Dorothy L. Sayers

(1893-1957) – Writer and Dante scholar

Born in Oxford, Sayers grew up in Huntingdonshire, in a village where her father was the rector (she later took several of her characters’ names from the gravestones of the local church). She went to boarding school in Salisbury and won the Gilchrist Scholarship to Somerville in 1912, studying Modern Languages and taking a First in French. After her studies, Sayers worked for the publisher Blackwells and then as a copywriter. Her first book of poetry was published in 1916.

Considered one of the chief writers of the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction, Sayers went on to publish 14 detective novels and short stories featuring the character Lord Peter Wimsey. In Gaudy Night (1953), Wimsey teamed up with Harriet Vane, writer of detective stories, working with him to investigate a series of poison pen letters circulating in Vane’s alma mater, Shrewsbury College (loosely based on Somerville, and described as having an architectural ‘style neither new nor old, but stretching out reconciling hands to past and present’). The sequel to Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon had originally been a play, co-written with fellow Somervillian Muriel St Clare Byrne. It was the play’s success which led Sayers to take up writing full-time, and her later plays included (for radio) The Man Born to Be King, which caused some controversy for its portrayal of the figure of Christ speaking in modern English. After the war, Sayers taught herself Old Italian and embarked on a scholarly translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. She died at the age of 64 whilst working on the third volume, Paradiso, and her translation included extensive notes setting out the theological meaning of what she called ‘a great Christian allegory’.

Did you know? Between 1922 and 1931, Dorothy L. Sayers was employed as a copywriter at S.H. Benson’s advertising agency, working on campaigns for Guinness and Colman’s Mustard. She created the slogan ‘Guinness is good for you’.

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