Blue Plaques

SAYERS, Dorothy L. (1893-1957)

Plaque erected in 2000 by English Heritage at 24 Great James Street, Holborn, London, WC1N 3ES, London Borough of Camden

All images © English Heritage

Profession

Writer

Category

Literature

Inscription

DOROTHY L. SAYERS 1893-1957 Writer of Detective Stories lived here 1921-1929

Material

Ceramic

English writer and poet, Dorothy Leigh Sayers is best known for her detective stories featuring the fictional amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. She is commemorated with a plaque at 24 Great James Street, Bloomsbury, where she lived between 1921 and 1929. 

Dorothy L. Sayers pictured in 1928
Dorothy L. Sayers pictured in 1928 © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Early Life

Born in Oxford in 1893, Dorothy L. Sayers was the only child of Reverend Henry Sayers (1854–1928) and his wife, Helen Mary, née Leigh (1856–1929). When she was four years old, the family moved to Bluntisham-cum-Earith in the remote fen country of East Anglia. There she was educated at home and lived a fairly solitary childhood which she filled with her great interest in books. She showed an early talent for languages and storytelling.

Sayers went on to study modern languages and medieval literature at Somerville College, Oxford. She graduated with first-class honours in 1915. Women were not awarded degrees at that time, but Sayers was among the first to receive a degree when the position changed a few years later. She later graduated with an MA in 1920. 

Number 24

In 1921 Sayers moved into the newly decorated, white-panelled flat at 24 Great James Street, London, having told her parents that she had found three ‘small but very pretty rooms’. Among the works Sayers wrote there were her first novel, Whose Body? (1923)  which introduced her most famous literary character, Lord Peter Wimsey – Clouds of Witness (1926), Unnatural Death (1927) and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928). Number 24 was also the setting for her short story ‘The Vindictive Story of the Footsteps that Ran’, published in Lord Peter Views the Body (1928).

During this time Sayers was employed by the advertising agency S.H.Benson where she worked between 1922 and 1931 and devised the immortal slogan ‘My Goodness, My Guinness’. 

While living in London, Sayers gave birth to an illegitimate son (1924), which she concealed from most of her family. In 1926 she married a journalist, Oswald Atherton ‘Mac’ Fleming (1881−1950) and the couple shared the Great James Street home with a series of cats brought in to combat a mouse infestation. In 1929 they moved to Witham, Essex, but kept on the London flat as a pied-à-terre.

 

Dorothy L. Sayers pictured at the Detection Club, Gerrard St, London in 1939
Dorothy L. Sayers pictured at the Detection Club, Gerrard St, London, 1939 © Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images

Later Life and Work

In 1930 Sayers was one of the founding members of the Detection Club a group formed of British mystery writers including Agatha Christie and Henry Wade.

By the mid-decade, Sayers had turned her attention away from mystery fiction to writing for the theatre. Her first Wimsey play, Busman’s Honeymoon, which opened at London's Comedy Theatre in December 1936, led to a Canterbury Festival commission for which she wrote The Zeal of thy House (1937). In 1941 she composed a series of 12 radio plays for the BBC on the life of Christ titled The Man Born to be King.

In the early 1940s, Sayers began working on a verse translation of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. She considered this her best work and would spend much of her later days on it, though she was never able to finish translating the third volume before her sudden passing in 1957.

Dorothy Sayers has inspired many writers, most notably P. D. James, and a literary society is named for her. While her Wimsey stories have remained hugely popular, critics have disagreed over whether her novels revealed her as holding anti-semitic views, or whether the words she gave to certain of her characters simply reflected views that were common at the time.

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