Sunday, June 13, 2021

How Dorothy L Sayers used her novels to promote the role of women in society

Shrewd observer of human nature who became a Queen of Crime

Dorothy L Sayers was keen to promote the role of women
Dorothy L Sayers was keen to
promote the role of women 
One of the greatest detective novelists of the Golden Age, Dorothy Leigh Sayers, was born 128 years ago today on June 13, 1893 in Oxford.

Dorothy went to the Godolphin School in Salisbury, where she won a scholarship to Somerville College in Oxford. She graduated with first class honours in modern languages in 1915 and was one of the first women to be awarded a degree by Oxford University.

She worked for Blackwell’s, the Oxford publishers, and then as a copywriter at Bensons, a London advertising agency.

Dorothy produced her first novel, Whose Body, introducing her amateur detective hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, in 1923. He was to feature in 14 novels and volumes of short stories.

She became a member, and eventually president, of the Detection Club, where she met other crime writers she admired, such as E C Bentley and G K Chesterton.

Dorothy was a keen observer of human nature and was passionate about the education of women and their right to play a positive role in society, as is evident in her third Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Unnatural Death, published in 1927.

Wimsey was played by Ian  Carmichael in the BBC series
Wimsey was played by Ian 
Carmichael in the BBC series

Unnatural Death also broke new ground in that one of the main characters, Mary Whittaker, has been described as the most clearly delineated homosexual character in Golden Age detective fiction, despite the word ‘lesbian’ never being used by the author to describe her.

Mary Whittaker is seen during the novel trying to entice a young girl into a life of homosexuality and, in a scene where Wimsey kisses her, she is shown to be physically revolted by being kissed by a man.

Dorothy also invented an ingenious murder method in the novel, the injection of an air bubble with a hypodermic syringe into the victim, so that there was no obvious cause of death and a post mortem examination would lead to the conclusion that the victim had died of natural causes.

Some critics found fault with this method, while acknowledging it was very cunning. It was believed Dorothy came up with the idea because of her familiarity with motor engines, having had a relationship with a car mechanic and motor bike enthusiast.

She also made use of brand new legislation on inheriting property, introduced in 1925 in England, for the motive for the murder.

Dorothy’s belief that women should be seen to be playing important roles is reflected in her character Miss Katherine Climpson, who she introduces for the first time in Unnatural Causes as a genteel spinster who helps Wimsey with some of his investigations.

Unnatural Death has been published in a new edition by Hodder
Unnatural Death has been published
in a new edition by Hodder
Lord Peter says he employs Miss Climpson as an enquiry agent because her talents are being wasted by a stupid social system that forces unmarried women to become ‘companions’ rather than use their skills and minds in a more useful and profitable way.

The novel begins in the most casual way with Lord Peter and his friend, a Scotland Yard detective, Charles Parker, discussing a murder investigation while having dinner in a restaurant and being overheard by a doctor sitting at the next table, who eventually joins them and tells them about the unexpected death of a woman he had been treating.

Lord Peter is convinced the woman has been murdered and, dragging the reluctant Parker along with him, sets out to investigate with no clues to work on. Unnatural Death, a groundbreaking, gripping story, with plenty of twists and turns and some shrewd observations of human nature that even reminded me of Jane Austen, is the fascinating result.

After World War II, Dorothy taught herself old Italian and made a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy using terza rima, the three-line rhyming scheme that he used in the original . In 1957, while working on Dante’s third volume, Paradiso, Dorothy died of heart failure. Her friend, Dr Barbara Reynolds, completed her work, which she herself had regarded as her greatest achievement.

Unnatural Death was reprinted in 2016 by Hodder and Stoughton and is available from or


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