Review: The Gospel in Dorothy Sayers

Sayers

The Gospel in Dorothy L. SayersDorothy L. Sayers with an Appreciation by C. S. Lewis, edited by Carole Vanderhoof. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An anthology of Sayers’ work organized by theological topics, drawing on her detective fiction, plays, and essays.

This work is the latest installment in Plough Publishing’s The Gospel in Great Writers series, and it is a gem. Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford. Her experience in an ad agency became a resource for a series of Lord Peter Wimsey (and Harriet Vane) detective mysteries. As a committed Christian, and friend of the Inklings, she was called upon by the BBC to speak and write about the Christian faith. She published several plays that brought the gospel accounts to life. She was an essayist, and her extended essay on The Mind of the Maker, simultaneously served as a work of Christian aesthetics, and a reflection on the Trinity. Many consider her translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (Paradiso completed posthumously by Barbara Reynolds) to be one of the best.

In this anthology, we have material from many of her works, that introduces the reader both to the different facets of her writing and the deep theological insight to be found. The material is organized into twenty chapters, each on a particular them, and combining either her fiction or plays with essay material on the same themes. Themes range from Conscience to Covetousness to Despair and Hope to Work and finally Time and Eternity.

What struck me afresh in reading this collection was how delightfully frank and able to cut through pretense Dorothy could be–the counterpart of Harriet Vane in her detective stories.

In writing about Judgement, she notes:

“It is the inevitable consequence of man’s attempt to regulate life and society on a system that runs counter to the facts of his own nature.”

In her essay, The Dogma is the Drama, she concludes:

“Let us, in Heaven’s name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slip-shod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much the worse for the pious–others will pass into the Kingdom of Heaven before them.”

In her play The Man Who Would Be King, she uses informal language to describe the crucifixion of Jesus. The Bishop of Winchester protested this. Here is Dorothy’s reply:

“I’ve made all the alterations required so far, but now I’m entering a formal protest, which I have tried to make a mild one, without threatenings and slaughters. But if the contemporary world is not much moved by the execution of God it is partly because pious phrases and reverent language have made it a more dignified crime than it was. It was a dirty piece of work, tell the Bishop.”

In her essay Why Work?, she makes this trenchant observation:

“How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?”

This work is rich in such observations and often the essay excerpts are a good reflection of the key ideas in those essays. If there is any flaw, the excerpts from the detective fiction do not sufficiently reflect these works as a whole, even if they are connected thematically to the other pieces in the chapter. Hopefully, something of the character of Lord Peter Wimsey shows through, which develops over the course of Sayers fiction. The only remedy for this is that you need to read the works in their entirety, often available in inexpensive print or electronic editions.

A bonus to this volume comes in the form of “A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers” by C.S. Lewis, written following her death. I think she would have most appreciated this comment:

“There is in reality no cleavage between the detective stories and her other works. In them, as in it, she is first and foremost the craftsman, the professional. She always saw herself as one who had learned a trade, and respects it, and demands respect for it from others.”

For those who only have heard of Dorothy L. Sayers, this volume is a wonderful introduction to her broad range of writings, and her acute thinking about theology and art. For those who have read her works, it is a wonderful review that serves to connect the dots between her different genres of work. For all of us, this work gives us a chance to think along with one of the great theological minds of the twentieth century.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Joni: The Anthology

Joni

Joni: The Anthology, Barney Hoskins (ed.). New York: Picador, 2017.

Summary: A retrospective on the life, music, art, and performances of Joni Mitchell through reviews and articles from the popular music press, chronologically organized.

Yes, I went through a Joni Mitchell phase. Part of it was songs like “Woodstock” or “Big Yellow Taxi” that were anthems for my generation. And part of it was that Mitchell epitomized a certain ideal of artistry and beauty–this willowy woman with long, straight blonde hair and high cheek bones who could write and sing, albeit some of her “yodels” were a bit strange! The last Joni Mitchell I bought was The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Her music and my tastes were changing, and not in the same direction. I have to admit that I more or less stopped following her career except for hearing about an album she did with Charles Mingus before he died, one that seemed to be panned by many critics. Then a couple years ago, her name surfaced again when I heard the news that she had nearly died from a brain aneurysm. (At the time of writing, she is still living, has gone through rehabilitation, and made a couple of public appearances).

This new anthology, edited by popular music writer tells the story of Mitchell’s work and life through a collection of music press articles and reviews of her albums and concerts, arranged chronologically. Hoskins writes in his introduction:

“Her words and her ‘weird chords’ you can read about at length in the pieces pulled together in this compendium. Included in Joni are some of the most open and thoughtful interviews Mitchell has ever given, as well as some of the finest snapshots of her complex, often spiky personality. Here are reviews of (almost) all her albums – the consensus masterworks, the curate’s eggs – and of live appearances she’s made in tiny clubs and glitzy concert halls. Here are the words of writers who’ve fallen, as I did, under the spell of her piercing honesty, her tingling musical intimacy, her coolly nuanced moods: Americans and Brits alike, men and women who know how uniquely brilliant she is.”

The collection begins with an article by Nicholas Jennings tracing her life from her beginnings in Alberta and Saskatchewan, her early singing attempts, her time in Toronto’s club scene, her brief marriage to Chuck Mitchell, the recognition of her writing, performed by others like Judy Collins, the move to New York, and then L.A. and her subsequent success in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. We read of her various liaisons, most notably with Graham Nash, and the role David Crosby played in her early work. We learn about her unconventional practice of “open tuning”, her gradual move toward more of a jazz idiom, beginning with Court and Spark, and, after the Mingus album, a decline in the commercial success of her work, until her Grammy award-winning Turbulent Indigo (1994) garnered her renewed attention.

The strength of the articles that follow is that they trace the development of Mitchell’s career from its early days until her last album in 2007, giving us a taste of the mixture of critical opinion about her work throughout her career, and her own increasing disenchantment with a music world that failed to recognize her brand of creativity. I learned of albums I had never heard of, as well as her long relationship with Larry Klein. Nearly all her album covers bore her artistic work, and we learn of her continuing growth and recognition as a visual artist. Throughout her career from 1970 on, we read of periodic retreats from writing and performing (the later she has never enjoyed), with a return to the studio time again, even after her “retirement” in 2002.

The downside of this collection is that, while you get a kaleidoscope of perspectives, you also get a good deal of repetition, particularly concerning her early life. At the same time, Hoskins has unearthed some of the best writing about Mitchell over the course of her career. By not editing out repetitive material, you get the full impact of each piece.

I found myself with mixed feelings about Mitchell the person, who seemed to become more “hardbitten” as she matured, and Mitchell the artist, who developed in some interesting ways, while continuing to do some of the best writing around. I totally missed Turbulent Indigo. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate jazz far more, so I may want to go back to the Mingus album and others. If nothing else, the book filled in the gaps in my understanding of her work and life through some of the best things written about her.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.