Magical mystery tour

The letters of Dorothy L Sayers Volume Four 1951- 1957: in the midst of life

Barbara Reynolds (ed)

"Woman Mystery Writer Detects Dante" was the sort of dismissal that Dorothy L Sayers most resented. "I am not really a popular novelist who, having suddenly 'gone religious' in middle age, has taken to dabbling in scholarship," she wrote just before her death. "I began as a poet and scholar, wrote detective stories in order to make a living, and have now gone back, like a spring, to my original bent." In collecting Sayers's correspondence, the final volume of which has just been published, Barbara Reynolds has diligently chronicled each phase of this remarkable career. Dealing for the most part with her translation of Dante and the theological issues that preoccupied her in later years, these last letters are not as readily accessible as their predecessors. They do, however, offer a better insight into the fundamental mind and character of a woman widely recognised as one of the great English letter writers of the 20th century.

Sayers was always honest about what she saw as a defect in her character: an ability to like her fellow men, but not to love them; to live with them in kindness, but not in charity. Towards her death, as she became increasingly absorbed by work, there was a notable lack of personal correspondence. That isn't to say that she didn't communicate with friends; this volume is full of such letters, but central to them all was devotion to her writing and to the questions that drove it. Incapable, by her own admission, of romantic love or of a personal love of God, Sayers lived solely for what she called the "passionate intellect". In its defence, she could be a dogmatic and overbearing correspondent: one unsuspecting admirer, foolish enough to inquire as to the books that had most influenced her, was dismissed with a response of a chequebook, a ration book and an AA road book, and was advised that other factors were "nobody's business but the writer's". Yet if an inquiry stimulated her intellect, she was very generous in sharing her thoughts and time, and it is this generosity that many of these particular letters reveal.

Because of their concentration on the intellect, however, they lack one of the elements that made her earlier correspondence so fascinating. In their portrait of university life at the beginning of the century, her struggle to find a fulfilling job when only teaching was open to educated women, and her emergence as a public figure during the Second World War, the first three volumes placed Sayers's remarkable life quite brilliantly in the context of an equally extraordinary time. Here, buried so often in the world of Dante and in timeless questions of Christian doctrine, that precious insight into the attitudes of an age, a vital part of any correspondence, is missing. "The world is too much with us," says Sayers at one point. In most of these letters, the world is strangely absent.

In between lengthy theological and linguistic discussions, the brief glimpses of Sayers's earlier interests and passions are like coming up for air. As a welcome reminder that she was not just a formidable mind, but could also be funny and compassionate, Reynolds has also included letters that deal with trivial matters. When she relates a visit to Stratford to see Antony and Cleopatra, describes her triumph on completing a jigsaw puzzle, explains her insistence on the correct use of the semicolon, or recounts an afternoon spent waiting for an errant Richard Burton to turn up to record a Dante broadcast for schools, Sayers consistently expresses the imaginative sense of atmosphere and attention to detail that were the best things about her novels.

The importance of these mature letters is that they underline the honesty and integrity that ran through all of Sayers's writing. Believing strongly that it was "better to serve the work than to serve humanity", she was not, by nature, evangelical, and she despised any attempt to use her life as a footnote to her work, refusing to tolerate "the modern insistence on biographical detail" which "distracts attention from the work to the worker". Vowing to destroy her personal effects, her sudden death at the age of 64 meant that she actually destroyed very little; ironically, the letters in this final volume elucidate the work, even if that was the kind of idea that Sayers detested most.

Nicola Upson writes about crime novels and thrillers for the NS

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The long war against democracy