Our biggest sale! 50% off your PLUS subscription. Use code SUMMER

What You Need to Know about Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers was not only one of the most important mystery writers of the 20th-century, she also wrote classic Christian apologetics about good work done well and Christianity's inherent beauty. Here are the things you need to know about her.

SEO Editor
Updated Apr 16, 2024
What You Need to Know about Dorothy L. Sayers

Maybe you know her mystery novels, or maybe you are reading her Dante translation. However you discover Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), her writing is memorable. Not only was Sayers a memorable writer, but she also lived a remarkable life that included a friendship with C.S. Lewis and shocking many Christians with her plays about Christ’s life.

Dorothy L. Sayers: Table of Contents

Who was Dorothy L. Sayers?

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957) was an English writer, poet, playwright, essayist, and translator. Sayers' works in the detective genre are considered classics of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

Apart from her detective novels, Sayers was also a theologian and essayist, and she translated Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy" from Italian to English. Her writings on theology and Christianity reflect her deep interest in matters of faith and philosophy.

She was a multifaceted and accomplished writer, contributing significantly to both the realms of literature and Christian thought during her lifetime.

10 Important Events in the Life of Dorothy L. Sayers

1. In 1893, Dorothy L. Sayers was born in Oxford to Reverend Henry Sayers and his wife, Helen.

2. In 1915, Sayers graduated from Somerville College, Oxford. Oxford did not give women degrees, so she didn’t receive her Master of Arts and Bachelor of Arts in Modern Languages until 1920.

3. In 1923, Sayers published her first detective novel, Whose Body? Sayers wrote 11 novels and various short stories featuring the hero, amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey.

4. In 1924, Sayers gave birth to her only child, John Anthony. Awkward circumstances (see below) led Sayers to give John Anthony to her cousin, Ivy Shrimpton, a foster mother.

5. In 1926, Sayers married WWI veteran and writer Anthony “Mac” Fleming.

6. In 1933, Sayers learned via her publisher that Charles Williams loved her new book The Nine Tailors, which led to them meeting. Williams inspired Sayers’ interest in Dante.

7. In 1941, Sayers’ radio play The Man Born to Be King aired in Britain. She slowly moved from writing detective fiction to dramas and religious nonfiction.

8. In 1942, Sayers wrote a fan letter to C.S. Lewis. They had both become well-known Christian authors (Sayers had recently published The Mind of the Maker, Lewis had published The Screwtape Letters). Their friendship continued until Sayers’ death.

9. In 1949, Penguin Classics published Sayers’ translation of Dante’s Inferno.

10. In 1957, Sayers died unexpectedly at home. Her friend Barbara Reynolds finished her translation of Dante’s Paradiso, the last volume of the Divine Comedy.

10 Important Quotes by Dorothy L. Sayers

1. “If we are going to disbelieve a thing, it seems on the whole to be desirable that we should first find out what, exactly, we are disbelieving.”—from “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged

2. “The only Christian work is good work well done… whether it is church embroidery or sewage farming.”—from “Why Work?”

3. “Let us, in Heaven’s name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it upon an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much the worse for the pious.”—from “The Dogma is in the Drama

4. “Christianity does and will challenge almost every conviction you have. That is its business. So don’t blame me—You have been warned!”—from a 1943 letter to T.L. Duff

5. “We may remember that a mediæval guild did insist, not only on the employer’s duty to his workmen, but also on the labourer’s duty to his work.”—from “Creed or Chaos?”

