Jul 12, 2010

Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul by Barbara Reynolds

Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul by Barbara Reynolds

Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul is a 1993 biography written by Sayers’ friend Barbara Reynolds. Reynolds, a Dante scholar who met Sayers through letters when the latter was working on her translation of The Divine Comedy, wanted to write a biography that reflected the woman she had known – the implication being, of course, that previous biographies didn’t. Because her concern was to let Dorothy Sayers speak for herself as much as possible, the book includes many quotations from her letters and other writings, which was something I really appreciated.

Dorothy L. Sayers (best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, but was also an essayist, translator and playwright) lived in interesting times – as the Chinese curse goes, yes – and that’s part of this biography’s appeal. She grew up in late Victorian/Edwardian England, she experienced the Great War as a young woman, and she lived to see yet another world war before her death. One of the things that appeals to me about biographies, I begin to realise, is the fact that they give readers the opportunity to experience history on a personal level – as Virginia Nicholson put it, “to touch, to taste, if possible to smell the lives of people from the past (…); to feel [we] could have known them.”

Reynolds tells us about Sayers’ idyllic country childhood; about her love for literature and the theatre, which began when she was very young; about her time at Oxford and her strong ties to this city; about her intense friendships and her first love; about her attempts to train as a WWI nurse; about her short-lived career as a teacher; and finally about her writing, of course. There’s somewhat of a focus on how certain events in Sayers’ life could have impacted her writing, but the tone of the book doesn’t actually feel very speculative at all. Reynolds very much avoids using the novels as a primary source to trace their authors’ psychological profile. Most of all, she seems to truly respect and know the woman she’s writing about it – which makes sense, as Sayers was someone she knew and loved.

There was, however, one thing that let me down quite a bit. Reynolds clearly makes an effort to present Sayers in a multifaceted manner – she focuses on how she experienced faith, on her relationship with her family and friends, on her love life, on her various intellectual interests, on what writing meant to her, and so on. But there isn’t a single mention of how Sayers felt about gender. This didn’t disappoint me because I expect everything to be about gender or feminism; it’s simply that, reading Sayers’ work, it’s quite clear that this was indeed a concern of hers, and sadly Reynolds almost seems to go out of her way to avoid anything pertaining to the f-word.

Gender issues are not only obvious in her writing, but it also seems clear that her life gave her plenty of opportunities to consider them. For example, in Strong Poison, people were inclined to suspect Harriet Vane all the more because she was a disreputable woman (i.e., she had lived with a man she wasn’t married to). Likewise, Sayers was put in an The Odd Women-esque situation by her first lover, who attempted to “test” her loyalty and see how far she was willing to go for him (I’d explain this in more detail, but I want to make you curious). In addition to this, she became a single mother in the 1920’s. This was a fact she kept hidden from her own parents for the rest of their lives, as well as from most of the people she knew. A situation like this would surely encourage even a much less perceptive and intelligent woman to think about sexual double standards and how frail a woman’s reputation really was.

Then there’s the wonderful Gaudy Night: Reynolds says that the theme of this novel is “the importance of intellectual integrity”, and while this is true enough, it would take some serious effort to deny that gender is at least as important a theme. Yet somehow Reynolds manages to write about how Dorothy Sayers was part of the first group of Oxford women students to ever be given a degree (and how this didn’t please everyone) without acknowledging the gender issues involved at all.

The one thing Barbara Reynolds does say is the following, when discussing one of Sayers’ plays: “It has been interpreted as a feminist track (mistakenly in my view) for the reason that the women characters get the better of a somewhat ineffectual man. Dorothy was never a feminist and said so clearly more than once.” She then goes on to justify why her friend clearly wasn’t a feminist with a paraphrase of what Sayers says in her essay “Are Women Human?” (a work whose existence Reynolds otherwise ignores): men and women are really not all that different, and therefore there can’t be anything specifically “feminine” about her work. What a novel idea for feminists everywhere.

