Dorothy L. Sayers: The passionate popularizer

It’s always fun to find a reviewer or biographer who “gets” one of your favorite figures. Here is Adrian Leak, commemorating Dorothy L. Sayers on the 50th anniversary of her death.

Unlike the portrait of Sayers we derive from her Oxford magazine article I just posted on, here Sayers (an accomplished scholar of medieval French) separated herself from academia to position herself as a woman of the people, “no academic but a common popular soapbox lecturer.” The truth was at both ends of this paradox.

I recommend you click through to the full article, both for the pleasure of reading it and for the wonderful photo (which I had not seen before) of Sayers standing on stage with with actors performing in St Thomas’s, Regent Street, Westminster, and other photos:

Adrian Leak, “From Lord Peter to the Lord Jesus,” Church Times, Dec. 14, 2007.

THE FIRST THING that struck you about Dorothy L. Sayers was her magnificent size. It was not something that worried her, however. “The elephant is crated,” she gasped as, after a struggle, she subsided into the back of a friend’s car. At Marshall & Snelgrove, in Oxford Street, it took nine months to construct a corset robust enough to contain her.

Not that any conventional constraints ever restricted her for long. During a successful run of one of her plays in the West End she could be seen — and heard — entertaining the cast to large, bibulous suppers at the Soho restaurant Le Moulin d’Or. Wholehearted enjoyment characterised her approach not only to food and wine: when she lectured on Dante to the Society of Italian Studies at Cambridge, some of the academics were shocked by the vigour and élan of her delivery.

“Being no academic but a common popular soapbox lecturer, I didn’t mind shouting at them in a loud and brassy voice without regard for my own dignity or that of my subject,” she told a friend. It was not only that she made sure that she could be heard (the other speakers had been inaudible), but that she spoke with passion. One of the audience, a young lecturer, Barbara Reynolds, wrote to her later: “I got so excited that I had to be held down.”

The passion with which she lectured and wrote about the Divine Comedy encouraged others to read it as a contemporary work rather than as a classic. She passed on what she had learnt from her friend and mentor, the author Charles Williams: to find its meaning “in their own lives and love affairs”. There may have been better translations since hers, but her introductions in the Penguin Classics volumes of Dante’s trilogy remain the best. It has been estimated that during the latter half of the 20th century they reached more than one million readers.

What so gripped her was the grandeur of Dante’s vision, in which all human experience is integrated and judged by God’s redemptive love: the contingencies of individual lives are set in the grand design of salvation. What had triggered this insight in the poet’s mind was the intense experience of his love for a Florentine girl — “that first staggering shock of young love”, as Williams put it.

Finish article here.

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