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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 8.4 (2005) 158-164

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Introduction to Dorothy l. Sayers "Are Women Human?

from Unpopular Opinions: Twenty-One Essays

Perhaps due to a youthful obsession with Nancy Drew, it wasn't until my first semester of graduate school that I considered the mystery novel to be anything other than a pleasant but forgotten pastime. But one day in class, and in a tone that made it seem as though it were common knowledge, a theology professor mentioned that theologians tended to like really good mystery stories. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, but since a theologian was what I hoped to be, I decided that perhaps I ought to read one. That very [End Page 158] afternoon, I went to the university library and by some stroke of good fortune, found a shelf full of the work of Dorothy L. Sayers.

I had heard of Sayers years before in connection with the PBS television series The Nine Tailors. So, I picked up that volume first—I think more out of a fond association with Alastair Cooke's eloquent commentary on the doings of the hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, than because I remembered any details of the plot. I found Wimsey entrancing and entered into his gentlemanly, Victorianesque approach to solving murders with fascination. He was erudite and elegant, possessing a depth of refinement and a breadth of knowledge that left me longing for the graceful living of an earlier time. I developed an insatiable appetite for more of his adventures and hungrily read all thirteen of them, from the moment of his creation in Whose Body? (1923) to the final novel in the series, Busman's Honeymoon (1937), in which Sayers finally marries Peter off to Harriet Vane, a young detective novelist he met in an earlier novel (Strong Poison, 1930) while trying to solve the mystery of who had killed her lover.

When I finished the series, I found myself at a loss. I was torn. I felt I simply had to have another novel to read; it relaxed my brain at the end of a stressful day of classes and study. But I could not ignore the shelf in the library where several other volumes of Sayers's work silently waited. Somewhat reluctantly, I resigned myself to my addiction and returned to the familiar aisle like a horse trotting back to the barn. I reached for a book of essays: "Hmm, Unpopular Opinions."1 The title certainly had some appeal, suggesting a fearless analysis and a certain contrariness, not unlike Lord Peter's own inimitable style. I opened the volume, and instead of Dorothy Sayers the mystery writer, I encountered Dorothy Sayers the theologian.

Dorothy L. Sayers was born in June 1893 at Oxford, the only child of an Anglican minister. Unusually gifted, she could speak and read Latin by the age of seven, learned French from her governess, and published her first book, a volume of verse, at twenty-three. She studied medieval literature and modern languages, earning a master's [End Page 159] degree in 1915, one of the first women to be granted a degree from Oxford University. A devout Anglican, she numbered C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and Father Ronald Knox among her friends and associates.

While she is best known for her detective stories, Sayers devoted the last twenty years of her life to other genres.2 She wrote and scripted radio plays, primarily religious dramas, for the BBC. She considered doctrinal questions (The Mind of the Maker, 1941) and reflected on Christian living and belief (Creed or Chaos? 1947). She was a skilled translator, producing translations of Tristan in Brittany and the Song of Roland from the medieval French. She also has to her credit several works on Dante, including an acclaimed translation of The Divine Comedy. She wrote critical essays on a variety of topics. Dorothy Sayers was a remarkable woman—in a sense, ahead...