Sarcasm aside, the faint hostility and the deep ignorance behind this statement probably go a long way towards explaining this blatant gap in what is otherwise a comprehensive and satisfying biography. Yes, it’s true that Dorothy Sayers wasn’t a fan of the word “feminism”, but this doesn’t mean there are no feminist themes in her work. I find it a lot more forgiveable that Sayers would misunderstand and thus reject the term in 1936 than that Reynolds would continue to do so in 1993. And there seems to be a misinformed and dismissive arrogance behind the phrase “mistakenly read as feminist” that really disappointed me. Virginia Woolf famously rejected the term too – should we also quit “mistakenly” reading A Room of One’s Own as feminist?

Of course, I fully acknowledge that Barbara Reynolds was under no obligation to consider gender when writing this biography, but I was so hoping that she would. Regardless of how Sayers felt about the term “feminism”, she certainly thought about gender a lot. I suspect that a biographer with different sensibilities could have explored this in very interesting ways. Sadly, I can’t imagine anyone ever being in a better position to do so than Reynolds, who actually knew Sayers, so it’s really a pity that she chose not to.

I want to emphasise that despite having devoted an embarrassing number of paragraphs to my frustration with the absence of the gender angle, I really did enjoy Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul. It confirmed my suspicious that Sayers was someone I would have liked to get to know, even if we wouldn’t always have seen eye to eye. It also made me realise more clearly than ever just how extraordinarily intelligent this woman was, and how impressive her range of intellectual interests. For example, did you know she was working on a Wilkie Collins biography, which sadly remained unfinished at the time of her death? What a pity – I’m sure it would have been an absolute delight to read.

Interesting bits:
The earth in which this spring of fantasy was planted was in great part Dorothy’s own. He [Lord Peter Wimsey] was almost her exact contemporary. He was up at Oxford. He has recreations which she shares: books and music; and she will become knowledgeable about cricket. To equip him as a detective she sets herself to learn about criminology. His bubbling cheerfulness, his habit of literary quotations, his manner of prattling, sometimes wittily, sometimes foolishly, his tendency to burst into song or whistle a passage of Bach, his blithe impetuosity, his mental agility and energy, his untiring capacity to engage in exuberant flights of fancy are all characteristics of his creator.

She indulged a life-long love of fairy-stories and over the years she gradually acquired a collection of the Fairy Books series edited by Andrew Lang. In 1956, she was lacking two out of the twelve and said how much she wished she could obtain them. In June of that year, I was lucky enough to find The Olive Fairy Book in Deighton and Bell’s bookshop in Cambridge and sent it to her as a birthday present. This spurred her Witham bookseller into action and he obtained The Gray Fairy Book for her, to her great delight. “I mark this day with a white stone,” she wrote. (…) “If anyone will tell me a story I will listen,” she once said to me. And indeed her response to storytelling was one of her most enduring and creative characteristics.
This alone makes me think we’d have gotten along.
Dorothy Sayers points out that though detective fiction began with Edgar Allan Poe, crime stories had flourished ever since the story of Jacob and Esau, the tendency in early crime literature being to admire the cleverness of the criminal, as in the tales of Reynard the Fox or the ballads of Robin Hood. The detective-story proper could not develop until public sympathy had veered round to the side of law and order. Much depended, too, on the establishment of effective police organizations. By then, the defender of the weak was no longer the knight errant but the detective – the “latest of the popular heroes, the true successor of Roland and Lancelot”.
I’m not sure how universally true her point about public sympathies veering is, but I thought this was quite an interesting idea anyway.

Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be glad to add your link here.)

Also, are you a fan of author biographies? Why or why not? And if you are, what are your favourites? I’ve only ever read biographies of Mary Shelley, Shakespeare and Sayers to date, but I’m beginning to realise that there’s this whole universe of books out there just waiting for me to discover them.


  1. How fascinating! I haven't read many author biographies apart from one on the Brontes, but I think I would like to. I really enjoy biographies and have read some of older Hollywood stars and politicians.

  2. Interesting review, Ana! I will add this book to my 'TBR' list. It looks like feminism and gender issues were like an 'elephant in the room' which Barbara Reynolds didn't want to write about. It is sad. Sometimes writers are worried about what readers or the wider world think and so try to keep away from what they think are controversies. But while doing that, they end up not telling the whole truth.

    Dorothy Sayers' life looks quite fascinating. I didn't know that she was a single mother. It must have been quite tough for her in those times.

