December 18, 2005


Dorothy Sayers: "The Dogma Is the Drama": An interview with Barbara Reynolds. (Chris Armstrong, 12/16/2005, Christianity Today)

CH&B senior editor Chris Armstrong talked recently with Sayers's friend, biographer, and collaborator in Dante translation, Dr. Barbara Reynolds, from her home in England. [...] Dr. Reynolds's 1989 book, The Passionate Intellect: Dorothy L. Sayers' Encounter with Dante, is one of this interviewer's favorite works of intellectual biography. [...]

One of the best-known creative products that flowed from this "tidal wave" of intellectual energy was her mystery stories, which have never been out of print. What is it about these that still compels and speaks to us today?

Certainly, she told stories masterfully—plotting with care and insisting on the "fair play" rule, by which readers are given enough evidence to solve the mystery by the end of the book. And her main characters, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, are both attractive and interesting figures. They develop and deepen—especially in that later sequence of novels which includes Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, and Gaudy Night. This is partly because Sayers wove the threads of her own experience, thoughts, and feelings into the fabric of their characters. This depth dimension in the characters fascinates readers, and they seek out other stories in the series.

But more important for Sayers than bare story were a number of recurring ethical themes that she wove into her tales. A good example of this is Gaudy Night—one of her best novels. The story involves the dawning awareness on the part of Harriet Vane, an Oxford-trained scholar like Sayers herself, that no relationship can ever be sound that is not founded on the integrity of each party.

Harriet has continued to serve as a recognizable, living example of the modern, creative, independent woman, battling to reconcile the conflicting claims of the personal and the impersonal. [...]

When she began writing her plays, Sayers was not yet doing any of the lay theological writing for which she later became renowned. How did this happen?

In April 1938, following the success of her radio play He That Should Come, the editor of the Sunday Times invited Sayers to contribute an article for Passion Sunday. She wrote "The Greatest Drama Ever Staged is the Official Creed of Christendom." This and a companion article, "The Dogma Is the Drama," also published in April 1938 in St Martin's Review, launched her into yet another career as a public apologist and theological writer.

A sentence from a letter Sayers wrote at the time gives you a flavor of these essays: "The dogma of the Incarnation is the most dramatic thing about Christianity, and indeed, the most dramatic thing that ever entered the mind of man; but if you tell people so, they stare at you in bewilderment."

How did her role as a public Christian writer expand in wartime?

As soon as the Second World War was declared, her publisher Victor Gollancz invited his most marketable author to write what he called "a wartime essay." She responded with a book of 152 pages titled Begin Here. This book and a related series of books on national reconstruction that Sayers conceived and edited—Bridgeheads, she called it—laid out four themes.

First, Sayers emphasized the irrevocable nature of time and the need for redemptive human activity: The future is here and now; the past is irretrievably gone; what has gone wrong cannot be undone, it can only be redeemed. Second, she placed creativity at the core of what it means to be human beings made in the image of the Triune God. Third, she grieved over how a mechanistic, capitalist society had devalued work from God-given vocation to a mere means of sustenance. She believed that a mechanized society has diminished the essential nature of human beings by imposing on them repetitive, numbing work. Fourth, she also believed that the prevalently economic structure of society had degraded education by directing it to commercial ends.

Underlying all these themes is a concern for individual freedom and responsibility, or what she called, in reference to Dante, "the drama of the soul's choice." Both the genre of the mystery novel and the peculiar powers of theater allowed her to portray people's moral choices in powerful ways.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 18, 2005 12:00 AM
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