The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers, Dorothy 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.
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.