Dorothy L. Sayers: A Careless Rage for Life by David Coomes (Lion Publishing, 1992)
I'm a long-time fan of the works of Dorothy Sayers, though I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that my reading has been almost—though not quite—exclusively of her detective fiction. That's a fault I'm working to correct, though sadly our library isn't of much help.
Coomes' book is a wonderful examination of the person behind the great mind and brilliant writer. I'd say it is a fair biography, doing Sayers justice, giving her due credit for her amazing accomplishments without whitewashing her character flaws or excusing her sins—of which she was very much aware.
Despite my respect for the author's work, I can't say the same for his proofreaders and editors. I know how easy it is to have read a manuscript so many times that you simply can't see the errors anymore, but I still wonder how everyone could have missed the amusing error that appears on every page of Chapter 6, in the title, 'The deadlines of principles.' Having read Gaudy Night multiple times, and recently, I knew immediately that the title was a quote from that book, and that it was wrong. Even in the body of the chapter, where the passage in which the phrase appears is quoted in longer form, it is misquoted. The relevant sentence is, The young were always theoretical; only the middle-aged could realize the deadliness of principles. Not deadlines. Deadliness. Until now I had never noted the one-letter difference that changes the meaning so dramatically.
The mistake is repeated at least 16 times. That spell check failed to catch the error is understandable, since both are valid English words; that it slipped by all the humans is less so. But maybe they hadn't read Gaudy Night, where the deadliness of principles is not just a passing phrase, but central to the mystery, and to the book.
Much of the author's insight into the character of Sayers comes from her writings, especially her letters, and he quotes liberally. That is how it came to be that all the quotations below are Sayers' own words rather than Coomes'. As always the bold emphasis is mine.
I was [as a child] always readily able to distinguish between fact and fiction, and to thrill pleasantly with a purely literary horror...I dramatised myself, and have at all periods of my life continued to dramatise myself, into a great number of egotistical impersonations of a very common type, making myself the heroine (or more often the hero) of countless dramatic situations—but at all times with a perfect realisation that I was the creator, not the subject, of these fantasies.
"More often the hero"—that was true for me, as well. I believe it is the natural consequence of the sad fact that until recently nearly all the interesting roles in literature were taken by men.
For some reason, nearly all school murder stories are good ones—probably because it is so easy to believe that murder could be committed in such a place. I do not mean this statement to be funny or sarcastic; nobody who has not taught in a school can possibly realize the state of nervous tension and mutual irritation that can grow up among the members of the staff at the end of a trying term, or the utter spiritual misery that a bad head can inflict upon his or her subordinates.
I'm sure my teacher friends would agree.
I am still obstinately set upon [a certain producer for the play]. Very likely it is impossible. I do not care if it is. If the cursing of the barren fig-tree means anything, it means that one must do the impossible or perish, so it is useless to tell me it is not the time of figs.
I will not cease from mental fight nor shall my sword sleep in my hand till I have detected and avenged all mayhems and murders done upon the English language against the peace of our Sovereign Lord the King, his Crown, and dignity.
A woman after my own heart.
[On the popularity of detective novels] Life is often a hopeless muddle, to the meaning of which [people] can find no clue; and it is a great relief to get away from it for a time into a world where they can exercise their wits over a neat problem, in the assurance that there is only one answer, and that answer a satisfying one.
Artists who paint pictures of our Lord in the likeness of a dismal-looking, die-away person, with his hair parted in the middle, ought to be excommunicated for blasphemy. And so many good Christians behave as if a sense of humour were incompatible with religion; they are too easily shocked about the wrong things. When my play was acted at Canterbury, one old gentleman was terribly indignant at the notion that the builders of that beautiful Cathedral could have been otherwise than men of blameless lives.
Certainly that attitude is a problem even today, but the indignant gentleman may or may not have been real. Sayers—who had worked in an advertising agency—and her publishers knew very well the publicity value of controversy, and were not above fueling the flames with fake letters of complaint. Truly, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
To achieve a great and godly work one should always employ a good architect who lives an immoral life rather than a poor architect who lives a blameless life.
The real question is, why aren't there more good architects who live blameless lives?
I do not feel that the present generation of English people needs to be warned against the passionate pursuit of knowledge for its own sake: that is not our besetting sin. Looking with the eye of today upon that legendary figure of a man who bartered away his soul [Faust], I see in him the type of the impulsive reformer, over-sensitive to suffering, impatient of the facts, eager to set the world right by a sudden overthrow, in his own strength and regardless of the ineluctable nature of things.
Every great man has a woman behind him ... And every great woman has some man or other in front of her, tripping her up.
It's not enough to rouse up the Government to do this and that. You must rouse the people. You must make them understand that their salvation is in themselves and in each separate man and woman among them. If it's only a local committee or amateur theatricals or the avoiding being run over in the black-out, the important thing is each man's personal responsibility. They must not look to the State for guidance—they must learn to guide the State.
[What the press clearly shows] is an all-pervading carelessness about veracity, penetrating every column, creeping into the most trifling item of news, smudging and blurring the boundary lines between fact and fancy, creating a general atmosphere of cynicism and mistrust. He that is unfaithful in little is unfaithful also in much; if a common court case cannot be correctly reported, how are we to believe the reports of world-events?
Once again, plus ça change....
To read only one work of Charles Williams is to find oneself in the presence of a riddle—a riddle fascinating by its romantic colour, its strangeness, its hints of a rich and intricate unknown world just outside the barriers of consciousness; but to read all is to become a free citizen of that world and to find in it a penetrating and illuminating interpretation of the world we know.
Ah, so that's my problem. I read Williams' The Place of the Lion, but found myself in a state of utter confusion. I need to read more.
What we say we want to abolish is the artificial inequality of goods & social status; but I am not sure that this is being accompanied as it should be any recognition of a real hierarchy of merit. I seem to detect a general disposition to debunk the natural hierarchies of intellect, virtue & so forth, & substitute, as far as possible, an all-round mediocrity.
It is arguable that all very great works should be strictly protected from young persons; they should at any rate be spared the indignity of having their teeth and claws blunted for the satisfaction of examiners. It is the first shock that matters. Once that has been experienced, no amount of late familiarity will breed contempt; but to become familiar with a thing before one is able to experience it only too often means that one can never experience it at all. This much is certain; it is not age that hardens arteries of the mind; one can experience the same exaltation of first love at fifty as at fifteen—only it will take a greater work to excite it. There is, in fact, an optimum age for encountering every work of art; did we but know, in each man's case, what it was, we might plan our educational schemes accordingly. Since our way of life makes this impossible, we can only pray to be saved from murdering delight before it is born.
Since I know that Sayers thought highly of the capabilities of children, and that she herself began to learn Latin when she was six years old, I don't think she's arguing against early education. But her point, here, would no doubt be understood by J. R. R. Tolkien, who stated that his book, The Hobbit, should not be read by anyone under thirteen. I don't agree, but he's the author. I think that Sayers, at any rate, is more opposed to the inoculation against great works that can come when they are dumbed down. Elsewhere she wrote, when told that the play she had written for children would go right over their heads,
I don't think you need trouble yourselves too much about certain passages being "over the heads of the audience." They will be over the heads of the adults, and the adults will write and complain. Pay no attention. You are supposed to be playing to children—the only audience perhaps in the country whose minds are still open and sensitive to the spell of poetic speech ... The thing they react to and remember is not logical argument, but mystery and the queer drama of melodious words ... I know how you would react to those passages. It is my business to know. But it is also my business to know how my real audience will react, and yours to trust me to know it.