6. “Whether in Hell or in Purgatory, you get what you want—if that is what you really want. If you insist on having your own way, you will get it: Hell is the enjoyment of your own way for ever. If you really want God’s way for you, you will get it in Heaven, and the pains of Purgatory will not deter you, they will be welcomed as the means to that end.”—from Sayers' introduction to her translation of Dante’s Purgatorio

7. “It was left for the present age to enow Covetousness with glamour on a big scale, and to give it a title which it could carry like a flag. It occurred to somebody to call it Enterprise. From the moment of that happy inspiration, Covetousness has gone forward and never looked back.”—from “The Other Six Deadly Sins

8. “Somehow or another, and with the best of intentions, we have shown the world the typical Christian in the likeness of a crashing and rather ill-natured bore—and this in the Name of One Who assuredly never bored a soul in those thirty-three years during which He passed through the world like a flame.”—from “The Dogma is in the Drama

9. “You must be precious to yourself because you are precious to God, remembering that in His sight your neighbour is equally precious, and precious in the same way. You must not do damager to your own soul, or your neighbour’s: you must respect and take all reasonable care of your body and his, because it is God’s property, and should not be treated with careless irreverence.”—from a 1948 letter to Patricia Flavel

10. “Public Enemy No. 1—if you must use these expressions—is a flabby and sentimental theology which necessarily produces flabby and sentimental religious art.”—from a 1941 Letter to Brother George Every

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Dorothy L. Sayers

1. She wrote jingles. From 1922 to 1931, Sayers held her last full-time job as a copywriter for S.H. Benson’s Advertising Agency. She wrote jingles for companies like Colman’s Mustard and Guinness, some still remembered (or used in new variations) today. She is also credited with coining the phrase, “it pays to advertise!”

2. She broke detective fiction. Sayers played a vital role in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, when writers like G.K. Chesterton and Agatha Christie wrote some of the genre’s greatest stories. As the 1930s progressed, Sayers seems to have become disenchanted with the format and broke its conventions for her 1935 novel Gaudy Night. Many people (including Agatha Christie) criticized her choice. After 1939, Sayers stopped writing detective novels and focused on religious dramas (Zeal of Thy House, The Man Born to Be King) and nonfiction (The Mind of the Maker). Her last years were mainly devoted to nonfiction and translating the Divine Comedy.

3. She knew more than one Inkling. In 1918, a young writer named Charles Williams defended Sayers’ poetry collection Catholic Tales and Christian Songs against charges that it was irreverent. Williams and Sayers met in the 1930s before he became a member of the Inklings. Sayers discovered C.S. Lewis’ work in the 1940s, and they also became friends.

4. She kept her son a secret. Sayers’ Christian faith didn’t allow for premarital sex, which ended her romance with poet John Cournos in 1922. Sayers was still hurt by Cournos leaving her when she became involved with Bill White. This time, she compromised by taking birth control. Despite her precautions, Sayers became pregnant… and learned that White was lying about being unmarried. Fearing scandal, Sayers got help from her cousin Ivy Shrimpton to keep her pregnancy secret. Sayers’ parents died without knowing that Ivy’s foster child was their grandson.

5. She worried her faith was too intellectual. Sayers was probably exaggerating when she told a friend that she’d never had a religious experience. However, she did admit several times that she didn’t have deep religious emotions and prized the beautiful intellectual pattern of Christianity. Ultimately, she concluded that her love for the mind wasn’t a problem.

6. She had to choose between her child and her spouse. Sayers told her husband Mac Fleming about John Anthony, and they considered adopting him. Over the next few years, Mac’s WWI trauma affected his mental health, so their home wasn’t safe for children. Sayers ultimately decided to stay with her husband. Sayers did unofficially adopt John Anthony (a process that didn’t require checking his birth certificate) so that she could pay for his education.

7. She turned down a religious degree. The Archbishop of Canterbury offered Sayers a Doctorate in Divinity in 1943. She turned it down, citing that she preferred to be known as a good writer than a noted “Christian person.” Some biographers have suggested she knew the publicity might expose John Anthony’s parentage.

8. She knew her Bible. While some Christian intellectuals are better at arguing than explaining, Sayers took her theology seriously. When writing her script for The Man Born to Be King, Sayers did her own studies of the Gospels in their original Greek.