    I haven't read many biographies of writers (when I think, I am not able to recall a single one, which is odd) but after getting to know more about some of the women writers of the nineteeth and early twentieth centuries - like Jane Austen (never got married), George Eliot (lived unconventionally for her times) and now Dorothy Sayers - I am becoming a big fan of them.

  3. Like Vishy said, it was either an elephant in the room or Reynolds so disagreed with the idea that leaving it out of the biography was her way of expressing that. No matter what her intention, it's exclusion speaks volumes I think. It still sounds like an excellent biography though.

  4. It's really interesting to see how different people interpret the word feminism and how that comes about. I know that's not the main focus of this review, but I do find that fascinating.

  5. How odd of her to ignore that huge part. A lot of people even now would say they aren't feminist because of what they see or hear about feminism which is often from the other side, people talking down about it, but if asked about their beliefs they are actually feminist. Would have been a great opportunity for Reynolds to talk about that. Crazy that after writing a book called "Are Women Human?" Reynolds could ignore the gender issue completely...

  6. Biographies in general - not just author biographies - are a real weak spot in my reading portfolio. I've made a deliberate attempt to read more non-fiction, but even there, I tend to lean toward non-fiction that reads like a fiction novel. I think one of my goals for next year will be to read x# of biographies. I'll tag this one as a possibility.

  7. I don't think the word feminist really came to mean what it does now until the publication and promulgation of "The Second Sex" by the French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir in 1949.

  8. Feminism is such a dirty word for some people. I always cringe when I hear a woman say something in support of equality or female empowerment and then quickly add "but I'm not a feminist or anything".

    On a side note, I just received Strong Poison, my first Sayers book, from SwapTree, and I'm excited to start reading.

  9. I'm definitely interested in reading about Sayers' life; sorry this particular biography wasn't as broad as you (and probably I) would have liked. I haven't read many author biographies, but they're often the biographies I most appreciate. It's fun to see the history they lived through their eyes!

  10. I've not read many author biographies. I guess I never seem to get around to exploring further than the actual works of authors. Interesting that Reynolds ignores something so clearly a part of Sayers' life. Perhaps she was wary of misrepresenting Sayers? I haven't read it, so wouldn't know if this would explain it at all.

    Though, in practice, I am in many ways a feminist, I'm one of those women who does not use the feminist label because of all the bits that hang on that term that do not represent my approach to life and views at all. The feminist label can be so complex and varied in meaning. (This is the point where I stop typing since I'm now about to get onto my soapbox about not liking labels!)

  11. "If anyone will tell me a story I will listen." What a great quotation!

    It must have been a difficult line for Reynolds to walk, not using the novels to speculate about Sayers' frame of mind. Sayers put so many situations from her own life into them.

  12. I am sorry to hear that there was such a gaping hole in exploration of Sayer's opinions on gender in this book. I read a review over at Villa Negativa that has me also wondering if Sayers and I would have seen eye to eye, but she does sound like a fascinating individual. I am glad that you mostly enjoyed the book though. I am looking forward to trying some of Sayer's work really soon!

  13. I love biographies because I am nosy, but sometimes reading one of an author can colour your views of their work. I read a (quite badly written) one about my beloved E.M. Forster a little while ago and kind of wished I hadn't.

    Having said that, the best author biography I have ever read by far is Gerald Clarke's book about Truman Capote. It's truly brilliant.

  14. This sounds so interesting! I'd love to read it, but I would need to read some of Sayers' books before I even attempt her biography.

  15. Amy: I can't believe I have yet to read a biography of the Brontës! I'm sure I'd love it, as (sadly) their lives were almost a Victorian Gothic novel.

    Vishy: I love how you put it - gender truly was the elephant in the room. Being a single mother in the 1920's really was difficult, but she managed to deal with it well, I thought. Of course, that required huge sacrifices like keeping her son hidden from his grandmothers, which must have made it even harder. Also, you're so right about the lives of women writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You know the writer whose personal papers I'm cataloguing? Her name was Maria Ondina Braga (you asked the other day and I never got around to replying; sorry!), and she wrote a non-fiction book called "Women Writers" with chapter-long essays on many of them. She included Eliot, of course, and Austen, and the Brontës, and Anaïs Nin, and so on. Sadly, this is the only of her books I've yet to find a finished copy of in her boxes, and I dare not read the manuscript :( I also can't buy myself a copy, because it's out of print. Sigh.

