Dorothy L. Sayers Biography

Dorothy Sayers, a renowned English crime writer and Christian humanist, is remembered as one of the greatest mystery writers of the 20th century. Born and raised in Oxford, she was one of the first women to receive a degree from Somerville College, Oxford University. With her series of mystery novels and short stories featuring the charismatic amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers captivated readers with her sharp storytelling. In addition to her writing, she made a name for herself as a copywriter, creating catchy slogans and jingles. Sayers’ literary achievements include the highly acclaimed novel “The Nine Tailors,” and she is also recognized for her plays, essays, and translation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Despite her prolific career, Sayers’ life was tragically cut short when she passed away from a heart attack at the age of 64.

Quick Facts

  • British Celebrities Born In June
  • Also Known As: Dorothy Leigh Sayers
  • Died At Age: 64
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Oswald Atherton Fleming (1926–1950)
    • Father: Rev. Henry Sayers
    • Mother: Helen Mary Leigh
    • Children: John Anthony Fleming
  • Born Country: England
  • Poets
  • Novelists
  • Died on: December 17, 1957
  • Place of death: Witham, England
  • City: Oxford, England

Childhood & Early Life

Dorothy Leigh Sayers was born on June 13, 1893, as the only child of Rev. Henry Sayers and Helen Mary Leigh. Her father was headmaster of the ‘Christ Church Cathedral School,’ Oxford. She was born at the Headmaster’s House, Brewer Street, Oxford. She grew up in Bluntisham Rectory, Cambridgeshire, as her father received benefice as a rector there.

Sayers attended ‘Godolphin School,’ a boarding school in Salisbury. She started learning Latin from her father from the age of 6. In 1912, she joined ‘Somerville College,’ Oxford, on a scholarship. In 1915, she became one of the first women to get a degree from Oxford. She received first class honors in studies of modern languages and medieval literature. She completed her MA in 1920.

In 1916, her first book of poetry, ‘OP. I,’ was published by ‘Blackwell Publishing,’ Oxford. This was followed by ‘Catholic Tales and Christian Songs’ in 1918.


Sayers initially worked for the ‘Blackwell Publishing,’ Oxford. Later, just before WWI, she took up teaching and went with her friend Eric Whelpton to teach at ‘L’Ecole des Roches,’ at Normandy, France. She also worked as a teacher at several other places.

In 1922, Sayers joined ‘S.H. Benson’s’ advertising agency in London, as a copywriter. She continued there till 1931, and made a name for herself as a successful advertiser. With artist John Gilroy, she created ‘The Mustard Club’ (for Coleman’s) through which she got the public interested in stories of imaginary ‘Mustard Club Members.’ She penned some catchy jingles and slogans. Her well-known slogan being, ‘It pays to advertise.’

Sayers’ first novel, ‘Whose Body?,’ was published in 1923. The mystery novel first introduced the aristocratic ‘Lord Peter Whimsey,’ the detective-hero who appeared in 14 volumes of novels and also appears In 5 short stories. The character of Lord Whimsey and his exclamation, ‘Oh Damn!’ became quite popular in the world of detective novels. He wasn’t her only detective character; some of her short stories featured another amateur detective ‘Montague Egg’ a wine salesman. In ‘Strong Poison,’ she brought in a new detective, ‘novelist Harriet Vane.’

Her detective novels also reflected contemporary issues. ‘The Unpleasantness at The Bellona Club’ highlighted the distress of WWI veterans, whereas woman’s education was discussed in ‘Gaudy Night.’ ‘Murder Must Advertise’ projected advertising integrities. ‘The Nine Tailors,’ considered as her finest work, reflects her Christian awareness, as the novel unfolds with a background of an old church.

Her other well-known stories include ‘Have His Carcase,’ ‘Absolutely Elsewhere’ (short story), ‘The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will.’ She became one of the eminent crime writers of her time and was chosen ‘President of Detection Club.’

Sayers wanted ‘Gaudy Night’ to be the last of ‘Lord Whimsey’ mystery novels. But on her friend Muriel St. Clare Byine’s insistence she wrote the play ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’ with ‘Lord Whimsey’ as the detective. The play was staged in December 1936 and proved successful. After this she stopped mystery writing except for 3 short stories and the book of the same play.

Sayers wrote a number of plays, including ‘The Zeal of Thy House,’ ‘The Emperor Constantine’ (1951), and her most appreciated play, ‘The Man Born to be King.’

Sayers achieved success in translation work, too. She learnt Old Italian to translate Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy.’ She retained Dante’s terza Rima (or the rhyming verse stanza form) in her translation. She translated the ‘Song of Roland’ from old French. Dante’s other work which she translated include ‘Inferno’ (1949), ‘Purgatory’ (1955), and the third volume, ‘Paradiso,’ which remained incomplete, and was completed by her friend Dr. Barbara Reynolds, after Sayers’ death.

During later years, Sayers turned to religious writing which included ‘The Mind of the Maker,’ and ‘Creed or Chaos.’ For her religious writing, she was awarded a ‘Lambeth doctorate in Divinity’ (1943) by Archbishop of Canterbury, however she refused. In 1950, she got an ‘honorary doctorate of letters’ from the ‘University of Durham.’ She wrote many educational and religious essays; her most well-known educational essay being ‘The Lost Tools of Learning.’ Sayers also helped at the ‘St. Anne’s Center for Christian Discourse.’ In 1952, she was made churchwarden of St. Thomas-cum-St. Anne’s.

Family & Personal Life

In 1920, Sayers got involved in an intense romantic affair with writer-poet John Cournos, a Jewish Russian emigrant. He didn’t believe in marriage, but only in free love. However, Sayers believed in and wanted marriage and children. She refused to live with him without marriage. Later, when he married another writer, she realized that he had been only testing her.

Sayers wrote about her affair with Cournos in her novel “Strong Poison,’ but didn’t mention the personal details. Cournos wrote a novel, ‘The Devil is an English Gentleman,’ in which he gave many private details, including her letters.

Upset with her experience with Cournos, Sayers got involved in another affair with a car salesman William White. In June 1923, when she became pregnant, he revealed that he was a married-man. Some references state that White’s wife (on a condition that Sayers should not meet White ever again) helped with the childbirth at her hometown, Southbourne. The baby was delivered at ‘Tuckton Lodge Nursing Home’ attended by Mrs. White’s brother, Dr. Murray Wilson. Other references state that when White left Sayers, she didn’t reveal her pregnancy to anyone, went alone to ‘Tuckton Lodge ‘Mother’s Hospital,’ Southbourne, and under an assumed name, gave birth to a boy on January 3, 1924.

Sayers named her son John Anthony, and left him with her maternal aunt, Amy and her daughter, Ivy Amy Shrimpton, who ran a home for foster children. She revealed John Anthony’s real identity only to her cousin Ivy, swearing her to secrecy. She provided for his upbringing and kept in touch with him through letters, but never in her lifetime revealed her relationship to him.

On April 8, 1926, Sayers married writer-journalist Oswald Atherton ‘Mac’ Fleming, a divorcee with 2 daughters. In 1935, he adopted John Anthony, and gave him his name. The truth about his birth was learnt only after her death, when she named him as her only inheritor.

Fleming died in 1950 after a prolonged illness, while Sayers died of a sudden heart attack on December 17, 1957, at Sunnyside Cottage, Witham, Essex. Her ashes were buried at St. Anne’s Church, London.

‘Sayers Classical Academy,’ Kentucky; and an asteroid ‘3627 Sayers’ are named after her.

Leave a Comment