DOROTHY SAYERS Biography - Writers


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Dorothy L. Sayers                                                                             
Born 13 June 1893                                                                             
Oxford, England                                                                               
Died 17 December 1957                                                                         
Witham, Essex, England                                                                         
Occupation Novelist, Playwright, Essayist, Copywriter, Poet                                   
Genres crime fiction                                                                           
Literary movement Golden Age of Detective Fiction                                             
Dorothy Leigh Sayers (Oxford, 13 June 1893 - Witham, 17                                       
December 1957) was a renowned British author, translator, student of classical                 
and modern languages, and Christian humanist. She is best known for her                       
mysteries, a series of novels and short stories set between World War I and                   
World War II that feature English aristocrat and amateur sleuth Lord Peter                     
Wimsey. However, Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante's Divina                   
Commedia to be her best work. She is also known for her plays and essays.                     
Sayers, who was an only child, was born at the Head Master's House, Christ                     
Church Cathedral, Oxford, on 13 June 1893, where her father, the Rev. Henry                   
Sayers, M.A., was chaplain of Christ Church and headmaster of the Choir School (when           
she was six he started teaching her Latin). In 1912, she won a scholarship to                 
Somerville College, Oxford, studying modern languages and medieval literature.                 
She finished with first-class honours in 1916. Although women could not be                     
awarded degrees at that time, Sayers was among the first to receive a degree                   
when the situation changed a few years later, and in 1920 she graduated MA. Her               
personal experience of Oxford academic life is evident in her novel Gaudy Night.               
Dorothy's father was from a line from Littlehampton, Tipperary, and her mother (Helen         
Mary Leigh - hence the 'L' in Dorothy's full name) was born at The Chestnuts,                 
Millbrook, Southamptonshire, to Frederick Leigh, a solicitor, whose family roots               
were in the Isle of Wight. Helen's sister Amy married Henry Richard Shrimpton,                 
and is mentioned below.                                                                       
Great Britain in the 1920s was in a time of social change and upheaval. The                   
massive mobilization of able-bodied men in World War I had sent many women into               
the paid workforce. While the men returning from war expected to return to their               
old positions, the women who enjoyed self-sufficiency were not ready to leave.                 
In addition, many women had to be self-supporting due to family left disabled or               
dead by the war. Legally, some women were first able to vote in 1918, although                 
full suffrage was not granted until the Representation of the People Act of 1928.             
At age 29, Sayers fell in love with novelist John Cournos, the first intense                   
romance of her life. He wanted her to ignore social mores and live with him                   
without marriage. She wanted to marry and have children. After a year of agony                 
between 1921 and 1922, she learned that Cournos had claimed to be against                     
marriage only to test her devotion, and she broke off with him.                               
Her heart broken, Sayers rebounded by becoming involved with Bill White, an                   
unemployed motor car salesman. After a brief, intense, and mainly sexual                       
relationship, Sayers discovered that, in spite of contraception, she was                       
pregnant. White reacted badly, storming out "in rage & misery" when Sayers                     
admitted her pregnancy.                                                                       
Fearing how her pregnancy might affect her parents, then in their 70s, Sayers                 
opted to hide from friends and family. She continued to work until the beginning               
of her last trimester, at which point she pleaded exhaustion and took an                       
extended leave. She went alone to a "mothers' hospital" under an assumed name,                 
and the child, John Anthony, was born January 3, 1924, at Tuckton Lodge, Iford                 
Lane, Southbourne, Southamptonshire. She remained with John for three weeks,                   
nursing and caring for him.                                                                   
Sayers was unable to return to her life or work with a child. Her aunt and                     
cousin, Amy and Ivy Amy Shrimpton, were supporting themselves by fostering                     
children. Sayers' mother had been to visit the Shrimptons and wrote a glowing                 
account to Dorothy of the good job they did with their charges. Sayers wrote to               
Ivy, relating a sad story about "a friend" and inquiring about boarding fees and               
whether Ivy had room for an additional baby. After Ivy agreed to take the child,               
Sayers sent her another letter that began "Strictly Confidential: Particulars                 
about Baby" which revealed the child's parentage and swore her to silence.                     
Neither Sayers' parents nor Aunt Amy were to know.                                             
Ivy continued to raise 'John' to adulthood at her house "The Sidelings", Wooton               
Barton, Oxfordshire, but he became known by his second forename - abandoning the               
use of 'John' except for legal purposes - but preferred to be known as 'Tony' to               
friends and family. He assumed the surname of 'Fleming' after his mother married,             
although nothing formal was ever attempted to register that change. Tony                       
regarded Ivy as his mother for all practical purposes, and when she died on 29                 
March 1951 at Horton General Hospital, Banbury, he undertook the burial                       
In 1924-1925, Sayers wrote 11 letters to John Cournos about their unhappy                     
relationship, her relationship with White, and her son. The letters are now                   
housed at Harvard University. Both Sayers and Cournos would eventually                         
fictionalize their experience: Sayers in Strong Poison, published in 1930, and                 
Cournos in The Devil is an English Gentleman, published in 1932.                               
Two years later, by which time she had published her first two detective novels,               
Sayers married Captain Oswald Atherton "Mac" Fleming, a Scottish journalist                   
whose professional name was "Atherton Fleming." They married on 8th April, 1926               
at the Register Office in Holborn. Mac was divorced with two children, which in               
those days meant they could not have a church wedding. Despite this                           
disappointment, her parents welcomed Mac into the fold. They lived in Dorothy's               
apartment at 24 Great James Street, St. Pancras, that she continued to hold for               
the rest of her life.                                                                         
The marriage began very happily, with a strong partnership at home. Both were                 
working a great deal - Mac as an author and journalist, Dorothy as an                         
advertising copywriter and author. Over time, Mac's health worsened (largely due               
to his World War I service), and he became unable to work. As a result, his                   
income dwindled while Sayers's fame continued to grow, and he began to feel                   
Although he never lived with them, Tony was told "Cousin Dorothy" and Fleming                 
had adopted him when he was ten. (As the legal parent, Dorothy had no need to                 
adopt him. Fleming had agreed to adopt her son when they married, but it was                   
never officially done.) Sayers continued to provide for his upbringing, although               
she never publicly acknowledged him as her biological son.                                     
Sayers was a good friend of C. S. Lewis and several of the other Inklings. On                 
some occasions, Sayers joined Lewis at meetings of the Socratic Club. Lewis said               
he read The Man Born to be King every Easter, but he claimed to be unable to                   
appreciate detective stories. J. R. R. Tolkien, however, read some of the Wimsey               
novels but scorned the later ones, such as Gaudy Night.                                       
Mac Fleming died 9th June,1950, at Sunnyside Cottage, and nearly a decade later,               
Dorothy died suddenly of a stroke 17 December 1957 at the same place. She had                 
purchased numbers 20-24 Newland Street Witham (subsequently known as Sunnyside)               
in 1925 for her mother to live, following the death of her father, but she                     
occupied it herself following the death of her mother on 27 July 1929 at The                   
County Hospital, Colchester. Mac was buried in Ipswich, whilst Dorothy was                     
buried at Golder's Green. Tony died 26 November 1984 at age 60, in St. Francis's               
Hospital, Miami Beach, Dade, Florida.