As a teenager I began to notice that the great women writers that I loved were not mothers—Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson, and Jane Austen. This was a frightening observation to a young woman who wanted to be both a mother and a writer. Thankfully, I later discovered Toni Morrison, Sigrid Undset, Julian of Norwich, and the list goes on. However, the desire for Christian women writers to act as role models continued to press on me. Always C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were uplifted, and I would chide—yes, but would they have excelled with their gifts had they been women? As a woman, how to both write and ensure the sundry cares of a homelife?
Recently, Christian female writers have stepped into this gap to respond to this conundrum. In a 2013 piece, Elizabeth Corey claims that career and motherhood will always tragically conflict. Another Baylor professor Natalie Carnes wrote Motherhood: A Confession in conversation with Augustine’s Confessions. Whereas the saint experienced the disintegrated self before his conversion, Carnes admits a perpetual divided self which mothers experience between their work and their calling to their children. How do women answer these seemingly conflicting calls to motherhood as well as to submitting their gifts as writers, teachers, artists to the Church?
In a hundred years, Virginia Woolf assumed, “women will have ceased to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them.” She projected these thoughts in 1928 to a crowd of women, going so far as to assume women should be soldiers, sailors, engine-drivers, as well as writers, teachers, and artists. Woolf was not a Christian, so she does not submit her considerations to the authority of the Church. In contrast with Woolf, but overlapping with her time and concerns (they even resided in Mecklenburgh Square, London within years of one another), Dorothy Sayers moved within the Church (she was Anglican) to ask how might women be both mothers and makers.
Sayers was born in Oxford in 1893 to the headmaster of Christ Church Cathedral School, who was ordained in the Anglican Church. She attended college at Oxford before women were permitted to receive degrees. In 1920 she returned to Oxford that she may be included as part of the initial class of female graduates. Over the course of her life, she held several jobs, including creating advertisements for Guinness beer. In a world where women making their own money and caring for themselves was unheard of, Sayers insisted on her calling as a writer. She became an acclaimed mystery novelist, translated Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and wrote a series of popular plays, including ones on the life of Christ which aired on BBC radio at the same time that C.S. Lewis was giving his talks on The Abolition of Man.
Sayers most literary novel, Gaudy Night, poses the problem of working women. The main character is a mystery novelist, Harriet Vane, in love with a detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, who fears that marrying him will mean rescinding her talents. One character voices Vane’s concerns aloud to her: “Wherever you find a great man, you will find a great mother or a great wife standing behind him—or so they used to say. It would be interesting to know how many great women have had great fathers and husbands behind them.” Vane has been hired to solve a mystery at the women’s college, Shrewsbury, in Oxford, but her primary conundrum is the question of the role of women.
A decade after women received the right to vote in Britain, Sayers addressed a Women’s Society in a 1938 talk titled “Are Women Human?” She states the obvious, “What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always a member of a class and not as an individual person.” When Sayers was asked how she wrote men so well, she responded, “I begin by imagining how a human being would act in those circumstances.” Sayers was an advocate for women being thought of as individual persons first and not generalized according to their gender, and she founded this idea on Jesus’s example. Sayers describes how Jesus treated women:
A prophet and a teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!” . . . who took their questions and argument seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious.
“Perhaps it is no wonder,” Sayers writes, “that women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross,” for they had never known a man like him.
In The Mind of the Maker Sayers uplifts work as part of human nature, but work rightly understood as “creating” or “making,” not mere busyness or clock-punching. She would be horrified at how “work” has been distorted and become an idol in American culture. Rather, Sayers argues for a right understanding of work that correlates with the image of God in all humans. We are homo faber, meaning “creator” or “maker.” Thus, we fulfill our divine purpose when we are creating. Tolkien too calls us “subcreators.” For the early to mid-twentieth century, this idea that women be included as creators outside of a domestic sphere subverted gender expectations.
However, far from pretending that all women enjoyed laundry or considered childrearing a burden, Sayers refuses either extreme. Women, Sayers protests, “dislike perpetual washing and cooking just as much as perpetual typing and standing behind shop counters.” We would do best to remember the individual dignity and preferences of women. No one person can answer “what women want,” but each individual may speak for herself about her talents, abilities, and vocation. For Sayers, this meant studying French literature and writing mystery novels. If she had been permitted, she herself would have joined in drinking and smoking and sharing writing in progress with the Inklings, that cohort of men who met in C.S. Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College for nearly two decades between 1931-1949.
By her biographer Barbara Reynolds, Sayers has been cast as “an honorary Inkling,” an outsider posthumously included. How much may have been altered by Sayers’s influence at these meetings we will never know because she was not allowed into that closed world. However, as Gina Dalfonzo shows in Dorothy and Jack: The Transforming Friendship of Dorothy L. Sayers and C.S. Lewis, Sayers’s friendship with Lewis transformed his misconceptions about women. Early in their friendship, Sayers writes of Lewis, “there is a complete blank in his mind where women are concerned.” Sayers rightly pinpoints a blind spot in Lewis—he was raised by a father and a brother, attended all-boys school, and taught in a mostly male college. And, Lewis adored Milton, whose depiction of Eve rather distorts Genesis. Dalfonzo connects Sayers’s repulsion to Milton with a line from her novel Strong Poison where Lord Peter Wimsey detests the “Victorian attitude” towards women that assumes Milton’s version of the creation of human beings: “He for God only, she for God in him, and so on.”
