peter of course proves her innocence . The Wimsey novels are a bit dated in a fictional detective world now characterised by the likes of Lisbeth Salander, but they are well written and intelligently plotted. Give them a go if you haven’t already.

Sweet Omelette

Per person

Two eggs, strawberry jam, icing sugar, butter.

Separate the eggs and whisk the whites until stiff peaks are formed. Beat the yolks and fold together. Heat the pan until really hot and drop in a knob of butter, when it has melted but before it is brown, tip in the egg mixture and turn down the heat. Leave it to cook gently - you can flash it under a hot grill if you wish. When the omelette is almost cooked, drop on a good dessertspoon of jam. Fold the omelette over and serve on a hot plate, sprinkle with icing sugar. Eat immediately. Do not add arsenic.

'Leave me, O love which reachest but to dust

And thou, my mind aspire to higher things;

Grow rich in that which never taketh rust,

Whatever fades, but fading pleasures brings.'

By Sir Philip Sydney (1554-1586) Chapter XI heading 'Gaudy Night'.

6 comments:

thingshelenlikes said...

I adore Sayers and I'd take Lord Peter over the abhorrent Lisbeth Salander any day of the week!

(Still not sold on a sweet omelette, though!)

Eggs on the Roof said...

This was such an entertaining post from start to finish - made my toes curl too, in a good way... I gave a talk about the Oxford novel once and the audience was a bit snooty about D L Sayers. I tried to put them right, but probably failed.
Charlie

Liz said...

I gave a talk about Dorothy Sayers once too - to the Hull Womens' Literary Club - I think they were a bit the same...
Liz

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

I have always thought you should scratch between the surface with Dorothy Sayers and Lord Peter . . . rather wonderful!

Anonymous said...

Very enjoyable although I've gone off sweet omelettes since reading "Strong Poison". I'm surprised anyone is sniffy about DLS - we love her at Cambridge where she's considered a feminist pioneer and a classic writer, even if she did go to the wrong university:-)

Liz said...

Yes I can understand the sweet omelette phobia ! Thanks for the comment , come back soon.
Liz