9. She didn’t mind controversy. Sayers’ choice to tell Jesus’ story in a radio play was controversial in itself (it barely got around English laws banning theatrical representations of Christ). The controversy became huge when Sayers’ script had characters speaking modern English (including Cockney slang). Despite receiving many nasty letters, Sayers maintained that the Gospel story was inherently subversive, and her script cut through familiarity to show its shocking elements.   

10. She wasn’t sure about “Christian writing.” A core principle of Sayers’ religious nonfiction is that no division exists between “Christian work” and “secular work.” Christians are to do whatever jobs God gives them as well as they can. In several letters to C.S. Lewis, she also worried about Christian writers who felt they had to give “the Christian response” to any topic without writing well or thinking through their position.

10 Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery Novels

The Lord Peter Wimsey series is a collection of detective novels and short stories that Sayers authored. The series features the fictional amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey, an aristocrat, and an intelligent, sophisticated, and whimsical sleuth. The novels are set in England between the First and Second World Wars. "The Nine Tailors" is often considered one of the standout novels in the series and is praised for its intricate plot and unique setting. The novels provide insights into the society and culture of the time.

  1. "Whose Body?" (1923)
  2. "Clouds of Witness" (1926)
  3. "Unnatural Death" (1927)
  4. "The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club" (1928)
  5. "Strong Poison" (1930)
  6. "The Five Red Herrings" (1931)
  7. "Have His Carcase" (1932)
  8. "Murder Must Advertise" (1933)
  9. "The Nine Tailors" (1934)
  10. "Gaudy Night" (1935)

5 Christian Works by Dorothy L. Sayers

"The Man Born to Be King(1943): This series of radio plays depicts the life of Jesus Christ in a modern and accessible manner. Sayers aimed to present the Gospel story to a contemporary audience during World War II.

"The Mind of the Maker" (1941): In this work, Sayers explores the analogy between human creativity and the nature of God. She reflects on the Trinity and the relationship between the Creator and human creators, making significant contributions to Christian apologetics.

"Creed or Chaos?" (1949): This collection of essays addresses various topics related to Christianity and its relevance to contemporary culture. Sayers emphasizes the importance of core Christian beliefs and discusses their implications for society.

"Letters to a Diminished Church" (1941): While not a single work, this collection of essays showcases Sayers' thoughts on the state of the church and her reflections on Christian principles. She provides insights into her views on theology and the challenges facing the church.

Translation of "The Divine Comedy" (1949-1962): Although not an original work, Sayers' translation of Dante Alighieri's "The Divine Comedy" is one of her most significant contributions. Her translation of "Inferno" was completed in 1949, and her friend Barbara Reynolds later finished the translations of "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso" after Sayers' death.

4 Great Books on Dorothy L. Sayers

These recent books provide a great look at Sayers’ life and writings.

Dorothy L. Sayers, A Biography by Colin Duriez

Dorothy and Jack by Gina Dalfonzo

Subversive by Crystal Downing

The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers edited by Carole Vanderhoof

Further Reading:

Sayer’s The Man Born to Be King

The Enduring Legacy of C.S. Lewis

10 Things You Need to Know about J.R.R. Tolkien

10 Things You Need to Know about the Inklings

10 Things to Know about Ronald Knox

Photo Credit: Topical Press Agency/ Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Connor SalterG. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,200 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.

This article is part of our People of Christianity catalog that features the stories, meaning, and significance of well-known people from the Bible and history. Here are some of the most popular articles for knowing important figures in Christianity:

How Did the Apostle Paul Die?
Who are the Nicolaitans in Revelation?
Who Was Deborah in the Bible?
Who Was Moses in the Bible?

King Solomon's Story in the Bible
Who Was Lot's Wife in the Bible?
Who Was Jezebel in the Bible?
Who Was the Prodigal Son?


Christianity / Life / People / What You Need to Know about Dorothy L. Sayers