Thankfully, Lewis learned a great deal from his relationship with Sayers (potentially even preparing him for his marriage to Joy Davidman). In Why Can’t We Be Friends?: Avoidance is Not Purity, Aimee Byrd lists many famous cross-gender relationships in the Church—St. Teresa of Avila and Father Jerome Gracian, John Calvin and Renee of France, Hanna More and William Wilberforce. Dalfonzo adds that of Sayers and Lewis to this tradition. Her book relies on the correspondence between the writers, concluding with Lewis’s eulogy of Sayers, where he praises “the richly feminine qualities which showed through a port and manner superficially masculine and even gleefully ogreish.” Having been rightly schooled by Sayers herself years earlier in the sentimental application of the adjectives “masculine” and “feminine,” Lewis combines the two to show how his friend was a complex individual.
As co-director of the Wade Center, an archive of Inklings papers and memorabilia, Crystal Downing knows well the relationship between Sayers and the other Inklings, but she centers her book Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers on the woman as a public intellectual, particularly emphasizing Sayers’s theology. Downing throws the reader into a discussion of Sayers’s BBC plays that will make a newcomer to the writer assume she was more of a radio personality than a mystery novelist. The emphasis on the plays is most welcome, as they represent the heart of Sayers’s ministry. Lewis cried the first time that he heard The Man Born to Be King performed and read the plays regularly as part of his Lenten devotions.
Downing chooses the title “Subversive” to highlight how Sayers perpetually sub-verts or “under turns” idols in the Church. Like the Pharisees who mistook the washing of hands as a sign of righteousness, Christians in Sayers’s time (much as in ours as well) substitute Christian manners or superficial behaviors for true faith. Sayers’s “chief goal,” then, as Downing sees it, “was to subvert a warped understanding of the Gospel message.” She spent a year rereading the stories of the Gospels—including reading them in Greek—to produce her dramatic versions of them for the BBC. Many churches banned listening to the plays and loudly protested her “vulgarization” or use of common language in place of the King James’s translation of scripture. For instance, when Sayers writes of the episode where Christ tells the rich young man to give up everything to follow him, she writes, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for those that set store by riches to enter the kingdom of God.” While the phrasing alters the familiar translation of the verse, the colloquialism “set store by” not only makes the words accessible, it also defamiliarizes them and clarifies their meaning.
Additionally, Downing unpacks how such verses act as Sayers’s dissent from her culture’s reliance on the economy of exchange. She was frustrated by everything being interpreted as exchange instead of gift. Downing notes, “Hoc est Corpus had degenerated for many people into hocus pocus: a magical coin of exchange.” We do not befriend people because of what they can do for us, nor should we love God because of his omnipotence. As an Anglican (raised by an Anglican chaplain), Sayers counters this economy of exchange with the sacramental, dramatic, visual practices of the faith. She delights in the relational aspect of the Creator God while simultaneously abhorring the sentimentalized or overly personalized witnessing of faith. Her writing on relativism, hell, and aesthetics sound subversive only because too much heresy has been normalized in the Church. As G.K. Chesterton would say, “I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered it was orthodoxy.” Heavily influenced by Chesterton, by her own admission, Sayers did her part to make orthodoxy fashionable again.
On the cover of Downing’s book, Sayers wears a boyish hat, large gaudy earrings, fur coat, and holds loosely a cigarette in her left hand. The emblem prepares the reader for a different kind of apologist than Lewis or Chesterton—not a large, ruddy-faced man with bulldog scowl and pretentious accent—but a wondrously scandalous female who, as Chesterton writes in Manalive, “has broken the conventions, but [she] has kept the commandments.” In Sayers I find the kind of role model that I have always been looking for, a Christian woman public intellectual who was somehow mother, wife, friend, and an acclaimed writer.
Unfortunately, because Sayers had her baby out of wedlock, she was forced to give up her son Anthony for adoption to a niece who cared for foster children. She stayed in correspondence with the boy as he grew up and formally adopted him when she married war veteran Mac Fleming, whose PTSD kept the couple from bringing Anthony into their home. While the demands of motherhood did not compete with Sayers’s talent for writing, she could not keep working and keep the boy as a single woman during that time. The sadness of this situation compels us to spend more time contemplating how we care for those women who desire both to be mothers and makers. How can we see both callings not at odds but aligned? How might we support women in their mutual callings?
Recently I had coffee with a student who saw my stack of Sayers books and asked, “Who is that?” This same student was struggling with her reasons for attending college, whether she needed a degree if she just wanted to get married and have kids, whether God’s words in Genesis that the woman would desire the rule of a man were a commandment or a curse. How much I recall those questions as my own, yet they are still being wrestled with decades later by students who do not know whom to ask for answers. I gave her a list of good books to read, but I recommended she start with Dorothy Sayers.