    Sandy: I think it might have been the latter - she seemed to me to have a distaste for feminism, and so she wanted to leave it out. The exclusion IS meaningful and it made me small, but yes, the book was still good. Which is saying a lot :P

    Amanda, I guess I kind of accidentally made it the main focus :P I agree with you, it is fascinating!

    Amy: Or "I'm not one of those crazy feminists". Because most of us are crazy as loons ;)

    Elisabeth: You know, I should do the same. Hmm... I think I'm going to make myself a list.

    Jill: You're right, which is why it doesn't really bother me that neither Sayers nor Woolf would use the term. But Reynolds wrote this book in 1993! She should know better :P

    Trisha: I know exactly what you mean :\ And hooray for Strong Pouson!

    Hannah: Yes, seeing history though their eyes is the best part! And despite the omission of gender (and also some silence surrounding sayers' politics in general, which I only began to really think about after reading Trapunto's review of her essays), it's still a book I'd highly recommend.

    Terri B: I agree with you that labels are tricky, and I completely respect any person's right to identify or not identify with a label like "feminist". But I do wish the term was not seen as a monolith by most people, because it truly isn't. For me, anyone who believes that women are as fully human as men and that the world needs to reflect this is welcome. I know there are areas of contention (reproductive rights probably being the main on), but I wish that basic belief in gender equality were enough to bring people together.

    Trapunto: When she does, she takes care to back things up with either personal writings or concrete examples from Sayers' life. I think she was careful because her biography was written in response to one from 1975 titled, interestingly, Such a Strange Lady, and which was apparently only literary psychoanalysis.

    Zibilee: I saw Trapunto's review too, and though I wouldn't have agreed with her politics I still find her a fascinating person overall. And fear not; the stuff from the essays doesn't really show in the mysteries.

    Tea Lady: Aw, that's too bad about Forster :\ But Capote! I absolutely love him and I bet I'd love that biography too. Adding it to my wishlist.

    Emidy: Yes, definitely read at least some of the novels first, even because there are some spoilers.

  16. Well, we may be crazy loons but that is beside the point ;) hahahahah

  17. :D

    Also, *PoiSON. And *main ONE. I'm sure there are other typos but I dare not look :P

  18. What a great review, Ana! I am sorry the book didn't tackle the feminist question- or at least, look at Sayers' thoughts on women's rights. I always feel so in awe of women who lived through the ages Sayers lived through (not to poke fun, but I find it ironic you say she lived through the Victorian era and two world wars, but don't talk about the feminist movement in Britain at all, which she lived through, too!). From the Victorian era to WWII- that's a huge change in technology and society, and it must have been fascinating/terrifying to live through! I know people say we are living in just as fast-changing times, but I think we are... not so much cynical, but USED to thinking that technology will improve at ridiculous rates. They weren't at that time and so must have had such a sense of amazement that we have lost.

  19. After reading your reply I thought I will search for Maria Ondina Braga in Wikipedia :) I got the page in Portuguese :)

    Hope you get to read her book on 'Women Writers'. It sounds so interesting! Hope you are able to get a used copy, atleast. (Or maybe your museum will allow you to take a copy of the manuscript :))

  20. Perhaps Reynolds is very much a woman of her times, and just has a giant blind spot about Sayers' "feminism" (I might have to invent another word for feminism since the "f" word is routinely rejected by women! Maybe we should have a contest?). I would have responded just as you did - the small daily cruelties of "a woman's place" clearly occupied a good-sized hunk of Sayers' brain, and it seems almost insulting to dismiss it so cavalierly.

  21. First of all, and before Sandy decides I AM indeed nuts, "made me small" = "made me sad". I swear I'm not drunk; just tired :P

    Aarti: You're absolutely right, of course - the feminist movement was a huge part of that time period, and yet the book makes no mention of it at all :S Also, I completely know what you mean about the sense of wonder people must have experienced in that period and how it's not really the same now despite all the changes we've seen.

