Dorothy L. Sayers World Literature Analysis - Essay

Dorothy L. Sayers World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The times in which she lived influenced Dorothy L. Sayers’s characterizations as she merged manners and mores into her novels. When she first went to Oxford, women had to be accompanied by a chaperone to their lectures and tutorials. Although women earned degrees, Oxford did not confer them until 1920. Sayers was one of the first women to earn a master of arts degree from Oxford, and her female characters reflect the pioneering attitude necessary for that achievement.

In Unnatural Death (1927; also known as The Dawson Pedigree), Sayers introduces an ancillary sleuth, Miss Climpson. Alexandra Katherine Climpson, a spinster who has lived most of her life in boardinghouses, is a feisty lady with a large measure of common sense and an adventurous spirit. Over the course of Sayers’s novels, Climpson becomes the head of an unusual detective agency that masquerades as a typing bureau and is staffed only by women. In other novels that follow, Lord Peter Wimsey often uses operatives from Climpson’s agency to help him solve crimes. Unnatural Death revolves around women, one of whom has the distinction of being one of Sayers’s most vicious and amoral criminals.

In a time when women were shielded by men from the unpleasant aspects of life, Sayers did not hesitate to introduce controversial, even unmentionable, themes into her books. For example, in Unnatural Death some of the characters are lesbians. In Whose Body? Lord Peter Wimsey observes a unique religious and biological anomaly that proves that the corpse is not Sir Ruben Levy.

Sayers’s biographers and critics often speculate about Lord Peter Wimsey, her most famous detective. Some of them assume that he is an amalgam of the men with whom she was romantically involved, usually selecting Eric Whelpton and John Cournos to prove their point. Yet when Sayers talked about Wimsey she often joked. She once remarked that she interviewed a large number of people before she employed him. She admitted endowing him with the luxuries that she could not afford. A full-blown imaginary playmate for grownups could be another explanation for Wimsey. Given Sayers’s sense of time and place, she would have been perfectly capable of inventing a man who would respect women, believe that they were morally and intellectually his equals, and accord them the dignity that they deserve.

Sayers aged and evolved the personalities of her characters. Four novels pairing Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey—Strong Poison (1930), Have His Carcase (1932), Gaudy Night (1935), and Busman’s Honeymoon (1937)—best illustrate this aspect of her writing. Both Vane and Wimsey grow emotionally as their love story develops. Busman’s Honeymoon is the last full-length novel in which Wimsey appears, although Wimsey and Vane are together again in two short stories. Wimsey welcomes his firstborn son in “The Haunted Policeman.” He and Vane find the time to explore a local secret and play practical jokes with their three children in “Talboys.” It has been said that Sayers received from her fans an extraordinarily large number of letters giving the Wimseys advice on child rearing. In any case, Sayers reviews the latest theories of rearing children in “Talboys” and concludes that children need to be treated as individuals.

That she was taught by her father and shared her early education with boys undoubtedly helped her to form her underlying assumptions about her identity, abilities, and prospects. That she achieved two college degrees in a time when women generally did not go on to higher education helped her to develop a sense of purpose and integrity that she imparted to her female characters. In Gaudy Night, for example, the women not only display character and integrity, but they take pride in the quality of their work. Her appreciation that words have the power to influence others and evoke their behavior...

(The entire section is 1628 words.)