It is only fitting that I begin my laundry list of women with Dorothy L. Sayers, she was, after all, the woman who inspired me to start this blog. Believe it or not, I became aware of Sayers while reading Walter Ewell’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. The entry under her name is the only one I remember from the entire book! I am a sucker for British detective fiction and the article mentioned how Sayers became famous for her sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. I immediately purchased one of her novels and have been hooked since. Later, I discovered that she wrote several works of theology as well and translated Dante’s Divine Comedy while actually attempting to capture his “terza rima” stanzas in English (which no one else has been able to accomplish since).
Sayers was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University in 1915. In one of her novels, Gaudy Night, the lead character Harriet Vane returns to her college at Oxford in order to investigate some bizarre and mysterious happenings. The Dons of the all girls college were nervous that the bizarre events might jeopardize female education at Oxford. Therefore, they called in a woman Sleuth, whose only knowledge of detective work was writing detective fiction! Harriet experiences opposition on all sides: she is a woman in a male dominated university, but she is also antagonized by the female scholars because they do not think she is a real detective. Lurking beneath these story lines are obvious parallels to Sayers own experience as a woman intellectual and writer. In fact, Gaudy Night was one of the first feminist mystery novels.
Similar to Harriet Dorothy lived a somewhat scandalous life for a woman of her time. She shamelessly pursued the arts in theatre and literature. The artistic and progressive crowd that she was apart of spent lots of time out late smoking and drinking, things which were “unladylike” for a young woman. Her premarital misgivings led to a child out of wedlock whom she never informed her elderly parents about. Overall, she was beautiful, intelligent and a little wild (which is probably why I like her so much).
Her provocative essays on the role of women in society, Are Women Human?, originally given as a lecture to women in 1938 are still relevant today. One of her main arguments is simply that women desire to be treated as individual human beings with similar tastes and desires as men which are denied them just because they are female. She states:
What, I feel, we ought to mean is something so obvious that it is apt to escape attention altogether, viz: not that every woman is, in virtue of her sex, as strong, clever, artistic, level-headed, industrious and so forth as any man that can be mentioned; but, that a woman is just as much an ordinary human being as a man, with the same individual preferences, and with just as much right to tastes and preferences of an individual.
Dorothy Sayers definitely had her fair share of struggles in life from her family and society but they didn’t stop her from pursuing her passions. Her death came too soon and I can’t imagine what else she would have accomplished if she would have lived longer. Shortly before she died, the Archbishop of Canterbury of the Anglican Church offered her an honorary doctorate of the church because of her writing in theology. Interestingly, she refused and I have wondered why she dismissed this great recognition? Was it her past? Or did the feeling of being treated as second class never quite leave how she thought of herself as a woman? Hmm…All I know is that I am thankful for her life’s work and the strength I have received from her courage as a female intellectual.
Theological works: Mind of the Maker, Are Women Human?, Creed or Chaos, The Divine Comedy.
Fiction: Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, Murder Must Advertise.
Play: The Man Born to be King.