    Vishy: Yes, I imagine that there's little information about her available in English, as her books were never translated :( And yes, maybe the museum will let me - or maybe their small press will reprint the book someday. I'd so love to see that happen :)

    Mumsy: That's probably where Reynolds' blind spot comes from, yes. But it still made me sad! And ha - I'm often felt tempted to make up a new word, yes :P Except I'd suspect that people would become wary of it all over again in no time at all.

  22. I am a big fan of biographies but I have been remiss in reading them lately. I think this one sounds great.

  23. I am very picky about biographies, I think because they are so long and detailed. I have to be pretty damn interested in someone's life to read all about them from childhood to death. I don't read a lot of biographies.

    I will read anyone's biography of Oscar Wilde, even (or especially!) if it is very, very stupid and wrong (because I like being right), but Gary Schmidgall wrote the best one. I read a superb biography of Dorothy Parker once called What Fresh Hell Is This, and that is the only other author biography I can think of that I have ever read. I will let you read author biographies first and then I will pick the ones you make sound the best. :p

    BTW, "makes me small" would be an awesome way of saying "makes me sad". It makes me slightly small that that isn't a real expression.

  24. Wow...that's totally ashame that she left out anything about gender :( Like you said, that was obviously something big to Sayers. I do love books like these that shows the person behind the books...and I had no idea that she worked on a translation of The Divine Comedy! That's so cool!

  25. I do love biographies--literary bios especially. Leon Edel on Henry James (4 volumes but worth it); Quentin Bell and also Hermione Lee on Virginia Woolf... I think Jill (rhapsodyinbooks) makes an excellent point about feminism meaning different things at different times during the 20th century. Probably there were issues of class involved that by 1949 had disintegrated. And of course, we live in a "post-feminist" world now. Whatever that means.
    Interesting stuff, Nymeth. I'm curious about Sayers' life (who knew she'd been a single mom?), but I want to read the mysteries first...

  26. reviewsbylola: It is great all in all :)

    Jenny: lol - it doesn't sound too bad, does it? Maybe we can try to sneak it into the language :P

    Chris: Yeah, it really was a great shame :\ But it was still a good book.

    ds: Jill is right, of course. But the biography is recent, so I was hoping Reynolds would know better. Most of all, though, it wasn't that she didn't use the word "feminism" that bothered me. She could have avoided the term but still acknowledged that gender was an important theme in Sayers' work and clearly affected her life. But it was like she tried to stay away from the theme altogether due to her misconceptions. Anyway, thank you for reminding me of the two Woolf biographies! I think she's the next writer I'll read a biography of. Do you recommend starting with Bell or Lee? Or does it not matter?

  27. Oh, I hate it when people dismiss feminism without realizing that they hold feminist views. It's not a dirty word, honest. Argh.

    (And how does one mistakenly read something as feminist? An author has no control over how someone reads their work; tell me how to interpret all you want, it's not going to change how I read it.)

  28. Clare: Yes, yes, yes, exactly! That's yet another thing that bothered me about it. She came across like she was telling people "UR READIN IT RONG", which just....no.

  29. What a very strange view to have on feminism. But then, it seems like we are experienceing a new wave of women rejecting the word but not the concept. Do we need to invent a new word for an old and accepted concept?

    I´ve had lots of conversations about it, and it´s really mostly women who seem to be terrified of being labelled as feminists. Is it labelling in general?

    Too bad we cannot ask Sayers what her stance on the word would be today, perhaps she´d be much more open than Reynolds likes to believe.

    Still, this sounds like a fascinating read otherwise and reminds me to try Sayers´ works again and this time read them as novels and not mysteries :)

  30. I am a fan of biographies period. And biographies of authors whose work I love are always fascinating. I think I would have liked her too. You don't have to agree on every issue to like a person.

  31. Bina: I definitely agree that if Sayers were around today, she'd be much more open-minded than Reynolds gives her credit for. And I don't understand the allergy to the term "feminist" either! The sad thing is that even if we called it something else, the new word would be reject too in no time at all...

    Beth: Yes, exactly!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.