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Book Review: The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers

January 4th, 2019 | 7 min read

By Guest Writer

By Gina Dalfonzo

“The variety of Dorothy Sayers’s work makes it almost impossible to find anyone who can deal properly with it all,” wrote C. S. Lewis in his eulogy for his friend and fellow writer. “. . . I certainly can’t.”

To try to accomplish what even C. S. Lewis couldn’t do is a daunting prospect. Yet Plough has boldly set out to do just that with The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers, the latest installment in their series that emphasizes the faith of famous writers through excerpts from their work.

Best known as a detective writer, Dorothy L. Sayers also wrote plays, essays, and a seminal book on creativity, and even translated the Divine Comedy. The Lord Peter Wimsey series of novels ensured her lasting fame, but in her own time and country, her spiritual writings—particularly The Man Born to Be King, a radio play cycle about the life of Christ—were arguably as well known as Lewis’s were. What tied it all together was her formidable intelligence, her bracing wit, and yes, her Christian faith—a deeply orthodox faith that often expressed itself in refreshingly unorthodox ways.

Editor Carole Vanderhooof has very effectively arranged her excerpts from Sayers’s work to draw attention to this tie that binds. She groups them thematically, in chapters that take their titles from Sayers’s own works, but feature subtitles like “Sin and Grace,” “Belief,” “Despair and Hope,” and “Resurrection.” Each grouping contains an excerpt from one of her novels or plays (newcomers to the novels should be aware that spoilers are included), followed by passages from her more straightforwardly apologetic works. She also includes the eulogy by Lewis that’s mentioned above, titled simply “A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers,” and a brief biological sketch, timeline, and bibliography.

Vanderhoof shows great insight and understanding in the connections she draws between the various works, as well as her identification of the various themes that they illustrate. Some of her selections also highlight the sly and subversive in Sayers’s work. For instance, the theme of “Pride” is brought to us by a passage from Sayers’s detective novel The Five Red Herrings about Gilda Farren, a devoted housewife who many Christians might see as the perfect Proverbs 31 woman. But Lord Peter observes in her “a woman who would see only what she wished to see—who would think that one could abolish evils from the world by pretending that they were not there. Such things, for instance, as jealousy or criticism. . . .” Outwardly the epitome of virtue and elegance (nowadays her Pinterest board would probably be the biggest thing on the Internet), Gilda nonetheless makes her husband’s life hell through her vainglory over those qualities and her stubborn belief that everything she does is right.

Not every passage appears so perfectly suited to its theme, at least initially. For instance, I wasn’t sure at first what to make of the use of a passage from Sayers’s greatest novel, Gaudy Night, to highlight the theme of “Envy.” It’s not a theme I would have associated with this passage, in which the villain has just been unmasked and delivers a passionate speech in her own defense. It’s not clear whether Vanderhoof is signaling that this villain is envious of her victims, or they (as she claims) have been envious of her, or both. I would have said neither; the motives for the crimes are made up of a complex web of grief, vengeance, and some pretty antiquated ideas about what a woman’s role should be, and while I’ve read and reread the book until it’s battered, I’ve never noticed envy in that web. But to her credit, Vanderhoof pairs the excerpt with a passage from Sayers’s essay “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” defining envy as the sin that “hates to see other men happy,” that fits well with it, and prompts the reader to think more deeply about what exactly might be going on in Gaudy Night.

This way of studying Sayers’s work and thought makes clear that her faith—which she always stressed that she experienced primarily through her intellect—permeated all her writings, even the lightest and most seemingly secular of them. It gave her a way of thinking about life, with all its dilemmas, delights, and foibles, that was cohesive and comprehensive. She never wrote a story, or anything else, to “send a message”; instead, she chose her subject and then brought to it her extensive knowledge, wisdom, and skill, to serve the work as faithfully as she was able. That, she always insisted, was her highest duty as a writer.

“She never sank the artist and entertainer in the evangelist,” Lewis recalls in his “panegyric,” and goes on to quote her (or rather, to slightly misquote her) as saying, “It was assumed that my object in writing [The Man Born to Be King] was ‘to do good.’ But that was in fact not my object at all. . . . My object was to tell that story to the best of my ability, within the medium at my disposal—in short, to make as good a work of art as I could. For a work of art that is not good and true in art is not true and good in any other respect.”

Lewis had experienced his share of arguments with her over this topic; though they were largely on the same page about it, she thought he was too inclined to write solely for the sake of “doing good,” rather than sticking to topics he personally felt called and equipped to address. He got to have the last word when he pointed out, “Her disclaimer of an intention to ‘do good’ was ironically rewarded by the immense amount of good she evidently did.” As it happens, both of them were right: Sayers to concentrate on simply serving the work as best she could, Lewis to look at the bigger picture and admire what that work accomplished. Her detective stories are still bringing great enjoyment—and the uplifting contact with a brilliant and wise mind—to millions; and those who know her apologetic works have the added advantage of her more explicit thoughts on the faith. I’m thankful that Plough is helping revive those works for a new audience, and by tying them to her fiction, showing that the light of Christ shines through them all.

Gina Dalfonzo is currently working on a book about the friendship between Dorothy L. Sayers and C. S. Lewis.

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