A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers by C.S. Lewis

Dorothy L. Sayers is best known for her Peter Wimsey mysteries, but she was also a playwright, poet, essayist, and theologian, writing such books as The Man Born to Be King, Creed or Chaos?, The Mind of the Maker, and Are Women Human?  In her own eyes, her finest work was her translation of The Divine Comedy.

Both Lewis and Sayers completed their academic studies at Oxford University and their first meeting was through a fan letter that Sayers wrote to Lewis upon reading his The Screwtape Letters.

“She was the first person of importance who ever wrote me a fan letter ……..  I liked her, originally, because she liked me; later for the extraordinary zest and as edge of her conversation —- as I like high wind.  She was friend, not an ally.” (Lewis)

Dorothy L. Sayers
source The Dorothy L. Sayers Society

In this panegyric read at Sayers’ funeral, Lewis praises Sayers’ literary work. While he admits to not being a fan of detective fiction, he nevertheless respects their authors and explains that, contrary to rumours that Sayers was later ashamed of her “tekkies”, she had merely “felt she had done all that she could” with the genre.  He claims there is no “cleavage” between her detective work and her later theological works, citing Pascal’s quote, “One shows one’s greatness not by being at an extremity but by being simultaneously at two extremities.”  He discusses the writing of Christian works, the problems of the intrusion of self and the commonalities between detective fiction and religious writing.

With regard to the importance Sayers placed on the quality of writing, he quotes from her The Man Born to Be King, “Let me tell you, good Christian people, an honest writer would be ashamed to treat a nursery tale as you have treated the greatest drama in history: and this in virtue, not of his faith, but of his calling.”  The intention to behave piously was no excuse for a job poorly done.

Finally, he praises her work of the translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy and goes on to say of her independent character:

” For all she did and was, for delight and instruction, for her militant loyalty as a friend, for courage and honesty, for the richly feminine qualities which showed through a port and manner superficially masculine and even gleefully ogreish —- let us thank the Author who invented her.”

This essay can be found in:  

Deal Me In Challenge #14 – Five of Spades

17 thoughts on “A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers by C.S. Lewis

  1. This is very timely, as I just finished The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. So lovely to read about the friendship of these two wonderful writers!

  2. Thanks for the tip, Lory. I've ordered it from the library.

    I have three huge volumes of Lewis' letters and have only read through a tiny amount of them, but the letters between him and Sayers are treasures. I can't wait to read more.

  3. I've added Oxford educated D. Sayers to my crime fiction challenge.
    Gaudy Nights is one of her best. After so much graphic violence in Lemaitre I'm read for a female dective and a story about ordinary people and believable motivations. Thanks for putting Sayers in the spotlight!

  4. I'm getting less tolerate of sensationalism in crime fiction, narratives, etc. I find that while trying to make situations more shocking, they kill the subtleties which help the reader to get in touch with his true sentiments. It can sometimes be a cheap way to find an audience.

    Best of luck with Sayers. I've only read one Peter Wimsey but I was very impressed. Perhaps I should add a couple to my summer reads.

  5. I really like Sayers. I just finished reading her "Are Women Human" and I have all the detective stories. I like reading them right before going to bed at night. This looks like a really good book. I'm going to put it on my Amazon wish list.

  6. It's been years since I've read "Are Women Human" but she certainly doesn't mince words in it, does she? I must revisit it. Sayers' book "Letters to a Diminished Church" is great as well, especially what she has to say about work. Very enlightening.

  7. Very interesting. Only thing I've read by her is her translation of Inferno, which I did love but I remember objecting to the introduction. Must read some more one day. For now, I do want to get a hold of the C S Lewis essays 🙂

  8. Now you have me curious as to her Inferno introduction and your objections.

    Lewis' essays are great. I'm convinced that he could write about a hamburger bun and make it interesting. 🙂

  9. Well done! I've long been a bigger fan of Sayers' Dante than her mysteries. But Lord Peter Whimsey really is no match for Dante's pilgrim.

  10. I haven't read Sayers translation of Inferno ….. the first time I read the translation by Ciardi and then Mandelbaum, so Sayers should be up next.

  11. This is so interesting to me. I have read so much C.S. Lewis but obviously not everything. I have not read this panegyric and now I really need to get a copy on "On Stories." However I did read something by Lewis years ago in which he referenced Dorothy Sayers in a very positive way because that's what prompted me to look into her writings. I don't read a lot of detective fiction either but I am currently about halfway through "The Mind of the Maker." It's interesting but so far not as absorbing as I had hoped. Need to get back to it while in a receptive mood. Reading quite a life journey! It may take years for connections click into place. You remember something that fill a gap in your knowledge or a tidbit that leads you to just the next book you need to read.

  12. I love his remark about her, "she was my friend, not my ally", which of course means that she'd disagree with him if she thought it necessary. An honesty like that breeds trust, and trust, true friendship.

    It's been a long time since I've read The Mind of the Maker. Try her "Letters to a Diminished Church" if you haven't read it yet. I have a feeling that it may interest you. 🙂

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